’Tis the Season Of Invisibility
Home often means invisible for the holidays.
’Tis the season to be jolly!
It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
Peace on Earth, goodwill to...Men?
Those words are everywhere right now. So, too, are images of happy nuclear families–heteronormative families. Families where everything is binary and there are no pairings of two women or two men. Families where all the women are femme presenting and/or coupled with men. Families where gender-non-conforming women do not exist.
Those images dance like sugarplums in our heads as many of us prepare for holiday time with our families of origin.
The holidays are supposed to be a time of togetherness and comradery and of course, family, but for many lesbians the holidays are when we are most invisible and feel most erased. Our families of origin have often rejected us and those of us who have been raised in religious households may feel the conflict between those religions and our lesbian identity most profoundly during the holidays. Can a lesbian be in temple or church with her religious family–or not–without feeling that family is thinking how ungodly she is?
As Hanukkah draws to an end and Christmas looms and some of us find shelter in the coming Solstice, even if we aren’t religious or don’t celebrate, it’s all around us. Christmas music plays 24/7 everywhere from offices to shops to where we pump our gas. And with each refrain, we often recall those families that really don’t want us "flaunting" our lesbianism in front of the extended family.
The Alabama Senate election December 12–the first night of Hanukkah–ended in a win for our side, with pro-LGBT Democrat Doug Jones being elected over Roy Moore, who built his judicial career demonizing lesbians and gay men and tearing lesbian families apart. Moore has long asserted that lesbians and gay men should be jailed and that homosexuality isn’t just a sin, but a crime.
In what must have been a secondary blow to Moore after becoming the first Republican to be defeated in more than 20 years in the reddest state in America, a few days after the election, Jones’ son, Carson, who had been out to his parents since high school, came out publicly as gay.
Moore, who had been accused by multiple women as having sexually assaulted them as teenagers and who has continually claimed gay people should be jailed gave a statement post-election (he has refused to concede the tight race) in which he again blamed "sodomy" and "the re-definition of marriage" for all that is wrong with the world. Moore has previously said he "doesn’t know" if lesbians and gay men "should be executed for being gay" but has said repeatedly that all lesbian and gay sex should be outlawed and has likened it to bestiality. Moore also blamed LGBT people for the allegations of sexual misconduct leveled at him by nine women, saying Nov. 30, "they" orchestrated the revelations.
Imagine going home for Christmas to your Alabama family that voted for Roy Moore, not Doug Jones? Or imagine going home to your family anywhere in the country who supports President Trump, who campaigned for Moore despite the pedophilia allegations and who has had the most anti-LGBT administration in modern political history.
Never in history has a sitting POTUS knowingly endorsed a candidate accused of child molestation.— Victoria Brownworth (@VABVOX) November 21, 2017
I'm not sure how Republicans come back from this.
One of the most gut-wrenching sights throughout the highly emotional Alabama Senate race was farmer Nathan Mathis protesting outside one of Moore’s events. Like Doug Jones’ son, Mathis’ daughter Patti Sue came out as a senior in high school.
At the Moore rally, Mathis held a sign that read, "Judge Roy Moore called my daughter Patti Sue Mathis a pervert because she was gay. A 32-year-old Roy Moore dated teenage girls aged 14 to 17. So that makes him a pervert of the worse kind." The night I saw Mathis, I responded with my own experience of familial rejection for being a lesbian.
At 16 I was expelled from high school for being a #lesbian.— Victoria Brownworth (@VABVOX) December 12, 2017
I was put in a mental hospital for #conversiontherapy.
I tried to kill myself.
This man's daughter did not.
He wishes EVERY DAY he could bring her back & love her.#RoyMoore spreads hate.
Stop him. https://t.co/WyY84W7k12
More than 32,000 people responded to my tweet, including actors Debra Messing, Patton Oswalt, Chris Meloni and Alyssa Milano, among others. Twitter analytics put the impressions of that tweet at 1.49 million.
Viral tweets can call attention to important issues in real time, but tweets are still just a moment. And my brutal experience of torture and nearly dying, Nathan Mathis' loss of his daughter--those experiences have changed our lives and will be with us forever.
