I think I’ve lived a sheltered life. I grew up insulated from many of the challenges that people face in the world. I was born into a white, working class family. We didn’t live in luxury, but we certainly had what we needed. There was always food to eat, and clothing to wear, and a warm bed to sleep in.
I went to a school with a bunch of other working class white kids. I honestly don’t think there was one Black or Hispanic or Asian child in my high school graduating class.
I lived in a community of Christians — Protestants and Catholics. I did not have any friends who were Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist. I didn’t know what Quakers practiced. The only thing I knew about the Amish or Mennonites was that they rode to church on Sundays in a horse-drawn buggy.
I grew up during a time when homosexuality and gender identity were not discussed. I don’t think I even knew what “gay” was until I went to college. The AIDS crisis was just becoming national news during the early 80s, which forced homosexuality upon the broader American consciousness.
Inside my insulated world, my parents taught me the norms and values that I just assumed everyone else had too. In our house, it was the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. If my parents had been racists, and hated Blacks or Hispanics, I think it’s pretty much a guarantee that’s what I’d have become as well. Because children are like little pots of soil – they will grow whatever seeds you plant in them.
The good news about this upbringing is that I never felt subjected to stereotyping. The bad news is that it would be a few more years before I really understood how it made other people feel.
My college had a strong theatre and performing arts department. Warning: stereotype ahead! You know the theatre department is full of gays! Of course, this wasn’t really true. But either way, I didn’t care. I decided to earn my minor concentration in Theatre. Dramatic literature and performance studies fit well with my English major. During my time in the theatre program, I became friends with several gay men. In fact, I became room-mates with two men who were theatre majors. One was straight and one was gay. They were both very different, yet we all had an absolute blast together. Max, the gay one, often worked on school productions as a stage manager. Not only was he gay, but he was also Latino. He loved to play into the stereotype of the effeminate gay man. There was a sway in his walk, a twinkle in his eye, and always a smile on his face. He was comfortable in his own skin; I don’t think he cared what other people thought of him. And Jim, the straight one, specialized in lighting design and was a Rugby player. He was kind of rough and crude, but underneath there was a heart of gold. If I had let stereotypes or first impressions get in the way, I would not have had two great friends in my life.
I also had another friend in college who was an art student. He was popular; everybody knew him. He had California good looks, tanned and bleached blonde. He was athletic, skiing all winter and surfing in the summer. I can still see him cruising around town in his vintage orange VW Bug, with the Talking Heads’ song, Burning down the House, blasting from the radio. And the party started when he showed up. Mostly, that was because he brought drugs. He always had a supply of something. I caught up with him a few years after college. He told me that by the time he left school he had lost all his friends. When I asked why, he said it was because he quit drugs. His “friends” were really just acquaintances who wanted something from him. He definitely had an addiction, and I give him a lot of credit for managing to quit. But there’s more to his story. Many years later, I learned that he had spent his whole life trying to deny the fact that he was gay. He never confided it in anyone. He never acted on his feelings. He numbed it with addiction. He masked it in the straight world that he so desperately wanted to fit into. He was a middle-aged man by the time he was able to acknowledge it and courageously be his true self.
People are scared of stereotypes. No one wants to be labeled as the dumb blonde, or the Black street thug, or the welfare free-loader, or the Arab terrorist, or the effeminate gay man, or the butch lesbian. Those seeds may have been planted in us as children, that an entire group of people are bad, wrong, or evil. We are afraid that if we are labeled as such, we will not be worthy of love or belonging.
Shame is the fear of being unworthy of love and belonging. Our fear can lead us to keep life-long secrets. We fear that our parents won’t love us, or our friends will reject us. People who struggle with shame and fear are more likely to engage in destructive and hurtful behaviors. In fact, according to Brene’ Brown’s research, “Shame is related to violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and bullying.”
What do I know about stereotypes? I know this world would be a much better place if people didn’t need to worry about being stereotyped or judged. I know that no one should be afraid to be who they truly are. I know that the only way to ever be free of shame and fear is to be brave enough to confront it, and to openly share our stories. We need truth. We need courage. And we need love.
© Vulnerable Path, 2014