Hanukkah, The Closet and the Assimilation Trap

It’s the fifth night of Hanukkah. My candles have burned themselves out and I’ve not yet started another DVD to aid my continued attempts at hiding from the ever-present Christmas that has taken over the supposedly multicultural country and definitely multicultural city in which I live. I worry from time to time that my friends might get the impression that I hate Christmas… I don’t. But the apparent compulsoriness and seeming inescapability of the celebration is hurting extra hard this year and I feel like I am drowning in Other-ness and alienation.

And so I thank God for Hanukkah and its timely message about what to do in the face of overt and covert pressure to conform and to be something I’m not: hold fast to who you are, to what you are and the truths you hold dearest. Yes, you’re different and that’s okay.
I take Hanukkah every year as a challenge to re-dedicate myself to living my truth as a bisexual, transgender, disabled Jewish man and insisting on being all those things at once no matter how many people tell me I can’t be. I accept the challenge to be who I am as openly as possible; refusing closets and refusing the false comfort of assimilation into the surrounding norms.

Hanukkah reminds me of the miracle of the Jewish people still existing after thousands of years and hundreds of attempts to stop us. And I think also of the miracle that is every LGBTQ person and community surviving and thriving despite the oppression we have and do face. The miracle of Autistic communities and people insisting that we do not have to pretend to be non-Autistic to be acceptable, Disabled communities and people insisting the world change to accommodate us rather than expecting us to change to fit into it. And this year especially I think of Muslim people and communities and of Black communities and People of Colour communities continuing to exist in a world that is increasingly hostile.

I light each flame and watch as they light up the darkness and are not consumed by it. I remember the times I have felt pressured to hide my “light”; times I have been pushed to be less visible, to stand out less, to be more like what surrounds me. I try to picture myself as a flame, burning bright amidst dark surroundings.

I have never “fit in”. Sometimes I have wanted to. Sometimes I have suffered for my inability to stop being “different” from others or Other than what I was expected to be.
Sometimes I have tried to blend in. Let people assume that I’m straight or let them assume that I’m gay. Deliberately suppressed my Autistic body language or desperately attempted to hide my difficulties with numbers and writing. Taken off my yarmulke when it would have been safe but uncomfortable to be recognised as Jewish. I spent years trying desperately to be a girl out of fear of the consequences of admitting that I’m a transgender man.

The message of Hanukkah, for me, right now, is this: Be yourself. Assimilation is a tempting option but don’t let it trick you into being someone you aren’t.

As I’ve explored frequently on this blog, not feeling like I could be openly who I am and trying to at least appear to be something else has caused massive mental harm to me and right this second this same harm is happening to thousands of people. Hanukkah reminds me that one way I can help bring about a world in which no one has to hide the truth of themself away for fear of the consequences of living openly is for me to insist, as much as I can, on living openly now in this imperfect world, letting my light shine to banish just a bit of the darkness.

Words

When I look back on my childhood as a trans, queer, autistic, mentally ill and disabled little boy, I often see the things that were missing. The problem with hindsight, always, is that it can only occur late, very late or far, far too late.

What was overwhelmingly absent, what I desperately needed was WORDS. I lacked the words to articulate my trans, queer, disabled reality. And that makes me angry, even now. Because in many cases those words existed but were kept from me. In other cases, people like me are still working to cobble together words for who and how we are, in order to communicate in a language that wasn’t built with lives like ours in mind.

If you aren’t already nodding your head in familiarity and remembering the times when you couldn’t or can’t articulate who and how you are, then please try to imagine what it’s like. To exist in a world where there is no word you’ve ever heard of for you, where what you are or how you feel or how you experience the world is so unthinkable, so unimaginable, so (it seems) impossible that there are no words for it. You are unspeakable. You exist but… the never-ceasing feeling that maybe you ought not to, maybe what you are is never spoken about because it’s bad. Wrong. Not allowed. Not okay.
Nobody knows that you are how you are. You feel like you should tell someone… and at the same time that you definitely shouldn’t. You don’t have the words for it, anyway. Nobody seems to have the words. You can’t exist.. and yet somehow you do.

I have felt this way about being trans. I also felt this way about being bisexual. And having developmental disabilities. And experiencing mental illness as a child. Even as an adult, I am still not always sure that who I am is “allowed” or “okay”.
From my teens and into the present, I found myself tinkering with words to try to get a handle on who and how I am. To try to communicate it. To try to validate it.

