I was recently in a room surrounded by other gay men. I'm not often in an all gay environment and it should feel a bit like coming home. No matter how much I am fully engaged and included in the larger community, there is a difference that is always subtly there. When we were younger Joe and I would talk about how we needed to go to a gay bar or a gay event just to escape the sense of being surrounded by heterosexual culture and heterosexual assumptions. Since I've become a wheelchair user, that opportunity has virtually disappeared, few of the gay bars in the city are accessible and as such we've grown deeply out of touch with what's going on and the social opportunities that are available.
But, back to being in a room surrounded by gay men. I became aware of it because of a whisper. I looked over and saw two men, my age, looking over at me. They were suppressing giggles. I glanced around and saw that my arrival in the room had thrown a rock into the pool of hilarity. My weight, my wheelchair, the 'all' of who I am seemed to make me the perfect foil for jokes and for eye rolls and facial OMG's. I went very still inside, like I do when I realise I am not safe. I looked for, and found, a place where I could move my wheelchair to to be out of sight of the group.
You may think that you would not have moved.
You may think that you would have said something.
But there are things in this story that I'm not telling you, and those things would have made those responses entirely impossible and highly inappropriate. I do have to edit my life sometimes. But the saying something or the moving are not what this blog post is about. It's about something much deeper than the temporary discomfort I felt in that moment. It's about how people seem incapable of LEARNING from their own experience and applying it to the experience of another.
The It Gets Better project, with it's laudable goal of supporting LGBT? youth who are experiencing bullying and teasing demonstrates the power of a communities response to a serious issue. The idea that 'It Gets Better' is one that gives hope of a brighter future to kids who are in hostile environments. One would hope that those who experienced Bullying and Teasing in their youth, or in their workplace, or in their church or in their family, would have a deep, deep, deep understanding of what it's like to be on the brunt end of a pointed finger, to be on the sharp end of another's joke, to be struck across the face by words that hurt, to have blood drawn from the hostile stares of others. One would hope.
In my mind, I like to imagine that everyone who experienced bullying, experienced the sense of 'outsiderness' that comes with difference, would be really cautious and careful with their words, their attitudes and their actions. But instead it seems to be more like, ... It Gets Better, In Fact It Gets So Good That You Get To Become The Tormentor.
Why is it wrong when something is done to us but acceptable when we do it to others? I think it's because we see ourselves as innocent victims and those we do it to as 'deserving' it in some way. Our behaviour becomes defined by the 'otherness' of the 'other' what is held in common is brushed aside while that old, old social equation of difference = lesser gets pulled out and dusted off again.
I think, therefore, that those of us in the disability community, who experience prejudice or inaccessibility should be hyper alert to our own prejudices and our own attitudinal inaccessibility. I think that because we KNOW we have a responsibility to put KNOWING to good use.
Life is lived for learning, is it not?
The first time you are called a name, the first time you feel that sting, should be the last time you ever call a name. Right?
It's another simple equation, one that I prefer.
Experience of cruelty = Drive to be kind