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LGBT History Month: Growing up in a world in which you don't exist

February is LGBT history month, when traditionally we take the opportunity to look back at the history of the LGBT movement, key figures within it, and how LGBT rights were gradually won in some parts of the world - and fought over not to be taken away. Some might wonder why marking the history of this movement matters - we've already got Pride month, right? I think, as for many things, that a regular look back into our past is essential to better understand where we are now, and how best to continue acting for the future. In my case, looking back involves remembering my childhood and teenage years spent in a small village in Eastern France in the 80s and early 90s, far from, and with no visibility of, any part of the LGBT movement. We often talk about coming out stories, which are indeed huge milestones for any LGBTQ+ person. In this article, I wanted to look back at what precedes it, the journey of self-acceptance we all have to go through, admitting to ourselves who we are, and accepting it, especially when it is a journey we embark on blindly, and alone.

The context: 80s / 90s in rural Eastern France

I was only 11 by the time the 80s came to an end. Still, I include them here as these are important years in anybody's life, when you develop your own frame of reference on many aspects of what you, and others, expect from the adult you will become. For me, this all happened in a small village in Alsace, an Eastern region of France, bordering Germany. An important part of the context, albeit a sensitive one to approach respectfully, is the importance religion, in my case Catholicism, played in our daily lives in rural communities like these. Indeed the village priest was as highly regarded an authority figure, if not more, as the village mayor. And for children, the path of actively engaging into religious activities was as evident as it was to go to school; faith wasn't something you discovered and developed for yourself, it wasn't a choice, it was a fact of life. Now, was I told explicitly through this religious education that being gay was wrong? Probably never. Simply because being gay just wasn't seen as plausible in this community, as something that could happen. However, the discourse of sin and repenting, the constant judgement of your own and others' behaviour, was very much ingrained into that culture, which left little room for developing a personal view of what is right or wrong. Adding to that a de facto assumption and expectation from a young age that your future will involve getting married (to a girl as far as I was concerned, of course) and having children, that in fact this probably was your main purpose in life, and the picture of the type of person you should become that you draw in your head as a teenager gets quite precise. And being gay didn't come anywhere near that picture.

In addition to the above, and probably as expected, LGBTQ+ representation in the community and beyond was inexistant, or at best distorted. I think it took me well into my late teens to - knowingly - meet a gay person, which would be far from the village I grew up in. As for the media, which at the time would mostly be the mainstream TV channels (all three of them), LGBTQ+ people would hardly be seen or referenced in any programs, or if they were, it would be via comedy (i.e. the ones being laughed at), or referred to in derogatory terms, i.e., as insults. One of the main references in mainstream culture would have come from the 80s play turned movie "La Cage aux Folles" (which later became a musical and American film as "The Birdcage"), and its gay protagonists. One might argue that the film had a progressive angle, as the gay couple it featured had been living happily together for 20 years, something not many people might have envisaged at the time for same-sex couples. It highlighted some of the challenges they faced, and indeed included some poignant moments. However, what people would have picked up most, and what filtered into popular culture, was the plethora of stereotypes about gay men, including their effeminate traits, which were quite clearly overplayed and used in a farcical way for comic effect rather than to develop a sense of understanding and acceptance. The other gay characters I can think of in other stories would have been of people living in the margins of society, as outcasts, people who would be depicted as deviant, as suffering a "damage of the mind" (sounds familiar??).

Staying with popular culture, it is only recently, listening back to some French music classics from the 70s and 80s that I picked up on their use of the slang French word for gay, typically as an insult or in a derogatory way, in songs which would have played on the radio while I was a child, and which many of my generation would still be able to easily sing along to. An indication of how embedded into the practice of language this would have been at the time.

The impact: confused and alone

In such circumstances, it isn't hard to foresee that even recognising feelings and thoughts which would make you think, as a teenager, that you might be gay, can be far from evident. In my case, I entered my teenage years with already a clear track record of having mainly female friends at school. It might have given my dad a false sense of security in my potential future ability to connect with women, yet did leave me at times questioning why this was by far the more comfortable company I could find myself with, rather than hanging out with the boys from my age group. Despite being surrounded by girls, the only reason I might have, when it became a thing for people my age, thought about having a girlfriend was to conform with what I thought should be "normal" for someone like me to do (this picture of the "normal" which would haunt me, as I am sure it did many others, for such a big part of my life). Not that I was looking for an alternative at the time, i.e., thinking about, or contemplating having a boyfriend. In a context where gay men where effectively "not a thing" in the environment I grew up in, neither was it something I would even let myself think about. This left me in a sort of "no man's land" in terms of developing my own feelings, with not much more than a sense of "abnormality" and feeling of missing the teenage milestones which would get me to develop into the adult I was expected to be.

Eventually, my true feelings, reflecting my true identity, did surface at times, and I let myself consider whether this abnormality I referred to might in fact be due to me being gay. This was by no means an epiphany of any kind. Rather, it was thoughts that I had, and then dismissed for a while trying to reassure myself that it wasn't the case, before letting these thoughts reappear, going through this cycle again and again over a few years - I even came out to a female friend at some point, only to "come back in" a few days later. When these thoughts first came up, my initial reaction was a fatalistic sense of picturing myself living alone for the rest of my life. This was to me the only possible way forward, and I made my way through my teenage years trying to make myself comfortable with that perspective. If I was to accept myself as I was (and there were dark times when I did put this into question), it could only be through false pretence of not being interested in developing any relationship, rather than admitting the truth to all around me, let alone even envisaging one day being in a relationship with another man.

This thought process fundamentally changed me in my outlook and my behaviours. The thought of a self-imposed lonely life ahead of me, and of keeping part of myself hidden for what I thought would have to be forever, was hanging over me as a never-to-be-removed dark cloud. With that said, it was a dark cloud I was the only one to see, and life still continued as it needed to. Thankfully, the friendships I had developed through these years meant that I still had close connections with others, and while I didn't feel able to share this dark cloud with anyone at the time, I still built fond memories from these friendships. They probably helped carry me through those difficult years, together with other means of escapism such as music, up to a point where circumstances led me to pursue studies away in Paris. Now, this move to the big city wasn't the immediate fairy tale people might picture. The dark cloud followed me, and city life was a lonely life for a while. But in time, these new surroundings enabled me to make new connections, and develop another network which would help me see that a different life than the one I had envisaged for the past years could be possible. And this is the start of a different story!..

LGBTQ+ history yet to be made

This story is in itself part of history now, and progress in representation and acceptance has meant that fewer people from the latest generation will grow up feeling the way I did. I felt that it remained a story worth sharing, to bring to life what it might mean to grow up in a place in which you take for granted that you cannot be accepted as you are. Sadly, there remains many places around the world where this would be a very common story. Where this state of confusion and loneliness continues well beyond teenage years, and where any desire to live your life as you are comes with unfathomable risks and sacrifices. This should not be accepted as a fatality. Let us make sure that such stories get consigned to LGBTQ+ history.

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