Most LGBTQ+ people hate to portray themselves as victims. They often go at great lengths to present themselves as resilient, functional and successful. They consistently downplay experiences of homophobia and transphobia. Whether it is being bullied at school, ostracized from family, community and places of worship, insulted from passing cars or underpaid compared to their peers, LGBTQ+ accept these as mere “facts of life” or incidents in their “journey”.
There are several reasons we misrepresent our lived experience. First, we sometimes do not recognize homophobia or transphobia in our life even though it fits the definition — negative attitudes and beliefs about, aversion to, or prejudice against LGBTQ+ people. We also integrate the aversion of modern western society to “victim mentality” as a warped sense of thinking that disempowers individuals and is “counterproductive”. Perhaps more importantly, we have an insatiable appetite for approval and a desire to fit in. As a consequence we adopt the “model minority” behavior: being patient and grateful for societal progress, keeping a low profile and succeeding.
Popular culture, taking cues from LGBTQ+ people, tend to portray and celebrate the “gorgeous talented trans woman” (Laurence Anyways), the “trendy LA lesbian with a great posse” (The L Word), the “hilarious and tasteful gay man celebrated by his family” (Modern Family), “the artsy badass bi-woman challenging norms” (Atomic Blonde) or “the good kid whose father reaction to his coming out is surprisingly supportive” (Love Simon).
Those are of course more “empowering” stories than those of runaway trans kids turning tricks in inner city and eventually dying of an overdose, the gay men plagued by lifelong low self-esteem and unable to achieve intimacy, the Latino lesbian in federal jail for a minor infraction, the queer middle-age man disinvited from Christmas dinner by his relatives or the bi single black mum on food stamps trapped in a cycle of domestic violence.
There is one problem though: the uplifting stories we celebrate are not representative and perpetuate myths about LGBTQ+ lived experience. They make straight cis people comfortable with their complicity in the organized marginalization of LGBTQ+ people on the basis of who they love or which gender they identify with.
The theme for this year’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, “Together: Resisting, Supporting, Healing!”, invites us to heal. But can there be true healing or reconciliation without acknowledging that what happens to us, particularly in childhood, is neither innocent nor insignificant?
Not only does experiencing homophobia and transphobia in childhood and adolescence leave long lasting psychological scars which translates into higher incidences of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide ideation, suicide, it continues in adulthood through more subtle forms. As an example, in the US, the Williams Institute reports that LGBTQ+ people collectively have a poverty rate of 21.6%, which is much higher than the rate for cisgender straight people of 15.7%. In a Youth Chances 2016 study in the UK, 44% of young LGBTQ+ people reported suicidal thoughts, compared to 26% of heterosexual non-trans respondents. In the rest of the world? Often nobody bothered to ask.
When this years theme incites us to “resist and support”, it is an opportunity for us to demand that our Governments take concrete actions to address the widespread violation of our human rights globally. There can be no peace in our denunciation of the 80+ countries that still criminalize LGBTQ+ relationships in some way, and the many more that proactively deny even the most basic rights and dignity to LGBTQ+ people. We should be calling out every single handshake between elected officials and the Erdogan, Duda, Orban, Putin, MBS or Bolsonaro’s of this world. We should not accept that international events take place in cities where LGBTQ+ still live in situations of apartheid.
Minimizing the horror, extent and long-lasting consequences of homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in order to keep the majority comfortable is not an effective strategy for change. Rather, acknowledging and highlighting the multiple ways in which our lives are consistently affected by negative attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people will help the world understand the urgency for social change and open our own hearts to healing and true reconciliation.
Fabrice Houdart is the treasurer of the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia which is celebrated globally on May 17th, anniversary of the World Health Organization’s May 1990 decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.