My roots are in the east – specifically, a small coastal town in Newfoundland. My roots as an advocate are there too, buried amongst many memories of feeling like an outsider.
I was “different.” A lot of those feelings came from subverting social expectations placed upon me as a woman. I have always been brazen, loud and opinionated; I didn’t grow into my physical femininity until I was 23, and from an early age, I knew that I was gay.
In contrast to what you might expect, moving from my hometown pushed me further away from self-acceptance. My first days at university reaffirmed my fear of being different when a group of new friends reacted to my DVD box-set of The L Word with disgust. I quickly explained that I just liked the story, and from that moment on I hid the truth about my sexuality in the deepest corners of my mind.
When I finally came out in my early 20s, I spent a lot of my energy trying to convince myself and others that I was different from other gay people. If I couldn’t be “normal,” I would minimize being different as much as I could manage. I told people that I did not believe in gay marriage or pride parades. I would say things like “I’m all for gay rights, but at this point, it is gay privilege.”
My rationale behind this was simple: if I can just be likeable enough, then people won’t care that I’m gay.
This thought dominated my actions and my personality for many years prior, and many years since. I was willing to sacrifice my true values and my very existence to feel like I fit in.
Upon reflection, I now realize that fitting in is not all it’s cracked up to be. In her book Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, American author Brené Brown talks about the difference between belonging and fitting in. Fitting in is all about contorting yourself to fit into boxes dictated by other people and society at large. Belonging, on the other hand, occurs when you present your authentic self and are accepted for it.
To fit in, I sold myself as a queer person who would not make heterosexual people uncomfortable by calling them out or fighting for my right to exist.
It was not until I moved to Ottawa to study social work that I realized how problematic this was. I began to learn about power and privilege, and quickly realized that running away from my inequality did not stop it from existing.
I learned that navigating the world as a queer person means constantly assessing for safety, and that a lot of the decisions I had made in the past were about keeping myself safe. I also learned that being queer means having to constantly explain and justify yourself and your relationships. Oddly enough, accepting my social reality led me directly to the self-acceptance I had navigated away from.
Recognizing my own inequity as a queer person has also made me better at my job and a much stronger ally. It was through that recognition that I realized how individual and collective experiences are often invisible and silenced. It also helped me to recognize my own privilege, and subsequently, I learned to talk less and to listen more.
Though it took me many years to get there, I am grateful that I am now able to be my authentic self and experience the belonging I searched for. I also feel it is important to acknowledge that due to persisting social attitudes and safety concerns, that being out is still not a reality for many folks in the LGBTQ+ community. The point of my story is not to say that inequality is okay as long as you can find self-acceptance within its confines. But rather to highlight how social pressures to conform and oppression have impacted my life. My desire to fit in at whatever cost came from a deeply held belief that there was something wrong with me.