My New Kind of Activism
In this blog entry, I begin by describing how I explained my “different” kind of family to others during various ages. I talk about how my activism came about, and how it evolved along with my evolving understanding of prejudice and contexts. I end by discussing the difficult process of responding to internalized homophobia that I experience from identifying as bisexual. I talk about how I use compassion to deal with internal and external prejudice productively.
My family is a challenge to our heteronormative culture. My biological mom, Julie, identifies as bisexual, and her partner, Eleanor, identifies as a lesbian. Eleanor is also twenty years older than my mom. I became conscious of the rhetorical nature of language at a young age, as I had to be conscious of what to call Eleanor. At home they were simply mom and Eleanor. In public, however, they were something different. My moms, concerned for my safety after receiving numerous threats and acts of violence, told my brother and I that we could call Eleanor my “godmother” when at school or in public. Using the word “godmother” was a method for avoiding coming out and risking bullying or discrimination. It was also a passive way to stay closeted, in a sense. I did not have to think about how to explain that my parents differed from the norm.
Explaining my family
The first time that I did have to think about how to explain how I was different was in second grade. I’m not sure if we were talking about father’s day, or if there was just some discussion about dads, but somehow I was asked about my dad. I said I did not have a dad. Immediately I was flooded with sympathy; my peers thought my dad had died. Being very shy, I said that it was okay and tried to explain that I had not really lost him. I explained that I did not even know my dad (who was an anonymous sperm donor), and so I never knew him or felt his absence. My real parents were alive and well. I cannot remember how that day ended, but I don’t think I was able to ever make clear who my parents were.
The next time I remember communicating about my parents was in fourth grade. My best friend at the time asked me about my parents. I remember sitting outside on the steps explaining to her about artificial insemination, and that mom and Eleanor were partners. I cannot remember much of her reaction, although I think she was a little puzzled and slightly disturbed.
My education on prejudice
One day, later that year, I was waiting outside for Eleanor to pick me up from school. A bully walked out of the school door and approached me. “Aren’t your parents lesbians?” He said it in an accusatory way. I was immediately flooded with anger. I cannot remember my reply, but being as shy as I was I probably just glared at him.
That anger, though, stuck with me. I understood, I think, from a very young age that prejudice existed and was wrong. My moms are both American Studies scholars, and taught me around the age of fourth grade about how prejudice manifested in our culture. We took a road trip out west that same year, and some of the most vivid memories were from visiting the trail of tears and learning about how native people were dehumanized incredibly. I also remember sitting on the steps in the dining room learning about the holocaust. Being very sensitive, I felt very sad and angry that these things happened. Learning about prejudice from a historical perspective, as challenging as it was for me to handle emotionally, gave me a sense of confidence that my parents were not bad. Well, there’s that, and there’s the fact that they are two incredibly smart, loving women.
Anger to Activism
The anger that I felt in response to bullying about my parents, then, was motivation for righting the injustice of prejudice. I think it was after learning about prejudice on my road trip and at home then, that I made a conscious decision to “out” my parents. Fifth grade marked the beginning of conscious activism. Whenever someone would mistake Eleanor for my grandmother, I would correct him or her by saying she was my second mom. When two of my new friends came over to my house, I explained to them about my moms’ identities and how my brother and I were born. They were somewhat shocked, confused, and uncomfortable, which gave me some anxiety. Luckily, however, I could face their discomfort (and my reaction to that) with understanding – this was the prejudice that I had learned about, and it’s uncomfortable challenging prejudice. Another time, my mom was driving a group of new friends and I around town, and one of girls made a remark to the effect of being grossed by a gay person. I asked what was wrong with being gay.
There was a pause – again, slightly uncomfortable – but then there was this almost casual kind of realization that they did not really have an explanation for what was wrong with it. It was a moment of transformation, and one that my mom looks back on with pride. There she was, just a “friend’s mom” in the front seat, but she was also a bisexual mom with a lesbian partner. She got to witness her fifth-grade daughter being an activist in a simple but powerful way.
