Pride, Shame, and Everything In Between

This Pride month special opinion piece is published under a pseudonym at the request of the author. “Amor fati” is a Latin phrase roughly translating to “to love one’s fate.”


When someone mentioned writing this article to me, I didn’t know how I felt about it – I hardly believed I had anything of worth to say, not just this month but during any of the 12 months of the year. It’s June. A month where the confident and the prideful are to be discussed, celebrated, even welcomed into our day-to-day conversations. A month that feels utterly uncomfortable to me.

 

“Why should I have to celebrate Pride? I don’t care if you’re gay or straight, it’s your private life, don’t act like it makes you any better than me!”

This is a something queer people hear every year as the days get longer and Pride month nears. For a young gay man who left a “liberal” and “free” Romania almost a decade ago, this question sits at the core of my being. How can I, a recent defector of our society, take any pride in my mixed identities, when I had to leave one behind in order to fully experience another?

In a Netflix special that became very popular in 2018, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby brings up two themes that stuck with me: shame and giving up. To any non-LGBTQI+ person reading this article, I truly beg you to take the 70 min needed to watch Nanette. I cannot think of a more concise, concrete, and comprehensive crash course into being, as Gadsby would put it, “not normal”. I’ll stop my praise here so I don’t spoil it for you.

It should come to no surprise to anyone that most, if not all, queer children grow up feeling shame. We are taught, sometimes involuntarily and sometimes quite overtly, that being gay is something that brings shame to us, to our families, and to our communities. Being gay is still understood as “less than”, and if you don’t believe me, think back on the many times you have heard (or even said yourself!): “Oh he’s gay, BUT he’s a great such-and-such”. Depending on how religious we or our families are, being gay is a one-way ticket to Hell, a guarantee of being eternally separated from our loved ones in the Afterlife. Few things are worse than spending eternity alone.

Hannah Gadsby performing
Hannah Gadsby performing “Nanette” (2018). Credits: Vanity Fair

Being gay is also punishable by death in 13 countries or by jail in around 70 countries. Just a few days ago was the 20-year anniversary of the moment when Romania changed its criminal code, removing homosexuality as an offense punishable by jail. Remember, I’m almost 30, which means that for some 10 years of my life, my existence was something punishable by law. I would ask you now to close your eyes and imagine a 10-year-old sitting at the kitchen table, having dinner with his parents, hearing his beloved mother and father exclaim “God forbid” while the all-so-familiar news anchor on TV presented this piece of news. It matters not that I didn’t know I was gay at that time – the message was loud and clear.

I don’t want this article to resemble a soap opera, but I also want it to be honest. Trying to write this piece is all the more complicated as with every line I need to fight this urge to feel (and propagate) shame. So bear with me.

“I sat soaking in shame… in the closet, for ten years. Because the closet can only stop you from being seen. It is not shame-proof. When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thought… you know, carry thoughts of self-worth. They can’t do that. Self-hatred is only ever a seed planted from outside in. But when you do that to a child, it becomes a weed so thick, and it grows so fast, the child doesn’t know any different. It becomes… as natural as gravity.” Hannah Gadsby – Nanette (2018)

The other important motif in Gadsby’s show was the idea of “giving up”; she centers the show around the fact that in order to do proper, honest, quality comedy, she needs to quit comedy. What seems like a paradox in the first 10 minutes of her speech gets dissected across the next 60 minutes to reveal an intricate network of beliefs and experiences. For Gadsby, leaving comedy allows her to break free from the norms that dictate the dumbing down of her life’s trauma, allowing herself to tell her story in an honest way, not seeking a punchline and a laugh. And yet, in her 70 minutes of rejecting comedy, Gadsby produces probably the most beautifully crafted example of pure comedy I have had the chance to see. I attempt something similar here, albeit I have none of Gadsby’s comedic acumen.

Leaving Romania was to me the ultimate act of becoming Romanian. At the time of my departure, Romania was experiencing one of the largest per capita migrations in the world, up there next to countries experiencing war, famine, and so on. A middle-income, possibly even prosperous country of the European Union was fled by millions of people, with almost 20% of our population living outside the country. Being a member of the Romanian diaspora has become a rite of passage of post-Communist youth seeking to enjoy higher education or economic opportunities out in the liberal West. But for some of us, there’s added impetus to packing our bags – living a life that’s honest to who we are.

People holding a long rainbow flag in front of the Romanian Triumph Arch in Bucharest, during Pride.
Bucharest Pride is growing each year, with several thousand people marching. After the 2020 COVID-related hiatus, Bucharest Pride is expected to happen again in August 2021. Photo credits: UK Embassy Bucharest (Twitter)

Leaving the country meant to me that I could finally kiss another man, hold his hand, and say and mean “I love you”. Leaving the country also, paradoxically, meant I felt more comfortable reaching out and learning more about the LGBTQI+ community in Romania, as now there was no more danger of someone in my hometown or my high school outing me to my parents. It also meant I could care more about politics, learn who are the homophobes (many) and who are the allies (few) of our community in Romanian society. Having freed myself from the immediate fear of the breaking some unspoken norms, I got to experience my Romanian side more once I left. Finally, leaving the country allowed me to forgive my parents and mend our ailing relationship. What was supposed to be a step away from a troubled identity ended up becoming a direct dive straight to the center of my Romanian-ness. 

Today I get to write this article for you to enjoy, and yet I still do so under a pseudonym. While I have learned to contain the shame, this article gets to mean more the more universal it becomes. Just like we, the people on the fringes, get to live more honest lives the more our stories get told. And oh! What a better time to tell our stories than a month dedicated, for once, to us.

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