When you are female, 23 years old and nearly six feet tall, standing on Princes Street in Edinburgh in 1988, with a newly shaven head and clothing selected to clearly identify you with the lesbian tribe you have so enthusiastically found, you learn a lot about anger and its roots.
There we were loudly protesting against the State’s latest assault on us as equal members of society, legislation being proposed (later passed) to prevent the “promotion” of homosexuality in schools. We were a small group on that first protest, it was the 80s and gay liberation was still a tenuous concept in Scotland. And there they were: the women with alarmed faces hustling children by, the men with snarling aggression looking for an opportunity to pounce but frustrated by the public setting, the good Burghers with a mixture of disgust and pity in their eyes for the brief seconds they caught yours. Clinging to our signs and to each other, we found community and identity in those times, the anger we absorbed pulling us ever closer together. It didn’t make the difficult conversations with family, or the moments of terror as you realised the jeering voices behind you were getting closer in the late night walk home from the clubland you had minutes earlier been happily forging your sense of self in, any easier. But it provided some respite, some space to grow a bit stronger, to learn some new tricks.
Fast forward a few months. It’s late one night, you and two friends are in the gay café (this was before the acronyms became more inclusive of the rainbow’s diversity) you have recently set up. We were closing up after another eventful evening. Yet again a gang of young local men had gathered outside to harass the customers as they came in. Usually you pulled down the shutters and waited till they tired, a lock-in without the party. This night was a little different though. Perhaps it was the cumulative effective of bricks through the window and the indifference of the authorities to the frequency of these gangs on the door step over the previous few weeks – but this night you and one of your friends decided enough was enough, and faced them, angry and tired of it all. In the heat of that exchange your friend randomly pointed at one of them and suggested that he was gay himself: an attempt to turn their contempt and hatred on themselves. Random and totally false… or so we thought. But here he was, soft now, all that earlier aggression displaced by drugs and despair. You know right away there is no danger here, and that there is a story to be told. Through slurred words and mind, he manages to tell us of his friend, of the man he loved. Of his life and the impossibility of being gay in his world. Of his wish that he could live another way, be someone else. And of his grief, since his friend, his love, had died beside him of a glue overdose. We listened and sympathised and then he left. We never saw him again. I have no idea what happened to him. But I learnt something about hatred that day. I learnt that besides fear, and hatred of self, sometimes it’s just overwhelming sadness that has no outlet that stirs it up.
Shame and the grief that often comes with it, the result of the kind of identity inequality that comes when we deny others the chance to live their authentic selves, these are the roots of hatred and anger every bit as much lack of education, or of financial inequality, or direct assault. We stoke shame, promote inauthenticity, at our peril. The world has changed a lot since I listened to that sad young man’s story. But authenticity is still hard to achieve. Our public narrative may be of equality, but words cannot save us from shame. It needs concrete actions. I’ve been reflecting on this a lot the last week as I watch just such concrete actions in my workplace, praise worthy of course, but I can’t help wondering if beyond my workaday world, in those pockets of deprivation and despair that still exist all over the world, things really have changed.
Would it be different for that young man now? I feel a little ashamed myself that in the busyness and challenges of my own life (especially those related to my latest identity, as a disabled person) I have forgotten to wonder about that, and I have resolved to find out. To not let myself forget how important it is to protect and nurture the advances we have made, and to be sure that those advances are spread equally through society.
She had no idea what would become of her, that girl on Princes Street. She’d have been pleased I know that she managed to live up to the Huron native American saying she’d picked along the way – “You’d better live an interesting life or else you will become a boring old woman with no good stories around the campfire.” But she would be ashamed too I know, to think that she lost sight of that young man and his despair.