Tuesday, May 1, 2012

What did homophobia have to do with being raped?

This is more pre-work to our TEACH storytelling workshop, which I wrote 5 days prior to the workshop itself. For the record, I still haven't managed to tell aloud any reworkings of my story for the group - more about that later.

Offside - this is my 50th public post!

Bear with me here - this is personal stuff, tough stuff. I don't usually think about connections between my own experiences or try to detangle things, so I would love comments/constructive criticism if anybody does read this.

TW for non-graphic discussion of rape

What did homophobia have to do with being raped?

When it happened, I didn't see any connections. Just pain, shame, fear, and confusion. Now the links are more obvious. Homophobia was a catalyst, not a cause - in my case, rape was not a specifically homophobic crime - and it was one of the biggest hurdles that kept me silent.

In my first year of high school, fitting in was paramount. Boys were a sudden new feature of my perplexing new social landscape. I knew that admitting that I was interested in them only as friends, and that I instead harboured a crush on the girl who sat next to me in science class, would be social suicide. It would mean a return to the bullying that had followed me from school to school for five years and which I hoped desperately to escape.

So when my sister told of a guy who she and a friend had a crush on, I thought it best to play along. I flirted back, awkwardly, and kept mum through fear when he first began to touch me in the halls. Saying no would, I thought, out me right away. And telling a teacher? After years of bullying from students and teachers alike, I was reluctant to trust them. Besides, he was acting the way I believed older high school boys were meant to behave. My response was to act like a typical teen girl; that is, to giggle and play along. I hoped that would let me maintain for my classmates the illusion of being straight. To me, it was a performance. For him, it was real. I didn't know how dangerous that could be.

The situation escalated. He pursued other girls as well, but they stood up for themselves. I was too scared to, and didn't fight him off when he casually but inappropriately touched me at my locker, my heart pounding and my insides shriveling up with shame. I'd sacrifice the private parts of my body to keep my real crushes private and protect my fledgling friendships. At the same time, I felt like a traitor to myself, and to my feminist values. I started to separate my body from my mind.

In early April of that year, I made plans to come out. A good friend was scheduled to visit from out of town over the Easter long weekend, and I planned to come out to her to test the waters. The idea was that if that went well, I'd tell my whole family at our upcoming Passover Seder. None of that ever happened.

The Wednesday before that weekend, the boy I'd feared and flirted with raped me after school.

My friend never visited that weekend; fears or a flu epidemic kept her home. I couldn't come out to her as practice. Besides, I felt guilty and tainted, fearing that I'd let this happen; that I was a phoney lesbian; that other women would shun me. I came to believe that, perhaps, I had deserved it.

After that, I couldn't tell my family. Besides, my mind was reeling and my body was so detached that I would touch my own hands numbly, doubting that they were mine. As the months passed, I began to wonder if I was even real. I hurt myself, to test if I existed and to see if I could feel more pain. Mostly I felt nothing but numbness. When I did feel anything, I felt grief for what I had lost: the sanctity of my body and the queer community which, by flirting with the boy who raped me, I thought I had betrayed.

On the second anniversary of the rape, I wrote a speech about feminism which a friend of mine read for my grade eleven English class. I told of how rape had reinforced my feminist views, and outed myself as a rape survivor. Yet I emphatically denied that I was a lesbian, telling my classmates that it was something I had thought about but that it didn't really describe me. I don't know what they made of that but it was, to an extent, true. At that point, I identified as asexual, thinking any hope I had of sexuality had been destroyed by rape, and denying the attractions that I felt towards women on the grounds that I didn't deserve those feelings. Now, I feel that asexuality wasn't the word or concept that I needed, but at the time it was a way for me to acknowledge for myself that I was certainly not straight. It also justified my own decision to trample my own same-sex attractions.

Overcome by pangs of jealousy when a friend came out as a lesbian, I called a queer youth helpline. They listened to me. They assured me that my past could not dictate my identity. The young woman at the end of the line never doubted me or denied my pain. She just said, "that's rough" and let me talk all I wanted. The guilt and uncertainty that had paralyzed me for two years began to melt away. I could almost feel my body thaw. It was not easy. Over the past few years I have felt and lived through the pain that I had denied by living separately from my own body. Dissociation, I have since learned, compounds physical pain and saves it for later, like a systemic burning regurgitation of an unwanted meal. That's not to say that I don't still sometimes dissociate - but it's a coping strategy I use when it's the safest thing to do at the time, rather than by default. I no longer hurt myself.

Days after calling the helpline, I came out to my immediate family, and in the weeks that followed, to some close friends. I was lucky to be surrounded by accepting and loving people. My fears of rejection and further abuse were unfounded. I only wish that I'd squarely faced homophobia and my fears of its potential impact before it blinded me to the positive forces that were with me, and within me, all along.

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