We Wear the Mask // Paul Lawrence Dunbar
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
I recognize that the context of this poem is different from my own, the struggle layered with much more power, much more suffering, but the message still resonates. Masks, closets, what’s the real difference? I’ve never much liked either of them. I’ve never been one to cake (much less dab or sprinkle) myself with makeup. Closets are dark, and I’ve always been a sunlight sprite. Thing is, not liking those boxes does not necessarily translate well into finding an easy escape.
[cries to thee]
The first time I came out to anyone, it was to a girl I thought was pretty cute. I said something lik “I think I might like girls”, like I was, I don’t know, contemplating murder. “It’s ok,” was her reply. “This is a good place to explore that.” (Context: I go to a women’s college). But then her girlfriend got mad at her for being up at 4am talking with a first-year, and it was not until 6 months later that I really told anyone else.
I came out to my parents at the beginning of my First Relationship. I mentioned, rather noncholantly, I thought, my then girlfriend. To my disappointment, they were not surprised. Shoot. I’d kind of wanted a bit of a scene. Or at least an “Oh my GOSH. That’s WONDERFUL, sweetie.” Really anything other than “I sort of suspected” and “What was her name again?” … for the umpteenth time.
Sometimes I use coming out as a tool. I’ve definitely come out to people because I wanted them to know that I trusted them. Wanted them to know that they were special to me. I came out to my host mom in Chile because I knew that she didn’t (knowingly) know any gay people, and probably had a lot of misconceptions. We spent a really nice hour-long conversation bashing through a bunch of the stereotypes she’s accumulated over the years, and I felt useful to have expanded her world a bit, teaching her that gay people are not some homogenous glob of hypersexual creatures all attracted to the same people. We be all shades of the rainbow!
I’ve gotten used to the experience of coming out. The slow cracendo of my heartbeat as I decide what I’ll say and the opportune moment draws near. The way my heart almost stops before the reveal. The relax of tension as the other person responds, either doing their absolute best to control their own strong emotional reaction (surprise? aversion? confusion?) or being rather noncholant about the whole thing (“that explains it”, “that’s hot”, “I was wondering”). Very rarely, someone will be honored that I trusted them enough to tell them. With time, I’ve gotten better at it. I no longer get so fluttery underneath my ribcage or in my stomach. Thinking about it no longer gives the kind of adrenaline jolt that used to keep me sleepless for hours.
So, I’m about 50% gay, 50% straight, 100% bi, might eventually identify as queer or something. Big deal. I’ve watched so so so many people come out about their sexuality in the past 3 years that it’s started to seem kind of weird if people don’t have some inner side that mainstream society doesn’t accept and that they’ve now just got to share.It’s also kind of opened my eyes to the incredibly vibrant inner worlds we all inhabit. The twisted and colorful secrets we keep hidden inside of us, too scared to let out until we’ve found people who we feel actually might actually understand them.
[tread lovingly by // those unperceived tears and sighs]
So, with practice, practicing myself and being practiced upon, I’ve come to realize just how important the coming out process is.
First, I think it’s important to explore who you are and be open to new possibilities. In high school and before, I didn’t allow myself to think that I might be even partially gay because the thought of people finding out was unbearable. Eventually unsticking myself from that mind sinkhole took a lot of unnecessary energy. This past fall, as a sort of existential exercise, I decided to stop assuming that my gender and sex were the same, and then let that take me where it would. It led right back to me feeling (basically) that my gender and sex are the same, but it was an interesting journey, and not something I would have allowed in myself three years ago. Through the process, I also learned a lot about gender, and became a lot more comfortable with my own fluidity.
Second, and I think more importantly, practicing coming out keeps me sensitive to the ways that I hide. Just as importantly, it keeps me sensitive to the ways that other people around me keep things hidden. It reminds me to be always gentle.
[it shades our eyes]
It reminds me to not make assumptions, let people speak for themselves, and in their own good time. While it may seem, from my few short years at Wellesley, that everyone’s actually secretly gay, that is, of course, not true. But everyone is secretly something. Secrets are fine, often necessary, even healthy, but forced secrets are another story.
Sometimes, other people force us to keep our secrets hidden by indicating, either explicitly or implicitly, that given certain information, they’ll treat us badly. I think, though, that usually it is our own selves that convice us that our only option is vigilant silence. I thought being on a sports team in high school would be awful if people knew I was gay. They would judge me! Changing in locker rooms would be the awkwardest thing ever! But maybe the problem was that I was the awkwardest thing ever. Perhaps, had I come out and done so with conviction, I would have found support instead of the rejection I feared. I never will know, though, because I never tried. I learned from my own epilogue, though: the people from high school that I have since told have been neither very surprised nor judgmental, and we’re still friends. Not all stories turn out so hunky dory, of course, but what are we here doing, anyways, besides creating the story of our own lives? And what kind of a story is it if the narrator bucks at dramatic tension?
I’ll leave you with that. Onward, dear ones! And may you find a way to replace whatever fear that keeps the door squeezed shut with your very own truth, a dash of daring if called for and most of all compassion for those you hold close, including yourself.