We are well aware what effect societal prejudice has on the mental health of people in the Pink community. I use the word Pink community here since even the most inclusive, well-intentioned and longwinded acronyms such as, par example LGBTIQ, is bound to leave someone out. In Canada, the de rigueur acronym is LGBTTIQQ2SA – quite a mouthful. But I digress before I get a semantic headache.
Back to the topic, I read an article on gay teen suicide not too long ago and it left a lasting impression. The article read like an analytic requiem which I found quite profound. Many people will say only cowards commit suicide, and that it is the most selfish act in this world. People have moral qualms and quite often condemn the deceased to eternal fire and brimstone without actually knowing the person. After all, it is very easy to pass judgment. It is much more difficult to try to explain motives behind suicide. It is much more difficult to explain the why and moreover the existential conundrums.
Gay teens tend to be especially vulnerable due to the fact that most cohabit with their parents, are emotionally and financially dependent on them, and are legal minors with the profound effect that they do not even have complete authority over their lives. I am sure many gay teens are in precarious situations and wish to be legally emancipated yet it is more than often not as simple as the granting of a court order. Parents often lack understanding and view behaviour as recalcitrant – especially when teens act out due to not being able to discuss their true frustrations. Oh, before the Religious Right claims (again *yawn*) that those evil queers are recruiting our innocent kids I shall explain further from personal experience and avoid hypotheses and psychobabble.
I knew I was gay from a rather early age and obviously lived with my parents in a quaint nuclear family complete with mom, dad, 2.4 kids, 1.6 dogs and a single cat. White picket fences there were not as I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere during the early years of the New South Africa.
Politically it was exciting times. Despite the newfound freedom, I had less of a lovely time. It was a time I became aware of the prejudices held by my dad in particular. My uncle on my mother’s side happened to be openly gay and everyone was used to him and his partner. They couldn’t get legally married until 2006 but as far as I know they were for all intents and purposes considered married. After family gatherings the gay issue would arise during casual conversation. And it was clearly elucidated that being gay was not something one wishes for, to state it utterly mildly.
I was 14 when I was sent off to boarding school in town. Town wasn’t much different than the rural environment. It was just as stuffy and conservative as everywhere else I had been. I experienced anti-gay animus from day one. I wasn’t openly gay though. I knew the terminology and the social taboo and spent days encountering random fits of angst accompanied by the real awareness of the precariousness of my situation. I was fully dependent on my parents for psychological, social and economic support. I knew I couldn’t just run away from home. It would have changed the path of my life and I would probably have been a junkie under a bridge somewhere or even worse, a purveyor of underworld services reading a stolen copy of The Secret or other hideous Oprah Book Club titles.
As I type here I am double the age I was then (note to self: I am past my sell-by date) and I have learnt a lot, learning to cope wasn’t optional, it was almost an impediment and I am still left with a proclivity for introspection.
I left the homophobic town and school after graduating from Grade 12 in 2000 and moved to the Pretoria. I started studying at the University of Pretoria and tumbled out of the closet close to my nineteenth birthday. I was out to all of my friends and my brothers yet my parents were still blissfully in denial. Life in gay Pretoria was definitely colourful. If you’ve seen the Jacarandas in full bloom in Pretoria you’d have a metaphorical idea.
Pretoria was also where I experienced two of my (gay) friends attempting suicide. The Emergency Room experience was all but pleasant. I still remember the one friend with activated charcoal smudged across his face from being forced to consume the vile, dark-grey, muddy sludge. The doctors weren’t mean, it is standard procedure and by the second time that you have seen someone’s stomach pumped donning activated charcoal smudges it becomes less of a horror picture. The surrealist nature of these experiences provided a coping mechanism – otherwise the utter, devastating shock of blood and gore and the risk of your friend dying would have stymied us all.
These friends tried suicide as a final, desperate and painful escape from the inner turmoil they suffered. One’s parents found out he was gay and caused a huge brouhaha. Although I was lucky to see no physical violence I saw emotional stress could also be incessant and very destructive.
Classical negative reinforcement thus prevented me from coming out to my parents. I had no idea how they would react. I knew of guys being ostracised, forced to quit their studies. I knew I could not risk this, even though it was a pure hypothetical. So I simply did not volunteer unnecessary information to my parents. I lived by myself in an apartment while they were 240 kilometres away so I could live a double life and actually have boyfriends without my parents inevitably having to find out.
Despite the privileges of a double life in lieu of being de-closeted completely, there remained a continuous theme of facetious self-deprecation when my dad enquired about girlfriends and a constant guilt trip of harbouring a dirty little secret. I knew there was nothing wrong with me. I was literate after all and had access to almost every possible medical and psychological source on homosexuality. I binge read volumes of academic psychobabble and complex medical journals expeditiously.
One day, armed with feigned wisdom, I mustered the courage to just spill the beans. And the lack of reaction I got from my parents left me more shocked than anything else. They had suspected it but didn’t want to intrude. I wasn’t even pleasantly surprised. I was bemused. I could not comprehend how something I harboured as a state secret could have been so utterly benign, nonsensical even. I realised that I wasted a decade of my life in constant worry and preoccupation. I realised the nefariousness of so-called conservative social norms as the aetiology of much distress and duress.
Years later I moved to Johannesburg, became involved in Pink rights activism. I have at times felt like I was fighting a futile struggle. I felt at times that amazing progress has happened. But to this day the human dignity of the Pink community is trampled upon. To this day many people live with guilt trips and unnecessary torment.
Tori Amos sings it so eloquently in Crucify as an apt conclusion of wisdom:
“Why do we crucify ourselves every day?
I crucify myself. Nothing I do is good enough for you.
Crucify myself every day. And my heart is sick of being in chains...”