On Being a Human Lightning Rod
I recently spent a couple of weeks touring Turkey as a guest of the Foundation for Intercultural Dialogue. I traveled hither and yon in style with a group of Arizonans – elected officials, college professors, activists. It was a life-changing experience that left me exceedingly grateful and eager to see more of our glorious little planet.
Upon my return, friends have been asking how the trip went, no doubt expecting some compelling anecdotes. Those will come of course, but I find my response really tempered by the homophobia I experienced during my travels. Homophobia perpetrated by my fellow Americans, that is. I’ve wanted to let it go, but since it unfortunately played such an integral part in the trip, I guess writing about it must come before I can fully share the rest of the journey.
Being of strong personality coupled with a sensitive soul, I attract, and subsequently am wounded by, the myriad projections/fantasies/prejudices other folks have about sexuality. Some of this, I know, is a direct consequence of my stubborn refusal to live restricted to any particular social group or ghettoized environment. I don’t want to be defined by my intimate relationships any more than a bird is defined by its feathers. It’s just a part of who I am, and after these years, I don’t find it particularly interesting. As America “comes out” as a nation, however, with all the back-and-forth, terror-driven ignorance inherent in that process, I find myself repeatedly, reluctantly, pulled into the insidious fray. No matter what else I accomplish in my life, it’s always tempered by this supposed difference.
It’s usually a subtle (or not so subtle) thing – a sudden, inexplicable shift in a treasured friendship, an off-handed remark that leaves me reeling, the quiet shunning that too often occurs when someone realizes that for all intents and purposes, I am just like them. Not a stereotype, not Satan’s spawn, not a novelty, not a character on a TV show, not a living embodiment of their ventures into online pornography. Nope. Just a middle-aged woman, born and bred in the Midwest, making her way through life. Just human, with gifts and faults, assets and deficits. And that, apparently, is really, really scary.
So there I was, trundling around Turkey, spreading good cheer and snark with what I thought were likeminded folks. One day early on, the bus-ride chatter turned to the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. An individual with whom I had just engaged in a longish, intelligent political strategy discussion, equated homosexuality with child molestation. Really? This otherwise socially conscious, articulate man was that ignorant? Aghast, I confronted him about his statement and told him that I was a GLBT person. And so it began.
I was no longer a funny, intelligent person people wanted to know. I became someone who had to be watched, particularly by my trip roommate. Overnight, I went from being her self-assigned mother figure to a dirty, uncouth, marginalized “thing.” As it dawned on me this was occurring, the old familiar pain gripped my heart and made me cry, while the others went about schmoozing our hosts and enjoying the exquisite experience that is Turkey.
After a day or so, I took a risk and confided in a couple of people also on the tour. Thank God they were supportive. Not supportive enough to call the other people on their behavior – I’ve learned that that kind of courage is a rare thing indeed – but enough to allow me to relax a bit. I asked for a separate room. That helped immensely. As the trip went on, the individual who made the original remark began to act chagrined and awkwardly sought to reengage. It was obviously hard. It didn’t have to be. All it would have taken is an apology, for without that measure, I cannot fully trust him again. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean reconciliation. I will not close my heart to him either. I’m weary of hate, and I’ve come to believe that the only possibility we have to heal as a culture is to hang in there with each other. Life is oh so messy, isn’t it?
I know fully well that others’ reactions are their own, not to be taken personally. But to pretend that bigotry-based ignorance doesn’t injure is absurd. It plucks at one’s psyche like a sharp-beaked vulture. So I must confront it and trust that doing so, despite the personal fallout, is part of some Greater Plan.
Sometime before she passed, Mother Theresa – a woman who went through many dark nights of the soul and an arduous struggle with agnosticism – said, “I know God won’t give me more than I can handle, but I wish he wouldn’t trust me so much.” I always muster a wry smile when I read those words. So true. So true.
Diane D’Angelo is a writer and civic engagement advocate based in Phoenix, AZ. She is grateful for the work of Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron and Susan Piver. They’ve helped make her hard row to hoe just a little softer.
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