10 Things I wish people knew about me

posted 09 October 2008

Ten years ago I was 17, a closeted gay teenager in a deeply homophobic Caribbean island. Thanks to Internet access, I had learned what "gay" really meant -- an aspect of yourself, not a choice or an affliction. I had also used it to reach out, anonymously, to other kids my own age going through the same experiences, via the wonderful Youth mailing lists. But everyone on the Youth lists was in North America -- at home there was nobody, not even any acknowledgement that gay teenagers existed.

A local newspaper, the Trinidad Express, had at the time a youth-oriented Sunday supplement called Vox, which stood for "Voice of Original eXpression" or something similarly twee. It had its own letters to the editor section, and one week in it I read a letter which casually expressed some sort of positive sentiment about homosexuality; I forget the exact details. It inspired me to email in my own letter, anonymously of course.

The following weekend I opened the paper and hunted for my message in the letters page: it wasn't there. I was disappointed, but hardly surprised. It was a long letter and by Trinidadian standards quite a controversial topic. So it came as quite a shock when, finishing the supplement, I discovered that the last page was a full-page spread containing my article, and nothing but my article. It was a pretty amazing feeling, and one that cemented my life-long urge to publish, even if it is just on the blog.

That article was published on October 11th, 1998, ten years ago this week. I've never put it on this blog before, so here it is, for posterity. As you take in the condescending tone, please keep in mind that I was 17, and that even these pretty basic descriptions were very much new information for the average reader in Trinidad in 1998. And as you wince at my repeating uninformed stereotypes, keep in mind that I had only known I was gay for a few years, and at this point still not met another gay person offline, and only a handful online -- though that was about to change.

10 Things I wish people knew about me: October, 1998

There are approximately ten things which, every day, I really want to tell people. But I can't, for reasons I'm going to go into below. Why have I chosen Vox to try and say these things? Well, mainly because I really want people to know, and I know if more people knew these ten things then life would be much easier for a great number of people. Also, because I like Vox. I've seen letters on related topics to this one, and Vox struck me as a great open space to talk in. But what are these ten things I wish you knew about me?

