Growing Up Normal In A Perfect World By 'Tommy Guy'

Introduction

As I sit here staring blankly into the computer screen, I am wondering where to begin in describing the experiences that I've encountered over the past two years. I am not a writer in any sense of the word, but perhaps it may be possible to capture at least a fraction of what I feel.

In my search to find and comprehend the differences between "straight" and "gay" people, I have found overwhelming similarities. In my search for answers, I found many friends.

What exactly does it mean to be different in the minds of others? For many gay individuals, it means being hated, ostracized, isolated, condemned, and even killed. It means leading two separate lives. It means not being able to share your most intimate experiences with people that you love and care for very much. It means lying to your friends, wearing a "mask", and condemning others just like you in order to gain acceptance, approval, and normality in the eyes of a diseased society. It means, for some, suicide, denial, therapy, a never-ending quest to change. It means living life just short of its fullest, because of what others around you have decreed to be right and wrong.

A friend of mine told me, "Tom, you don't know what it's like...you just don't know the hell that a gay person goes through in life". It's true. As a heterosexual individual, I will never know what it is like. I can try my best to empathize, conceptualize, and attempt to put myself in the same situation, but at the end of my thinking session I still have the privilege of retreating back into an accepting and safe world - a given right that the gay individual in today's society isn't afforded.

In my quest to achieve some understanding of what it means to be gay, I have also learned much about what it means to be "me". When I initially began this learning experience, I used the "intellectually stimulating sexual orientation course" as the reason for pursuing this further. This was my excuse to both myself and to others - a justification, if you will, which I could use to explain my new found interest in gay individuals, and in gay subject matter. It was a protective mechanism used by a person who was extremely fearful of "them", while at the same time needing to understand "them", in order, I suppose, to understand myself.

This paper serves as a testament to the fact that people are a lot more alike than they are different. It also serves as a testament to the never ending assault exerted by a "perfect" society on a person's self-worth, dignity and value as a member of the human race. This addendum is about the many individuals that I spoke with, their experiences and views on life. It is about the fear felt by a heterosexual male growing up in a rigid and unaccepting society. It is as much about being gay, as it is about being myself. This paper in a strange sort of way, is my catharsis.

In the beginning... Life in a small town

I was first exposed to the hatred felt by many against gay individuals while growing up in a very small city, in southern Ontario. I was 13, and in grade eight at the time, and a new kid in school was labelled a "faggot" by the "in crowd" for no apparent reason. This was my first introduction to both the definition of the word, and to the fear that I slowly developed for anyone whom I suspected of being gay.

This new kid, whom I'll call "Keith", was good looking, very athletic, and quite smart. I didn't know then, nor do I know now if he was really even gay. Keith spent his entire school year being ridiculed by the "in crowd", while myself and everyone else just watched and did nothing. During recess, Keith would always try to make new friends by approaching fellow classmates and saying 'hi', but everytime they would walk away from him without saying a word.

I can still clearly remember the day that he approached 'my' group of friends. Specifically, he approached me. I began talking to him as I would any other person that approached me. It was at that point when my friends yelled out, 'Lets Go, Tom' as they began walking away. I stood there immobilized. I looked at them in the eyes, and visually pleaded with them to stay. All they could do in return was to calmly say, 'Are you coming with us, or staying with him'. I looked at Kieth and then looked at the ground, and cowardly whispered 'Im sorry', as I too turned around and walked away from him. Eventually, he ended up spending every recess alone in a secluded area of the school grounds.

The desire to intervene, for myself at least, was overpowered by the fear of being found "guilty by association". As I witnessed firsthand the degree of hate expressed for a person labelled as being "gay", I slowly began to develop a fear of being different, rather than a defiance against similarity.

To say that this experience had a tremendous impact on me would be a gross understatement. It was my personal introduction to, and the beginning of an emotionally supressed way of living, where full expressions of feeling for those whom we care for are censored in order to conform to the views of a society that does not care . As I will soon explain, what I learned from those around me to be an accepted expression of one's masculinity, was in fact an expression of fear in not being able to truly express oneself emotionally.

Every straight, homophobic male individual, I am sure, must have his reasons for feeling the way that he does. Judging by the degree of pressure exerted by one's peer group during the adolescent stage of life, it is not surprising to see young males adopting the views and beliefs of a heterosexist society. Masculinity is influenced by outdated views that subscribe to a state of being which is low on emotion and its expression, yet very high on both physical and emotional detachment.

It is amazing to see that any form of affection directed towards other males must be confined within a very narrow social circumstance - i.e., sports, drinking with the buddies, friend lying on a deathbed, etc. All allow for affectionate expression, but only with conditions - justifications for behaviour that would otherwise be deemed inappropriate between members of the same sex.

Joseph Niesen, in his article "Heterosexism: Redefining Homophobia for the 1990s", defines heterosexism as "the continued promotion by the major institutions of society of a heterosexual lifestyle while simultaneously subordinating any other lifestyles" (p.25). There are two key terms that deserve to be emphasized in the Niesen article: "continued promotion" and "simultaneous subordination".

