Dick Gregory’s “Shame” always reminds me of a story my father once told me about how he used to have to walk so far to school that by the time he got there his uniform was dirty and sweaty. My father told me that story because he wanted me to know what he was protecting me from by moving me to a country halfway across the world. Because he wanted me to live without the shame of poverty.
I’ve never really written about coming out to my parents and I’ve never really wanted to; mostly because I was outed, which made the whole thing feel like a chore I never got around to but somehow got done anyway. It didn’t go well because my parents are conservative Christian African immigrants. What I have written about is how much I love holding my girlfriend’s hand in public because it makes me feel like I’m redefining wholesomeness. I was worried about my parents reading that because I didn’t want them to think that I was happy with my choice of living in sin, even though I really really was.
For every corporate-sponsored rainbow I see during the month of June there are two phone calls from the people I’m meant to care about the most in the world telling me I’ve made a mess of my life. One comes in the sound of the first voice I probably recognized. Her skin looks just like mine. I still know what she smells like because I’ve been living with that smell all my life. Sometimes I catch it in glimpses even though she’s 2,500 miles away and it’s just my head reminding me I am my mother’s child. I get reminded of that when I smell it on myself too. Or when I catch her reflection in my mirror and her cadence in my speech. To me, she says that she loves me, to my sister she says that she’s praying for me.
On the phone, we talk about her new job and I think maybe for a second I think I hate her in a regular way. In the ‘I can’t believe you’ve been crying for two weeks because I moved to a different state’ kind of way. But before we hang up, she asks me if my mind has changed on the whole lesbian thing and I realize that I love her in the worst way. In the ‘I was willing to go my whole life closeted because then maybe every time you got a google alert of my name your blood pressure wouldn’t spike because everyone back home would know that your daughter is living in sin and she loves it” kind of way. That phone call at least is honest because she knows everything.
The other phone call sounds less complicated. Only one of us pretends we have a relationship, I know better. This is about money and school and career and whatever else the mission of coming to this country concerned. His voice never fluctuates. It’s instead a hum that I tune in and out of. Except for that one time when there was a threat of suicide while I cried in my car the day they found out, his voice fluctuated on the word kill to a frequency of distress I only recognized from the time my grandmother passed away on Christmas. Usually, though, we ask each other the same question we always do about whatever financial crisis we are having at the time because there is always one. He reminds me that I’m killing my mother, I reply that I know. We end by reciting so coldly three of the warmest words in the English language.
Every day I talk to my parents and I swallow my shame. If I don’t, I feel like I’m meticulously stepping on the spines of two people who’ve spent their whole lives crawling in dirt so I didn’t have to; two people who’ve bet everything they own, broken every bone and sold their souls for me to be alive. So I have to swallow the shame they give me and every day I do. It does manage to slip out. It slips when my girlfriend kisses my cheek in front of her mom and I flinch even though I’ve listened to her stories about knowing a young Melissa Etheridge over a puzzle we worked on together for a month. I catch it and swallow it whole again. It slips when I use an unnaturally high pitch when I ask for the bathroom in a building just to make sure I don’t alarm anyone who might be watching when I walk to the women’s bathroom. I catch it and swallow it whole again.
Most of the time though it sits inside. It has to stay there because otherwise, everyone will know that I’m lying. I’m lying every year when I excitedly proclaim that I was born to be gay because my birthday is on the first day of Pride Month. I have to be lying because when my mom calls me that night to wish me a happy birthday and she reminds me of where I came from, I feel the shame move inside.
Even when I had completely sworn off ever doing it, I always imagined being out as a magic trick. I always thought that the reason we were so tired of seeing coming out narratives in media was that we’d all gone through that already and we were ready to be normal happy as opposed to closeted repressed happy. Then I was forced out of the closet. When I opened my eyes to the parade and the rainbow-colored vodka I expected to feel lighter. I expected the decade of repression to fall off my skin and be replaced by all the things that I needed to hear. All the good things that come with all this like friends and love and community and a real chance. Instead of a magic trick, it felt more like tripping on a rock and almost falling so far down that I’d never make it back but not quite. So I got up and checked that I was still alive, that all the parts of me from before were still there. Some of the shame did fall off when I tripped but most of it stayed. And all I can do is carry it.
In that essay, Dick Gregory opens by saying that he didn’t learn shame at home. I experienced homophobia in the world that made me scared for my safety, but the shame was homegrown. It was cultivated in the love I have for my parents. It’s a product of their expectations but it’s also a product of our family, our life, our values. And I can’t imagine how to love them without my shame. I know being gay and emotionally tortured is passé but every day I wonder what everyone else did with theirs.