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A few weeks ago, I watched (and loved) the film, Gun Hill Road. One scene of the film hit me in the gut, hard. The film’s lead character, Vanessa Rodriquez (played by Harmony Santana), a young Latina transwoman, was coerced into having sex with a woman sex worker by her father, Enrique Rodriquez. Her father pressured her to do so in attempt to “cure” her gender identity, making her the heterosexual cisman he preferred as his child. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s a form of sexual violence!”
Oh, wait… that happened to me. When I was 17, just a week shy of my 18th birthday, a family member guilted me into being with a sex worker. I identified as bisexual then, so the pressure was on to finally give sex with a woman a try – of course, with the implied intention to “cure” me of my sexual attraction to men. I resisted, saying I was not interested, and did not want my first sexual experience to be with a sex worker in a hotel room.
Eventually, I caved to the pressure. The sex worker arrived and explained that for the amount of money I had, she could only provide an erotic dance. I was uncomfortable and wanted her to leave immediately. While she danced, I asked how business was, and she asked how school was coming. Ten minutes later, she was gone and I was both relieved and disgusted.
I later came out as gay, and now identify as queer. And, fortunately, my family has come around to accepting me as a whole human being. But, I will live with the memory of being coerced into any sort of sexual activity with a woman for life. So, too, will every other instance in which I was asked an inappropriate question about my sex life or relationships, or been subject to comments that aimed to shame me for being a sexually active queer man. “You don’t take it up the butt, do you?” “I hope you are using condoms. You can die from AIDS” “Which one of you is the woman in the relationship?”
Sexual Violence Against LGBTQ People
As a scholar, my perspective – informed by my research and personal experiences – has shifted to see sexual violence as the sexualized manifestation of any system of oppression, not merely of sexism or misogyny. In the ugly racist history of the US, Black people and other people of color have been raped, lynched and castrated, sterilized, and exotified; we have been demonized as jezebels, savages, whores, and temptresses.
Homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, too, are regularly expressed in sexualized ways. The subtle and explicit shaming of LGBT people for existing, being sexual, and having loving relationships is widespread. Transwomen are harassed on the streets by police who assume that they are sex workers. Manufactured lesbian sexuality is exploited for cis, heterosexual men’s desires, while authentic lesbian relationships remain invisible or stigmatized. Lesbians are subject to “corrective rape” in South Africa (and worldwide), while gay men are punished with extreme violence, including rape, for being gay. Even as the US has become more tolerant of LGBT people and same-gender relationships (that mirror the acceptable, heteronormative and cisnormative standard), queer sexuality remains demonized, despised, and closeted.
Ironically, queer people are punished, sometimes through sexual violence, because of our sexualities. While the cis heterosexual dominated society is obsessed with our sex lives and our sexual desires, we are the ones who are seen as perverts.
No, as the title might suggest, this is not a post about a party I had to celebrate the seventh anniversary of coming out of the closet, embracing and publicly announcing my (now) queer sexual identity. Though it has now been seven years since I first told another soul other than my own, I want to share the experience of another, yet equally important and memorable event.
A friend of mine recently came out to his family, to which he received a less than positive reaction. Given that I knew that I would be in town, I decided to check with my parents to see if they would be interested in having dinner with him and me. It might sound a little strange, but my intention was to give him living proof that parents who may initially not react favorably to their child coming out can, with time, arrive at near-total acceptance. My parents initially said yes, but with a touch of humor that made me wonder whether they were agreeing to do so only to appease me. I did not get much more from my father, which is not unusual for him (a man of few words on emotional matters), but my mother later sent me a reassuring email, complaining that she found it unfair that LGBT children continue to have to deal with negative reactions from parents.
We met for dinner last week, everyone except for me (because I was on spring break) still in work attire. The first twenty minutes or so were a tad awkward with obligatory questions about how my friend and I know each other, where everyone works, where everyone is from. But, then the elephant in the room was finally addressed – let’s talk about coming out and parents’ reactions. I was confident that my parents would have positive things to share with my friend, but I had no idea just how honest and positive their stories would be. Both my father and mother talked about what shifted them from an initial negative reaction (why did this happen? who is at fault? what could we have done differently?) to one of acceptance. The primary force responsible for this shift was their recognition that I was successful in my career (still in college at the time) and continue to be, and that I decided to accept and admit to them my sexual identity to be happy.
What came as the biggest surprise to me, they recounted things that have happened along the way over the last seven years that reflected back my own experience with those same events. For example, my mom noted the time she and my father sat in our family room (a room we hardly use) in the dark, with her consoling my crying father (who, at that point, had only cried twice in his adult life – the other time being when my grandmother died.) She highlighted how it appeared as though they were grieving my death. This is exactly how I recall the event, so it was quite surprising and validating to hear that she experienced the event in the same way. Finally, what I became aware of through their individual journeys to accepting me as I am is that it seemed that most of the work to reaching acceptance was within themselves. For all of the battles over choice of sexual orientation, what I am doing, who I am sleeping with, what groups I belong to, and what types of things I do on the internet (like blogging), the best thing I did to help them reach acceptance was to continue to be successful in all other areas of my life and be myself – the rest of the work fell on them to wrestle internally with their moral beliefs, religious upbringing, and parental love.
In the end, my parents were quite warm with my friend and did their best to reassure him that he need not feel ashamed of his sexual orientation and that his parents may eventually come around. My mom even offered to connect with his parents, but further down the road when they have had more time to digest the news. Seven years ago, my father reacted as though I had died and my mother had to deal with her worst nightmares as a parent come true (she said she knew since I was five that I was “different” than other boys). There were regular fights and silences that shrouded some topics. Today, my father regularly sends me emails about the debates over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and same-sex marriage and my mother has looked into getting involved with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (P-FLAG).
From this event, I feel confident to say that, with time, families can become accepting of their LGBT family members. I should admit that I am not out to a lot of extended family, either because of their age or because we are not all that close. And, I see this as part of the reason why I do not see coming out as the end all, be all for everyone. I do not necessarily think that we should expect everyone to be publicly out, as the consequences for doing so are too great for some people. We as LGBT people are not a monolithic mass; some of us have to worry about the loss of our racial and ethnic communities, or being banished from our places of worship, or being disowned by our families. Although, in one of my ideal worlds we would not need to come out, at least not anymore than heterosexuals, another of my ideal worlds is not needing to have specific labels for people based upon their preferences, tastes, and likes. In the mean time, it is important and powerful for those who can afford to to come out given the impact contact with LGBT people has on supporting LGBT rights, but we also should be careful to avoid setting that standard for all LGBT people as our experiences and backgrounds vary.
There, for once I wrote a post that wasn’t all negative!