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Monday, September 19, 2011

When Silence Isn't Golden

A student came up to me after a lecture last week to thank me.

I'd been doing my annual guest lecture on "Gay Auckland" and, among other things, talked of the way gay men tend to move to cities from small towns, and how that affects Auckland, and often then we move on overseas, to Sydney, or New York or London.

This guy came up and told me how I'd described what he had done by coming to Auckland, and now he planned to move to Sydney or Melbourne when he graduated.  He recognised part of his life in what I was teaching, and that's important.

Earlier this year, I had an email sent in the name of some queer students in another class of mine, who said how much they'd appreciated me working gay/queer themes into aspects of the course, and how this never happens normally.

It made me realise just how invisible we still are, and reminded me just how important visibility is.

If we don't see ourselves represented, whether it's on TV, in movies, or in the classroom, it makes it seem like we don't matter, like we're not really there - just ghosts, hovering on the edges of "real" life. In fact, there are queers in every layer and level of life, from tow-truck drivers to  theatre directors, investment bankers to accupuncturists. As the old slogan says "We are everywhere."

But why are we so invisible? Why even in the University of Auckland, in disciplines that might be expected to pay attention to us, are we ignored? Why do my students feel invisible until I incorporate our stories into my teaching?

That's why being "out" is still important. Some people have said it doesn't matter anymore, that we shouldn't care if someone is out or not about being gay. I say bullshit. Especially if you are a public figure. It's just cowardice to hide behind "Oh it doesn't matter, we're all just people."

If we're all "just people" and it really doesn't matter, then why be so coy about honestly describing yourself?

We do have to put up with shit from the wider world for being queer, it's called homophobia, it's real, it's nasty, it damages people's lives and it's not ok. And people who stay in the closet add to that.

Yeah, I know, it's not easy for everyone - some people have huge family or professional obstacles to face if they do it. But it's never really been that easy for most of us. it was hard for me back when I was a teenager too. But I came out and am glad I did.

None of the political changes we have got would have happened without people standing up and saying "Yes, I am gay/lesbian/queer and I'm just as good as you."

Silence, or that polite "Let's not make waves" attitude that we see is actually bad for us as a whole. We have nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to hide.

I'm glad I can make a little bit of difference here and there, but it just shows how much remains to be done as well. My students shouldn't have to write me emails of gratitude because they see themselves represented in what they are studying with me - that they do is gratifying to me on one level, but it also shows just what limits we continue to live with.

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