The Importance of Visibility
For the past several months, we've been hearing about how "it gets better." I love the Trevor Project--it's hugely important, and it will save lives. But as LGBT people plugged into the gay community and gay media, it's easy to start thinking that positive messages are virtually ubiquitous.
A few miles away from your local gay pride parade, though, there's a 13-year-old boy crying in his room because he was beaten up for asking another boy to a dance. There's a 40-year-old woman down the street who thinks that killing herself would be better than coming out to her husband and kids. And these people aren't necessarily the ones watching "It Gets Better" videos. I know that if I had watched one of those videos six years ago, I would have thought: Maybe it will get better for them, but it won't for me. Campaigns like the Trevor Project are terrific, but it's crucial to remember that they are strategies, not solutions.
I've mentioned that I moonlight as a community college English professor. Six weeks ago, one of my students came out to me (asking during office hours, “Uh… I was wondering, mmm, what it’s like to be… uh, different?”). Let's call him Doug. Doug is 21. He had only come out to a few of his friends, and none of them were gay. He desperately needed practical advice about self-presentation, dealing with parents, dating, safety, etc. I'd never mentioned my own sexual orientation in class--but, heck, I regularly wear a shirt and tie, so I'm not exactly closeted. Because I was identifiable as gay, he decided to come out to me.
Over the course of the quarter, Doug and I had a few conversations about his sexual orientation. When I told him the outlines of my *own* story, his look of relief nearly made me cry. (Especially since, less than a decade ago, I was in Doug's position, coming out to a gay professor of my own.)
Although Doug lives in a relatively cosmopolitan area, and although he's on the Internet constantly, he had no idea that there are two gay pride celebrations within an hour's drive of his house. I showed him some pictures of a few gay neighborhoods online, saying, "There are places where you can hold another guy's hand and no one will even blink." Doug couldn't believe it--he just stared, open-mouthed, at the pictures of rainbow-flag-adorned buildings.
Doug isn't particularly "sheltered." He's a smart, pretty typical 21-year-old kid from a conservative family in a moderate-to-liberal area of the country. Yet he didn't have a single gay friend, and was afraid to join the college's LGBT group for fear that his straight acquaintances would find out. The last week of class, he gave me a big hug and told me that talking to me had changed his life. Doug had even mustered the courage to come out to his father (who was pretty upset about it, but told Doug he still loved him).
If I hadn't been identifiable as gay, Doug wouldn't have approached me. But by being my normal self in the classroom, I did something good. Visibility of regular ol' gay people (even if they’re cramming subject-verb agreement down your throat) is invaluable to kids--and adults--struggling with self-acceptance. It's one thing to know in the abstract that life is improving for LGBT folks, but there's no substitute for seeing gay people in your community who are out and "normal" and happy: reading books at the library, shopping for groceries, going to movies with their partners.
Many of us think a lot about the perils of being butch. To be comfortable in our own skin, we often have to be outsiders. We get called "sir" in the restroom. We get stared at in the department store. And often, this sucks.
But we also have the great privilege of being one of the most obviously, identifiably queer subgroups of the entire LGBT community. Just by showing up as ourselves, we raise visibility. Remember that you are doing awesome, important, life-saving work just by showing up as you really are. In ways that you may never know, your identifiably gay self is making some other questioning person more comfortable, more confident, and more hopeful.
6/29/2011 08:38:56 am
This post was great! I'm also pretty damn visible, and it's good to know that could help someone.
6/29/2011 09:42:46 am
6/29/2011 12:25:49 pm
That post rocks. Makes me want to hum "Did you ever know that you're my hero..."
My interest was piqued on your first mention of this student... This post made me cry. This is very similar to what I see day to day. The industry I work in is full of gay men- I am the only butch on staff. I am in a mentor role for the few butch/ queer students we have by default of being ME. They confide in me, joke with me and stop by- sometimes just to stand with me- and I know that it is because they see that they are not alone.
7/1/2011 04:21:21 pm
Wow, Edison. You serve a tremendously important role in your organization. Those younger butches are very lucky to have you. Thank you so much for letting me know that this post meant something to you.
Zann I Am
1/27/2012 02:09:19 am
Hell yeah. I'm a big bad genderqueer (who easily reads as a butch woman) in the south and I feel like every closeted gay/trans/bi/questioning/confused/etc person for miles approaches me. It's awesome. And it's awesome that you helped "Doug" feel like the gay community had a face
I've been this way my whole life, in the begginning butch bashing as I call it was the norm as we walked home from a bar ~~ today, not so much, people seem to welcome me a little more so, be it a big city or small town I'm 6 ft and 200 pounds of come get you some, however most don't even go there ... I'm friendly and kind to those I meet and I get the same in return, fear in people works both ways ~ Killem with kindness and maybe they won't kill you ~
2/12/2012 11:23:41 pm
BW, I love this post. I too came out to a gay teacher - she wasn't too visible, but the rumors helped - and that changed my life, or the gay part of my life, at least. I'm still not out to most people, but being able to be myself - not just being gay, but everything else as well - around one more person, helps. Also, this amazing woman gave me confidence to come out to more people. I'd say she gets the snowball effect going.
2/15/2012 06:02:03 am
Hey BW. I had the reverse experience. 20 some odd years ago, I was the lone butch student. In an English paper I lamented the lack of role models in my subculture, and the professor came out to me as a gay man. He had been quietly living in his closet for 30 years, teaching. But now he was getting close to retirement, and he realized his students needed more from him than just grammatical pointers. He got so much support for coming out that year with me (on National Coming Out Day) that he didn't retire for another 10 years! We are still friends to this day and have a special bond. We changed each other's lives that year!
3/4/2012 05:03:40 pm
Since finding your page on fb earlier today I have read
3/19/2012 04:26:01 am
Thanks so much for your comment, Rae. I really appreciate it. And from everything I've heard, stud visibility is extremely important--and underrepresented--in the black community... though from everything I hear, this is slowly changing. I hope that's true.
11/12/2012 06:42:42 am
This is such a great post, I have been reading your posts for a while now and feel like i have to comment! The first person I came out to is a butch lesbian and it was nice knowing that I was able to relate to somebody, who finally dressed and felt almost the same way that I do. I was like Doug, I didn't have any gay friends or felt like I could turn to anyone, but having her as support has helped me through a lot! I've now come out to my immediate family and a couple other friends, and I feel like I'm on my way to fully accepting my butch self :)
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