Born This Way
I’ve thought a lot about pride recently, in the run-up to this issue of Letters. Given I write a health and wellness column, it might not be immediately obvious why that’d be the case. But there is a link: pride is an important component of good health. It’s key to self-care; people who are feeling good about themselves are more likely to pursue healthy habits and avoid unhealthy ones. Also, people who take pride in themselves often are more emotionally resilient.
I wondered how my own feelings of pride might contribute to my efforts to live a healthy life. That required I first identify what I feel proud of. My list included career accomplishments, academic achievements, and life obstacles I’ve overcome. It didn’t include personal attributes, such as my blue eyes. Or my bisexuality.
That’s not surprising: my siblings and I were raised to take pride in things we did, not things we were. It would not have occurred to any of us to take pride in our blue eyes. One didn’t take pride in something one did nothing to achieve. We were blue-eyed. So what?
When (as a tween) I realized I was attracted to both girls and boys, I incorporated that characteristic into my sense of self much as I had incorporated my blue eyes: something innate; something immutable. I hadn’t “achieved” bisexuality, so it was not something I was proud of.
But—blessedly—it also was nothing I was ashamed of.
Of course, this aspect of myself was not readily apparent; perhaps if it had been, I’d have learned shame. But I grew up in an era (and family) where one was silent about all-things-sexual. My silence was the norm, and my bisexuality simply passed unnoticed.
By the time I was bringing a girlfriend along on a weekend visit with my parents, I was an adult and the family had embraced a “don’t ask, don’t tell” stance. That approach had been invoked when one of my brothers arrived for a visit with both his wife and his girlfriend. Perhaps his ménage à trois had set the bar so high that my arrival with a girlfriend barely registered on the parental radar.
In any case—no pride; no shame. Just a fact of life.
I wondered if perhaps, to actively take pride in what one is (rather than just in what one does) one had first to have felt ashamed—or at least “less than”—as a result of being who they are.
I didn’t need to be proud of my blue eyes: I wasn’t bullied for having them; the faith I was raised in didn’t teach that having blue eyes was sinful. My family wasn’t ashamed of me because of them; no one made me hide my blue eyes behind dark glasses or tinted contacts. Similarly, I escaped being ostracized or shunned or vilified for being bi.
Perhaps, if I had been stigmatized for my blue eyes or my sexuality, I would have had to overcome the resultant feelings of shame or self-revulsion. Perhaps I’d have struggled to embrace those aspects of myself. Then, I might well have felt pride in those attributes—not so much because I had them, but because I’d prevailed in the face of prejudice and found them lovable. I’d be proud of having survived—even thrived—despite having a trait some found distasteful—or worse.
I am only too aware that many LGBTQ people—stigmatized, banished, subjected to conversion therapies, and threatened with eternal damnation—have engaged that struggle.
I wondered if I were singularly fortunate in my experience. I consulted a convenience sample of family and friends I knew to be LGBTQ to ask about their experiences; I got a range of responses.
Several had observed the same silence I had, letting realization gradually dawn among their friends and family and co-workers. They simply lived their lives—their truths—revealing themselves daily but without fanfare. Others were more forthright: my brother let us know there would be two grooms and no bride at his wedding. My niece’s Facebook birthday greetings to her “elder daughter” alerted us to her eldest child’s transition from Jeff to Holly.
Asked about pride or shame, some spoke of the first time they’d walked in a Pride parade or had explicitly told someone they were gay or lesbian. Some spoke of once having believed their sexual orientation was “unnatural,” or of being dismayed when someone recognized them for what they were—sometimes, even before they had admitted as much to themselves. Some spoke not of pride or shame, but rather, of simple self-acceptance—a precursor of pride that easily transcended shame. Each journeyed from realization to acceptance; no one made the trip unscathed.
But notably, we all arrived: we are living authentic lives, embracing all aspects of ourselves. We are—in a word—proud. Whatever your truth, I hope you are, too. ▼
Marj Shannon is an epidemiologist and writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.