The Gay Gap: A Taboo Tangoed

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Lt. Dan Choi and Dan Manning march in Wichita Pride Parade. Both were discharged under DADT. (photo by David Quick)

The first time I heard the word “gay” was in 1993. Bill Clinton was our new President, and gays in the military was among the first major issues his administration was tackling. I was 10 years old. One Sunday morning, after reading about Clinton’s proposal to allow open service, my dad commented to my mom that gay people were going to destroy the military. Clinton, he said, would be to blame when our country was no longer able to defend itself against foreign invaders after our troops fled their posts to avoid the gays.

Whoever these “gays” were, they sounded pretty bad!

When I asked my parents to explain, I was told that being gay was a taboo. Homosexuality was against God’s intentions. Our nation would fall like the Roman Empire if we embraced it. Visions of fighting, fire, and warfare clouded my mind as I pondered the significance of this new mention in my lexicon. Little did I know that a few short years later, a word introduced to me shrouded in distasteful forbiddance would become a central part of my own burgeoning identity. When it did, those connotations stuck, and an awkward resentment lingered as I came to understand the utter wrong in my parent’s assessment.

Taboos are cultural creations. Society sets the parameters for what is acceptable. Often, those boundaries change. Words once masked in darkness become illuminated over time.

Fast-forward 18 years, and that’s exactly what has happened. In 1993, around 40% of the country favored allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. Today, that number swells close to 80%. The September 20, 2011 “Repeal Day” of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was more than a mere lifting of a ban. It was the culmination of an evolving country. We are a nation of people becoming more enlightened each day on the issue of sexual orientation.

It’s not just straight people who’ve needed to evolve, though. Those of us who are gay need to remember the people inside the “gay gap”. As acceptance has grown, the folks in between that 40% mark then and the 80% mark now are why laws are changing. They are our friends who disassociated with us when we came out. They are our colleagues who ridiculed us behind our backs. They are our mothers who cried when we revealed our truth. They are our fathers who cringed when they learned their child is gay. They are our uncles who made offensive jokes at Thanksgiving dinner. They are our grandparents who never knew a single homosexual person. They are all the people who clung to the taboo, only to have their notions stretched by the true colors of our realities. They might have caused us grief in the past, but they are paving part of our road forward in the present. We must forgive them and let go of that resentment.

The Sunday night before the ban was lifted, I was on the phone with my dad. When he asked me what my plans were for the upcoming week, I mentioned my intention to attend a Repeal Day party. He very comfortably commented that he had read an article in his local newspaper focusing on an elderly man discharged under the policy who would soon have his benefits reinstated. “That’s a good thing for the country,” he said. His understated tone of acceptance underscores the gap.

Those simple words did wonder to wash away my own resentment. They made me realize that whatever hostility headlines from the past may have elicited, it’s the lives we are living now that truly matter. We can’t begrudge people for past prejudices. We can only be thankful that they embrace the truth of a taboo lifted.

Gays are now serving openly in the military. Our nation stands strong. Our families can be stronger.

A Dartboard and a Message

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For Pocket O

“Everyone should always have hope in their heart, feel love in their life, have an even playing field, and an equal chance to be happy.”

Those were some of the last words my friend O said to me. They were the mantra of his life and the message he wanted carried forward. Sadly, they were also all of the things he was never able to embrace. In the aftermath of his suicide, I am left with the task of deconstructing the taboos that blocked him from realizing what he so eloquently desired.

O was a dartboard for everything we as a culture are afraid of: he was gay, Muslim, and mentally ill. When he came out of the closet, he found there was no place for him inside his religion. As he turned to the gay community for support, he discovered the awkward truth that a culture colored by the rainbow is still uncomfortable with some of the hues inside that prism. Though he constantly desired personal freedom and intimate connections, his personality disorder robbed him the ability to live life on his own terms. He was born into a family that loved him, but most of his relatives were ill prepared for the advent that was O.

When we decide that something is a taboo, we limit people’s abilities to navigate how to deal with it when the inevitable manifests. We can want something to not exist; but we cannot wish away reality. Sometimes, people come into this world to challenge assumptions and expand horizons. With so many taboos tattooed to him, O was one of those people.

Teenage suicide and adolescent bullying are issues that have gained national attention and caused strife in communities across the U.S. News anchors like Anderson Cooper venerably try to dissect how ill treatment from others lead to irreversible decisions. It is not just kids who are offing themselves, though; O was well into his thirties when he died. Causalities come when we refuse to allow people to fully integrate who they are with where they are. When we refuse to confront the things that scare us, we chase off some of the very people we want to love. That is exactly what happened to O.

I am no scholar of Islam, but I know most Muslims will tell you that there is no place in Allah’s kingdom for a gay man. Muslim men are supposed to be the leaders of their families. Their offspring bring honor to the bloodline and goodwill to the family name. This was one requisite O would never manifest. Instead of dealing with that fact, most of his family ignored it, hoping it would go away. Simultaneously, they overlooked his mounting cognitive deterioration. Stigmas over mental illness do not just bring dishonor to Muslim families; most Americans are uncomfortable confronting the challenges that come when a family member has an anguished mind.  When relatives cannot give you the acceptance you need, it is natural to seek that out in other people. Islamophobia and the misconceptions most people have about Muslim culture often prevented O from making those connections.

Suicide, he felt, was the only release from a life full of contradictions.  Race, religion, culture, health, and sexuality tragically collided.

These are not easy issues to talk about. You are probably uncomfortable reading this piece. If so, that is very good. Uncomfortable is compelling. Answers are often found inside the notions that scare us the most.

My relationship with O was complex. He and I never actually met in person. We were introduced via the “Gay Men Who Think Levi Johnston is Hot” Facebook group. See, even Sarah Palin is good for something! Though I never interacted with his physical presence, I got to know his mind better that probably anyone. We talked nearly every day for two years. He knows things about me that even my best friends do not. We had a relationship full of constant challenges. It required my mind to expand. It made his heart open up. It was strange, but it was real. Technology can either be the means by which we break taboos or it can allow them to exacerbate. I choose to let social media broaden the scope of my social understanding.

Every night around 9:00 p.m., I wait for my phone to ring and a picture of O to pop up. That does not happen anymore. It is not the dartboard of our collective fear that I want to hear from, though; I just miss my friend.  Suicide often happens because circumstances larger than a single person overtake an individual’s life.

In our last conversation, O told me he did not want his message to be forgotten. I write this in hopes that you will lace in your heart the words that open this article. When you encounter people whose identities and circumstances challenge or befuddle you, please pay attention. If you have been affected by suicide, examine the conditions that surrounded the event. Sometimes, people come into your life to wake you up. With open eyes, we can level the playing field and create the world of hope, love, and happiness for others O did not have for himself.