Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pride and Prejudice

When I went in for an interview to become a volunteer at an organization in the gay community, my interviewers made sure I was comfortable and kept the questions fairly lighthearted. That is, until it came to asking how 'out' I was. In a very serious tone, they questioned if I was out with my family. Then they asked me if I was out at work. I told them yes and no on both accounts; I was not out with everyone in my family or at work (only those who really mattered, I thought). An exchange of glances and a concerned half-frown yielded the next question: "If you were asked if you were gay by one of these people, would you say yes?" I half-lied, saying "Yes, I don't have a problem with it [my sexual identity]." I couldn't help feeling a little judged in this situation, feeling the pressure to be totally, completely, unflinchingly outed in the world.

These days, I can happily say that I've reached a level of pride and satisfaction with my sexual identity I couldn't have foreseen, even when I was in that interview. I have also never been more comfortable sharing my sexual identity with others, the process of coming out being a never-ending affair. However, the fact is that with some people I'd still probably lie and say no, and with many others I would tell them outright "yes, I'm gay." I've always held the very libertarian attitude that my sexual identity is entirely my business, mine and only mine to reveal or conceal as I wish, even if keeping it from some people requires a careful juggling act.

Aristotle is famous for having written (in the Nicomachean Ethics) that a virtue is often the moderation between two extremes (or, as he saw it, two contrasting vices). It also seems like a delicate balance is required between pride and prejudice (or the fear of prejudice), so that we can maximize the former while still minimizing the latter. I said in my post entitled "Do I really want to be Gay" that we should try to make the best of our sexual identity, to create the best possible life for ourselves within the context of our sexuality. For some of us, that may mean concessions to other identities as well, such as our family, our cultural, workplace, or religious environments, or other aspects of our identity (depending on the setting and the attitudes of the people involved).

There will always be martyrs, those proud people who are gay no matter what, no matter where. If in the wrong setting, they would throw themselves on the pyre of gay rights and pay the price for it rather than deny their identity. These admirable individuals have helped take gay rights to today's relatively progressive level by revealing to the world the inhumane, hair-raising injustices that exist in the broader society. And I think that it is for this reason that the volunteer organization was ensuring that I could, in fact, propagate this tradition and be a pioneer. From the perspective of the gay community, ensuring the 'outness' of its members is simply a survival instinct.

However, the fact remains that there is a lot of gray area in terms of who should be out, i.e.,when, where, and to whom it is appropriate to reveal one's sexual identity. Losing friends is one thing (I would sadly but quite simply discard any friend who has a problem with my homosexuality). Losing one's close family for the sake of an abstract, yet-unrealized goal (i.e., coming out for the sake of coming out) seems like a heavy price to pay when it can be put off or avoided. I'm fortunate to say that everyone in my immediate family is very accepting of the fact that I'm gay. In recent years we even go to Divers-Cité together to enjoy the music, and that's become something of a bonding experience for me. Unfortunately, the older generation of my family (people who mostly stay back at home) is highly, irrationally prejudiced against LGBTs for religious and social reasons, no matter what the context. They could simply not accept this 'mortal sin,' even though they can stomach so many other ones that involve no love. Yet they are close to me and I with them. My very coming out would not only destroy my loving relationships with them, but it would also trash the relationships between my immediate family and my extended family. This would likely lead to a loss of well-being and perhaps a stress-accelerated earlier death for all involved!

As my example illustrates, the process of coming out can have an ugly chain reaction that ripples through an entire social unit. Is all this really worth it, just so I can vent and say I'm homosexual no matter where I go? Definitely not; the disaster can be avoided by just not saying anything (the older generation in my example tend to be advocates of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in this regard). I could instead have "friends," very close friends as far as they are concerned, ones that I'm very fond of and can talk about. Eventually I expect I could even have a "roommate." As far as justifying not having romance in my life, I can be "professionally motivated" instead and talk about what's going on at work.

There are many cases where retaining social harmony in all quarters of one's life is rather more difficult. This clearly occurs when a culture or nation officially demonstrates prejudice against LGBT persons. In order for these individuals to realize their dreams in this environment, they do potentially have to risk facing grave consequences (socially, economically, etc.). In addition, I live quite far away from any of my prejudiced extended family members, and while I keep in touch with them regularly, they're not around to see everything I'm doing. It would be much harder to conceal a romantic relationship when living nearby (or with) a highly involved, prejudiced family, and at some point the stress of juggling a diverse sexual orientation might become too much and a difficult decision would have to be made. But even these cases don't always have to involve coming out; it could instead mean moving out, to starting a new career or adventure. Along similar lines, when engaging in a romantic relationship it makes sense to become more out (ex, with more co-workers, more family, and in the general public setting) so as to freely express the joy and love of the couple's companionship. With some people, it might be better to hold off on coming out until once a relationship has been established; with others, the news might provoke an even more unbearable shock than would otherwise be the case. One thing I realized during my own coming out with my immediate family: when (or if) we do decide it is the right time to share the news with those close to us (esp. family), we have to give them time to come to terms with the news. They need space to vent, to finally let go of their concerns and prejudices and to grieve the loss of their heterosexual vision of us.

In general, it's an ugly thing, this prejudice that makes living an gay life so stressful and complicated at times. Pride in our sexual identity can be a beautiful thing, but it can also be unnecessarily reckless. Blanket pride or blanket fear of prejudice (i.e., not taking any risks toward realizing one's romantic dreams) are clearly not the answers to living the best quality life for many individuals. For some, pride in one's identity may be worth the backlash. Sometimes the backlash is mild or nonexistent, which is the best type of scenario--pride without prejudice. However, for many more of us there are other identities at play, other people and settings to consider, and the solution to balancing our sexual identities with other aspects of our lives is not as clear cut. At my volunteer organization, in bonding over our coming out stories, I was actually pleasantly surprised to find out that a large number of people who worked there were not out to everyone in their lives. Several of various ages and backgrounds also chose not to be out to their parents. These individuals are no less proud to be gay, being happy and often highly motivated to work for the benefit of the LGBT community. The lesson is clear: there are many ways to work toward both our romantic desires and the betterment of the gay community in the world; we don't all have to be martyrs.

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