Emotionally Present / Gender / Lived Experience/Memoir / Personal Is Political

Flaming Fucking Rainbows

Back when I was in college, I was an in-the-closet (or stealth) queer and trans person for the first three years of my full-time pursuit of pre-med. I was planning for and actively working towards a career as a dentist, and my aspiration going into this career choice was to work hard as a professional in an urban location for the express purpose of using all of my extra resources and finances to help disadvantaged people in remote locations access dental care for free, while I live a stable but meager existence in my off-hours. It was the intersection of my life-long dream of becoming a doctor, with my adult passion as a social justice advocate — which is in part rooted in my personal experiences both as a child and an adult, which are painfully marked by deprivation, neglect, and heinous abuse for which justice has never been served and likely never will be. Before entering college, I had spent years researching and working towards refining my career goals from “I want to be a doctor when I grow up!” to “I am going to become a dentist, and this is my first step towards making that dream a reality.” Enrolling in my first college to become a medical office assistant and gain relevant work experience was that first step. But by the end of my first three years in my second college, my life-long dream was dead. And it still is, years later.

My problems began when I couldn’t attend the necessary academic requisite classes (in either college) without experiencing homophobic and transphobic microaggressions in every single one of them. And my problems finally erupted in my complete emotional breakdown over the steadily escalating passive aggression of my two lab partners in the middle of accelerated format organic chemistry—a course designed to compress an entire year of work, including full-blown mid-terms and finals, into a single rapid-fire semester of just 12 weeks—in which I found myself at high risk of failing because of the actions of these two men towards me. While I observed them treating me differently than they treated anyone else (and observed them treating everyone else with distinguished consistency relative to the way they consistently treated me), I also observed everyone else in the lab that semester treating the three of us exactly the same as everyone treats everyone else. In other words, these two men were behaving differently towards me than they would behave towards anyone else, and no one else treated me or them the way these two men acted towards me. It was a transparent case of discriminatory treatment. As if from outside of my body, I was watching these two men discriminate against me, and was powerless to stop it or bring attention to it. And I knew that it was on the basis of my gender variance and sexual orientation, the way I knew that I was the only gender-variant and queer person in that classroom.

It’s all very subtle, you see, even when you’re flaming both in and out of the closet. We know who our people are, even if they don’t admit it yet. We know when we are being gay-bashed and trans-bashed, even if no one else around us does at the time. It’s called microaggression, and it is an astoundingly common and frequent occurrence in the lives of queer and trans people. But no matter how subtle all of this is to a casual observer (or even an extremely careful observer who happens to be heterosexual and/or cisgender), it is as traumatizing and debilitating to experience this kind of behaviour tens of thousands of times in repetition over one’s entire lifetime as it would be to experience a single spontaneous event of outwardly violent gay-bashing and trans-bashing out of the clear blue sky (which would be traumatizing for anyone, regardless of their gender or orientation). When you have the experience of having endured homophobic and/or transphobic microaggression thousands of times before — a subtle form of abuse that usually takes a passive aggressive format long before escalating into much worse — it is just as traumatic to be raked, already burned and still bleeding, across those same hot coals all over again, as it would be to just be spontaneously mobbed and beaten within an inch of your life before you’ve ever experienced anything even remotely more subtle for the first time in your life. Each new instance of microaggression triggers the memory of tens of thousands of prior instances as soon as early adulthood. Whether the microaggression is homophobic in nature, or transphobic, or racially motivated, or misogynistic, this is the shared experience that unites us all.

I reported what was going on in the lab to my class instructor and to my lab instructor. My two partners avoiding eye contact with me when they were forced by the instructor to accept me as part of their group for the assignment. The two of them speaking to each other while I was out of earshot and suddenly going completely silent when I joined them. The two of them devising a system of quietly verbally communicating between themselves, which beaker contained which clear colourless liquid among several different identical unlabelled beakers of clear colourless liquids, and refusing to disclose to me whether or not either of them had retrieved a specific one yet or completed the next step in the instructions—in a lab that was dealing with precision down to just a few too many or too few molecules, and which we would all have to start over again if any step of several hours of work was done out of sequence. The two of them jovially engaging anyone else who spoke to them or asked them a question, but pretending that no one was addressing them when I did. The two of them pretending not to hear me speaking to either of them when they were fumbling with how to operate the equipment in the lab, while I stood directly next to them and asked them repeatedly to move just a couple of inches aside and let me at it because I had actually read the goddamned manual in advance and knew what I was doing. The two of them insisting that despite the fact that we miraculously finished early, we don’t all just meet up and work on the write-up together when we would normally be scheduled to be at the school for another three hours anyway. And finally, the two of them deciding in front of me that I will have no part or say in the write-up, which would guarantee my failure not only in this lab but in the overall lab evaluation for the course (which would also guarantee my failure for the whole course, no matter how well I performed in theory or how close to that minimum 70% lab mark I got by my own accord). I cannot begin to express how outraged I was at being put in this same old familiar place, yet again, by two new perpetrators among tens of thousands over my lifetime up to this point in my very short history; having done absolutely nothing wrong and actually knowing I was both equally as competent in the work as either of them were (if not more so), and inherently deserving of equal treatment but being repeatedly denied it right to my face in a steady escalation from mildly vexing passive aggression to palpable hostility.

