The Difference Between Growing Up and Surviving

I first wrote the poem “The Difference Between Growing Up and Surviving” for a Rainbow Pride Youth Alliance benefit in 2008.  I was asked to read poetry as part of the night’s festivities and fund-raising.  I really wanted to write something that directly addressed the issues that these youth at RPYA had to deal with, and highlight how important RPYA is to these youth, many times the organization functioning as a sole means of support and love for countless youth.  It really is tough to be “out-of-the-closet” in the Inland Empire, and I can barely imagine being out as a teen.  It amazes me that these teens are able to speak out, even at the risk of verbal and physical violence.  The silence around the discourse of sexuality as I was growing up did much to shape my identity as a “rebel”–my politics and my soul seemed to connect in ways I really couldn’t describe back then.  And I wanted to write about why and how that silence and those threats of violence really do have an effect on a person’s mental state, and the difference it makes for even one person to love and understand you.

I recited that poem to a packed gallery at RCAA, slightly terrified, then completely amazed by the overwhelming response.  I was inspired that my words had so moved this group of people,and amazed at my own ability to write for an afternoon, with honesty and feeling, and that evening receive such a positive response. I am grateful for that response, as it not only made me feel connected and appreciated, but also because it confirmed the systemic nature of this ideological violence. Happy and sad that this pain resonated with so many, I printed the poem in the next issue of Bitch King (#3).

When the “gay suicide epidemic!!!!” hit the news in fall 2010, I watched mainstream, corporate media once again use and sell my experiences, my reality,  like a product. There was news to be had, goddammit, and as usual, corporate media wants to generalize and objectify my experiences and my feelings all the way to the bank.  There was no real discussion of the roots of depression, alienation, and suicide in modern society; no discussion of how social hierarchies dictate a person’s worth, how this relates to capitalism, to violence.   What are the roots of the problems of teen alienation and suicide, of teenagers being told they aren’t “normal” or “beautiful” in the right ways and being told no one will protect them from violence?

So tabloid-worthy, so perfect, to spin this as a “gay suicide epidemic!” Bloody headlines splashed all over the “news,” and everyone wanted to talk about it, reaffirming their liberalness and talking about how upsetting bullying and teen suicide is.  Another dead gay teen, and we’re sad.  So sad…but I was mad.  I fucking mad.  This became another moment when I saw how corporate media reaffirmed the silent power of dominant groups and the perpetual victimhood of the oppressed.  I saw how those in power wished to ignore, manipulate, and frame the problems they cause and the solutions they suggest, and that this is their power.  Corporations made this an issue of “bullying” instead of power, with gay kids tucked in as a sad li’l victims and “Bullies” as the nebulous and ultimately unaccountable “bad guy.”

I saw an honest effort to reach out to those in immediate pain, an overwhelming effort.  I agreed with those who said that we couldn’t guarantee that ‘it gets better,” but at the same time, I showed my students these heart-wrenching videos in class and we had meaningful discussions.  I saw where some were entering this conversation, shocked and saddened, and their genuine desire to understand made me forgive their generalizations about and objectification of “homosexuals.” But to those of us who already knew about the “epidemic,” who had witnessed it, who were fighting it, the larger structures of power were clear–this is “bigger” than teenagers. Bigger than bullying.  And in most ways, bigger than “gay teens.”  In some ways, the “gay suicide epidemic” was really the sad truth of how life for the oppressed really just isn’t going to get “better.”

In truth, the “gay suicide epidemic” story should have been a story about systematic, coercive violence used for social control.  We are so socialized to our constructed beliefs that we don’t recognize how the threat of violence, alienation, and social censure underlies all of the ideology of what counts as “normal” and “not normal.”  Think of all of the instruments used to brutalize queers: the church’s hellfire, the state’s executions and sodomy laws, the medical field’s insanity, the family’s alienation and rejection, the media’s invisibility and objectification. The violence and collective power of willing pain and suffering upon “the other” is invisible, ignored, and so powerful. It is so powerful that we can get the oppressed to do the work of oppression to themselves–no need for cop batons, jail cells, or hate crimes if we can get the queers to kill themselves.  Personal responsibility is important in this world, but the weight of being abandoned and abused overrides even the most primal desire to keep one’s self alive.  Trust me.

That our passions and love are controlled and channeled through systematic, ideological violence is the real story behind the god damned “gay suicide epidemic.”  But of course I can always rely on the mainstream media to make power invisible while they pretend they are breaking a story.  So I took up my poem “The Difference Between Growing Up and Surviving” and finally felt I could articulate my reasoning: I finally had the words to describe what I was trying to say.  While I always think the feelings were there, I needed to show the invisible system behind the feelings.  Instead of this being a story about teen bullies, this is a story about a larger system that purposefully makes queer kids feel alone, unloved, and cursed.

We are meant to feel like our alienation and pain is ours alone, but we all share it, maybe in different forms.  How much is our misery systematic, and how much is up to us? How much of our power is the result of systems, and how much is up to us?

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~ by Angela Rhetorica on March 17, 2011.

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