10. I'm gay
Yeah, that's right. However, if you saw me on the street you wouldn't know that -- trust me. I'm in my teens, but I'm not going to tell you how old less you try to guess who I am. I still go to school, but likewise I'm not telling you which.
9. What being gay means (like I can really fit this into a paragraph)
Being gay, in short, means that I am attracted to people of the same sex. And that is ALL. This naturally allows for an enormous range of possibilities. Firstly, a gay person can be male or female, the female version often being called lesbians. These include transsexuals, who think they are (or wish to be) members of the opposite sex, and so are attracted to people whom they are currently the same sex as. They also include trans*vestites*, or cross-dressers, who merely dress as the opposite sex. These two, however, are minorities. A lot of people get confused about this. Gay men are not all totally effeminate people who cross-dress and sing along to "YMCA", okay? The same generally applies to lesbians of course: only the minority are the "butch" stereotype. There are lots of types. The Queens -- another name for a certain kind of male cross-dresser -- are the ones you can (usually) spot 10 miles away, never mind across the street. The Queens I know all seem to be naturally attracted to theatre of any kind, especially music. However, the majority of gay people are just ordinary, like me, or somewhere in between the two extremes. Most of us you wouldn't know were gay unless you knew us really, REALLY well, there's no WAY you can spot us across the street. And I can hear you steupsing* at this already. However, I've known I'm gay for three years and NOBODY has ever guessed, including my parents and my siblings (I still live at home).
8. What you know about me is wrong -- dispelling myths
Oooh, this is fun. How about a just a few?
  • Gay men are dominated by their mothers growing up
    Coincidentally, this is true for me -- me and mama hang real good. But I know gay orphans and gays from single-father families. It's not a rule. (I have no data on lesbians :-)
  • Gay men are all paedophiles
    Oh yeah, like that would be fun. Please! We're not animals, we're not aliens, the concept of paedophilia is just as revolting to us as to you. There are sick people out there who will have sex with ANYTHING, I don't see why the gay community at large has to take the bad press.
  • Lesbians are man-haters/gay men are women-haters
    Do straight men hate all other men? So why should we? In fact, some of my best friends are women. Since I don't know an awful lot of other gay people, the women whom I have "outed" myself to -- i.e. told them I'm gay -- are the ones with whom I have conversations about hot men, go to Leonardo DiCaprio movies with, etc.. Which, incidentally, does nothing but reinforce the conception that I'm straight (see below) -- I go out with girls a lot.
  • You can tell who is gay and who is not
    As I said above, this is totally impossible. I'm gay, so I'm constantly on the lookout for men I could pick up, and I am a total loss at recognising who's gay and who's not. And if it takes one to know one, what chance do YOU have? Trust me, one of my biggest kicks in life is hearing other people telling me "you know, I think X is gay" when the person who's telling me still doesn't know that I am. My parents are especially funny at this.
  • Homosexuality is caused by sexual abuse at a young age
    I was disturbed and saddened to see an apparently perfect example of abuse leading to homosexuality in Vox recently. This is in fact sometimes possible -- I know a lesbian who was raped when she was 12 by a man, and the experience hurt her too much to love a man ever again -- but it is again the case in the minority of cases. Trust me, I'd know if I'd been abused, and I wasn't. I'm just gay.
  • Homosexuality is a "decision" or a "choice"
    This is one myth that goes well beyond logic. Why the **** would I choose to be gay? Not that I hate myself for being gay -- I'm past that stage, despite the best efforts of the Catholic church -- but being gay is no picnic, especially in this country. I didn't want to be gay, I denied it to myself for a full two years, and some people spend far longer than that "in the closet". But finally, deciding that telling everybody I was gay would be marginally more fun than committing suicide, I told one of my best friends, and subsequently my very best friend, and eventually my entire group of friends and even my siblings.
And there are lots more. Depending on the feedback I get on this article, maybe I'll do a follow-up to answer your questions, sent to the contact addresses below. But on to the next thing you need to know.
7. Hating me is wrong
I won't go much into this, the next point covers a lot of what I want to say. But why would you want to hate me? Why would you want to shun me, ignore me, make my life miserable? Why would you want to do that to anyone? This is such a blindingly obvious point, and yet every day homosexuals are scathingly berated in the papers -- admittedly by ignorant letter-writing morons, but still -- and are denied jobs and friends.
6. There's nothing wrong with me
One of the big things I hear is that "homosexuality is wrong, but because this is a free country" I can be gay if I want. This is an improvement over the kill-the-faggots attitude of #7, but still not good enough. Why should you dislike me at all? I didn't choose to be gay, that's an important point. So how can you hate me for something that's not my fault? This is like -- exactly like, don't try and avoid this issue -- hating somebody because of their skin colour. Nobody ever says "I don't approve of that black lifestyle". How is being gay a "lifestyle" any more than being black is a lifestyle? It's just a fact of life. It gets me angry when people hate me for no reason -- understandably, I feel. So you don't have to love me, but come up with a better reason to hate me.

In 1973 -- far too late, but never mind -- the American Psychiatric Association declared homosexuality not to be a disease, and ceased purporting to treat it, dealing instead with the depression and other problems associated with being a repressed homosexual. A homosexual who is not repressed by society, for instance if he lives in San Francisco :-), has only normal psychological problems, or none at all. Homophobia, the fear of gay people, is a disease, according to Dr. Michelangelo Signorile, author of Outing Yourself. Like alcholism or drug abuse, you absorb homophobia from those around you, and if they do it, you are at risk. And by that criterion, Trinidad and Tobago is one sick place.

5. Why I'm gay
Like I would know? The truth is, nobody does know what causes homosexuality. It's never been scientifically proven in any way. Research with twins has shown that if one identical twin is gay, the likelihood of the other twin being gay is higher -- but not guaranteed. Other research has indicated that gay men and straight women have an area of the brain that is larger than the corresponding area in straight men and lesbians. The "men look good" gland, if you will, is smaller in them. This is still not conclusive evidence, but it lends weight to the theory that biological elements genetically established, or established in the womb, are what cause people to be gay. At any rate, once somebody is gay it has been conclusively proven that it is impossible to switch them back, so I think the point is moot, really.
4. I'm not alone
Take this two ways. Firstly, not everybody hates gays. It's not a natural state. I have a large group of supportive friends without whom I long ago would have given up on my life. (Hi guys! Thanks for existing.) Secondly, I'm not the only gay in the country (duh). Being gay is something I share in common with -- estimates vary -- between 4 and 8% of any population, anywhere. So if you know 25 people, at least one of them is gay. Interesting, eh? Maybe you should ask around, see if anyone has anything to tell you. It's interesting to note the fact that this percentage is true across national, cultural and racial backgrounds. Everywhere from Russia to China to England to America and back to Trinidad has the SAME percentage, which also tends to support the biological basis for homosexuality (see #5).
3. You hurt me
Now that you've got a warm fuzzy feeling inside having read this article (well, hopefully you do. I always get a warm feeling after learning something. Alternatively, you could be about to mail-bomb this paper, seek me out and tear me limb from limb. I dunno) let me tell you that things are not all good, not at all good, in gay life. Teenagers already have a high suicide rate, but even so one in four suicides is a gay or lesbian teenager. Don't think you're innocent. Every little "fag" joke, every little anti-gay comment you've ever made without thinking, is a nail through the heart of one of your best friends, one of whom is dying to tell you something, but won't because they think you'll kill them, and so do you. Change your attitude NOW, or wake up one morning with a big empty feeling inside for the rest of your life, knowing one of your best friends is gone. Stop hurting us. What easier way is there to cut the national suicide rate by almost 25%?
2. You're not alone
The issues I've addressed here are just the start of the misconceptions, there are far too many totally whacked-out things people think about gay people to list. But here's the first step: if you've got questions, or (god forbid, right) you're gay, then contact me: **>. Anything gay-related is fine :-)

