THE UGLY SHIRT NO ONE WANTS TO WEAR

 Or:  BACK IN THE CLOSET YOU GO

UglyShirtMany gay folks have reported their straight co-workers, friends, and family coming to them with words of support, understanding that the trauma of #OrlandoPulse spreads farther and wider than the immediate neighborhood. Some describe the concern and warnings their loved ones can’t help offering, others tell of important conversations that help them cope with their sense of loss, fear, being lost, and to counter the feeling that once more we’re being shoved back in the closet like the ugly shirt no one wants to wear.

I wouldn’t know. I’ve had exactly three supportive messages, one from my mother, and the other two came from (1) a young, white, cis-gendered man in my creative writing group who sent the same message to every LGBT friend he has on Facebook, and (2) my somewhat estranged born-again niece who honestly feels who I am deliberately flaunts God’s will.

My mother got very upset over the phone, telling me she doesn’t want to hear the phrase “Never again” ever again because in her words, “There’s always an again, and again, and  again. It never ends!” I comforted her as best I could.

I was pleasantly surprised by my co- writer’s supportive message. It was unexpected and came out of the blue on Monday morning. And it was very much appreciated.

But it was the response of my niece that stunned me, there’s no doubt about it. I distinctly remember, not so long ago, her vehemently scolding a mutual family member of ours, insisting that she needed to repent being gay and turn back to God. I assumed that particular diatribe was also aimed at me, so I’ve largely avoided interacting with her since then. I mean, she’s still my sister’s child so I ask about her, follow her posts online, and have commiserated with her trials and rejoiced in her successes since then, albeit not directly with her.

So when she read my last blog post and responded with sincere understanding and the loving command to ‘be safe’, my heart melted like a crayon on a hot sidewalk. I believe she still thinks being gay is a sin and I’m damned to hell, but at least she recognized the trauma that I, and every other gay person on the face of the planet, felt on Sunday as we woke to the news of the massacre. More than that, she commiserated.

But not one of my siblings has offered a single word of support or understanding. Not one straight friend has reached out to me (except the white cis-boy). None of our neighbors have stopped to talk about it with us even though we’re out, open, and they attended our wedding reception.

Should they have to? No, of course not. Would it have been nice, something that might have helped me cope with the flood of feelings I’ve had over the last few days? Yes, absolutely.

I remember the degrading reports of the Stonewall riots, which happened during my pre-teen years as I was wondering why I wasn’t like everyone else I knew. I wept bitter tears at the killing of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in America. I remember all too clearly the horrifying murder of Matthew Shepard, crucified and left as an example of what could happen if you’re gay. I have seen the movies Boys Don’t Cry and Brokeback Mountain, both of which end with violent murder and send a clear message to never come out, don’t let your true self be discovered, stay hidden to stay safe. I lost friends during the height of the AIDS scourge and buried them when their families wouldn’t. And I have watched with mounting horror the bullying that leads to murder and suicide among not only gay youth but specifically transgendered individuals.

What happened on Sunday in Orlando is not the same as denying couples marriage licenses, or wedding cakes, or housing. Mass murder is not the same as introducing and passing legislation to restrict and deny people equal rights. To some, the uproar caused by the deaths of 49 people among a total American LGBT population of over ten million may seem disproportionally large and that, overall, things are better for gay folks. And sure as hell telling a gay joke, or laughing at one, has nothing to do with buying a weapon of mass destruction and letting it loose on innocent people.

But… it does. Every single time a gay joke is laughed at, a blow lands. When hatred is taught in the name of religion, parents and other authorities threaten banishment, and the reviled group itself begins to beckon just the right self-suppressed gay guy, he will decide to hurt himself and the group he is unwillingly a part of. He’ll do it through restrictive legislation, or humiliation, or even murder. And everything he’s ever heard, seen, intuited, learned and practiced will be a part of that.

I have lived with the wariness of knowing some people want to hurt me ever since I came out. Think about that. Every stranger is a potential…? (Hint: not friend). Whenever someone looks at me funny, I tense. If I hear whispered muttering as my wife and I pass, I wonder. And whenever I attend our public places, Pride, bars, picnics, I watch…carefully. That’s the way I’ve lived forever. I was forcibly reminded to sharpen that vigilance last Sunday.

And – it triggered a PTSD behavior in not only myself but almost every other LGBTQIA+ person I know. We’ve been here before. Not in such a huge, horrific, way but repeatedly, over and over again across the years. It’s a mental torture all its own, a tearing down to a bone weariness, a sudden clutching of anxiety in your gut as you realize that it very well could have been you, your loved ones, and your friends, lying dead on a familiar floor.

So what can you, a well-meaning ally and true friend, do to help?

Stop me and say, “I’m so sorry. What a horrible thing has happened.” Meet my eyes with sincere concern and interest. If I look like I want to talk about it, sit me down and ask, “How do you feel?” and then let me talk. As my terror, self-doubt, worry, and despair spill out, add your supportive asides and let me know you understand, and maybe share, my emotions.

Or send a text, old-fashioned greeting card, handwritten letter, or dial the phone and make contact. Don’t pretend everything is fine. It most definitely is not fine.

 

 

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