Let’s Talk: I’m queer, and I’m learning the merits of quiet advocacy
By Iris Gabrielle, Jun 25, 2020
My name is Iris, I’m 28 and I am a digital art director. It has been more than a year since I started working with M&C Saatchi and on Dayre, but when our content team first approached me to write a story in our series ‘I’m queer, and this is what I stand for’, I wasn’t certain.
Firstly, I don’t consider myself a writer by any margin. Secondly, after reading the previous stories, I felt dwarfed by their presence, voices, efforts, and actions for the queer community.
I am more comfortable sitting behind my laptop, creating visuals and nitpicking on typefaces as opposed to being a vocal advocate. But there was something that I really wanted to talk about this time — a different kind of advocacy. In an era that celebrates advocacy in the form of confrontation, I want to shed light on the merits of being a quiet advocate.
I am queer, and part of the LGBTQIA+ community.
This is the first time that I am actually writing that alongside my name: “My name is Iris, and I am queer.”
As I type that statement down and make it publicly known, I can’t help but acknowledge the guilt that comes with it.
For the longest time, I have tried to repress that part of me. I don’t talk about it or bring it up unless I know that I am in the presence of people who can accept it.
Yet, I still feel a twinge of regret whenever the words “my ex is a girl” leave my tongue. I still feel that bit of self-hatred and shame when the conversation comes to an awkward silence and I get a consolatory “That’s okay”.
Even worse when the response is, “but you don’t look gay” (whatever that means).
My response has always been to retreat and stay silent. After all, I caused the awkwardness, right?
But it soon dawned upon me that my response, or lack thereof, is the root of my guilt. I am guilty of acquiescing and tolerating. The guilt comes from not being the loudest voice in standing up for the community, even though I care deeply about its members. It comes from not publicly using my social platforms to spread love and support for those who are working hard to win equal rights for the community, fighting for mainstream representation.
I call this “pride guilt”. It’s the fear that I’m not doing enough for the community because I don’t always physically show up at LGBTQIA+ events and am uneasy having to confront every single painful remark that I hear against queers.
When I read stories of the Stonewall Riots (demonstrations between the police and gay rights activists in 1969) or listen to accounts of how some of the contestants of RuPaul’s Drag Race are being persecuted by their families, I understand that we have a long way to go on the road to equality.
On the flip side, I can’t help but feel happy that queers are gradually being represented on mainstream media. This makes me wonder if it is okay to celebrate the small bit of progression made and feel a sense of contentment, even just for a minute. Is it bad that I want to look at this and feel happy, instead of getting angry and frustrated that the progress is admittedly not enough?
When I read about attacks against queer people, I am reminded of the homophobic taunts I faced in the past. The memories are painful. I guess this is partly why I choose to focus on the good stuff and the small wins.
To expose myself to reliving the negativity over and over would hurt me. Deep down, I am reluctant to feel rejected again.
Life before coming out had its own merits and demerits. I wasn’t the troublemaker at home, so naturally, my parents didn’t feel the need to pay any attention to me. They left me alone most of the time.
Things changed when I came out. Suddenly, I became the poster child for everything “wrong”.
While I didn’t expect a cake or a tearful “I still love you”, I definitely didn’t expect all that ensued. Nothing escaped my mom’s reproach — from the way that I wanted to spend my weekends to the way that I folded my laundry, it was almost as if I couldn’t do anything right. My dad stopped speaking to me altogether. Subsequently, I got kicked out from home because suddenly, I wasn’t a right fit for my family.
I came up with excuses on their behalf, telling myself that “they needed time”, “they don’t know how to react”, “their feelings are valid” –– and so I kept quiet.
I kept quiet when I was told not to air my dirty laundry by revealing my orientation at family events.
I kept quiet when I broke up with my long-time ex and my mom told me to look for a boyfriend and start leading a “normal” life.
I kept quiet when a handful of ex-colleagues who I let into my private social media profile outed me before I was ready.
I kept quiet when my entire identity was being reduced to just “the gay girl”.
To be reduced to just my orientation became one of my biggest fears and motivation to stay quiet.
Because I saw being pigeonholed based solely on who I love as a form of prejudice, too. It instantly makes me “the outsider”. And so I choose to avoid it altogether.
I am aware of how selfish and petty this can sound, which makes the guilt much heavier to bear. Yet previous experiences with my family and ex-colleagues taught me that keeping quiet makes them happy. But I continue to struggle. Because I understand what vocal activists mean when they say that “to be quiet is to be complicit”.
I look at activists in awe. Hate comments from keyboard warriors don’t seem to deter them.
I wonder if I can ever have that kind of confidence to live loud and proud, to voice my stand without backing down, to call out prejudice and openly talk about things that make most of society uncomfortable.
