Sunday, August 2, 2009

A Coming of Age Two Years Ago

With the Divers-Cité LGBT cultural festival in full swing this weekend, I find myself reflecting on its impact on me exactly two years ago. At that time, I was in the process of that grueling first coming out experience to other people , which had started in the Spring of 2007 (I had come out to myself a few years before that but didn't do anything about it). Since that festival, I have been involved in the gay community and talked to a good number of fellow queers, but two years ago I had never known any LGBT persons nor seen anything like what I was confronted with at Divers-Cité.

I wrote with surprisingly raw honesty to one of my good friends about my feelings and what the broader experience meant to me. When I look back on these letters two years on, I can see the origins of themes that characterize my life (and views toward my own homosexuality) today. The rest of this entry will be composed of these thoughts, directly quoted from my original e-mail, that demonstrate the growing pains of one person struggling to come out. The material suggests how seminal an event like this can be for a young gay man looking for his place in the world.

To My Friend,

I just wanted to tell you that I had the most absolutely amazing experience today. I feel more at peace about my sexual orientation than ever before. This is a weird feeling for me considering I haven't felt at peace with much of anything in life, and particularly something like this that seems to crush my confidence every time I think about it. I feel so alone sometimes, like I'm the only one on the face of the earth who actually is this way. No one I've ever talked to about it has been able to relate; they've been "happy for me" (or is it really pity?), proud that I trusted them with this information, glad that I got it out, came out of the closet, stopped hiding part of my identity, at least to them. But they've all been heterosexual and can't really understand what it is like to be like this, sometimes with my body saying one thing and my mind thinking 'don't go there, never go there.'

I have feelings that come as naturally to me as a heterosexual woman's feelings toward men or a heterosexual man's feelings toward women. It's more of an emotional reaction than a physical one. Sure, I'm attracted to the male body, but I find the face the most alluring physical trait, and particularly the eyes. Sometimes I see a guy that I do think is attractive; we all have these fleeting thoughts when we see someone that we're drawn to. But even so, I often feel like I have to beat myself up over it inside over it, that is, I just assume every guy that I see walking down the street is heterosexual, as the vast vast majority of people are, and would hate the thought of me thinking about him. Even if he were homosexual and a descent guy who I would love to spend time with, he'd probably still be insulted to get attention from me, ugly me. Every day I remind myself, every day I beat myself up over it. And to add insult to injury, some of my friends pity the "stigma" I now have to live with, as if I wasn't doing a good enough job sulking on it already. It's like a daily battle in my head. Back and forth, back and forth I go; it depresses me, it drives me insane, why do I think about it? Why can't I just block out the thoughts? Why is it that it seems like I can't resist thinking about it? It seems like every time I have some spare time to think, I automatically think about it. And it rarely ever makes me feel better to contemplate my homosexuality; usually it makes me feel worse. And as much as I'd like to talk about it, how it makes me feel, as I said before my friends don't really understand and don't really want me to talk about it, so it just eats away at me.

That's not to say I'm against my homosexuality; far from it. I embrace it wholeheartedly; I wouldn't have come out to myself, then make the huge and several year struggle to leap to my friends, if I felt like it is something I couldn't accept about myself. I am actually very happy that I know that I'm gay and that I live in a society where I can at least accept that fact for myself. I've technically known that I was this way since before I even knew anything about sex (so I know it wasn't something that I could ever control or even hope to), but when I was a teenager I lived in denial. I had a meager crush on a girl when I was 13 (and then absolutely no infatuations thereafter until I went to college), so for so long I held onto the hope that I might be heterosexual, if not in full then at least in part. When I was in high school, I honestly I didn't know what I was; I was so confused, tried not to really think about it and did an excellent job in avoiding the issue. However, I was determined that I was heterosexual and actually believed it, deluding myself completely (after all, there was always my first crush). Then when I got to college I slowly began to realize it, so I declared myself bi and told absolutely no one. I stuck to that mode of thinking until I actually came here to Montreal, where I came to accept that I could only appreciate a woman's body for its amazing aesthetic beauty.

It wasn't my choice; it's not anyone's choice to be like this. But I'm happy to be accepting of myself and not be prejudicial toward homosexuality. I know how much of a struggle it was to get to this point, and I came to it fairly early compared to some people. It's best that I grew up in Western society and during a time where gays have been more open than ever, so that I could see that it is theoretically ok to accept myself for who I am and strip away all delusions that I and society had created about being heterosexual.

