260. Closets

It can be hard to be different. Sometimes differences are respected and celebrated, but they can also be burdens to bear; tolerance is far from universal. And so people who are different build closets, and try to hide their differences in their closets. Coming to a new country, they try to hide their heritage by changing their names. Some people hide their
health problems, or details of their lives they think people won’t accept. People don’t want assumptions made about them, and there’s a strong tendency to stereotype people.
It’s especially hard for children and adolescents to be different. It can be all right if the differences really are celebrated. It can be sublime. A child who is unusually talented, intelligent, good-looking, or strong can have a great time. But none of the above is a reliable advantage; people can
be cruel, trying to build their own self-esteem and popularity by tearing down others’.
I know a high school student who belongs to a group called “Students Against Homophobia.” She’s brave; being “out” in high school is not easy, and people are apt to assume that anyone who is willing to stand up for the rights of homosexual students must be homosexual. She could mention to people that at this point in her life, she’s somewhat heterosexual, but she chooses not to dwell on that fact. That’s not the point; people have the right to be who they are, as long as they’re not hurting other people.
When and where I was in high school, people didn’t talk about homosexuality except to hurl an occasional snide comment. If anyone felt any attraction to the “wrong” gender, he/she kept very quiet about it. My friends in high school confided in me about all kinds of secrets they had, but not one confided homosexual feelings, though I’m sure the feelings were there. That particular closet was tightly closed.
Nowadays, there’s a little more openness, but we still have a long way to go. I have hope. I remember a time and place when the word “nigger” was used as an insult for people of all races. I remember hearing “jew” used as a verb to mean “cheat,” and finding, to my dismay, that the dictionary I used included that meaning for the word. And now, “gay” is making the rounds as an insult.
Once, I asked a young child what “gay” meant to him. At first, he said, with an emarrassed smile, “You know what it means.” When I pressed a little more, he told me, “A gay boy is a boy who likes girls.” I think that answer was based on more than a misconception. I remember being attracted to girls in my early years, and I had to pretend I wasn’t; girls had “cooties.”
It turns out that nobody has “cooties” – not people of different races, ethnicities, religions, genders, or what a friend of mine likes to call “affectional preferences.” With all the possibly valid reasons for people to avoid each others’ company, we really don’t need any invalid reasons.

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