The Difference Between Growing Up and Surviving

Here is the revised version of “The Difference Between Growing Up and Surviving.”  After the recent “Gay Suicide Epidemic,” I found myself better able to articulate the original point of this piece: reinforcing an ideology that puts people in a hierarchy based on traits they can’t control created internalized oppression, a sense of alienation and erasure that is itself, political violence.

The Difference Between Growing Up and Surviving

What It Was Like Growing Up Queer in the Inland Empire, And What It is Like to Survive Here.

Written for Rainbow Pride Youth Alliance, 2008, 2010.

Imagine or remember your life in whispers and lies, choosing between silence or violence.  Growing up queer and staying alive in the Inland Empire, even in California, in this country, is a trick of skill, intelligence, luck, and deception.

Mostly I was muted in this absence of sound, though sometimes revealed whispers, spoken low, under breath, behind hands, or in gossip that centers on mystery, trapped in the frame of insanity or hellfire. How can I represent that silence with words? How do I capture the heavy sulfur brick of a secret, a lie, that settles in your chest and burns?

Imagine or remember feeling like there is no one in the world who would understand your experience, your subjectivity, or thinking you will never find real, honest love: in these ways we have been denied our humanity.

That denial of your soul that comes from not existing, of not being allowed to exist.

Imagine or remember being deprived of a history, looking for stories about your people, about yourself, and finding only stories of torture and executions, bloody stories that I now recognize as the strategic genocide of erasure.

Now imagine or remember enduring this violence as a fourteen year old.

I can’t even really remember the chaos of my mind at that age; all I recall is the jumble of days: heavy fog of tears, the triage of survival, and the brute emotions of working to keep myself alive in the midst of silence and lies.

Because I was taught to be honest at all costs, my reality became mirror fragmented into a double life.  One in the world, wearing a smile, and another life in my mind, in the fantasy of wholeness.  I know now I was keeping my innocence by dreaming.

Imagine or remember survival in silence like after an avalanche;  how can I describe that muffled stillness?  Imagine or remember the silence after an overdose or slit wrists.

Imagine or remember that vulnerability, thinking you were the only person who could really protect or love yourself, still holding tight to those childish ideas that everything matters, that everyone is important.

The strategic genocide of erasure.

Most people want to return to the glory of their youth or relive the frantic longings of first love, but my fourteenth year was a desperate time, and I wouldn’t return there for any amount of money.  Because I was one of those youth who grew up with the threat of insanity and hellfire, I had no one who I trusted enough to ever really be myself.  And my self didn’t matter, but the script did, the story I told about how I was going to stay alive, and fight.

I didn’t know about the systems in place designed to ignore my existence or murder me outright.  I thought I was completely alone, in a vacuum of silence.  And people almost convinced me that being queer wasn’t intrinsic to who I am, convinced me somehow if I tried hard enough I could change it.  And besides, living the truth would was too much to lose.

The strategic genocide of erasure.

Something happened between fourteen and fifteen, though, and my creativity, my sense of rebellion and justice became my core, my strength, and music my soundtrack, poetry my therapist, and art my dreams.

And it kept me alive, and just sane enough to persevere, so that eventually my friends, a (re)created family,  who knew me and loved me, helped me understand my value and love my queerness.

I am talking about the kind of support that keeps our kids alive.

To survive, peace-loving people are often turned into soldiers. And as much as I am a pacifist shoved into the shape of a warrior, I am also queer

Forced into the ideological mold of a “homosexual,” a late entry in the Dewey Decimal System of gender and sex, our best guess of how love, spirituality, and personality collide in all of us.

So shaped as we are, homo sapiens.

Even our revolution, what we thought of as the most dangerous and radical change—the one where we queer the power structure, grasp at the root and pull, challenge to the world to jump in with both feet when you fall in love, even our revolution is already televised.  The power structure has already ripped up our demands and bought us a beer to placate us.

But I guess I’ll just repeat: love who you will.

So we strap on armor for war, in the shape of survival, the lived reality of having little support in this battle over our own fucking souls.

Most people talk of wanting to revisit their youth, but not me. Because as a child, I heard too much silence, and the deep expanse of my lungs, the frightening volume of my voice that I have developed now might have landed me in a psych ward or in ex-gay therapy back then.

Silence was my survival then, and it is why I would rather not return to my youth.

But I have grown up, and gotten angry, and educated myself, and fallen in love, and reclaimed my certainty, my balance, my body and my soul. And though I have witnessed violence against my peace-loving people, and though I still see so much injustice it makes me weep, I’m unshakable in this respect:  Things will change, this is certain.  My sense of self and my struggle is rooted in love, and the power of unity.  We are connected, and the evidence of that is the existence of trust, affection, fairness, honesty, and loyalty. Feelings we aren’t granted in the closet, being forced into lives of deception.  And we aren’t granted these feelings outside the closet, if we are still surrounded by silence. In the torture of this lived injustice, oppression from all sides, kids are expected to conform to survive.

Imagine or remember being forced into the shape of a liar.

And although circumstances have changed slightly as the years progress, I know that things haven’t changed enough to take away that awful void that descends upon all queer kids.  Please don’t mistake the small inches of progress as replacing real, substantial change.  Just because more queer kids are out than before, marketers see us as a demographic with discretionary income, the government politicizes our existence, the media exoticize our souls, just because a small percentage of high schools have  gay-straight alliances, just because there is a little less silence, doesn’t mean that our queer kids are safe.  And as I see Inland Empire youth still working to stay alive, I want to tell you a story where the gay kid doesn’t die in the end.

I wish I could give the deep expanse of my lungs, my voice, my anger and sense of justice to every queer kid who needs it.  I can’t guarantee life will get better, but I want all my queer kids to stay alive, so we can fight together.

Especially because if allowed, the kids already have the power to set us all free.


~ by Angela Rhetorica on April 11, 2011.

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