INTERNALIZED OPPRESSION'S LONG SHADOW
BY LAURA SHARKEY
My wife, Robin, and I have lived together for over 21 years and have adopted the typically similar mannerisms peculiar to long-term couples. These days, it seems obvious to most strangers who see us together that we are a couple; only occasionally does someone assume we are sisters or “best friends.” The frequency of situations where I must decide whether to intentionally “out” myself or let the erroneous assumption slide has diminished considerably over the years, but once in a while I am still confronted with the choice. I am comfortable outing myself when I have the luxury of doing so indirectly, waiting for an opportune time to refer to “my wife” naturally, in the context of conversation. That works well; it is a low-key, organic conveyance of by-the-way information. But it’s a whole different ball game when “the question” is asked of me and I must decide how to answer. I’m not comfortable with that. I still get nervous. I still feel challenged and trapped, doomed to disdain, judgement, ridicule or the cast stones (both figurative and literal) that I often weathered in the past. It takes a concerted effort to answer confidently and truthfully, and I don’t always succeed. The times have changed much more than I have, since I first came out over 30 years ago. It’s about time I caught up, so I am thankful for a recent opportunity to confront my archaic and habitual fears around self-disclosure.
In the past few months, Robin and I have become increasingly friendly with a woman (I will call her “Mary”) who works at a coffee shop we sometimes visit. We have reached the point where we share bits of personal information: Mary has mentioned her husband, and I know how old she is and what kind of music she likes. One day when I was at the coffee shop alone, Mary commented that Robin and I seemed to be good friends and she asked how long we had known each other. My defensiveness kicked in; I defaulted to my “safe” response. I told her that Robin and I are very good friends and we’ve known each other for over 20 years. As the words were leaving my mouth, I already regretted them. While true in fact, my response was, in spirit, a lie. I vowed to correct it the next time I had a chance.
A few days later, Mary asked if Robin and I were roommates. I said “Yup,” not looking at her, instead staring down at my computer, typing frantically on my keyboard. I could see her peripherally; she was looking at me, apparently waiting for elaboration. I felt my face getting hot, my stomach knotting up, my whole being immersed in fear. I wished like nothing else that Robin were there, because she is so much braver than I am. She would have simply said “We’re married,” with no drama, no fear, no shame, and only minimal concern for how the information was received. I hated myself in that moment, and wished I’d never invited any familiar conversation with Mary; I hated lying and I hated betraying both myself and my beloved wife. I had committed to the truth but I disappointed myself. Mary broke the uncomfortable silence. She changed the subject and we chatted for a few more minutes, but I felt disconnected and dishonest. My only solace was weak and questionable: I knew that sooner or later, Robin would clean up my mess by sharing the truth with Mary.
Several days later, Robin came home, having gone to coffee with a friend. She told me she had seen Mary, and said, teasing me, “So. I hear we’re roommates?” Again, I felt ashamed. I told her that yes, I had let Mary believe that, and I felt bad about it. I launched into a string of justifications, all centered around my assumptions as to why Mary would not respond favorably to the truth. I felt a need to explain, to defend my response, to make it reasonable and logical. I was angry enough at myself for both of us, but Robin wasn’t upset. She was focused instead on what she had to tell me. She ignored my barrage of excuses and, in her typically understated manner, said, “Mary is transgender. Oh, and she asked me to ask you to ‘friend’ her on Facebook.”
I did not see that coming. It would not have been possible to be much further off in my assumptions about Mary. I saw her as a traditional, slightly trapped-in-the-past, straight-and-narrow kind of woman, but that description was much more appropriate for me than for her. Feeling like a spineless jerk, I was relieved by Mary’s request that I connect with her on Facebook; I saw that as an indication that she was not angry at me for lying to her. Even so, Mary and Robin had been truthful and trusting with each other, courageous in a way that I always intend to be, but achieve only slightly more often than not. I felt left out, morally inferior, desperate to redeem myself, wishing I could somehow rewind and fix the mistake I’d made – or at least find a less assumptive justification for it.
My first attempt at a new rationalization for my lies was to recall how long ago it was that I first came out, where I lived at the time (Arizona), and how hostile the environment was. There was a very real danger of physical violence, denial of adequate medical care, expulsion from school, loss of home, employment or membership in all variety of organizations, ostracization by family and friends, and on and on the list goes.... I comforted myself with the defense that the horrible past made it reasonable that I would still be overly cautious in a way that many younger people wouldn’t understand. But I had to stop myself when I acknowledged how that justification was inherently transphobic. It ignored the fact that gender-variant people currently endure oppression that is at least as bad, if not worse than, anything I ever faced in the past. By coming out as transgender to cisgender Robin – especially in the middle of her workplace – Mary was probably more courageous than Robin or I have ever had to be.# She came out to Robin as soon as Robin came out to her; that suggested to me that she was looking for connection with others who would welcome her as her true self. She was testing the waters, and I, in my old-school assessment, misread both her perspective and her intention. I unintentionally sent Mary the message that I was either unwilling to, or incapable of, establishing a safe and open connection where the sharing of our truths would be welcome. I could have broadened, however incrementally, the sphere of relative safety available to both myself and this young person just beginning to make her way in the world, saddled with arguably the most virulent and hateful brand of oppression that exists in this country today. Instead, out of cowardly habit, I frayed that new and tenuous connection. I was inclusive of neither myself nor Mary. I was not open or honest, and consequently deprived Mary of the invitation to safely be open and honest in my presence.