Mathis appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" on Dec. 15. Mathis explained he was not always a supportive dad when it came to his lesbian daughter and his response to her coming out was not what he would do now. He told DeGeneres, "Well, due to teachings I had as I grew up, when I found out Patti was gay, I showed my ass, I really did. I regret it very much." Mathis told DeGeneres, who came out publicly herself a year after Mathis’ daughter killed herself, that he took his daughter to multiple doctors to try to cure her. But even in Alabama, they all told him there was no cure for who she was.
More than 20 years later, Mathis attempted to stop a man he knew would hurt more people like his daughter–and me. So he went out to protest Moore, to tell his story and to tell his daughter’s, honoring her memory by fighting the kind of brutal homophobia that led to her death.
"And I wondered how Patti’d feel today. Here’s a man running for United States Senate who said that gay people are perverts. Gay people commit a crime because they’re gay. That’s why I did what I did. I wanted people to realize that’s serious. A United States Senator that feels that way about people. He’s gonna hold his hand up and say ‘I uphold the Constitution.’ The Constitution said all men are created equal and that’s how they should be treated. Gay people have rights, just like people who are not gay," Mathis says.
There is no happy ending for Mathis or his daughter, although he told DeGeneres that he was "thrilled" Doug Jones won the election.
And throughout this holiday season and beyond – January is the most depressive month of the year – people need to remember self-care when we are taking stock of our lives as we are programed to do from the holidays through those pesky New Year’s resolutions.
The holidays can often make lesbians and other GBTQ people feel invisible. We aren’t represented in any of the myriad holiday programs or ad content. Our families of origin talk about traditions being passed down and many of us are childless and unmarried. And even though more than half of heterosexuals are unmarried and more than a third are childless, it still feels like it is only us at the holidays. Or we are partnered, but each of us separates over the holidays to head home solo to our respective homophobic families.
The invisibility many lesbians and other GBTQ people feel during the holidays can feel like erasure of hard-won identities and can be especially crushing for those who have recently come out, regardless of age. The marginalization of LGBTQ people 365 days a year is felt most acutely in December and January. How many straight people are heading their New Year’s resolution list with "be a better LGBTQ ally"? We are so invisible, so easily dismissed as both individuals and as a group that even our own families and our self-proclaimed allies, people who claim to love us, inadvertently contribute to that invisibility.
I can already see some typing up their comments objecting without reading further. "But my family accepts me." "Everything’s great at my job." "I’m out in my dorm and on campus." "I just go to church on Christmas and it’s fine because the new pastor doesn’t talk about gays."
That tolerance is a wonderful thing for those of you who are not facing discrimination or silencing. You are a fortunate minority. But the majority of lesbians are struggling daily with the weight of lesbophobia, lesbian erasure, silencing, discrimination, violence which even if it doesn’t touch you personally right now, could at any time. These aren’t random issues–they are part of our culture, ingrained in our legal system. Lesbians are outliers, sexual and social outlaws, whether we want to be or not. The recent flood of sexual assault revelations has many lesbians thinking about all the times a man–even a man they loved or respected–tried to show them by force that they weren’t really lesbian.
Being invisible can be hardest at the holidays because it seems as if everyone is surrounded by love and acceptance and we rarely (if ever) have been. Lesbian images are rarely reflected in the popular culture--and often when we do appear as characters on TV and film, we’re killed off. This time of year it’s even worse. Holiday-themed TV shows and advertisements display heterosexuality on a grand scale throughout the holiday season. Never seeing ourselves in popular culture is–whether we are aware of it or not–painful.
Discrimination is the shadowy backdrop to our lives that is always there, regardless of whether we are blissfully happy or deeply sad. We live within the confines of double, triple, quadruple oppressions–oppressed as women and lesbians, as women of color, as poor women, as disabled women.
It’s a lot to carry. Is it any wonder so many of us feel unseen at the holidays when there is not a single representation of our lives among the Hallmark card/Norman Rockwell sentiments in advertisements and holiday-themed TV shows or even within our own families of origin where if we are out of the closet we are often asked to "tone it down" when going home for the holidays or where if we aren’t, we have to put on a mask to deal with the people who should care about us most and want to embrace us always, no matter our differences.
