He looms large in our living room, silent, dressed all in brown with an olive green overcoat, white rope tied tight around his neck, shoulders, waist, knees. I nearly jumped out of my skin last night when I first saw him. He has startled me several times today. I laugh in sympathy when my husband Dave says, "Every time I see that wrapped bookcase I think it's a man standing there."
Yesterday we were to deliver a set of hand-crafted stepped-back shelves Dave had made as a gift. As rain was forecast, we wrapped the shelves in tarps and roped them down before we realized there wasn't enough available space in the bed of the pick-up truck. We left them behind in the living room. Seen from the side, the shelves look remarkably human.
That we startle easily at a stranger's sudden appearance will surprise no one who has lived with the sobering awareness that violence against GLBT people can strike without warning and with society's tacit approval.
Living in a secluded rural area, Dave and I are constantly alert for strange noises, for the sound of vehicles slowing down outside. Vandals have often targeted our house and mailbox. Not (yet) our bodies. However, it does happen. Recently a gay acquaintance—a kind, gentle sweet man—was fatally stabbed. And friends of friends—a gay retired couple—were bludgeoned to death in their home.
Ignorance breeds fear and fear of gay people lasts a long time in rural areas where people receive little exposure to GLBT persons and culture. Fear can turn to rage, rage to violence.
Yet the threat is not only from without. Seen from another angle, the stranger in our living room might well be me. Those white cotton ropes are the shame-based messages from my past that encircle me, thwart me.
Example: I decide I will at last take the plunge, write a memoir of my coming out experience. I start with great enthusiasm, get up early mornings to write, schedule my time carefully, fill page after page. Six weeks later I fizzle. I'm not good enough to do this; I have nothing important to say; it's too hard. I shelve my dream project.
Example: Put me in a social setting, let me see a man I'm attracted to and I'll come up with 10 reasons why there's no sense in my going over to talk to him. He's chatting with someone else. And if he's not, he wouldn't be interested in me anyway. He's out of my league. What would I say? I can't tell a joke to save my life. And I'm no good at small talk. He wouldn't give me the time of day. I'd look like a fool. He's probably stuck on himself. If he really wanted to talk to me, he'd come my way.
Example: It amazes me how pleasurable masturbation can be. In the blissful moment preceding ejaculation I feel perfectly one in body, mind, spirit and psyche. Such intense pleasure. For free, too! And yet not free—I pay for my fun with guilt, hear the voice of my parents, my upbringing: "What do you think you're doing? You dirty boy. You filthy-minded man. Sex is evil. Thinking about sex is wrong. You always were a bit twisted." So I hide masturbation sessions from my husband. I feel conflicted about what brings me pleasure.
In his poem "Healing," D.H. Lawrence writes about deep wounds to the soul. "Only time can help," he says, "and patience, and a certain difficult repentance/long, difficult repentance, realization of life's mistake, and the freeing oneself/from the endless repetition of the mistake/which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify."
Shaking loose the shame-cords that bind me takes time and effort. Coming out was a first step. Educating myself about gay issues, connecting with supportive people and groups was another. Telling the story of my coming out and listening to others' offered perspective. I limited contact with family members, former friends and others who continued handing me harmful messages—who seemed eager to sanctify messages that strangle.
I may never be totally free of shame or threat of harm, but I can stay aware. I can keep my eyes open to the possibility of threat from without and within, not be totally surprised if and when they appear. I want to make informed choices, do the best I can, live fully as I can as who I am in the time given me. I can easier deal with the stranger in our living room when I remind myself he is still there.
This essay appeared in The Community Letter, June 2010