A tweet by Alexander Leon, an Australia-based writer and activist who works at Kaleidoscope Trust, went viral this week on Twitter. Leon wrote, “Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimize humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.”
As of Jan. 7, the post had 41,204 retweets and 146,485 likes. Queer folks around the world clearly identified with Leon’s words. Growing up LGBTQ is difficult, and depending on where an individual’s coming-of-age is had or within what intersecting identities, it can be more challenging. The Trevor Project dedicates itself to saving LGBTQ lives, offering crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ folks under the age of 25. According to the nonprofit’s 2019 National Survey on LGBTQ Mental Health, over half of nonbinary and transgender respondents seriously considered suicide over a 12-month period, and 39 percent of LGBTQ respondents reported the same. Only 3 percent of the respondents were Black, however, along with 7 percent mixed-race, 14 percent Hispanic, 1 percent American Indian/Alaskan Native and 73 percent white.
Growing up trans and nonbinary offers its own unique set of challenges regarding Leon’s post, as does growing up Black and queer or Latinx and queer. Growing up in a rural area, with limited access to resources, role models and queer competency, is different than exposure to a thriving queer community. At the intersections, more protective measures are often necessary that sacrifice authenticity. One has to unravel not only society’s perception of being attracted to the same sex, but also a gender other than one assigned at birth and/or implications of race, immigration or a number of other bigoted sentiments. Also, folks of color rarely see statistical data that, even within the LGBTQ community, represents and documents their struggles.
How do folks find authenticity in a society that tries its best to shape us into a cis-het norm that for centuries, we have rebelled against? What about a society that privileges whiteness?
For some, perhaps therapy or a welcoming chosen family. Some of us do, some of us don’t. Some of us enact the exclusion we receive from society on one another. We have to begin to unlearn that part of ourselves, as we unlearn the others. Transphobia and racism are still rampant in the LGBTQ community. Queer capital in the form of language and queer theory is used to ostracize those who haven’t had the opportunity or time to utilize (or weaponize) it.
Leon added a hopeful note to his viral message, “It’s massive and existential and difficult. But I’m convinced that being confronted with the need for profound self-discovery so explicitly (and often early in life!) is a gift in disguise. We come out the other end wiser & truer to ourselves. Some cis/het people never get there.”
It is a gift, in some ways, to be forced into self-awareness, to grapple with identity in ways others don’t. This should, in turn, create empathy, as we realize the costs associated with authenticity and visibility and becoming who we are. Empathy is a power that not everyone has, and I hope we can recognize that power in 2020.