Life as a Second Class Citizen

Jody May-Chang©
December 7, 2008

My best friend Melinda and I were having a heart to heart last week. I was telling her how a person is worn down with the daily challenges faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I am not talking about the big stuff like hate crime, employment and housing discrimination or marriage. I am talking about all of the little things that happen every day and compel us to come up with unique ways, often at a moments notice, just to maintain our dignity and live honest lives.

Now mind you, Melinda is a very progressive and supportive LGBT ally. She has a number of gay friends, clients and a solid grasp of who we are. She has complete compassion for the challenges we face. But even she was surprised by some of the things I was telling her. She had never realized just how much we actually have to deal with because straight people take so much for granted. I think for her it was a light bulb moment.

I got to thinking about this conversation and wondered how many people, even some of our closest allies and supporters might not truly understand what our daily lives are really like. If more people really knew, perhaps it might put into perspective the deep sadness, frustration and anger we feel on a daily basis and that has been on display in protests across the country after California’s Proposition 8 was passed.

For those of you reading this that are not LGBT, I ask you to seriously and sincerely try for just a few minutes to put yourself in the following situations. Then ask yourself what you would do. How would you feel if this was your life all of the time?

The first time I understood how difficult it could be to be honest in an ordinary situation was when I went to a new doctor for a physical. I was in my early 20’s and had only been out for a few years. I was completely at ease with the new doctor until she asked me if I was sexually active. I hesitated then replied, “Yes.” Then she asked me, “What kind of birth control do you use.” My heart began to pound and my stomach had jumped into my throat, I blurted out, “Lesbianism.” Trying not to look shocked, the doctor replied, “Well, I guess that would work.”

This is what went through my mind in that slow motion moment. If I said I didn’t use birth control, she would have wanted to put me on the pill. I could just not fill the prescription but then she would have thought that I was on the pill when I wasn’t–not a very good doctor-patient relationship. I could have just said I was not sexually active but that would have been humiliating and untruthful. I chose honesty with a touch of humor. Now my doctor knew that she would not need to run the standard and unnecessary pregnancy test and that I am less prone to certain kinds of infections or STD’s. In that moment, I made the split second decision to risk rejection and humiliation in order to be honest about being a lesbian.

Think for a moment about all the kinds of forms one needs to fill out through the course of one’s life. There are forms for doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, the kid’s school and employment. There is almost always a place for spouse or emergency contact information or the name of your child’s father or mother. One time I put my wife’s name down as my emergency contact and “spouse” as her relationship to me. The woman processing the information looked at me, scratched out what I had written down and wrote in “friend.”

Imagine being together with someone for years or decades. You have shared the most private, tender, intimate and challenging times of your life and you have committed to love, honor and cherish each other until parted by death. You are a family. Yet, the outside world will not recognize that most human of bonds or allow you to acknowledge it in a legal and equally unrestricted way. Instead, the person you love most in the world is devalued by being identified as just a “friend.”

A few years ago we took our son to the emergency room. After the doctor examined him, he said to both of us, “Which one of you is the mom?” I said, “We both are.” Looking confused he said, “No really, which one of you is the mom?” Again I said, BOTH of us.” With this weird expression on his face, he then looks at our 15 year old on the gurney. Our son nodded his head “yes.”

Only then did the doctor decide he would talk to both of us about our son’s condition. That just pissed me off. If Maria or I were a man, that doctor would not have had the nerve to question our parental status. He evidently could not just take our word for it, but needed our child’s confirmation! If that wasn’t enough, then what? Would they have told one mother to leave?

Several years ago we were considering joining the YMCA because friends of ours said it was really affordable for their family to join. I called to see what the rates were but because we were not married we were not entitled to a “family” membership. It would have cost us twice as much for our family of three as our friend’s family of four because we would have had to join as two single adults and one child on two separate memberships.

Last week I went to the pharmacy we have been using for years. I had to pick up a prescription for my wife, Maria while she was at work so she would have her medication in the morning when she needed it. Because neither of us have health insurance, I had signed us up for a discount prescription program for the un-insured. I was asked, “Are you Maria?” I said no. The attendant then told me that Maria would have to fill out her own form.

I had to explain that not only were we on the same store membership, but we are a family and share the same last name. We finally got it all worked out, or so I thought, until the next time I had to pick up a prescription. I had to explain the whole thing two more times all the while people are waiting in line listening. So much for our right to privacy; it is just exhausting sometimes.

Or how about starting a new job and your new coworkers, just trying to be friendly and get to know you, ask about your family–after all you are wearing a gold wedding band. If truthful, you could get fired because there are no employment protections in your state. If you avoid the question you could be considered unfriendly or not a team player. Most of us avoid speaking in pronouns that reveal our partner’s gender until we discover whether or not is ok to be out at work.

It just goes on and on and on–day in and day out having to justify our lives, our relationships, our families. It can make even the strongest of us weary.

Again I ask, what would you do? How do these stories make you feel? Would you feel like a second class citizen? It is no different than being forced to ride in the back of the bus. It is separate and unequal and almost never occurs for opposite-sex couples, especially if they have the privilege of a marriage certificate. Even for the most “out and proud” of us, we don’t always have nerves of steel to be 100% honest all the time, assuming it is even physically safe to be honest in the first place.

If you can now see these experiences through my eyes, then you have a glimpse into what an enormous burden it is to maintain dignity and self-respect every day.

On top of all of these daily occurrences, there are those we also must deal with who actively disapprove of us. They don’t see us as we really are, human beings, but instead through a distorted lens of fear and ignorance. They think that to be gay or lesbian is unnatural, wrong or even sinful. They use this uneducated belief to justify denying us basic human rights and to assert, with absolute certainty, as if they really know what they are talking about, that we all somehow have made a deliberate choice to be lesbian or gay.

It is this very culture of ignorance that is the engine which drives the oppression and discrimination we face in our daily lives. It is this ever-present reality of intolerance that prohibits LGBT people from attaining the same rights to pursue happiness as our heterosexual family and friends.

Now I ask you, who would choose to be humiliated, marginalized and discriminated against or face the threat of being beaten or murdered for just being who you are? I certainly did not. The ONLY choice I have ever made is to not live a lie.

In each of those split second moments it is up to each of us to decide for ourselves whether to give in to intolerance or live an authentic life. For me, to maintain my dignity and live honestly, I will never again deny my self-respect, worthiness or those who I love the most in this world, my wife and my child.

A slightly edited down version of this piece was published in the July/Aug 2009 Issue of Lesbian Connection Magazine, distributed worldwide, to about 50,000 readers. Thanks LC!