Sometimes that means grasping tight onto existing words like “man” and “love” and “sex” and “independent” and forcefully insisting that my life can validly form part of the meaning of those words. My gender is man, love and sex are part of my relationships with my partners no matter what their gender, I am independent because I see that my own needs are met by ensuring the provision of carers and equipment.

Sometimes I need vocabulary I didn’t have before. Concepts like “trans and cis”, “neurodiversity”, “the social model of disability”, “intersectionality”, “heteronormativity”, “structural oppression”, “sensory overload”, “stims”, “meltdowns” “selective mutism”… become necessary to my continued understanding of myself, my life, the world and my place in it.

As a child, words to describe my own disability were few. Words to describe relationships and feelings other than heteronormative boy-meets-girl were even scarcer. Words to articulate mental distress were not available to me. Words to even begin to understand my gender as a trans little boy? I had none.
Lacking these words did not prevent me from experiencing myself as a disabled and autistic, proto-bisexual, transgender little boy in increasing mental distress.

All it did was make my life more frightening and unpredictable as things happened to me that I could not explain, I had feelings I did not know how to express and I did not know how to get any help or guidance from the adults in my life because I had no words to explain what was wrong.

I scoured fiction and nonfiction books and TV shows for validation, looking for someone, anyone, who was “like me”. I found the occasional gay person or mention of the possibility of same sex relationships. I found a few fictional characters whose mental distress echoed my own (though they never had anything that was canonically acknowledged as mental illness). The fictional wizards, demi-gods, cyborgs, mutants, faeries, changelings, aliens, rebels and rejects of my childhood reading felt more like me than anyone real I ever saw on TV or heard about in school. Erasure of trans and bisexual realities left me feeling alone and alienated. The sparsity of realistic representations of autistic people kept me feeling broken and unreal. I’m scared of over-stating this but also when I look back at my teenage years I mainly see a child who didn’t know how to be because he lacked the words to express himself and no way of knowing that being someone like him (like me) was an okay thing to be.

When adults won’t talk about same sex relationships or LGBQ people or trans people to and around children, this is what it does to LGBT children. When disability is a taboo topic and disabled people are rarely the heroes of their own stories, this is what it does to disabled children. When autism isn’t identified and autistic reality isn’t treated as valid, this is what it does to autistic children.

When children are living in a world of structural oppressions, some of which they are themselves facing, and the adults around them do not acknowledge that this is happening; this is what it does to those children.
Not telling children that LGBT and disabled people exist will not stop them from being LGB or trans or disabled. It will only make things harder for them if they are and harder for their LGBT and disabled peers if they aren’t.

This is a structural problem, built into what we teach in our schools, read in our books, watch on TV, who we hang out with and a million tiny-huge other things as well as what we each say (and don’t say) to the children in our lives. It can’t be fixed with a conversation here and there or a special book or Special Episode. But we have to try.

To be entirely clear:
This isn’t about my parents or my teachers (though it is a bit about Section 28). It’s about the society I grew up in and the resources that were and were not available to me as a child. If you’re reading this as a personal attack, I’m very sorry to have upset you but it really isn’t one. This blogpost describes what it was like to grow up trans and bisexual and disabled in 90s and 00s Britain. I hope it doesn’t describe growing up in 2010’s Britain as well.

Bisexual Visibility Day 2014

Happy Bisexual Visibility Day everyone!

I’m bi, so are tonnes of other people. There’s quite possibly more of us than there are straight people. There are definitely more of us than there are gay or lesbian people. Basically, we’re every-fucking-where.

So why do we need a Visibility Day / Week at all? Because everyone from our friends and family to states and governments to researchers and charities tends to treat us as though we don’t really exist. As though we are sometimes gay/lesbian and sometimes straight. Never bi. Or as though we’re “really” straight or “really” gay/lesbian. Never bi.

We need the space and time each year to say no to that. We ARE bi. No matter who our partners are. No matter which genders of people we have dated or had sex with so far. Whether we’ve had loads of sex and relationships or none. We are bi. We are here, we’ve always been here and we’re not going away.

I could pick a side… but I won’t

I am bisexual. I can and do become attracted to women, men and people of other genders. I find it incredibly, ridiculously hard to actually say so.

