This piece is featured in Issue No. 6 Defining Queer Liberation

Personal Essay

Being Okay: Am I okay only when you are okay?

When I was a child growing up, I watched television, and it was my main source of relating to the world.  It was a way to be validated, as at grade school, there was rarely an entrance of the bigger public sphere — we were led by our teachers and gained place with our peers. The television felt like a place where people and ideas were perfect — there was no room for uncooked public discourse. Television was meant for immediate consumption, without gross, uneasy feelings outside of the structures of what we thought was the world. And…it was all patriarchy and what is still traditionally, white. Although school was all about friends and teachers, it was also a testing ground for growing up.  With each new and remembered thing, there were large issues of who would actually be validating you on it. Those people who were given privilege to be the ones who arbitrated the way it was, and would be.

Although we had uncomfortable feelings, as well as feelings of rejection and desire and anger and shame — usually in a big ball of emotion that roiled its way in our insides — we would never — even without hesitation — speak about the feelings. Our ideas at this point being formed by the schoolyard. Our places in the school society were usually tested most in the schoolyard, but there were also times in the classroom where the entrance of greater judgement would be.  And, I floated in this schoolroom. What would be considered discrimination today was just every day play back then.  And the television? Sometimes the television had what some people would react to as hate or homophobia — a controversial topic.  Debates about what was permissible or not.  But these things still seemed so far away…Things that I was meant only to look at, not to be a major part of.

Being a person of colour, I was already a little bit of a puzzle for most people, including my classmates.  In a situation where there wasn’t just one thing “wrong” with me, I “shot the moon” and gained a sort of freedom from the powers that were, leaving me with more influence than perhaps someone who was  predominantly Caucasian but who obviously was also “queer.”  I would not be the first target of haters and phobics, giving me free rein to say things that would not be said by someone else who would be putting their reputation on the line.  The attachment of this disrepute would become the reason for ostracism, leading directly towards being poster person for pariah, for a long time. What would be the end of any success for that person, would be the beginning of my career as a naysayer and an example of strength and resilience.

Of course, life back then also had something called family.  And even in my family, no matter how close, it was not the place to bring up anything “queer.”  The first stop for that would be a best friend who could listen.  Family had a feeling of temporariness — a place of living collaboratively that was safe for only as long as one knew what was supposed to be.  Anything else would not be acceptable and would become reason and means for “running away.”  So often I heard, during those times of those kids who made it to the street, and how tempting it was for me to do the same…It wasn’t until after high school that I found a way to connect with others — those like me.  There were “places” that could exist in certain people like me. We could talk.  Something that was so new.  And so, at this time, television started including shows that suddenly started actually saying, out loud, those dark emotions surrounding the homophobia, the homosexuals, the queers, and “labelling” and “coming out.”  Things that wouldn’t’ve been said ten years earlier.  Things like clothing and friend groups, and secret rendezvous, would become clues and references for being gay, queer, and transgendered. Really famous people began to say words that had been forbidden. And really famous people would speak outside of the fictive television shows — it wasn’t all fiction anymore, it was reality, it was life.

But the politics of being gay still exist.  I still find today that there is a sense of “otherness” in identifying oneself or another with “queerness.” That our words of identity, our agreed-to shared labels, are almost as self-defeating as being quiet about it all.  There are still limits on where you can go, who you can associate with, and how much pride you can carry with you. Most things are still very “quiet.”  And it is encouraged that the quieter it is, the more acceptable it is. Is this normalizing? Or is it just “hiding things” that are offensive to ears that are so sensitive to it?

Normalizing is also levelling the playing field for all identities, a way to bring forth change to the discrimination and phobia that drives our beliefs — the way we see and do because others are doing so, too. If we choose “not to label” being instead generic — “being people” — are we limiting equality and encouraging invisibility? Choosing not to use accurate, descriptive words to talk about people, in order to acknowledge that we are all, at the end of the day, just being human beings? Is this just masquerading as equality?  By not discussing things, talking about things, addressing things, on the public radar?  Is making things invisible through our words allowing equality? Do our words then become more potent or have less potential?

What is the effect of something that is a public issue?  A public issue makes existence real.  There is visually, mentally, orally, audibly, and texturally, something that keeps existing. The definition of existence on a very basic level applies a litmus test for viability and life. So, the public applies these litmus tests on everything.  It is the ultimate test of how real, viable, reliable, powerful, and just, a thing is, allowing its existence to be granted public respect.  Its existence allows the public to treat the issue fairly, if they so wish.  The way that words can be used by the public is given free rein and the power of the horse that pulls the carriage.

Being a human being should be enough to be granted the right to exist. Knowing what something is, is the first step to life without boundaries.  To be free to be who we are, even in the workplace and within the family.  That we as human beings are able, capable, and that the things that we are, are part of the multiplicity of life. We gain more from being varied and different than we do from conforming to the average. Queer discrimination becomes the status quo when we slip backwards, into the past, and remain silent.

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Sylvia Frey

Sylvia is a writer and visual artist living and working in Toronto. She also flirts, makes love, and falls in love in Toronto too. These things keep her here, and for some reason, won’t let her go.