Something else that holds me back is: how can I wrap the rainbow flag around me and my profile picture when that act in itself exposes me to conversations that I am not ready to have?
If you are part of the community, it feels like you are expected to know all of the history behind LGBTQIA+, the latest news, artists, laws, and cultural references. Not knowing always seems to imply that you don’t care enough.
But it is true that I don’t know everything about being queer, and it’s not like we get a manual to navigate our experience. Just as no one person has all the answers in life, I wish people wouldn’t expect me to always have all the answers to being queer.
At the end of the day, doesn’t inclusivity also means recognising that the world is made up of imperfect humans who are bound to have shortcomings, opinions, and a lack of knowledge even in things they truly care about?
I remember laughing with bitterness when Susan told Ross in Friends: “You have to take a course (about being lesbian), otherwise they don’t let you do it”.
I have been called a coward and a wimp for not being more angry, or reactive. A date once had the audacity to imply that my behaviour means that I am either ashamed of my orientation or that I just didn’t care enough to want to do anything about it.
Truth be told, sometimes, I feel like the queer community can be more ruthless than those outside of it.
The relationship ended for a couple of reasons but her accusations about my lack of activism for the LGBTQIA+ community rang the loudest.
At times, it feels like there is a second layer of segregation within the queer community, which baffles me because we speak out about how it is hard to to feel accepted, yet there is still a division between the ones who are living out loud and those like me who are deemed as not doing enough.
I do feel guilty for not doing enough yet still enjoying the fruits of queer progression.
But to be the loudest advocate in the room just isn’t me.
I know that members of the LGBTQIA+ community face fears everyday. I know that there are victims of abusive households, workplace hostility, healthcare discrimination, and harassment. I know the value in marching and rallying against the inequality.
But that isn’t my kind of response. I am a quiet advocate and prefer not to take conflicts head on. I pick my battles and voice my objections with restraint. While I don’t own a megaphone or any material keepsake to show that I belong to the community, it doesn’t mean that I am any less part of the community. At the end of the day, I believe there are different ways to show support for a cause.
Even if I do not attend Pink Dot, or use my platform to hashtag and send messages of support, it does not mean that I am indifferent or feigning ignorance. I made my choice of being a quiet advocate based on my readiness, my past experiences, and my silent struggles.
My choice to quietly advocate emerges when someone casually remarks that he is repulsed by the idea of same-sex PDA. I choose to tactfully reply, “I can’t deal with all types of PDA, gay or straight.”
When someone asks me “who is the guy in the relationship”, I tell them that it is an equal relationship, just like any healthy heterosexual relationship should be.
One of the top questions I get asked a lot is, “why did you choose to be gay, did you give up on guys?” I used to just shift uncomfortably, avert my gaze, and end up with an “uh…”.
After some trial and error, I am now comfortable with saying: “You know that sexual orientation isn’t a choice right? It is involuntary. If I could choose, why would I choose a life that makes me think twice about publicly holding the hand of someone I love?”
I believe that having these conversations privately can also get people thinking about their preconceived notions about sexual orientation. Sure, they haven’t all panned out well, but at the very least I hope that it will guide them to acknowledge our existence and be as respectful to us – members of the LGBTQIA+ community – as they would towards everyone else.
While I might not be comfortable telling people off publicly or being extremely vocal, strong, and loud, how I try to play a part is by privately messaging someone after they make an unkind joke about the community or casually remark, “that’s so gay”.
I am aware that being “subtle” isn’t always enough, but this is how I am choosing to do my part in promoting acceptance, at least for now, and until I am ready to make bigger moves.
I look back and am glad that I’ve moved beyond shifting uncomfortably and averting my gaze when someone says, “Your 7-year relationship doesn’t count because your ex was a she!”
These days, I can look someone in the eye and have conversations about the LGBTQIA+ community.
Writing this piece has really been a big step forward for me, too. Before penning down my thoughts into words, I was too afraid to tie my sexual orientation to my name, and too intimidated to write about advocating for the LGBTQIA+ community.
Yet, 2,000 words later, here I am, baring this part of me that I once felt was too dangerous to reveal.
Writing this has reminded me of how much I’ve changed and how I’m overcoming my pride guilt through my own small ways of advocacy. I may not be an activist like Stormé DeLarverie, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the LGBTQIA+ community. As for my next small step, I am excited to attend my first (virtual) Pink Dot event this year. It’s pencilled into my calendar — when the livestream comes on, I’ll be there.
My name is Iris, and you can find me at @fourtunekitten on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I’ve written about overcoming a decade-long eating disorder, rebuilding my relationship with my parents, my love for skincare, and more.
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