But since I've accepted my homosexuality, I have been known to rail against the stereotypes associated with being gay. Why do these people have gay pride parades and festivals? Why do they have to behave so, well, gay? Then I remember that we are a minority, a small minority that many people (and even whole cultures) continue to discriminate against.

Tonight my attitudes toward the whole gay issue changed radically. I can now say that I proudly use the label gay, even if I still don't really feel very gay. No, I wasn't brainwashed by my four hours at a gay festival; I just realized that I have been so naive and ignorant toward this issue. I had been unwilling to actually bother to understand what it means to be gay, with an open mind to see what I could discover, until now. Well, I went to an event at Divers-Cite, which is an LGBT festival here in Montreal. I didn't want to go; I wouldn't have gone if I didn't have the excuse that my favourite artist from the International Jazz Festival, was performing there. But honestly, with this whole issue eating away at me on a daily basis, me being both happy and angry that I am homosexual at any given time, I couldn't resist the intense curiosity I had toward the primarily gay event. It's my first year out of the closet, my first time out on my own. I'm in a place that honestly accepts homosexuality more than the place I come from, in a city where supposedly gays flourish more than most. In reality, deny it as I might, I almost couldn't not check it out.

I'd been looking toward this date as soon as I learned about the concert, with both apprehension and anticipation. When the time finally came to go to this concert, I could hardly drag myself there. I was worried; I thought that I should go with someone to distract me. Then when I got there I thought it might be easier to enter the metro station and follow the underground passageways to the closest entrance to the event ground, so that I remained inconspicuous until the very moment I walked in. If anything I was more conspicuous trying to work my way around there, first entering the bus station, then walking away from the festival, then going down another entrance, then finally finding a closer entrance. How stupid I was being! No one cared what I was doing, where I was headed! But I was still scared for some reason. Then when I actually got to the entrance I stood there for a minute and gazed at a map that I had acquired. Mon Dieu, CT, just go in! I went into the park, which was larger than what I thought it would be. It was like the world had calmed the moment I walked in--the worst was over, actually getting myself there. Now I was in, there was no turning back. Inside the park, everything seemed strangely peaceful; the crowd was calm and not at all daunting. Most of the people there were gay or lesbian, mostly couples, not being outrageous in the least. I had pleasantly discovered that these people were just 'normal' gay people like myself. The park slowly filled; I'm guessing the population doubled many times over, but it was still comfortable, and I retained my good view of the stage.

Beyond the music, it was a real treat to be able to observe the people around me. Like I said before, they were just normal people, people who happened to be gay, out to enjoy their evening. It was an enclosed environment, a comfortable place where they could be themselves, be gay, spend time with their romantic partner outside on a summer's evening, on a date so to speak, without having to worry for that short period of time about society judging them. They could act like normal people, normal people in love. None of those awful stereotypes I had been fed came to fruition: no perversion, no semi-nakedness (even though it was the hottest day of the year so far), no greatly 'flamboyant' behaviour. Most people just sat there in the grass or stood below the stage with their partner and talked to them and enjoyed their company and, of course, the music. The interactions, even between lovers, was tamer than what I see heterosexual couples doing everyday on the streets.

So I guess you can imagine that I was having seriously mixed feelings by this point. I've rarely been happier and sadder than during my four hours at the festival, and I wasn't sure what I would feel coming out of it in the end. I was enjoying the music immensely, and I was pleased by the behaviour of the people surrounding me. I was proud, not of me, but of them. I was so happy for them, that these people were clearly open and accepting of themselves, and they had someone to share it with. Despite all that society and life must throw at them, sitting there in that park they really did seem content. They are people who love, who are ok with their sexual identity and have used it to create meaningful and caring relationships. They have few qualms about it, unlike the wreck that I apparently have been until now. Dare I say, they are even happy about it, and why wouldn't they be--they've found love and meaning in what I have been to this point labeling as my personal disability.