Because I have a whole tonne of internalised biphobia. Because despite evidence to the contrary, I’m forever looking for clues that I’m somehow “really” hetero or “really” gay. Because I live in a world that bases sexual identity on the relation between someone’s gender and the gender of their partners and then tries to fit everyone into “straight” and “gay”.

Gender preferences don’t seem to be a fixed thing for me. I very, very consistently find people with darker hair more attractive than people with blonde hair. I very consistently find other autistic people more attractive than neurotypical people. I currently seem to find men generally more attractive than women but this has changed rapidly and I fully expect it to change again.
Yet I never quite feel “bi enough” to call myself bisexual. Even when I was dating a man, a nonbinary person *and* a woman, I didn’t feel “bi enough” because I was mainly attracted to women. Now, I’m attracted to a lot of men and in a long term relationship with a woman I am very much in love with and very, very attracted to. And I don’t feel “bi enough”.

I think this has a lot to do with the constant pressure, both overt and covert to “pick a side”. The world around me and a heck of a lot of the people that comprise it make it very clear to me that I may like either women or men. Pick one. I may be straight and if I can’t be straight then I should be gay. Pick a side. Circle one option only.

And as I’m bisexual, then I could choose to be straight. Both the straight community and the LG community push the message that no one would ever choose to be gay if they had the choice. Yet both tell me that I do have the choice. Pick a side. The conclusion is obvious. I’m supposed to “choose” to be “straight”.

Leaving aside the difficulties cis people have with understanding how gay and straight work for trans people such as myself (put simply, any relationship I have with a cis person will be seen as “gay” by a large number of people) what would it mean for me to pick a side and choose to be “straight”?

I know I can’t force myself to stop feeling attracted to other men. I don’t imagine I could force myself not to fall in love with them, either. I could, at least in theory, choose not to pursue relationships with men. I could stop flirting with men. Stop checking them out. Stop smiling at pretty guys. Maybe. It’d take a whole heap of effort on my part. It’d hurt.
And I know I can’t see gender identity. I’d have to avert my attention from anyone I thought *might* be a man. I’d have to hypocritically dump any partner who discovered themself to be another trans man.
I’d become distant in my friendships with other men. I’d probably leave the LGBT community out of fear of “giving away” that I am bi. I’d become more anxious, expecting mannerisms or too-long glances to give away that I like men. I’d feel constantly under surveillance and detached and alienated from straight male friends.

More important than even all that though, I’d resent myself. I’d know that I was cutting myself off from wonderful people and for what? So people around me can feel comfortable about boxing everyone into “gay” and “straight”?
I would miss out on relationships I could have had. Picking one side means rejecting the other side, after all. There may be men out there who could love me immensely. Men who could show me the world in ways I have never seen it before. Men who could inspire me to be the very best person I can be. There may be men out there who could share awesome sex with me. Men who I might never want to stop kissing. Men who would hold me while I cry and just as willingly help me choose what to make for dinner. Men who I could love and trust and respect and care for. There are women like that too, of course, but choosing to pretend to be straight would cut me off from those men and deny them and me a chance to love each other. I cannot help but see it as an act of great emotional violence to ask me to do this to myself and to those men.

And it would be similarly harmful to ask me to choose to be “gay”. To deny that I love and have loved and can love women. To steel my heart and avert my eyes from people I could love just because my perception of their gender says I *ought* to choose not to love them?It’s an unthinkably terrible thing to do to yourself.

And that’s what “Pick A Side” means. It means denying yourself the possibility of relationships with people because you’re afraid of “looking gay” or of “stealing straight privilege”. It means being so afraid of people thinking you’ve “changed sides” that you let yourself lose out on potential happiness just to look consistent. Just to hold up the very system (monosexism) that is crushing you.

Bi people are much, much more likely than lesbian, gay or heterosexual people to have anxiety problems. Some people think the constant covert and overt pressure to “pick a side” is part of the reason why. I already have anxiety problems. I don’t want to add “What if people think I’m gay?” to them, thanks very much.

I am bisexual. I’m still struggling, 7 years after coming out to myself, to accept that and be okay with it. I am saying, here and now, that I will never ever choose to “pick a side”. There are too many wonderful people in the world who I could love and who could love me. I will not deny myself a chance to love and be loved by someone simply because of their gender.