Closet Confidential

Have you ever heard a joke that’s great until the punchline, and then it falls apart?

I feel opposite that: I know where I’m headed, but not how to get there–not even where to start. You see, I just spent a week in San Francisco, and seeing what the world could look like–what a more inclusive and queer-friendly world can look like–has made me realize a world where sexual orientation doesn’t matter can exist. But after seeing such high levels of inclusion, coming home feels a lot like walking back into the closet.

It’s not as funny as a joke, is it? But it does have a better punchline.

I’ve written and erased this sentence three times. I’m currently studying chaos theory for my math degree(s), and analyzing bifurcations and periodic points has made me realize the many ways a single starting point can quickly descend to chaos. I know where I’m going, just not how to get there. Should I talk about how it feels living in NC? Should I talk about how it felt in San Francisco? Should I further explain my vision for change?

I suppose each is important, but this is where it diverges from chaos theory: in class we recognize that some points are attracting while others are repelling, and as paths split apart, one tends to take dominance over the other: the equilibrium state is always obvious. Here every path matters, but the restrictions of language prevent simultaneous pursuit.

I’ll begin with my vision: a world where coming out is unnecessary. A world where one man asking out another is no different than a man asking out a woman today. A world where it’s okay if one day you’re dating a man and then sometime later you’re dating a woman or even someone who’s nonbinary. A world where people know what that means, where pronouns are used properly, where trans issues are accepted and resolved. A world where the sex of number of one’s parents don’t make them the butt of bullying at school. A world where all relationships are valued, cherished, and celebrated for the love they share.

We’re a long way from getting there. Marriage equality might be on the horizon in the US, but we’re still fighting for workplace protection, adoption rights, for equality in sports and schools, for anti-bullying campaigns and the end of conversion therapy, for immigration equality, prison rights, access to informed and unbiased healthcare–and the list goes on, and gets much more extensive when we add in transgender concerns, care for the aging and ill, global issues, and the many intersectionalities that our community experiences.

Today it might be okay to be a gay, fit, white, cis-male, but what if you’re a transwoman of color who’s overweight? The world’s not so accepting anymore. It shouldn’t be like that.

Yet for all the South suffers from, I’ve never felt especially uncomfortable here. But let’s not forget I’m an English-speaking citizen who’s white, male, and cisgender (that is, I identify with the gender I was designated at birth), so despite suffering for being gay, Jewish, and low-income, I’ve also benefited from the same systems that oppress others.

I’m not being entirely honest–at least not upfront. I’ve felt comfortable being out in safe spaces–in colleges and clubs, in some bars and gay men’s groups, but outside the standard norm, I’ve held my tongue and stayed silent. I’ve watched my actions to not out myself with any unintentionally stereotypical behaviors, mannerisms, or language. I’ve steered conversations away from my personal life and involvement on campus because I didn’t want to risk personal injury or rejection. I’ve kept silent at work for fear of how my job would respond, and likewise in my synagogue until I saw how inclusive they actually are.

So it’s not unbearable, but it’s far from perfect.

Then I went to San Francisco. The liberal bastion of the United States. The birthplace of the LGBT rights movement on the west coast and the icon of LGBT inclusivity. And our second day there, a man on the bus tells us he “doesn’t care for all that gay rights stuff.”

So even SF isn’t perfect, but here’s what made it stand out: That man was the exception, not the norm, and everywhere we went–from religious service sites to tourist attractions to all the many places in between, we never had to go out of our way for LGBT issues to be considered because they were already an integral part of the conversation. We never once had to pull another chair up to the table and try to find a spot (after wasting so much time looking for that extra chair in the first place), because a seat was offered to us right away.

That’s the kind of inclusion I envision–not everyone has to celebrate LGBT identity (and who knows what “LGBT identity” will look like once the whole world looks like this), and they don’t even have to agree with it, but they accept it. Even when it’s ugly, it’s beautiful.

Better was how it actually felt to be there: I didn’t feel I was hiding or holding back. I felt free, and I was free: free to be me–however I wanted to be. I didn’t have to worry about making a bad impression because I was the token gay and the way people see me is going to be the way they see all of my community. I didn’t have to censor myself. I didn’t have to bite my tongue if I felt suddenly compelled to complement a man on how attractive his beard was, and so I did. One man gave me his number. Another man asked for mine.

It’s not only in appearance: the number of resources provided to the LGBT community–in areas as diverse as elderly care, health care, homelessness and job training, youth services, and gay-friendly restaurants and bars–made me realize just how sparse these services are in North Carolina. “Sparse” even seems too polite–we have none of them.

The first question I was asked after getting back–by a lot of people–was if I wanted to move out there. And seriously, after visiting the city, who wouldn’t? One man I spoke with, when asked why he loves San Francisco, replied, “There’s no other city”–and there isn’t.

But it’s not a perfect place. They still have strides to take toward total equality, the cost of living is impossibly high for many people, and as large tech companies move in and use their millions (billions) to reshape the city according to elitist standards, it’s also losing the cultural diversity that for so long has made it a vibrant and remarkable place to live.

Still, though, coming back makes me wistful, even resentful to be stuck in the South–it would be so much easier to be there, to have doctors who I know won’t judge me for my sexuality and who know the specific health needs of gay men so if I miss something, they’re able to make sure I’ve got it–without judgment. I’d know wearing my engagement ring and having my hubby’s picture at my desk at work wouldn’t get me fired. I’d know the way I act wouldn’t be used to define the people around me either. These privileges aren’t offered in North Carolina–I often feel belittled because they’re constantly stomped out.

I’m glad to be back in Raleigh, though. For all its flaws, for all the inheritance we carry as a new generation of Southerners–whether grown here or implanted in childhood, as I was–we’re a cheerful bunch, a cool crowd, a potentially willing partner in progress.

And if I run off to San Francisco–or anywhere else–I’m not achieving my vision of a world founded upon equality; I’m closing my eyes to the reality that it doesn’t exist. If I leave the places where hard work changing hearts and minds still needs to be done, it’ll only be harder to bring these places around–to help the people here shed their ignorance and learn, accept, and celebrate. Creating love is only possible through building relationships, not abandoning those who are too hard to reach for an easier, faster alternative.

So today I stay. I’ve glimpsed the promise of my vision. Now I need to make it reality.

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