So I began to explain this to my classroom instructor, who wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole and insisted I speak to my lab instructor about it. When I spoke to my lab instructor, she asked me how I knew I was being discriminated against on the basis of my gender and sexuality, when for all intents and purposes, “no one could possibly know.” And despite the very increasingly serious threat to my ability to even pass this first half of the accelerated format course and continue on to the second half, she was denying me the right to turn in my own report for individual evaluation; even insisting that I either “just talk to” my lab partners and assert myself or fail the group lab that was worth a third of our lab evaluation. As if I hadn’t tried that enough already for several consecutive hours while they ignored my persistent pleading for information that was vital to our advancing as a collective through a very complex task that no one with our limited experience could perform in isolation. I successfully convinced her to evaluate me as an individual, and earned a B+ on my own on an assignment that everyone else in the lab was doing half as much work on, but she remained convinced that I was not experiencing discrimination. I lost marks because the two fuck-ups who wouldn’t step aside and let me operate the equipment for 2 minutes while they spent the greater part of an hour trying to figure out how to turn it on, also failed to get a legible printed record of the machine’s reading for one of three required results—which we couldn’t repeat without doing the entire lab over again because they wasted our end-product—and then they delayed in bringing those records to the college after I had already tried to make my complaint known to the lab instructor.

At the time of this event, I was conscious that my lab instructor was a Persian woman whose first language is Farsi, who had somehow managed the extraordinary feat of establishing herself in a field of academic work that is unquestionably dominated by white men whose first language is English. And for this reason, when she asked me how I knew that the discrimination I was experiencing was rooted in how I privately experience my sexuality and my gender, I was forced to ask myself exactly how vexing it must be for her to experience an English-speaking white person try to explain to her that they are experiencing discrimination—and not by just anyone, but by another English-speaking white dude and a visibly racialized but English-speaking man whose ethnic background gave him immediately more in common with her than I have. I convinced myself that this was how she must have felt, and that this was somehow a legitimate excuse to ignore the problem I brought to her (coming out of the closet as a queer and a gender-variant person in the process). I felt backed into a corner and confined to silence, as if my voice had somehow been taken away from me and not merely denied (whatever the reasons may be for that), when I most needed to be heard shouting at top volume. This threw me into a full-blown emotional breakdown just barely masked by a visible decline into a furious dissociated emotional state — which by that point seemed like the only remaining option after all of the microaggression and passive aggression I had experienced from my lab partners, and now my lab instructor too. She was the only person in a position of power in this circumstance, and was choosing instead to deny that there was a problem she needed to act on.

I was internalizing my oppression, and it was killing me, so I was in fight-or-flight mode (and chose the fight for my life until the end of the first wave of finals that semester, after which I withdrew on a medical leave of absence). But perhaps far worse than all of that: it was hammering in the final nail in the coffin in which my life-long dreams now laid broken and beyond reclaimation, alongside so many of the things I have had to sacrifice in order to live with myself in integrity as a queer and trans person. I could survive myself, like I had been forced to tens of thousands of times before and through several prior breakdowns of this magnitude under different circumstances. But it’s been years now, and I still don’t know how to deal with my life-long dreams being systematically broken down and trampled on for decades, and finally put to death over the course of six weeks.

And then in the wee hours this morning, I had a new dream. In this dream, I went back in time to the moment my lab instructor told me “no one could know” I was queer and trans because I hadn’t come out of the closet. And I told her that of course they fucking knew. Even when I was in the closet, I wasn’t stealth. I was flaming fucking rainbows. And then I asked her how any white-passing racially marginalized person would convey to people around her that she is a person of colour when she is experiencing race-based microaggression.

And the answer is because there would be no basis for denying it, because she doesn’t move about the world as a white person even if she looks like one—same as I wasn’t moving about the world as a gender-congruent heterosexual even though I “looked like” one. The same way I know when I am in the company of another queer or gender-variant person, even if they are stealth. The same way heterosexuals and gender-congruent persons know when there’s someone among them who isn’t part of their clan, even if it isn’t being blurted out through a bullhorn. It’s the same way white people know when they are in the company of other socially comatose white people, and “sense” the presence of a “traitor” when a socially conscious white person (or a stealth, white-passing person of colour) is in their midst. Isn’t it about time we stop pretending everything is fine unless and until it’s very immediately obvious that it’s not?

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