Evolving Activism: Understanding Contexts
The activism I engaged in as a child that continued into adulthood gains more meaning to more I understand the contexts in which not just my parents lived, but also other lgbtq individuals. I understood that outing my parents was also outing myself, and that it involved risk in terms of judgment, but I did not really understand until much later the kind of risk that it was for them, my parents’ contexts. As I mentioned earlier, mom and Eleanor taught me to call Eleanor “godmother” in order to protect my brother and I from the violence they experienced. The violence involved one of their pets being killed, their Christmas tree set on fire, and even death threats. I also realize now how scary it must have been for them as parents.
Many parents fear for their children naturally, but mine had the added dimension of violence against their children based on prejudice. As I was reminded of recently, one elementary school teacher attributed my brother’s struggle in school to the absence of a father figure. I cannot imagine how it must have felt. It was so unjust, especially given how devoted my parents were. There were no support systems at the time, no Internet support groups (no Internet!). Although my mom’s family was Catholic, the church offered the opposite of support. My understanding of activism, therefore, has expanded with understanding my moms’ contexts.
My understanding was enriched further when one of my best friends, Chad (pseudonym), came out in high school. I got a deeper understanding of what it means to come out. I recognized that outing my parents was often less risky than coming out with my own sexual identity. Chad was called faggot, abandoned by many friends, shamed by family members, and spit on. I felt anger, resentment, and hopelessness that homophobia would ever change. High school at the time, seemed to represent the world, in general, and it was homophobic. I did begin to find, however, islands of acceptance – small groups of friends and support groups.
At this same time, I was struggling to define my own sexuality. I identify as bisexual. Although I have had feelings for both gender from a young age, I think it was being with a group of friends who were of diverse sexual orientations that gave me courage enough to openly talk about and out myself as bisexual to people other than my moms. It is not until very recently that I have come to see more clearly what homophobia means. I had always understood homophobia as a negative response and fear to others’ sexuality. I also understood that homophobia includes and individual’s fear of being lgbtq. I never hesitated to out my parents, because I knew down to my bones that every part of who they were was good and right. But when it came to outing myself, I felt more fear. I’m sure part of it was feeling less sure of my identity and myself; I tended to feel inferior as a result of my shyness and bullying. I was afraid that the thoughts and feelings I had would be perceived as perverted. Although it pains me to recognize homophobia in myself, since I always identified as an activist, there was indeed fear of my own identity.
In LGBTQ communities, what I’m referring to is called internalized homophobia. As I write this, I feel shame for acknowledging my internalized homophobia; it feels as though I was not genuine in my acts of activism. But I am realizing remaining ashamed of fear is unproductive. Shame results in not looking. It is also associated with more fear. How can I ever grow or embrace my identity if I cannot look at my phobias with compassion and understanding? Importantly, how can I expect others to transform their phobias around sexual orientation if I approach them with shame and violence? I cannot.
Only looking, without harsh judgment, can help me engage in one of the most important and rewarding forms of activism: responding to internalized homophobia. For me, it is also one of the most challenging forms of activism. It takes courage to recognize your own self-judgment. I am not comfortable acknowledging the power that society has over how I see myself. It seems to diminish the pride I have had in dismantling prejudice.
Inward Compassion: A Powerful Kind of Activism
My activism, like many other things in my life, is guided by the philosophy of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to the world, and one that fosters calm, non-judgmental, and compassionate awareness of what is happening in the present moment. It is in this state of mind that I am able to let in that yes, I experience fear around my sexual orientation, but yes, I am still an activist. Within a more open state of mind, I can also understand my internalized homophobia within many larger contexts: the violence my mom experienced, the violence my best friend experienced, the violence from my own bullies, seeing many “vote yes: marriage – one man, one woman” signs in my neighborhood. With kind, open awareness, I can acknowledge that prejudice is a difficult, complex challenge to understand and to face externally and internally. Instead of raising defensiveness, shame, and fear, I can make space for self and other examination, conversation, and growth. I can face it in myself and with others armed with compassion and understanding. This is my new kind of activism.