For most of my youth, I lived in a secure blanket of belonging. I belonged to the groups of people that surrounded me at my school and church: white Christians, married couples with children (children like me), and suburban homeowners. I learned from my parents and other adults who the “bad” people were. I knew that when adults lowered their voice to talk about somebody, it indicated disapproval. As a child, I could never have imagined that one day I would become the very person they were disparaging. Yet that’s exactly what I did.
Since that time, a recurring experience in my life is the feeling of alienation. Starting in high school and growing outward, I found myself frequently unwelcome or even banished from social groups for being gay. In the 90’s, America had a dearth of positive role models for queer youth, and that heightened my sense of alienation.
Alienation is what I encountered at dinner last night when I went out with a friend, Chris, and his wife, Sally. They had invited three other friends for a night out, and we chatted before and after dinner. Though I experienced the security of being part of a group of energetic, white people sharing witty observations and bust-a-gut anecdotes, still I was unintentionally excluded from the conversation during the evening, and I began to withdraw as a result.
The straight people at the dinner table easily talked about their lives, their children and their milestones, yet their steady stream of mutually supporting chatter sucked the air from my lungs. When it came to husbands and children, I couldn’t contribute to the group talk. I became desperate to speak about my own experience and to contribute something to the discussion, but I failed even that. All I could find was wounded silence.
I was reminded again how my life experience as a gay man has been fundamentally different from the experiences of traditionally married, straight people. Chris has four children: three daughters and a son. Sally is his second wife. When Chris spoke of his family, his emotions ranged from pride to sadness and disappointment. Yet as I listened to him express his feelings about his children, I felt absolutely no connection with him. I had no relevant, personal experience to bridge the gulf between his life and mine.
When he mentioned that his son, Gordon, was a Christian fundamentalist and that their differing views of religion strained their relationship, I thought to myself it must be such a hardship for Chris to endure, yet still I felt no emotion about it. That absence of feeling, like the sound of a slab of wood as it hits the floor, clunk!, was what I experienced internally. I was walled off from the world—too busy protecting myself to offer a friend even a modicum of empathy. If I sit with that experience and calculate the implications, I feel great sadness.
* * *
Three weeks ago, I attended an open-mic poetry night at a restaurant and read two poems out loud. It was my first time reading my poems before a crowd, and I was so nervous that both my hands were shaking. It didn’t matter that I had several friends and allies in the crowd, and I didn’t really care about the audience’s response or about receiving applause. Everybody applauds—some politely and others vigorously. I was nervous because I was taking a risk and sharing my private experiences with a room full of strangers.
Despite my anxiety, I didn’t miss a word or a line, and I survived my turn at the mic. When I look back on the poems I read that night, both of them brutally uncensored and completely unmoored from mainstream life, I am proud of my choice to speak my truth. At the open-mic poetry night, I chose to risk the intimacy of sharing my life experience, and for once, a group of strangers completely disconnected from me held their tongues respectfully and listened to my stories. It felt weird. Weirder still, they applauded when I was done.
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