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Scottie Thomaston

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An Invisible Minority

Posted: 12/13/11 02:49 PM ET

We are an invisible minority, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of us recently in a speech to the United Nations: unseen and unheard from in many parts of the world, even hidden away in parts of our own country. Our stories aren't told, not even now, and our history has been wiped out, washed away to hide us from sight, to keep the history of the world, of our country, as clean as possible. Our faces aren't seen, our voices silenced, by death or fear.

Our queer community, our people, our group of "others," is invisible.

In the South, where I live, it's still an exceedingly arduous task just toiling one's way through the rough landscape of this sanitized atmosphere: everything seems so bleak, so far away. It's as if you're supposed to think, supposed to always be afraid, that there's no one like you here, no one on your side.

Just coming out to anyone as gay is a process, a terrifying chore that you hope you never have to do. You dwell on it, agonize over it like nothing else in your life, knowing nothing you will ever experience will compare to this. But you know you have to do it. I had to do it to feel honest; I couldn't deal with the dishonesty, not anymore. And the other choice I had was a coward's choice -- never something for me.

Living in a place like this, you make choices daily, hourly, about how open, how "queer," how "other" you want to be, how much you want to expose yourself to the people around you, if at all. And then there are times when you don't do it, and you're left feeling empty, a shell, someone who's not really "you," because your community, the place where you grew up and work and make your home, doesn't accept you.

Invisibility is so much more dangerous than the alternative. For me, coming out made me more visible. For others in the queer community, for people who are transgender, visibility means something different -- but all of us are driven to be seen; we've earned our place here. Being seen can change you, and it changes everyone around you.

Being disabled, in a wheelchair, I deal with the contrast every day -- one minority status that stays invisible, and one that's left open, out in the light, possibly exposed to the whims of some bully, somewhere.

It seems so much more impossible to fight back against anti-gay attacks than it does when I'm targeted for being disabled. I have to wonder about opening myself up to confirming who I am, and the uncomfortable silences, the bitter looks, the angry sneers from the people who don't, or won't, understand. Only in that situation have I ever had to contemplate the fact that they would know, the people attacking me would know, the people around me would know, and only in that situation have I felt the utter fear, the anxiety of movement, the dread of knowing that any action I could take could go so wrong for me, could end friendships, could alter the rest of my life in ways I couldn't even conceive of at the time because all I could focus on was the cold, paralyzing anxiety, the unease that never really goes away. People already know I'm disabled. You can see a wheelchair. If you attack someone in a wheelchair, they can fight back against attacks on disabled people, and there's no revealing secret. They already see you.

I've always felt stunned when anyone even bothered to discuss my disability in a negative way, much less to outright attack me. I've always had back-up. I've never felt alone in that. I don't think people always understand what they can see, but they will defend it if they feel the need. The very sight of a person in a wheelchair being hounded by bullies, being threatened or even physically hurt, can make your heart ache. And even more telling, it makes the other person look stupid. Who wants to be seen doing that? Anytime I've been hounded by people for being disabled, it's always in secret, in the shadows. And I've always felt as if people try to be as subtle as possible, or as hidden as possible, when they're bullying or discriminating. No one has outright refused to hire me for a job. But they've held job fairs where "everyone gets called back" and you can guess who didn't get called back. They've wondered whether I can really do this job, because the counters are so high, or whether I can do this job, because my health seems so volatile. They always try to be careful. No one comes up to me in the middle of a crowd and attacks me for being in a wheelchair. But if I'm alone, if it's just me alone reading an email, or me going down an empty hallway, or me alone in my truck at night, that's when they go for it. They can type rude things when their friends aren't around. They can turn their headlights on so bright at night and get so close to my truck when I'm driving alone at night that I have to pull off the road because I'm blinded -- this has happened to me; I'm told by cops it happens all the time to disabled people, that people love to prank those who can't fight back, in the dark alone.

But attacking someone for being gay? In Alabama? That's something that's completely accepted and almost a part of entry into Southern life. They'll come right out and call you "faggot,"; they'll scream their heads off that you're a "tranny"; they'll find you and beat you up in a classroom in a school filled with thousands of people. It's almost no problem. No big deal. No skin off their backs. The worst anyone really gets for attacking a queer person is a slap on the wrist, even somewhere like the United States. I grew up listening to the worst type of language. I lived through the worst kind of verbal abuse -- completely unintentional, and that was what made it so terrible, knowing they could just say whatever they wanted. I will probably always remember how easy it was for everyone in my family to throw around words like "queer" -- used in a negative way, of course, because using the words our people use to celebrate ourselves as an insult, a talking point, a cheap line, is the easiest thing to do -- and I could do nothing but sit there and take it. There's nothing, no power against this type of attack, against this type of language, and you feel it directed at you, because that's you, they don't know, but it's you, it will always be you, and you can't change. You can't change them. You wait in silence for the day you can finally leave and know it will be better. And there's the powerlessness that always seems to come when you know, you just know, in the deepest part of your heart, where it always stays forever, that they wouldn't do this if they knew, if they'd always known, if you'd just said something. It seems like it's just words, really. It's not that hard.

It's only admitting who you are. But it's the price -- the price is always so steep and you can't go back, ever. Thinking about it even now that I'm on my own, remembering the desperation I felt and the conflict that always seemed to be inside me, I just don't want to keep things like that in my head always.

Hiding always leads to so much danger, whether it's the danger of a queer person hiding themselves away from the world in hopes of making it through the day, or the danger of a bully hiding themselves away in a dark corner, in hopes of making it through an attack on an unsuspecting victim.

I'm around people all the time who feel like they can throw out comments about gay people indiscriminately because I don't "look" gay. Because I'm not the one out in the open. Try to get someone to mock my disability and it isn't as easy, because it's not out in the open where everyone can see. And you wonder if you should stay or leave. Is it really different somewhere else, or is this all there is for you? You might even wonder if, after everything you've heard, everything you've experienced, this is what you deserve.

I think that matters -- the difference between being invisible and being seen -- if you want to eradicate hatred of queer people or anyone else. Making yourself visible changes everything.