Incidentally, if you're worried about privacy, you can get a cool free web-based e-mail address from www.email.com, or the old standard, www.hotmail.com. Both provide a completely private way to send and receive e-mail without people accidentally receiving your messages.

Oh, and don't bother to flame me, 'cause it's web based so all you're doing is hurting THEM, not me. I can just ignore you, just like I ignore you every other time you try to hurt me.

1. My name
This is the number one thing I'd LOVE to tell you. But I can't. Not until you come up to me and tell me "If you were gay, you could tell me and I wouldn't mind." But you don't know who I am. So you'd better start telling people this, just in case. Okay? Cool. Bye for now!

Aftermath

Oy. That was a lot more painful to re-read than I was expecting. But hey, it was 10 years ago. And the results were definitely worthwhile. I had been hoping for some feedback from the article -- mostly I was expecting angry flames. I went to school the next day impatient to get home and check my mail. But at school I discovered, in equal parts proud and horrified, that a few of my teachers -- the ones who had to read my essays every day, and so were familiar with my writing style -- had also read the article and recognized my voice. There were knowing glances and, to my even greater surprise, a couple of nods of approval.

When I got home, dialing up on my 14.4 modem, instead of the trickle of angry christians I was expecting, my inbox was flooded with literally hundreds of emails from gays and lesbians across Trinidad who'd read the article. Some wanted to chat, some wanted advice, some were barely comprehensible, typed hastily in a few snatched seconds when they thought nobody else at the office was looking. A couple were heartbreaking. It was like a dam had burst.

Unable to respond to them all personally, I started throwing them at a hastily-setup mailing list called TriniContact, where they all started talking to each other, making friends, and then even more amazingly, meeting each other -- out there, in real life, in public. Out of nowhere, groups of strangers -- including myself -- were meeting other gay people for the first time ever, finding friends, and support, and a connection to Trinidad's (at the time deeply underground) gay community. I discovered that there were even gay club nights -- late at night, out of the way, and extremely hush-hush. Eventually I snuck into a couple of these, and predictably bumped into people I knew outside, including teachers of mine. It was eye-opening, and affirming, and fun, and one of the early experiences that really deeply impressed upon me the power and value of the Internet to connect people and solve problems.

I left Trinidad in January of 2000, and sadly the list only survived my departure by a few months -- there are just the bare remains of a website to attest to its existence, although I know that a bunch of the people who met each other through the list are still friends. Gay rights in Trinidad -- no thanks to me -- have come a long way: I was amazed to discover there was even (until recently) an openly gay bar in Trinidad now, with its own Facebook page for crying out loud.

However, they still have far to go: homosexuality is still officially illegal, although there have been no prosecutions for quite some time. However, there are still horrible abuses, such as the story of a gay man stripped naked and detained for hours by police for no reason other than walking along the street with his boyfriend. He was eventually compensated for his mistreatment by the courts, but the tone and language of the article ("self-confessed homosexual" and quote marks around "partner") make it clear what the prevailing attitude still is -- and this is in the very same Trinidad Express that published my original letter.

Publishing this letter and the subsequent existence of TriniContact was a wonderful and formative little part of my life, and I'm glad that there's a record of it outside of my hard drive again. Maybe one day I will get around to putting all this webdev experience I've gained in the last 10 years to use putting together a proper web presence for the gay community in Trinidad, which still lacks one.

* A Trinidadian mannerism expressing scepticism or general displeasure, it involves pressing your cheek against your teeth and sucking inwards, making a distinctive noise. I'm unable to locate an MP3 of an example, sadly.

** Now defunct, obviously.