Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Clash of Identities, and the Mistake of Giving Up

Back in 2007 I decided to become part of the gay community in Montreal. While earlier in the year I had been on something of an emotional roller coaster ride (which can characterize the coming out experiences of some young men), by autumn I had landed firmly on the ground, feeling as if I had somehow liberated my consciousness. My newfound glee and youthful idealism was calling me to become a volunteer in the gay community. I wanted to do my best to help my fellow LGBTs, because, as I would have said at the time, "we've got to take care of each other because no one else is going to do it for us." I wanted to give people that warm voice that I had never had during my own coming out. I knew that I was perhaps being a tad bit too idealistic; I wholeheartedly admitted that to myself. However, I still had to try; I had to do something!

The experience was rewarding and enriching in many ways, but, contrary to what I expected, in doing the volunteer work I found myself becoming less and less content in my own sexual identity. I came from a background that was fairly moralistic. My values were often averse to the overt sexuality that confronted me; I frequently found it shocking and disturbing, and the interactions I had sometimes bordered on harassment. In other words, I found that other aspects of my identity were at odds with the situations I had to deal with in the gay community. I thought I would be helping people in their difficulties coming out, but often I was confronted with much more adult concerns about sexual performance and behaviours. The real consequences of having a diverse sexual orientation reared their ugly heads: loneliness, depression, fear, despair, disease and mental illness. I saw it all in the people that I worked with. It seemed at times that I had entered an alien world that even my youthful idealism was not prepared to handle. I maintained a professional demeanor while on the job, and I like to think I did it reasonably well, as I had fairly good feedback. However, at times I could just barely stomach it.

After a while part of me wanted to quit. However, at the same time, I didn't want to give up on my dream to help others. To a certain extent, I believed that giving up on other LGBT persons would mean giving up on myself and my ambitions as a homosexual man who wanted to make a difference. There were a few wonderful moments when I did feel like I was working toward this goal, but often I would finish late at night feeling more and more abhorred by my own sexual identity. Many times I ended the day thinking that I didn't want to be associated with these people or their problems. I couldn't turn off my emotions, my caring and concern. While I could depersonalize my speech, I could not do the same for my thoughts: their stories raced through my mind and remain there today. Perhaps being confronted with the ugly truth, the raw and sometimes gut-wrenching emotions behind the 'gay' facade, brought out my own internalized homophobia.

Eventually I became more and more evasive about doing the volunteer work, losing myself easily in my day job or going into 'hibernation' for the winter. Part of me still didn't, and doesn't, want to let go. However, my absence raised a red flag, and I was forced to make a decision. I opted to leave the group, and I couldn't help to sigh with relief, to have finally severed myself from the bittersweet emotions that characterized my volunteer work in the gay community.

However, since quitting I have had time to reflect on my experience, and in doing so I see how clearly I botched this grand opportunity to help my fellow queers. Perhaps the work wasn't the best fit for me, but I could have certainly ameliorated my issues with it by reaching out to others. As a rather reserved and independent individual, sometimes I fail to see what is so natural and obvious to most of the world: that there are (or rather, were) caring and supportive people around me. The organization I worked with was well-equipped to deal with the burnout problem I was experiencing, and the group had fostered a cohesive and supportive social network, often hosting regular outings and meetings. I only attended a few of these (as I found some of the material addressed in one particularly meeting uncomfortable, and as a result I stopped attending). Because I ceased being involved in the group itself, I was never really fully integrated into it. And in remaining always on the fringes, I was probably perceived as a rather aloof individual by my fellow volunteers.

In reality, had I had the courage to reach out to others, to express how I was feeling about my volunteer experience, I cannot imagine that I would have been greeted with anything less than the utmost, encouraging support. This caring from others would have undoubtedly provided a powerful motivator to help me handle and even comfortably master the job. But in choosing to remain silent and distant from the group, I lost the opportunity to make new friends and to receive the encouragement that I apparently needed. Furthermore, I missed out on many wonderful occasions to spend valuable time with one good friend that I did make there, who was a very active volunteer but has since moved away. And while it did feel like a large burden lifted from my shoulders when I decided to quit, I still can't help but feel that in cutting myself off from my work there, and my dreams, goals, and only connection with the gay community that came with it, I lost something of myself along the way.

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