By Ramelle Lewis
Growing up, I knew my family was different.
When I was very young, I didn’t realise that different didn’t necessarily mean ‘bad’, or ‘wrong’. I just knew that my family would never conform to the nuclear bloc of Mum, Dad and child. I had Mum, and later Ava*, my other Mum.
In primary school, any mention of ‘family’ or ‘parents’ would send my stomach into nervous convulsions. My face heated up, I became nervous and flustered, and hoped that no questions would be directed towards me. Once, while I was sitting on the sidelines during sport, another girl came over and sat next to me. She started asking me questions about my family, eventually arriving at: “Who’s that woman that’s always hanging out with your Mum?” I stared down at the sand, scuffing patterns into it with my runners, praying above all that the ground would open up and swallow me whole.
She was my Mum’s ‘special friend’. I called her Ava- some kids have alternate nominations for their second mother, but I thought Ava would just be easier. I would always know she was my Mum, but even now, I jumble the words when I have to explain this to other people, calling her my ‘mum, my ‘other mum’, or ‘Ava’.
I was about six years old when my parents got together. From what they have told me, they met at a conference, and spent some time together before Mum introduced her to me. I remember one afternoon, picking up the phone and hearing Ava at the other end: “Could I speak to your Mum please?”
“Muuuuuuuum, it’s that girl you like on the phone!” Mum rushed in, face red, shushing me. Six-year-olds aren’t the most subtle of creatures.
Whenever a friend slept over, my parents would offer to sleep in separate rooms. They were always extremely anxious to make sure that their relationship didn’t cause me problems, or give reason for people to pick on me. At my Bat Mitzvah, our Rabbi chose to acknowledge Ava in his sermon, recognizing her role as my parent. Unfortunately, he had not consulted us prior to doing this, so I was caught by surprise as I sat on the platform and gazed up at the rows of my school peers sitting above who had just heard this. However, being a menagerie of prepubescent, I don’t think one of them noticed. Except me, frozen with horror, anticipating a million questions as I sat in front of the congregation. I spent much of the rest of ceremony extremely anxious, though no one seemed to have noticed.
“That’s so gay” was a commonly-heard aphorism during my school years. ‘Gay’ meant bad, rubbish, a generalised put-down. But my Mum was ‘gay’. Ava was ‘gay’. I had ‘gay’ parents.
As I got older, I realised that being afraid to talk about my family offended the respect I felt for my parents, and the positive atmosphere I felt at home. I decided that if anybody thought badly of me or my parents because of their sexuality, I didn’t hold their opinion in very high regard. I began to speak out against people using the words ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’. I was quick to inform my young teenage peers that the word ‘faggot’ was used to refer to gay men because they used to use faggots to light fires below the feet of homosexual men as they were burned at the stake. Somehow this fell flat on the ears of my classmates. “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that,”, or “When I say ‘gay’ I don’t mean homosexual. It just means something else now.” But ‘gay’ is still an identifier used by and for people who are homosexual, and the linguistic synonymy of ‘bad’ and ‘gay’ is undeniably damaging. In July 2012, Stonewall Research published ‘The School Report’, based on responses from an online survey completed by 1,600 LGBT youth between the ages of 11 and 18. It revealed that 55% of participants had suffered bullying at school and that 96% enduringly heard, and were offended by, derogatory uses of the appellations ‘poof’ and ‘lezza’.
By the time I was fourteen, a group of my male friends had decided it would be hilarious to call me a heterophobe. It grew tiring to explain to them that I was trying to make a point, to encourage people to think a little more deeply about what they were saying, and how it could effect others. “You don’t know if someone around is gay, and that what you are saying may make them very uncomfortable.”
According to a study published in 2011, “Suicide and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Populations: Review and Recommendations”, LGBT youth have for decades been at a consistently greater risk of suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. Its recommendations included further research, prevention and intervention projects and raising awareness.
My mum would often come home from study or work, upset by a comment made by a peer, or even passer-by. It is impossible to perceive the barrage of insidious homophobia in everyday conversation until one is made aware of it, forced to think about it. I know that when people used my mum’s sexuality as a put-down, as a slur, it hurt her. It hurt her, and it hurt me to see her hurt. I could not understand why people might be unwilling to make a slight change to the language they use in order to allow space, tolerance and respect for the infinite variety of humans that speak it. In high-school, I came to the depressing conclusion that the more I agitated for the respect and rights of LGBT people, the more it amused my friends to see me get worked up, and actually encouraged them to use derogatory language to “get a rise out of me”.
