Stories of survival
Two very different biographies deal with the pain of not fitting in
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/06/2016 (2297 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Two recent books — one by an American gay male and the other by a lesbian, two-spirit Cree woman — demonstrate with power and vulnerability the road to personal acceptance, attained painfully when their family and community rejects their sexual orientation. In both memoirs, rejection, compounded by physical and psychological abuse, almost destroys both authors. These important memoirs are difficult to read, making it even more necessary that people do. When those around you try to silence you, it is doubly important others hear your voice.
Ma-Nee Chacaby, the two-spirit Ojibway-Cree elder, tells her story to co-author Mary Louisa Plummer in a plain-spoken and linear fashion. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because the events outlined are so unrelentingly brutal and tragic that anything but a flat-affect delivery might overwhelm the reader. But banal chapter headings such as Living and Parenting in Thunder Bay and Sault. Ste Marie Before Sobriety (1970-1975) give the book a clinical and academic feel. Still, Ma-Nee Chacaby’s strong spirit and resilience are front and centre throughout.
That this respected indigenous elder is alive today is a major inspiration. No human being should have to endure the shocking amount of sexual violence this woman endured from childhood. When she finally embraces her two-spirit orientation, she discovers that despite two-spirit teachings being a long-standing indigenous tradition, a new kind of abuse — virulent homophobia — soon comes her way, both from the aboriginal reserve community and from the white community residing nearby in Thunder Bay.
That all this sorrow and pain happened in this country is a national shame. The solution she puts forward, by the example of her exemplary life, is for our government and her own community to support the myriad of programs and teachings Ma-Nee Chacaby and women like her have introduced over decades. From groundbreaking and controversial AIDS awareness programs in the 1990s to the work she continues to do today, both with her own family and her extended reserve family, her life and this memoir ultimately serve as handbook of hope.
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We learn in the first few pages of Boy Erased by Garrard Conley that Love in Action is the Orwellian name of the religious version of a re-education camp Conley’s Southern U.S. parents sent him to in an attempt to “cure” him of his homosexuality.
There are many shocking things to be found in this heartbreaking but beautifully written memoir, and the most shocking is that these horrific events took place merely a decade ago. This was many years after so-called “gay conversion” therapy programs had been utterly and completely debunked, and the founders of one of the largest and earliest of these dangerous cults had completely recanted and apologized for his program’s unspeakable abuse.
Sadly, this junk science is flown under the banner of Christianity. Were the methods and regulations of these cults not so dangerous (to the point of suicide), their foolish curriculum would be borderline comedic. “We want to encourage each client, male and female, by affirming your gender identity,” claims the Love in Action creed. Again, in Orwellian fashion, the program actually seeks to do the opposite. Natural sexual orientation is called False Image (F.I.), a pseudo-psychological concept with no basis in either medicine or reality.
Says the brochure, “F.I. behaviour may include hyper-masculinity, seductive clothing, mannish boyish attire (on women) excessive jewelry (on men) and ‘campy’ or gay/lesbian behaviour and talk.” The program co-opts the 12-step program begun by Alcoholics Anonymous, twisting its motives to harm rather than heal.
That the hero of Boy Erased confessed his homosexuality to his parents following a brutal rape makes their subsequent actions all the more destructive and cruel. That the memoir has any forgiving or charitable tone at all may be attributed to the author finding spiritual comfort and solace in affirming and encompassing world literature.
By delving deep into his parents’ past, the adult Conley finally recognizes how the abuse his father endured as a child was then directed at him. The cycle of violence and the moral sickness of a culture that allows this style of psychological torture to be tolerated must be healed at the same time as individuals work on their own personal healing and forgiveness.
It is with this conciliatory tone that both these widely disparate memoirs come to rest on common ground.
Lara Rae is a trans woman and comedian who feels blessed to have found love and acceptance within her family and community when she began her journey a year ago.