Because of the shame

Originally published in the May 24 issue of Creative Loafing Atlanta.

My chest felt tight. My arms tingled. I just sat at my desk and cried. I felt overwhelmed. I was having an anxiety attack. I emailed my editor. “I don’t feel well,” I wrote. “Going home.”

My breakdown began the evening before, right after a friend emailed me a link to a Rolling Stone blog post about the lead singer of the punk band Against Me!, one of my favorite bands, whose angsty, political, socially conscious lyrics and raucous sound still make me feel like a rebellious teenager.

I clicked the link.

The headline read: “Tom Gabel of Against Me! Comes Out as Transgender.”

In the magazine’s latest issue, the lead singer confesses to struggling with gender dysphoria since a young child, having identified as transgendered for years. Under her new official name, Laura Jane Grace, she’s committed to live life as a woman, her wife standing proudly at her side.

Within seconds, my Facebook and phone started blowing up with messages from friends. We were all in shock. We were all thrilled. Online, people left comments to show their support. “I just want to give her a hug so badly right now and tell her congratulations,” one typical commenter wrote. “I’m sure that’s a REALLY tough thing to confront,” wrote another, “especially when you’ve had professional success as the lead singer of an aggro male-identified rock band.”

Of course, for every lover, there’s always a hater or two. “What a freak!” said one person. “Sick. Disgusting,” typed another.

The next morning I phoned my father on the way to work to tell him the news. He didn’t say anything — just laughed.

My jaw clenched. His laugh was odd, a mix of happiness for me (because he knows sexuality and gender rights are important to his daughter), and a laugh that said, “What the fuck is the matter with your generation?” I found an excuse to hang up.

At my desk, I browsed the Internet. It seemed every media outlet was covering Laura’s transition, along with the previous day’s passing vote in favor of amending North Carolina’s constitution to define marriage solely as a union between a man and woman. By the afternoon, media outlets reported that President Barack Obama came out in support of same sex marriage — a first for him, but not before adding that he still supports the rights of states to decide the issue of same-sex marriage on their own. A headline on Fox News read, “Obama flip flops, declares war on marriage.”

As I read through articles and comments, I thought about my friends who are out, happy and free to express love and be loved. I thought about that high school classmate who said he’d abort his unborn child if gay, only to bump into him with a boyfriend at a party years later in college. I thought about that diary entry I found from junior high where I cried after my cousin called my older brother a “faggot” for piercing his tongue. My mom expressed concern whether or not he’s right about his accused orientation, and I wrote, “Dad would be ashamed. He could never accept it.” I’d stared at the line on the page for a long while.

I remembered when my mom and I watched a “Nightline” episode on children who identify with gender dysphoria and how they cope. My mother said, “People can be so cruel.” Later I told her how the father of this girl I knew had the courage to come out as transgender after his daughter told him she was a lesbian. My mother said, “People are so weird.”

I thought about my own sexual orientation and that of the men I’m drawn to, and whether or not my family will ever be privy to this information, if I will email them this article. I thought about how much my dad influences my younger brother. I wondered what would happen if I told them I think it’s hot when two women have sex — or two men.

I told my friend. “It’s none of their business,” he said.

“I’m hurt and offended every time they call a person a freak,” I told him, “because then they would think I’m a freak.”

My friend smiled. “Well,” he said, “you kinda are.” I laughed.

Finally, I thought, “Who the fuck cares?” I thought of all my friends out and happy, of the parents I know who love their children unconditionally, I thought of Tom Gabel, and the millions I will never know. I thought, “No one cares.” No one, but the haters.

In the end, here’s the thing: Straight, gay, trans, whatever — do not numb who you really are. To be vulnerable allows for freedom. Do not let the haters shame you. After all, you don’t really care what they have to say, anyway.

Sitting at my desk, I sent the email to my boss and packed up my things. I drove home with the windows down and nothing but the sounds of Atlanta traffic. At my house, I poured myself a glass of whiskey and sat on my deck. Staring up at the trees, I thought of Laura Jane Grace. I wondered what she did that day. I wondered if she avoided the Internet. If she was with her wife and daughter, with her supportive mother who she’d been scared to come out to in the past. I wondered if her Florida marriage would still be legal after her surgery. I wondered if she’d heard about North Carolina. About Obama’s speech. I wondered if she too felt the chatter. If her chest felt tight.

“No,” I thought, “she’s finally free.”

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