At the same time, I felt like I belonged with them. I was compelled toward them, and even though I didn't speak to a soul while I was there I felt strongly connected to them as a people. This was simply from the fact that I knew that they understood me, what I feel, what I have gone through and am going through. The park felt safe and secure. I was surrounded by people who would (allegorically) embrace me for my sexuality rather than judge me on it, who would be fine with it, who would not shut down at the very mention of it, who would understand my struggles and care about helping me through them. I got this feeling of cohesion from the group that I was surrounded by, and part of it was just that everyone seemed so comfortable, with themselves, with their partners, with the people around them. They weren't jumping up and down with gay pride. They were just being open with themselves and with society, but not in a brash and forceful way. It was an amazing experience for me just to be there among them and to feel their spirit. I could even look at the single men there and know that they wouldn't hold it against me if I thought that they were attractive; they might even be somewhat flattered.

It's also hard to understand, I know, but I also felt an incredible pain deep down inside, to the point where I was having a hard time distinguishing between what was warmth and what was pain. Genuine moments of feeling are rarely cut and dry. I saw people experiencing what they should experience, but I felt more hopeless than ever in becoming one of them. I don't do gay things (go drinking or clubbing), and I'm not exactly the most outgoing person in the world. So I couldn't, and can't, see myself ever being able to attain what they have accomplished. It's hard to imagine ever being able to have a romantic relationship of this caliber, or even managing to conjure up a date with someone at some point. But again, at the same time, I was so happy for these people, people just like me who had risen from what I can assure you is traumatic adversity (in first coming out to yourself then to others in society) to such a level. And it also pained me more than ever because also I cannot understand why so many people in the world hate and despise these good people, who have put so much on the line so that they can love and be loved, a noble feat. I tried to figure out what the feeling was that I was experiencing, the mixture of sorrow and gladness, whether when I got home I was going to burst into tears or come out to everyone I had ever known in renewed energy and ever-more accepting defiance.

The only thing I could honestly think that this mixture of pain with happiness and warmth could mean is healing. After all, doesn't healing, grieving followed by overcoming, involve both pain and happiness, suffering and relief, almost simultaneously? And I do think some part of me healed that night, although what exactly it was I don't know. But I've felt more confident, more energetic, more accepting of myself than I have felt in a long time. It seemed like, instead of being hunched over like I usually am, I walked straighter on the way home tonight, like a man who has finally made peace with himself and salvaged a little self esteem. Does this mean my problems are over, that my struggles to overcome both society's and my own barriers to making this work are over? No, they've just begun, really. But I have renewed energy, I think, to take both of these on. And maybe that's what these events like Divers-Cite, which I couldn't understand before, are about: bringing people from all branches of society together, showing them how much all of us are alike in our humanity and to celebrate those things that are different. And for those of us who are struggling like I am, it gives us a chance to heal and to enjoy ourselves without worrying. I didn't feel alone that night, like the only gay person ever to walk the planet, the only one to have these feelings. And so I guess this is why I felt more at peace with myself and my sexuality than before.

I went back to the festival on Sunday to hear the same artist that had attracted me to the Thursday concert. From my worldview, the perspective of a newly come-out gay man, my feelings were still markedly mixed. It was something of an emotional roller coaster, and with the thudding music I definitely had a headache by the time left. I was so drained by the experience that I went home and just fell onto my bed, not wanting to stay awake any longer because I had rarely felt so depressed before. Avoidance was a good way of dealing with my feelings at that point, until I jolted awake at 2am with thoughts about the event flooding like a swollen river through my head. Not to say that I wasn't pleased with my time there, and it was good for me. I was so happy to reenter that exotic world I had been in earlier in the week, to see the homosexual couples there, both lesbian and gay. And in this environment, I couldn't help but feel safe, even content, in a way I hadn't quite felt before. It was like I was very briefly living in a different world than the one outside of the Divers-Cité security fence, a world I was pained to leave behind for another year.

However, while I was there I must admit that I had one of the biggest self-bashes I've had in a long time. The one bad (or good) thing about going to something like this is that I saw what other people had, and it made me want better for myself as well. As I said before, I had a tendency to look at my own homosexuality as a handicap to a normal life. But going to this festival made me realize that it wasn't my homosexuality that was the problem--other people there were gay and having a perfectly great, well-balanced life, even using their sexual identity to their advantage by making friends. In fact, the problem was me, all me, my personality, my point of view, and my failures. I couldn't bash myself for being gay anymore, now I had to face the real issue at hand: me and my pitfalls.

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