I am; are you?

Not a good week for the world. Whether your world is here, or here or even here. There’s no reasoned way to dress it up or rationalise it or paper over it: sometimes people are so vile towards one another, the very term “humanity” seems to reach the end of its elasticity.

Different people react to these sorts of events in different ways (yeah, how insightful, Egan). One good friend lived in Istanbul for several years; another in Brussels. A colleague is Belgian; a lovely chap whom I got to know here in Auckland moved back to Belgium last year (shout out to Facebook’s awesome safety notifier for crises and incidents). I have a friend who lives in another part of Belgium and know a couple of guys who left Istanbul in years recent for the US. My heart breaks for them all.

My own experiences with these cities are real, but rather tenuous. I backpacked through Brussels twice in the 80s and it remains one of my favourite European cities. My five day visit to Istanbul in 2004 (for the Eurovision) was wonderful: I’d love to go back and see more of Turkey. Sitting in the Grand Place quaffing beer when I was 18 is one of my first “grown up” memories; being so warmly welcomed at every single mosque in Istanbul was too (not an experience in every mosque I’ve visited, alas). Great memories as a visitor, an explorer. No more.

In 2001 I had a very different experience. My hometown was attacked and a lot of people died, including a few I knew. Family were caught up in the horror. It took time to ascertain who was alive and who wasn’t; it took a long time—weeks—for my anxiety to wholly give way to anger and sadness. The kilometres between Vancouver and Rockaway felt a hundred times farther. Finally it took a visit a couple of months later to feel like my people would be OK; it took 5 seconds in lower Manhattan for the surreal to become real.

Several months later I ran into a fellow grad student. Before meeting her in-person she was one of the queerati in my mind: someone whose name comes up a lot as a leader. By that day I knew her well enough to understand she was only interested in making things better for our communities: she was not driven by ego. She also had a counselling practice, and somehow the topic of 9/11 came up.“Oh it’s been very busy since then. Lots of former clients coming back in. Things like this are major triggers for people with PTSD.”

The conversation that followed has stuck with me. Some of her clients were trauma survivors (in the presumed sense): violence, abuse, neglect, torture. But others’ PTSD came from something I hadn’t considered: oppression, as queers.

That might seem surprising—or incredulous—to you, but hear me out. Let’s suppose you’re a little baby fag or dyke. Or a person whose assigned sex is an obviously poor match for your gender. If you think this doesn’t happen, ask 10 of your queer friends when they felt they were different—and when they knew others did too. For most of us it’s really early, long before we were cognisant of sexuality or gender. I remember experiencing aggression from family and neighbours before starting school. I was, in short, a princess. And the world into which I was born was not equipped to deal with the likes of me.

As a 50-something ould fat bastard, I see this now about restrictive, hegemonic notions of gender. I angered the gender police (more often men, but also women) because my natural self defied convention. Eventually I learned how to act masculine; in the process I lost any positive sense of self worth. The person whom everyone liked was a performance, not me. But others with similar stories can’t—or, good on them, won’t—conform. Rather than derision, exclusion and the occasional smack, they experienced much worse.

A lot of them aren’t around to share their truths. At the hands (and fists and knives and guns) of others, or through their own hands, they’ve been murdered. For those who survived, there’s a continuum of trauma. Sadly, many of us who have, more or less, recovered are the quickest to critique or judge those who haven’t quite yet.

In 2011 I understood why 9/11 affected me so deeply and personally. And rightly so. But I didn’t realise that my reaction was still somewhat magnified by trauma. For me that was mostly about belonging: despite feeling very connected to the attacks, deep down I felt like a fraud. Because I didn’t feel like I was accepted, at a fundamental level, as part of that community. That feeling wasn’t related to how accepted I was as a gay man; it was completely about how I felt rejected as a child.

It doesn’t feel like anymore…or at least it hasn’t in a really long time. But it might again. Even if it feels like that, my knowledge is that it won’t stay like that forever, and I will remember again that those feelings are reasonable and legitimate. Though I don’t need to dwell on them or in them.

I am OK; are you? Talk to me. Or to someone. With whom you can be safe, someone who can lend you some of their strength so you can find some of yours again.