As a lesbian, I’m no stranger to coming out. Coming out is the antidote to shame when you’re a gay person, a way of demonstrating to one’s own soul that you love yourself just the way you are. I live in Canada, where I can marry the person of my choice and no-one can fire me for being gay – unless they lie about it. (My hypercompetent wife was once suspiciously let go after she listed me as her spouse with human resources).
I can’t tell you enough how much easier it is to come out now that we can get married. I know now that if I walk into an emergency room with my wife, as happened last summer when she had an infected tooth, that if anyone has any problem with me being her next of kin, there’s nothing they can do about it. Anyone who denies me my wifely privileges is heading for a sure loss, both in court and in the court of public opinion, which is overwhelmingly in support of our rights here. I am blessed to be Canadian.
I was reading a post on a blog about mental illness just now that talks about what the author describes as the ‘s-word’. The word stigma means “stain or reproach caused by dishonorable conduct” and is used to describe both how people (such as persons with a mental illness and their families) feel about themselves and how others feel about them. It refers to an ancient practice of marking social outcasts with a mark, called a stigma. She prefers the much more accurate “unnecessary barriers, stereotypes and discrimination”, a phrase borrowed from Barack Obama because ‘stigma’ implies the person did something to deserve a bad reputation.
I’ve always thought the word ‘homophobic person’ should be replaced by the term “political opponent”, “anti-gay person” or “bigot”.
People don’t discriminate against or kill gay people because they have an irrational fear of us after all. They discriminate because they know that allowing people to make their own sexual, relationship and moral choices, based on their own conscience, undermines the power of authoritarian institutions such as conservative churches and male-centric hierarchical families. If you have two women together, which one subsumes her career, life and identity to care for the other? If you have two men together, might they prove that men can have a relationship of equals and inspire straight women to demand their men do the same? My utopia is my opponents’ loss of structure and status.
I rather suspect that the reasons for the UBSD (unecessary barriers, stereotypes and discrimination) are similar to the reasons my opponents try to deny gay people our civil rights. If all incest survivors could talk openly about our truth, then “The Family” suffers an unfortunately deserved public relations breakdown. All hierarchical relationships in or outside the home would be recognized as magnets for abusers. “Father knows Best” would be undermined irreparably.
So how do I, as an incest survivor, experience unnecessary barriers, stereotypes and discrimination?
It’s hard for me to think in those terms. Unlike the gay pride movement, there is no ‘incest survivor pride’ movement (yet) to help me separate myself in thought from the sea of social norms and prejudices. I have to feel my way, sometimes blindly, to truth and clarity.
Perhaps the barriers, stereotypes and discrimination I fear can be revealed in these questions:
- Would you hire me to care for your kids if you knew I was an incest survivor? Why or why not?
- Would you expect me to be reliable and responsible at my job as a computer programmer, doctor or lawyer?
- Who do you think is more likely to be violent? an incest survivor or a non-survivor?
- Would you date an incest survivor? Marry one?
- Do you think incest survivors should just get over it and shut up? It can’t be so bad – since children don’t remember much anyhow.
- If we are discussing our families and whether we”ll be seeing them over Christmas/Solstice/Chanukka, is it permissible in polite company to say “I don’t see my father, he’s a child abuser.”? Or would a more dishonest or evasive answer always be preferred? If so, do survivors ever get to be honest about their lives and experiences in regular life? What do you think the impact is of never getting to tell the truth about one’s life?
- My sister in law asked me what to tell her children about their grandfather. She has no cultural stories to guide her in this, because of the silence that surrounds incest, and no-one else to ask but me, since she can’t ask for advice from her friends, like she could about diaper rash or potty training. I said to tell them “He has something wrong with him that makes him hurt other people. We keep you away from him to keep you safe.” Why are there no fairy tales or cultural stories about parents protecting children from evil relatives? Because as a culture we have not clearly decided to whom our loyalties lie. families are just as likely to turn a blind eye and permit funny uncles and abuser daddies access to children as not. My brother and sister in law are fortunately sensible people but just in case I made it clear that if I learned that my father had access to the children I would call the police.
- When my father dies, do I get to tell? If social acquaintances find out and say “I’m sorry”, is it permissible to say “Don’t be. I’m not.” If not, do I have to pretend to reflect the presumed norm that people generally like their fathers, and render myself and my complicated grief, not for his death, but for my life, invisible at the time I need support the most?
- Why is it that sex workers under the age of 18 are referred to as ‘prostitutes’ rather than ‘child sexual abuse victims’? Does that mean that having sex with children okay as long as they appear to consent and you pay them or their owners for it? Why is the story of ‘Lolita‘ not framed as a book about child sexual abuse instead of a titilating tale of male fantasy about a girl-child’s supposed seduction of an old man?
- Why is it considered sexy or even acceptable to refer to one’s lover as ‘daddy’ and dress up as a little girl or boy for sexual purposes? Can you think of how that might be insulting and horrifying to those who actually had to have intercourse with their ‘daddies’? Most people don’t, apparently. I know in my bones that sexualizing sex with children makes it that much easier for the evil ones and that much harder to speak up when you’ve actually experienced it. How do I speak up about this without the vulnerability that comes with disclosing my horrific past?
- Does disclosing my past add to my credibilty on these topics, or destroy it?
As a lesbian I am in community, through my community newspapers and events, with lots of people whose sexuality lies outside the norm. Because we know what it’s like to be a minority, our community has a party line of being accepting of people whose sexual preferences are unusual that I think often goes too far.
There. I’ve said it.
I’ve been at public events where I’ve seen one human being lead a bound and gagged other around on a leash. I know straight people do this too, probably even more of them since there are more straight people in the first place. However, I don’t have to be around them and I am not pressured into pretending to be their ally. I’m supposed to be proud of them for being ‘out’ when in fact all seeing them does is remind me, viscerally, of being restrained, suffocated and raped. As an incest survivor and a good community member, I’m not allowed to tell them how their stupid and insensitive actions hurt me.
As an incest survivor, I’m absolutely certain that coercive sex or the appearance of coercive sex should never be accepted as sexy or positive. If you haven’t truly been coerced into sex, on fear of your life, over and over again, you’ve no f-ing business pretending it’s fun.
The same goes for calling your partner ‘daddy’ or dressing as a child for sexual purposes. To my mind, that’s advertizing for the enemy, feeding their rationalizations and those of people who look the other way. However, to call these people on their crap, I first have to come out as an incest survivor, and endure the “oh, that’s why she’s so sensitive” looks or comments.
I lived through years of torture. I’ve done my time. My experience and authority on this subject should be accepted. If a survivor of Abu Ghraib (the prison where US soldiers tortured and sexually assaulted Iraqi prisoners) objected to people framing prison interrogator/prisoner ‘scenes’ as sexy, he would be accorded much more respect.
So that’s why I, who am not the least afraid of letting people know I’m gay, find it hard to come out as a survivor. Those are some of the barriers that must be removed. Like suffragette Sarah Grimké, I want no special favours, only the right to be openly who I am without judgement or discrimination. I am brave, I am smart, I am capable. I am socially and financially successful, resilient and strong. I need to stand my own ground, in my own truth. I deserve to be respected for my strengths and the wisdom that I’ve earned, and accorded the right to be truthful about my life.
I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on the ground which God has designed us to occupy.
– Sarah Grimké, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women; Boston, 1838.