Retrospective on “Difference”–A Personal Story
Anyone–even the young lady on the right in this photo–may experience “outsider” status at certain moments in life. But for many of us, like the green-complexioned girl on the left, that status is permanent. It may derive from physical characteristics or from any number of less visible markers such as personal beliefs, group affiliations, or character traits.
I grew up in the American South and enjoyed the privileges that came with being white, male, middle-class, and protestant. And yet I was gay, and I began to sense my difference from other boys at a very early age. The heterosexual “game of love and chance” was the only game in town, and I couldn’t play. This sense of my “difference”–a difference that could at any moment become cause for a painful and even violent exclusion, even from my family–grew into a permanent feature of my character over the years, and it has affected my perspective on nearly everything. Compounding my sense of myself as an outsider, I became an atheist before I left high school.
Being gay and atheist in Texas and Louisiana in the sixties required constant feats of evasion and camouflage. The Stonewall riots had not yet set the gay rights movement in motion, and activist atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was ridiculed as a kook. The challenge that faced me for several decades was how to “be” gay and atheist and yet to survive in the world of family, friends, and work. Somehow I did survive by all kinds of devious means, including selectively closeting my sexual identity and struggling for years to find accommodations with the dominant religion. (I used to call myself a “Christian atheist” and actually believed I could make people understand what I meant by that.) Eventually, my most successful strategy was to seek out more hospitable environments in which to live and grow, thus confirming my “outsider” status from the perspective of all those I left behind. The joys of genuine “belonging” came to me relatively late in life.
In recent years, I have begun to see outsider status as, in some ways, a gift. In a world that so badly needs fixing on so many fronts, our group affiliations and loyalties may help us achieve goals that we could not achieve singly, but often they obstruct our ability to process new information and to pursue sensible courses of action. Every human being needs a sense of belonging, of being tucked securely into something larger and more powerful than himself or herself, but we are sometimes so tightly embedded in our various “cultures” that we lose perspective on them. Creatively questioning assumptions often requires stepping outside the zones of security and comfort that religious, political, and other affiliations provide.
One of my favorite quotations is from George Orwell: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” This struggle requires time, energy, attention, and commitment, and it is necessary because humans usually process experience collectively. Confused about the meaning of events constantly unfolding around us, we look to others for answers—particularly to our leaders—and may buy into myths that ultimately serve very narrow interests. Seeing what is before our eyes requires us to closely scrutinize “received wisdom” about the world and to accept that our most cherished certainties may be delusions.
Among major influences in my thinking have been René Girard, Ernest Becker, Steven Pinker, and a host of secular humanist writers such as Daniel C. Dennett and Richard Dawkins.
This blog site is called “The Bent Angle,” and to help those of you not familiar with gay slang, “bent” is the opposite of “straight” (heterosexual). In geometry, the 90-degree angle is sometimes called the “straight angle.”