The tired-but-true cliché about the necessity of loving oneself before loving others could appropriately be adapted to this topic: if I do not – from a place of openness and authenticity – engage in chaotic, messy, unpredictable, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful sphere of human interdependence, I can’t possibly contribute to making that sphere safe and inclusive for anyone else. In the complicated LGBTQIA alphabet-soup community (a melting-pot of non-normative combinations of physical birth gender, gender identity and sexual orientation) there is a hierarchy of privilege and power that is a fractal-esque version of the broader, heteronormitave dominant cultural structure. As a white, cis, gay± woman, I am very close to the top of this sub-hierarchy, which affords me the privilege of being truthful about who I am at a lesser risk than for those lower down the ladder. It is my responsibility, then, to leverage that privilege. I can use it to help dismantle not just our shared oppression, but also the more toxic and complex oppression that Mary knows intimately, but which I have the privilege of knowing only from a safe distance. As a self-described compassionate and (relatively) aware human, passionate about promoting social justice, I owe it to those at greater risk than me to speak out for all of us whenever possible, if only to announce unapologetically that we are here, rightfully so, and deserving of the same dignity and respect as everyone else. I failed Mary in that respect. By avoiding a small risk, I passed the buck to her. She then had to choose to take a much greater risk than I would have had to, in order to transform our casual connection to one based on trust and acceptance. I failed myself, because I hid in fear instead of speaking my truth. I failed Robin because I evaded speaking the truth of our relationship and her significance to me.
Recognizing how my lack of honest self-disclosure affected others, I knew it was time to honestly confront my tendency to sacrifice the truth for the sake of (perceived) safety. I had to be brutally honest with myself; I have a reactive habit of abdicating my responsibility for taking every possible opportunity to snip another thread in the culturally-sanctioned shroud of silence around LGBTQIA identification and experience. But after I gained some perspective on my intentions, the motivation for my dishonesty and my resulting disconnection, something unexpected happened: the shame subsided. My disappointment with myself, my assumptive ruminations about Mary’s thoughts and attitudes about our exchange, and my frustration and powerlessness dissipated. Despite her young age, despite her lesser privilege, Mary was stronger, braver and ultimately, more empathic than I had been. It was obvious that my work in this situation was to be humble and learn by her example. So by taking responsibility for the ripple effect of my decisions on the world outside myself, and using Mary’s and Robin’s interaction as an example, I was able to extract myself from the quagmire of my own tired patterns, step back and objectively observe my habitual process. The broader view of my influence in the communal environment provided me with the motivation to own my mistake and seek growth that would make me less likely to repeat it.
I realized that I am not doomed to failure; I don’t have to continue reacting to my fear – it is a habit that I can unlearn, and there is a clear path towards reparation, towards how I want to be in the world and what I want to do. I want to be of service, and to shift my focus away from my own isolating fears (without denying or evading them). I want to contribute, in a real-world, practical way, to morphing this oppressive and dysfunctional society into one where nobody need feel afraid to be open and truthful about who they are. That vision feels so much more hopeful, constructive, strong and friendly than does self-absorbed fear. There is empowerment and possibility in the commitment to growth; I can fix my mistakes and re-forge broken connections, making them – and myself – more resilient and honest in the process.
But intention is not enough; true change requires action. So I apologized to Mary. She seemed perplexed at the beginning of our chat, saying that she understood my need to protect myself, and told me that she sometimes does that too. In spite of her gracious response – or maybe because of it – the conversation was uncomfortably scary for me; it required that I explain why I felt an apology was necessary by fully disclosing my process. I took a risk and moved into territory that was unfamiliar to me, accepting that I might dig myself in even deeper. I thought very deliberately about how to frame my words, hoping to convey that I wanted to pay a debt (to myself, to Mary, to the world at large) by directing my focus to the task of chipping away at the self-protective patterns and replacing them – as slowly and deliberately as necessary – with the willingness to be vulnerable, open and empathically present for communal life. I believe I made the right choice in apologizing; Mary subsequently shared with me more personal experience around the hostility she deals with on a frequent basis. I felt humbled and honored that she trusted me with this information, and happy that I could be a supportive witness to her constant struggle to be treated with dignity and respect.