By allowing heterosexism to continue, society allows this viscious cycle to revolve unchecked. In effect, by suppressing those who are different, we are also suppressing different views of masculinity (for there are many) from being adopted (through personal choice) by young people. Thus, heterosexist ideology, and the fear of anyone different that it creates, is allowed to go on, and on, and on - while young people are robbed of the opportunity to observe, and select for themselves that model of masculinity which is most comfortable for them.

For myself, the term heterosexism did not exist until I encountered it in the literature during my 2nd year of University. In fact, I remember in high school expressing quite negative feelings towards the existence of homosexuality. Being the playful and affectionate person that I was, I resented not being able to express affection towards my close friends. I couldn't tell them how important they were to me, or that I loved them very much. I couldn't hug them like I used to do when I was little. In fact, my entire array of emotional expressions were condensed into the form of a firm handshake, and a pat on the back. In my mind, it was the fault of that "dreaded disease", and considering that I didn't have it, I questioned why I should have to suffer because of it. Alternate forms of expression did not exist. There were no other models of masculinity to adopt. We were all, in essence, clones of a heterosexist world.

It is important to emphasize as I write this, that I have not metamorphisized into some radical, outspoken, champion of human rights. There are a number of aspects with respect to gay culture/behaviour that I disagree with, and find quite disturbing - but I no longer harbour the fear or hatred that I once possessed for a lifestyle that was different than mine

When you stare in the eyes of those you hate, and receive nothing less than acceptance back, it is difficult not to experience some type of resentment for your inexplicable feelings.

New choices and directions... Point Zero.

I can still remember my first day of the "Psychology of Sexual Orientation" class - my turning point in acceptance of others, and the reason for this paper. As I stood outside waiting for the course director to attend, I was immobilized with fear. From my perspective, everyone around me was gay. Everyone who saw me there would think that I must be gay as well. It was an irrational fear, much like the fear that some people have of balloons. I had many reservations about taking the course, but I wanted to become a doctor, and doctors must be without prejudice. Anything less would equate to substandard medicine. So I convinced myself to weather the storm, and insure that I make eye contact with no one, lest it be mistaken for a sexual cue.

If the behaviour that I'm describing seems ridiculous in nature, it's because it is. As ludicrous as it seems, it was very real to me. And looking back at it now it saddens me to realize that there are a great many individuals in society that would react in the same way that I did, if not worse.

The first class was a turning point for me in that it began to extinguish the fears which I seemed to be obsessed with earlier, while at the same moment providing me with a valuable view into a world that I had only learned about from the prejudicial views of ignorant people. I will not attempt to describe all of the changes that took place in me during the duration of the course, but I must make mention of that point in time when I decided to further investigate the subject of homosexuality "outside" of the classroom.

While reviewing various articles for my research paper on sexual orientation, I encountered a study that was written by a Dr. Remafedi. I cannot recall the title of the study (surprisingly I remember the author's name), but I do remember it evaluated the psychological effects of being gay in a straight world, while in the adolescent stage of life. Though I do not remember the specific details of the article, it presented numerous "case examples" of young individuals who would rather kill themselves, than be themselves. Imagine for a moment, everything is perfect in life, except for that one aspect of your identity that is condemned by "everyone" around you.

The Remafedi article was the kick that I needed to actually do something more than simply attend a classroom for one semester. It instilled a need to take what I had learned, and move onto the next step of venturing into the real world.

    465-5000... Making Contact

I decided that the best way to eliminate my fears, and to achieve a sense of understanding and acceptance would be to actually make contact with someone who was gay. After many months of hesitation, I decided to phone a local gay date/friendship line. The only other person who knew what I was planning to do was my best friend. And he was more than supportive of my endeavour.

Once on the phone line, (after overcoming extreme anxiety) I made sure to leave a completely honest and open message stating that I just wanted to talk. I spoke to a large number of gay individuals that night, and suffice to say the experience was not what I expected. They were neither after my body, nor out to coerce me. The experience was indeed quite anti-climatic. Though I made quite a few "friends" at this point, for some reason I still didn't feel comfortable. They were still very alien to me. Different, very, very different.

The funny thing about the way that I felt after speaking to these individuals was the fact that I was speaking with regular, everyday people who happened to be gay, yet in my mind I did not think of them as people - they were 'gay people'. It is such a stupid, illogical way of thinking that it irritates me greatly as I write this. But it is an important insight (my opinion) into why heterosexuals are so reluctant to truly accept gay people without thinking of them as inferior in some respect. It is one thing to tolerate (as I feel most people do these days), and another to truly accept.  After allowing some time to go by, I called the line again and decided to clear my mind of preconceptions and carefully  listen.  Though  it  was  very difficult at first  (especially at hearing males [for the first time in my life] use the term "boyfriend" when referring to their significant other), I persevered and continued to call on a daily basis. Over the course of a couple of weeks I realized that what used to bother me, now no longer did. The gay individual was now becoming more real, more "normal" to me. But the people I spoke with hadn't changed - I had. It was an amazing development for me, because it actually supported (to my doubting mind) what I had read with respect to the notions of normality.

