Not ours to live
Almost two weeks ago, I wrote a tweet that exploded:
In addition to blowing up my phone, this tweet has been praised, hated, retweeted by famous people, discussed on Facebook, and covered by various media outlets. Not bad for my own take on the gay-culture-is meme going around Twitter.
Most people get where I’m coming from, but to help out the rest, I’d like to share a few thoughts to elaborate and to speak up for people elsewhere who cannot.
The Facts Are These
When I say that teenage years are not gay men’s—and others—to live, I’m not kidding.
Not yours to live means having heterosexuality in your face everywhere you look. Unnecessary boy–meets–girl subplots in movies. Prom king–and–queen contests. Relatives badgering you about girls at Thanksgiving. Advertisements. Selective history and omissions of LGBTQ history. Holidays. Western society has gradually included more representation of some LGBTQ people, but not before being typecast as villains for decades. So much for healthy role models. Somebody else can have that life, but not me.
Not yours to live means living in a society that really does not like your existence. It starts with “smear the queer” on the playground, bullying, and slurs school kids learn from older kids or at home. It builds into laws and constitutional amendments banning sexual expression and legal recognition of gay couples’ relationships. In many states, it remains perfectly legal to get married to your husband on Saturday and to be fired by your boss on Monday because of no workplace nondiscrimination law covering sexual orientation in that state. Your landlord might even evict you. As soon as Donald Trump took office, the Trump Administration scrubbed the White House website of all references to LGBTQ people, and the Trump Department of Justice has reversed its positions on court challenges dealing with anti-discrimination laws. Go back further and we find a president unwilling to publicly acknowledge the AIDS crisis because of its ties to gay men. Despite victories such as the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States and elsewhere, hatred of gay people remains a modern reality, putting a chill on us that trickles down to all age groups.
Violence against us hasn’t faded away, leaving incidents like Matthew Shepard’s murder in the past. Oh no. The deadliest attack against the LGBTQ community in US history, the Pulse shooting in Orlando, happened last year. In the past month, the racist underbelly of America’s ugly past and present has resurfaced as white supremacists with tiki torches at Charlottesville, Virginia, at one point chanting “f—k you, f—ts,” making it crucial to stand with other oppressed groups that among many others include the black, Latinx, trans, and undocumented communities, to resist white supremecy and fight back.
I truly feel for any kids that might have seen this in the news.
Let’s look at society beyond my home country of the United States. As one easy measure of cultural acceptance, same-sex marriage has yet to grow widespread outside of Western Europe and the Americas and a few pockets like South Africa. Places like Australia and Taiwan have been in the news as they move through the process of legalizing marriage, which I encourage them to do. On the other hand, loving another man, or even suspicion of sexual activities with another man, carries with it a death penalty in several countries. Gay people there spend their entire lives under severe oppression, without any chance to just be themselves if they have no means or will to leave. And just this year, Chechnya set up concentration camps to round up and torture gay men. Fortunately, heroic efforts by many people and the Canadian government have provided some of them with the means to escape.
Not yours to live means hearing that you’re going to hell if you choose to be gay—as though it were a choice. Certain religious people—who seem to care more about what goes on in my pants than what comes out of their mouths—regurgitate Leviticus as an easy “othering” biblical verse, cheap shots taken at an often invisible minority. Televangelists and other religious leaders blame natural disasters such as hurricanes and even the September 11th attacks on the shift in legal policy and acceptance of gay people. Street preachers love to accost transit airspace in places like New York City and elsewhere. Toxic rhetoric like this and false equivalencies poison the well of potential allies, but it also makes gayness something to run from, to ignore, rather than to accept and embrace.
Perhaps the strongest headwind to my own gay epiphany happened with religious-based homophobia in school and among my own family. I always thought I was jealous of the cute boys’ looks while in Catholic school. I didn’t feel the same things toward bra ads as my peers felt, which caused me to believe I was a late-bloomer. No one told me that what I felt could be something else as I attempted to be a good Catholic school boy, just that I should not think about (heterosexual) sex until marriage—clearly the best moment when every woman wants her man to figure out that he has The Gay. I still remember a moment when I was a teenager where a senior relative in my family passed around religious propaganda obtained from a local priest that characterized gay men as unhealthy deviants. I have no doubt that this moment in particular set me back.