This experience exposed some of my darker corners to the light. Throughout my life, I have sporadically worked on a variety of social justice causes, motivated mostly by anger at my own victimization. I desperately clung to unrealistic expectations of immediate societal change, but with no awareness that change might be required on my part. I would not have believed it to be true at the time, but most of the effort I put forth to “change the world for the better,” was primarily a self-serving struggle to bend the world to my will. My “empathy” for others ended at the same point as my ability to project my own feelings of victimization onto them. I invested heavily in the misguided perspective that a fair and just world would be one where everyone believed and valued the same things I did, I would never feel judged or shamed or be treated unfairly, and I would never be afraid to be myself. This unrealistic and resentment-fueled approach burned me out and left me disillusioned and cynical. I gave up, deciding change was hopeless, believing that the “bad guys” would always win and the rest of us would always be victims.
Over the years, therapy, yoga and Buddhist Vipassana practice have helped me change many of the habitual patterns and limiting beliefs that have insulated me from fear and vulnerability. These beliefs and patterns had a purpose long ago, but in my adult life have served only to cut me off from most of humanity, while simultaneously prompting me to feel abandoned, resentful and perplexed by my isolation. Buoyed up by my shifting awareness, I have begun to cautiously reconsider my cynically defeated attitude towards progressive efforts, and thought about re-committing myself to a variety of causes. I have painstakingly labored to bolster my confidence and sense of purpose so that I can re-enter the world of social justice work without feeling overwhelmed into silence and paralysis. I have newly dedicated myself to living my life from a perspective that honors empathic compassion, interdependent connections, a willingness to learn from others and change, and the courage to be vulnerable, own my mistakes and offer reparation when appropriate. I am just beginning to translate this new perspective into real-life responsiveness.
The process I went through in my interactions with Mary distressed me at first, but ultimately showed me that my work is paying off. I made mistakes; I reacted out of old patterns, closed myself off, and felt ashamed. But I eventually found my way. I finally got that it is neither necessary nor realistic to wait until I think I can do it all perfectly; that day will never come. I can step out into the world – not feeling ready, but at least willing – and accept that it will be messy sometimes. In spite of the risk, engagement is preferable to isolation and the ubiquitous shame and hopelessness that come from trying to protect myself from the inevitable challenges of life.
What I learned from this experience is nothing I didn’t know before. Rather, I became acutely aware of one of the critically important places where my emotional vulnerabilities and defenses still rule, and my instinct has not caught up with my practical knowledge. Mary and Robin gave me this gift, showing me where I still have considerable work to do. I am profoundly thankful for that.
I can’t promote change without being willing to be changed. To “be the change I want to see in the world,” I must constantly confront my own demons as they make themselves known. I can’t afford to cower in the hovels of ancient self-protective strategies that I built to hide from the very injustices I want to end. Internalized oppression thrives in the heart of my shadow and causes me to unintentionally oppress others. I have done a considerable amount of shadow work already, but it is never done. There will always be challenges accompanied by fear, frustration, discomfort and sometimes even pain or loss. But the payoff for accepting the challenge is liberation, and the ability to engage in what is, for me, a labor of love: a commitment to the practices of reaching out and engaging in partnership, and participating to the best of my ability in the collaborative endeavors that will make this world more equitable, safe, healthy and inclusive for everyone.
# For those unfamiliar with the LGBTQIA+ community, it is important to know that gender-variant members of the community face considerable discrimination from gender-normative members. I am not aware of any supporting statistics, but it is my perception that, as a group, cisgender members of the LGBTQIA+ community are no less transphobic than cisgender heterosexuals.
± My personal labeling preference is not the common one. For my self-identification, I prefer the term “gay” to “lesbian” for two reasons: 1) “Lesbian” is conspicuously Eurocentric, and therefore inclusive only of women of European descent. 2) “Lesbian” is most often used as a noun, whereas “gay” is most often used as an adjective. Nouns define, adjectives describe. My sexual orientation is an attribute of my identity, not a definition of it.
Laura Sharkey began practicing yoga and Vipassana meditation about five years ago. Shortly after beginning her practice she was diagnosed with a debilitating chronic illness and has relied on her practice to help her manage the pain, fatigue and other challenges associated with her illness.
She recently completed a 200-hr yoga teacher training and plans to teach meditation and gentle movement to physically challenged students interested in the physical, emotional and cultural healing potential of dedicated asana and meditation practices. In addition to her standard yoga teacher training, she has attended classes focusing on yoga and social justice, and yoga from a trauma-informed perspective.
Much of Laura’s new awareness and motivation – reflected in “Internalized Oppression's Long Shadow“ – was gained through her participation in Off the Mat’s recent “Beyond Duality: Yoga and Social Justice” tele-course; she found the training to be transformational. Laura is passionate about serving the community by participating in social justice work and offering an opportunity to learn healing practices to students in underserved communities; she is committed to making contemplative practices accessible and welcoming to all, regardless of body size, physical ability, mental/emotional health, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
She currently teaches a weekly meditation class at Heal One World, a non-profit dedicated to providing free/low-cost alternative treatment modalities and training in preventative self-care practices.