The individuals that I spoke with ranged in age from 16 to about 60. It was sad to see that normality for them could only be realized in the presence of others who were gay. It is unfair for many gay people to not be able to be themselves in the presence of close family members, or "straight" friends. How ironic that individuals can be their real selves and be accepted in the presence of strangers, yet not by those that are closest to them. Though I realize that many gay people have accepting and loving families, a great deal do not. And from what I've been told, even those with accepting families feel as though they must "walk around egg shells" during certain occasions. Full expression for many is never truly achieved.

After a period of about 2 months I had spoken to a large number of individuals. I had learned a great deal of what it is like growing up gay in a straight world. We often see psychological analysis that show a greater degree of "psychological problems" amongst gay individuals. It is surprising that these studies seldom implicate an unaccepting society as a contributor to the problems. I can understand now why the course that I took was so negative towards "text books" which define homosexuality as "abnormal", "deviant" etc... Initially, I was in support of these texts. If it's different, it's abnormal. The majority is the norm, and the minority is not. Simple. It was obviously the other way around, but I did not know because I was never "allowed" to know.

A new beginning...

There were a few individuals that I shared common interests with, and decided to stop talking to them via the "free line", but directly over the phone. This was the beginning of a new way of thinking, and behaving for me. It was the next big step to actually achieving normality in my new found friendships. The relationship that I had formed with these three individuals was very symbiotic in nature, because it not only allowed me to change as a person, but it also allowed them to do the same.

The change that was taking place for me was a subtle and slow process. A great deal of emotional confusion and turmoil was also swirling in my mind at this time. There was one occasion where I actually began to question my own sexual identity, because of the fact that I actually "enjoyed" speaking with (a.k.a. being friends with, spending time with, liking...) someone who I knew was gay. One of the problems I had was that I couldn't discuss my feelings with anyone that I was close to (e.g., family, close friends etc...). In a way I suppose I experienced (to a much lesser extent) what it is like for a gay person - wanting to let those close to you know how you're feeling, but not being able to.

I continued to speak with my friends on a regular basis, and developed a great degree of trust in them. Because of this, I also began to adopt many of their characteristics with respect to being able to express oneself in an honest and open manner. Traditionally, or should I say "heterosexistly" (sp?), expressions of sensitivity, affection, and openness have not been a part of the "masculine" psyche. Yet it amazed me that the adoption of these very "non-masculine" traits resulted in a more intimate, and satisfying relationship with my girlfriend, as well as with my closest (straight) male friends.

Though I was quite ecstatic at the results of this open emotional expression, I somehow also felt cheated at the fact that I did not get to enjoy these new found feelings of closeness while growing up. I had been lied to. Masculinity was not a rigid, unemotional way of acting. It was, for me atleast, a strength that allowed oneself to express their feelings in an honest way to the people around them.

Then... and now.

I have one close gay friend now whom I speak with on a regular basis. He is like all my other friends, except much closer in a way. It's been almost two years since we started talking, and we still haven't met. The reservation to meet is mutual, because, as he stated (and I feel the same way) "this friendship is so important to me that I'm afraid we might not 'hit it off' as well as in person, as we do over the phone". It is amazing (a word repeated many times in this paper for a reason) that reality is structured in such an orderly, yet very chaotic way. There are times when I question how long it will be, if ever, before I am completely (100%) comfortable with who I am, and with what I subscribe to.

It should be apparent by now that what began as an excercise in finding answers and achieving a greater understanding of gay individuals, was in reality an attempt at understanding myself.

This quest for a better 'me' has generously returned many priceless dividends, and continues to do so in every aspect of my life. When I look back at the tribulant journey however, I can't help but realize that very few will do the same. I have no answers. Unless a change is made in the way that society thinks, there will only continue to be a greater division amongst people who share the same basic needs. With respect to what the gay community is all about, it is now obvious in my mind. It is about being human - in every respect of the word.

It has also become apparent to me what is meant by the term 'pride' during the various gay pride days. I could never comprehend why anyone would want to celebrate a 'pride', or feel a sense of 'pride' with respect to sexual orientation. I am straight, but you would never see me 'celebrating' my orientation. It was not an aspect of a person that I believed deserved any form of celebration. In fact, most of the people I had questioned didn't seem to know either, or were not able to explain it to me.

Based on the way that I feel now, I think that this sense of 'pride' is not about one's sexual orientation, but about one's personal achievement in finally being able to accept themselves completely - without fear, and without reservation. It is, I would suggest, a pride in the total acceptance of one's self.

As I ponder the changes that have taken place in me, I realize now that I have become (in heart) who I used to be - the playful, sensitive, affectionate, open, and 'blind-to-differences' seven year-old that I once was. For this, I am truly grateful.

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