Now, I find it mildly amusing that the two guys who took the most pleasure in calling me a “heterophobe” have, of late, come out. I wonder if they challenge people now who use their sexuality as an insult.
I once asked my mum if she was disappointed that I was not gay. She looked at me, slightly shocked. “Ramelle, I just want you to be happy, however you are. To be honest, if you were gay, I know it would be harder for you and I don’t know if I could expect that of you!”
Eventually, I grew comfortable enough in myself that I spoke openly and in an upfront about my family. The late stage at which this occurred is perhaps more to do with my own insecurities than the social atmosphere of the time. Chronic low self-worth drove me to hide every aspect of myself that was different, that might draw attention to myself, and all my faults. Interestingly, I never experienced any blatant homophobia. Although some perceived it as an invitation to ask about the specific mechanics of my parents intimate relations (“So, how exactly do your parents have sex?”), most of my peers appeared non-plussed, although it generally remained unspoken.
My experience with psychiatry, however, was considerably more interested in my parents’ sexuality. Most practitioners came to the immediate conclusions that all of my problems stemmed from my mum’s homosexuality. A former family friend even once told her that it was her fault for being gay that I was so sick. That she was being selfish.
I have never, ever resented my mum for her born, natural and deeply felt sexuality. The ire that roils within me arises from the heteronormative expectations of society. That difference, simple, non-violent (even love-fuelled) difference can inspire such hatred from those who are in no way affected by it continues to perplex and dismay me, but I know as well that these things take time. I feel privileged to be brought up in a household that encouraged tolerance and respect for all people’s, that preferred to listen rather than love and most of all, that opened my eyes to the fact that it is our variety, our assorted nature and failure to be explained that infuses otherwise mundane lives with beauty and love.
In Cameroon homosexuality faces a prison sentence; Nigeria of late passed legislation enforcing a fourteen-year jail sentence; Uganda is considering the death penalty, while Russia has progressively diminished the freedoms of the LGBT community, recently passed a bill prohibiting “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations among minors expressed in distribution of information … aimed at the formation … of … misperceptions of the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations”; Ukraine is eager to enact a similar law.
Closer to home, the Australian High Court in December overruled the Capital Territory’s passing of the Same-Sex Marriage Act. Prior to the elections, I wrote to my local member of parliament entreating him to support the agenda of same-sex marriage. His response was that he had the needs of the community to think of, and he was simply trying to represent his constituent responsibly. My query was as to why he was trying to ‘protect’ heterosexual voters from legislation that would not affect them at all, while dismissing LGBT voters who actually had a stake in the law passing. I informed him that he should perhaps direct his efforts towards raising awareness of this, rather than perpetuate senseless bigotry. He did not reply.
Sadly, in the same month that I turned twenty-three, the High Court of India overturned in December the 2009 ruling decriminalizing homosexuality, so that homosexual people in India once again face a sentence of ten years. In response, author and activist Vikram Seth reflects: “Today is a great day for prejudice and inhumanity and a bad day for law and love. But law develops and love is resilient and prejudice will be beaten back”.
For all those who are ‘different’, but eager to love, to strive and to endure, know we are not alone. And that we who fight with love in their hearts and aspirations, rather than hate, for the sake of equality, will never give up.
* Name changed to protect subject’s privacy
J Homosex. 2011 January; 58(1): 10–51. Published online 2011 January 4. doi: 10.1080/00918369.2011.534038; PMCID: PMC3662085; NIHMSID: NIHMS312131; Ann P. Haas, Mickey Eliason, Vickie M. Mays, Robin M. Mathy, Susan D. Cochran, Anthony R. D’Augelli, Morton M. Silverman, Prudence W. Fisher, Tonda Hughes, Margaret Rosario, Stephen T. Russell, Effie Malley, Jerry Reed, David A. Litts, Ellen Haller, Randall L. Sell, Gary Remafedi, Judith Bradford, Annette L. Beautrais, Gregory K. Brown, Gary M. Diamond, Mark S. Friedman, Robert Garofalo, Mason S. Turner, Amber Hollibaugh, and Paula J. Clayton
Republished by Blog Post Promoter