Thursday was International Transgender Day of Visibility, which saw a lot of stories of hardship but also of hope being published by people opening up, helping the fight towards acceptance, and educating others. In a good case of bad timing, it is also the day in which reports first came out from the UK government about dropping the ban on conversion therapy. Since deciding to write a few thoughts about this, a U-turn has been reported to say that the ban on conversion therapy would still go ahead, but not include transgender people, who incidentally are the most at risk of being subjected to such practice. All of this is happening while on the other side of the Atlantic, the “Don’t say gay” bill is causing outrage and fear for our friends in the US, supposedly “shielding” young people from references to LGBTQ+ matters, for concerns of creating confusion in them – apparently outweighing the opportunity to raise children in environments characterised by acceptance and respect of all differences.
I came out as a gay man to my parents when I was 19, after years of the prospect of doing so consuming me from the inside – I still remember my mum saying, before me coming out, that at some point in my teenage years, it was like the light in my otherwise bubbly personality got switched off. I went through the stages many others will have done of denial, confusion, and attempts (failed) at convincing myself I could still ignore my true self to do what I felt was expected of me. Having grown up in a small village with very traditional values where the priest was as influential a figure as the mayor, with no representation of gay people anywhere other than pictured in media as outcasts, coming to terms with it was a huge challenge, only overcome when I moved away and became surrounded by more diverse groups of people. When I eventually came out to my parents, after a few months of hiding my first relationship, my father’s first reaction was: “surely, this can still be cured?”. And seeing the environment in which he grew up and lived most of his life, this reaction isn’t something I have held against him. In my case, this initial reaction didn’t lead to anything further, and luckily my own feelings and confusion never led me to actively seeking this sort of “help”.
This doesn’t mean that everything was plain sailing from there onwards. A big part of the challenge was to find a sense of identity I was genuinely comfortable with, understand and accept what it means to be me – which of course also involved many other facets of my personality – all of this while navigating pressures and expectations of what a young man in his early 20s should be, do, think. When it comes to forging an identity, groups and communities also play an important part and can be a positive influence. Yet, when people are made to feel like anomalies, it can be hard to even think about seeking others, or believe that there are people out there who can understand, or share, what they experience. With that in mind, I would stress this:
That representation matters, even at an early age. The important at that point isn’t to teach and single out differences in individuals, but to normalise acceptance of all. To enable this, children need to see and hear references to the full spectrum of diversity life has to offer, including family structures, ethnicities, various abilities, etc., in the normal running of their education.
That LGBTQ+ people may need many things: love, support, guidance, practical help, allies. One thing they do not need is to be “fixed”. Their identity is theirs to develop and define, and no one else can pretend to know what they should be, or how they should behave.
I do find it hard to believe that I even feel the need to write words like these. For the past couple of decades, we have lived through some really positive changes in many countries in areas such as gay marriage, adoption, and to an extent representation. These big milestones have given many of us a sense of being on an upward, one-directional trajectory of progress, and I would admit it my case some complacency based on a belief that advancements were acquired forever, and would keep evolving. This belief was challenged on many occasions over the past couple of years, with reports of homophobic hate crimes, lack of progress in, and pressure towards, some of the most intolerant regimes, up to potential steps back in public policies, worryingly gaining some support from the public opinion. Gradually chipping away at this false sense of security, I realise now that yesterday’s fights are not necessarily confined to the past, and that there is no place for complacency when it comes to striving for acceptance, equity and respect. The call for action to the LGBTQ+ community and its allies is one which cannot afford to quiet down.
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