The sheer welter of these issues can be and often is overwhelming. Black radical lesbian poet and essayist Audre Lorde was my mentor throughout my 20s and 30s. It is to her work and words that I turn when I despair over marginalization. Audre touched me personally–I’ll never forget the first time I danced with her at a holiday party in a snowy Manhatttan 30 years ago. She was older than my parents and was already battling breast cancer, but the breadth of her warmth and ebullience held me as strongly as her arms as she led me around the floor of the apartment where we were having dinner. Audre exuded life and refuted every aspect of the culture that seeks every day to crush lesbian visibility and erase us and even kill us.
Audre wrote about the confluence of marginalization, invisibility and self-silencing. She spoke about what it meant to be a black lesbian in straight white America. In a now-famous speech she gave on Lesbians and Literature to the Modern Language Association titled "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action," she said, "What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am black, because I am myself, a black woman warrior poet doing my work, come to ask you, are you doing yours? And, of course, I am afraid– you can hear it in my voice– because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation and that always seems fraught with danger."
Now, today, 25 years after her death, when I am as old as she was when she died, I am grateful for her words. In a nation where it wasn’t Roy Moore’s assertion that maybe lesbians and gay men should be executed that upset our straight allies but his alleged dalliances with teenaged girls, we know being visible is fraught with danger. Speaking your own truth is fraught with danger. Just being who you are–a lesbian in a straight male world where sexual assault increasingly seems the norm, not the exception as more and more men we loved and respected are revealed as serial abusers of women–is fraught with danger.
Lorde says, "I betrayed myself into small silences, while I planned someday to speak, or waited for someone else’s words." This admission from one of our iconic lesbian theorists is not a withdrawal from the fray, but an admission that was made to propel lesbians and other marginalized people forward, to fight on, to create a legacy for ourselves and our communities.
Lorde explains, "My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength."
This was why I used Nathan Mathis’s video to remind people that his story was not anomalous: That there were other lesbians that they each knew, women like me, who nearly ended up dead because of the oppressive rhetoric of politicians like Trump, Pence and Moore and the often even more oppressive rhetoric of our own families.
But as Lorde says, our silences don’t protect us. We aren’t more loved by our families when we lie about being lesbians. We are just more invisible and maybe more self-loathing. We aren’t more embraced by straight allies when we don’t educate them about how their lack of acknowledgment of our very real oppression, especially right now, within this retrogressive administration, can actually kill us.
Adrienne Rich, world-renowned lesbian poet and radical theorist wrote, "Lesbian existence comprises both the breaking of a taboo and the rejection of a compulsory way of life. It is also a direct or indirect attack on the male right of access to women."
Is there a quote more germane to this moment in historical time and the Zeitgeist? Lesbians have opted out of compulsory heterosexuality and it’s the rare family who responds to that with "You’re a lesbian? Great news!" Audre Lorde says,
Audre taught me speaking was best and I have followed her advice and re-read her words for solace in times when I have missed her most and times when I have felt most invisible as a lesbian.
In times like these. Under Trump. Working #Resistance.
The best way to end pain is to remove its source. The best way to end invisibility is by making ourselves seen and noticed, our voices heard. It isn’t always easy being a lesbian. But it is who we are and we should embrace it with the same love for ourselves that we have for other women. Rich said, "The connections between and among women are the most feared, the most problematic and the most potentially transforming force on the planet."
Our silence won’t protect us, but it does allow other people–even our allies–to project images onto us that are not us. Resist that. This season, resist the silencing. Resist what the Trumps and Moores and their adherents–sometimes our own families–tell us about who they think we are but who we know we are not.
In this season of giving, be self-caring, as Audre Lorde instructed. She said it was revolutionary, because they want us silent and invisible. In this season of giving, give yourself the gift of acceptance. Give yourself the gift of voice. It’s the best present you could possibly get. And one you’ll treasure forever.
Have a lovely holiday season and never forget you are alive and there is no greater gift than to live your lesbian life as fully as you know how.