Okay, so a tall, white, straight, Anglo-Saxon North American male professional cannot really know the experience of prejudice others live with. Maybe if we imagine a world where a straight person must pretend to be gay, we might get some sense of the uniquely soul-devouring hurt inside that closet. And the courage it still takes, to step out of it
Standing in front of the friendliest crowd on the planet Earth – the Human Rights Campaign conference – you wouldn’t think Ellen Page required much courage to utter to the words “I am gay” out loud.
Yet when you listen to her sometimes halting speech what you hear in her voice, see in her body as she builds up to the words, what you feel trembling out of her, seems like fear. She is afraid. I know that body language and so do you: watch her, and you see it. She is afraid. That fear adds a greater depth to her words, which on the page were themselves beautifully stitched together, but when spoken have a heart-clutching dignity. You watch this girl – she is still something of a girl, this young woman – mounting a tall, steep staircase to a rocky ledge. She gets there and looks outward, and downward, into a fierce and foamy sea. And then she leaps.
I don’t know what it means to fear, what Ellen Page may fear. As a tall, white, straight, Anglo-Saxon North American male who has managed to hang onto his health (knock wood) while working his way into a privileged position, I may never know what it’s like to face the kind of overt and ugly hatred that still percolates inside certain bigots.
Even if we don’t face hatred or danger, we can try to imagine it. Even if we aren’t protesting the poisoning of our well water at Sochi, or trying to blog honestly in Beijing, even if we aren’t a girl carrying her books to school in Pakistan; even if we aren’t Christians trying to worship in Saudi Arabia – no matter how “safe” we may feel or be, especially if we feel safe – it is our moral obligation to try and put ourselves in the very small shoes of Ellen Page.
It’s not that difficult. Fear is not reserved to life’s natural targets. We all know it. Think about the parts of yourself that are most fragile, most intimate, most buried inside – the parts you may not love in yourself, the parts others may turn away from. Picture the humiliation of being shunned or mocked. Now imagine yourself standing in front of one person, then five people, then a ballroom of people, saying it out loud. Go ahead, say it: “I am…”
Whatever you are, in your life there may well be reasons to fear saying it. The things that I may be or believe, that I am afraid to say, remain unsaid. My reasons for not saying them are the same ones you have: I don’t trust other people with the truth. I cannot fairly compare the sheltering of personal truths like mine, to the life experience of a woman or man who has felt compelled to hide their sexual orientation. But I know what it means to expect punishment for being honest. Maybe if we imagine a world where a straight person must pretend to be gay, we might get some sense of the uniquely soul-devouring hurt inside that closet.
Unlike Ellen Page, I can only imagine it. But like her – and like you – I’ve been afraid to be true to myself. For me it is always the same: I feel something very deeply, but fear saying it will alienate or injure someone. So I keep silent. Many summers ago, after a long and miserable stretch of unrequited love, I somehow found the guts to say it out loud. My body trembled, my stomach churned. It was a hopeless case (so was I) and as expected, she was not on the same page. Yet the moment the words left my lips, it was like a rock had been pulled from inside my chest. I remember a sense of lightness and joy – truly joy – as I walked down the stairs of that old house, out into that sultry, thick summer night. For once, I had given my feelings a chance, I had been true to myself. She didn’t love me but hell, just for a moment, it felt like I did. I was blissfully happy.
I hope Ellen Page feels like that this morning.
No, it’s not the same thing. Of course it isn’t. I walked away that night free of a burden and ready to live my real life, without fear of psychological or physical danger. Other people don’t get off so easily. I have seen real courage – my mother going it alone, my wife giving birth, my friend David living every day of his too-brief life as if he didn’t have terminal cancer, my daughter getting back on a horse after a serious accident. I feel rather unimpressive in their brave company.
But whatever you may fear – death or just hurt feelings – if you are frozen inside it, you aren’t living your true life. You are going to have to decide whether what you’re hanging onto is more precious than what you have to gain. Someone once said that courage is “the inability to see all the possible consequences of our actions.” That sounds like a joke, but he who jokes, confesses. It is helpful to forget the danger before we leap out, into the fierce and foamy sea.
As I have sometimes told my daughter, “you don’t know you’re brave, until you do something you’re afraid of.” None of us can show such courage every day. But Ms. Ellen Page, in all her trembling dignity, has done so.