I attended the Pride-themed open house at the Lurkville LGBTQ centre this weekend. What a mistake. I should have skipped it.
The day before, I had eaten way too much and not gotten enough sleep, so my weight was up and my resilience was down. Naturally there were giant trays of sweets, which is a problem since I am obsessive around (free) food to the point where I cannot focus on anything else. It was a beautiful day outside, and I did not want to spend it indoors. And there was to be speechifying by politicians, including some politicians I am fairly grumpy with these days. These were not factors positively correlated with having a good time.
But some combination of guilt (over not being visible enough) and gluttony (giant trays of sweets) compelled me to attend. What a mistake.
The gluttony and the sleep deprivation and the nice weather and the politicians were all problems, but they were not the worst part. The worst part was my social anxiety. I felt like an outcast. There were so many strangers in the space.
I always thought I was a really strong introvert, but I was deluding myself. When I am around people I know I never stop yapping. When I run into people I like I will change plans on a whim to spend time talking with them. I often spend days at a time by myself, and then I feel lonely, not energised. These are not introvert behaviours.
But it is true that I am painfully shy to the point of distress. In the past I have been called upon to canvas for political campaigns, and I just can’t do it. The act of going up to a stranger’s door and knocking on it drains me like you wouldn’t believe. Even calling a stranger to book a meeting space makes me quake. Parties are painful at the best of times, and parties filled with strangers drive my anxiety up to 11.
Having participated in the community centre’s events for a few years, I knew several of the people at the open house. But there were over a dozen strangers there. My rational mind was telling me to walk up to people and introduce myself, and my body was having none of it.
I do not know for certain what is behind this social anxiety. However, I have my suspicions: namely, I am a freak. I have a thin skin, so rejection hurts, but in my core I feel that I am an unacceptable human being. Introducing myself to a stranger feels like an imposition, and like a vampire I must not invade the personal space of others unless I am explicitly invited (and like a vampire, I then proceed to dominate their attention and drain their psychic energy).
I feel that some element of this (but not everything) has to do with the LGBTQ aspects of my personality. When people are in the closet, they often worry about how their friends and family will react when and if they disclose their sexuality or gender identity. They worry about social rejection. They know that their LGBTQ identity puts them in the minority, and they are aware that bigots exist in the world. In short, they worry that they are freaks and will be treated like freaks.
Maybe this fear is changing for LGB kids these days, who grow up in a sufficiently tolerant society that being gay is accepted. In some high school subcultures being sexually diverse seems to be some kind of competition, to the point where it is the straight kids who feel left out. But I think people of older generations (and most transfolk) still struggle with acceptance.
I remember how anxious I felt the first time I went to the LGBTQ community centre. I had known and associated with several LGBTQ people in the past, both online and off. But I had not participated in many explicitly LBGTQ activities. I remember worrying that the environment would be highly sexualized (it wasn’t). I remember worrying that I wouldn’t be the right kind of LGBTQ person, that I was not fabulous enough, that my cultural norms and personal prudishness would be in conflict with the “real” LGBTQ people, the ones who belonged at the centre. Stepping into that space for the first time was scary.
That is why my social anxiety at the open house was so awful. I could sense that other people were anxious about being in the space as well. Several people stood in the corners, not talking to anybody and looking uncomfortable. I am pretty sure that several of those people had come to the community centre for the first time. As somebody who had participated in the centre for some time, my job was to be a gracious host, to introduce myself and get to know these newcomers and introduce them to some of the people I knew. And I completely and utterly fell down on the job. I was so obsessed about my own social anxiety that I didn’t bother helping other people feel welcome no matter who they were or how freakish they felt. And I bet a bunch of those people had a terrible time at the open house, and went home vowing never to return. Then I complain about people not participating in LBGTQ-specific activities the way they used to in the good old days.
Here is the dirty secret: I think we all feel like freaks. Even the well-integrated LBG kids feel like outcasts. We are all too skinny or too fat or too hairy or not hairy enough or too butch or too femme or too androgynous or too tall or too short or we wear the wrong clothes or we have the wrong fetishes or we are HIV positive or we are attracted to the wrong people or we have the wrong attitudes or we are into drag or we are repulsed by drag or our voices are too faggy or we’re not rich enough or we don’t like rainbows or we’re too old or we have wrinkles or we’re of the wrong social class or we came out too late in life or we like the opposite sex sometimes or… or… or…
Here is the other dirty secret: we may all be freaks, but it doesn’t matter. IT DOESN’T MATTER. You don’t have to be the right kind of LGBTQ person to be welcome in this community centre, or in the broader community. Even if you don’t feel as if you fit in, you still belong. Once you step over the threshold of entering the community centre, you are a member of the community centre’s community and you should be welcomed as such. Maybe not everybody will like you. Maybe you won’t like everybody. There is still a good chance that you will find a place here and that you will fit in. But if those of us who are already here don’t integrate you and help you feel that you are welcome, then we have failed. And this weekend I failed hard.
Forty minutes into the open house I left. Some politicians I am grumpy with entered the space, and I could feel my anger levels rising, so I used that as an excuse to leave. I wish I had skipped the event entirely. My presence there did more harm than good.