In my opinion, the cruelest dimension of youth as a gay person has to be living with the possibility of having parents who oppose gay relationships, and by extension, your humanity. Just the possibility, mind you. You don’t even need to come out to feel the damage: to no one’s surprise, keeping quiet and hurting privately builds stress. Good luck trying to see a movie with a cute boy if Mom and Dad don’t approve. In such a home, you can’t seek refuge from an unaccepting world or find strength to face it. Let them know it’s not a girl you want to take to the school dance, and you might find yourself in useless conversion therapy, most aptly described as torture. You might get kicked out or disowned—or worse. When I came out to my parents at age 23 after years of keeping it in, I was admonished to keep quiet about my gayness to everyone in my home state, and I felt lucky I wasn’t outright disowned.
Even if you somehow make it past all that negativity—for example if you live in a liberal bubble in the US or elsewhere—not yours to live means working with a tiny, diluted population of people who can also understand and empathize with what you’re going through. LGB folks make up somewhere between 1.7 and 7.5% of the population according to David Deschamps and Bennett Singer in their recent book LGBTQ Stats, and many of us don’t meet any other out LGBTQ people until later in life out of sheer statistical disadvantage.
I want to touch on another consideration: trans oppression. I spoke about unity with marginalized people above, but extra emphasis needs to be on trans folks. I speak here and in my tweet from my perspective as a white, gay, cis man, with my own experiences to draw upon. Trans folks have tweeted to say how they live my tweet just as much—probably more so. Rather than speak for them, I provide some tweets from trans or non-binary individuals here, some of which I retweeted during Twitter’s initial reaction to my tweet:
One tweet, now deleted, rightfully complained how my gay viral tweet is lauded when similar sentiments trans people have said in the past have largely been ignored by society. Our lives and experiences might vary, but we share this common thread in our life tapestries, that we don’t get to live authentically until later in life. Gay men frequently fail to advocate for our trans siblings—who were there at the pivotal moment of the modern LGBTQ movement and beyond—and we must do better. This means, among other things, speaking up for trans women of color who are routinely murdered. We must listen, and we must speak from our positions in society.
Look at all the hate out there. Is it any wonder that a large portion of gay people my age or older didn’t come out while we were teenagers? That we didn’t feel safe even telling our loved ones? That some of us were so suppressed that we don’t even realize our sexual and romantic attraction to other men until way beyond puberty? Denial or suppression of your feelings and identity in the face of this persistent hate is real. Even today, only about 64% of Americans approve of same-sex marriage according to Gallup polls, so great leaps need not be made to conclude that a significant portion of LGBTQ youths in the United States still find no acceptance at home. Millions more LGBTQ folks elsewhere, too. Few people can afford the severe and likely consequences of living an authentic life where the culture of hate persists; to those with such strength and resolve in the face of such adversity, I applaud you, but we cannot expect everyone in all circumstances to have the capacity to fight alone.
People around the world messaged me privately to say how they were shaken or how people were talking about my tweet. That moved me to write.
So when I’m tweeting “not yours to live” and “being a teenager when you’re 30”, I do not mean it as hyperbole. THIS IS NOT LIVING. Our identities were—and for many, still are—on hold in somebody else’s universe. We as a collective cannot be ourselves until we have the means to make it happen, often as adults. We cannot explore romance and sex in the closet the way we can when living openly. Thankfully, younger LGBTQ kids have unprecedented acceptance in many parts of the world today and visible role models, and they make the most of it. It makes me so happy to see cute photos of LGBTQ couples taking over proms becoming more common.
We don’t get to have those years given back to us—but we can make up for lost time. Those teenage steps skipped over by life, they aren’t gone forever. Getting your first kiss from a cute guy still hits all the right notes at 30 as it would have in the past. As horrible as the gay community can treat each other, potential friends and lovers are out there, and just talking about trials and pleasures validates so much. We can live NOW. We can speak up and tell our stories, and we can fight alongside those who cannot be open, to spread acceptance.
Live your best life. Living somebody else’s life sucks, and it’s time to do me instead of you.