Dear Dr Ren:
I’m a gay male in my 40s who was abused by females growing up — physically, sexually and verbally. Through years of therapy I’ve made great strides in dealing with these issues, yet I’ve encountered something of concern.
For the first time I bought a festival pass to this year’s Vancouver Queer Film Festival. The problem was with some of the content — I don’t like seeing a female’s “privates” or a female having sex. I get very uncomfortable, feel embarrassed, and now at times feel so vulnerable that I don’t want anyone to touch me, especially a female.
During the film fest, I tried to avoid lesbian content when selecting films, not easy when there’s a series of shorts on various subject matters. I sat there unable to look at the screen when a female’s “privates” were exposed. I felt paranoid! “It’s obvious to everyone I’m not looking at the screen. They think I’m weird. All the lesbians are condemning me.”
Does a person ever fully get over the feelings of shame of sexual abuse? I’m looking forward to next year’s film fest, but the lesbian content is something I don’t know how to deal with.
Distraught Queer Film Fan
Dear Film Fan,
One of the primary reasons we go to films is to stretch our imaginations. During a movie, we can submerge ourselves in other people’s lives, explore new places and situations and compare our reactions to those of the actors. It’s enlightening, entertaining and fun.
The film fest offers models of queer life we hunger for, validating and supporting us.
Sometimes we get more than we expected. Sometimes we get a chance to understand in adult terms beliefs that we formed as children and never re-examined.
Let me use a parable:
Suppose a little boy must walk to school each day past a menacing terrier. The dog chases and sometimes even bites him. He is embarrassed and ashamed that he cannot outrun or fend off such a harmless-looking dog. Helpless as he is, no one protects or comforts him.
Eventually he moves to another school and, although he sees other dogs in the neighbourhood, he interacts with none of them. They all make him nervous. You just never know…
He arranges his life so that dogs exist outside the circle of his life. He is always safe. Happily, he is crazy about cats so it does not seem an issue.
I interrupt the story to suggest that this was your situation until you saw the film fest’s lesbian films. You are in a safe environment when suddenly there are “terriers” on the screen. They are out of context and engaged in loving acts, none of it congruent with your belief system. Anxiety rises and you realize the theatre is speckled with dogs. You’re sure they’ve spotted you for the scared little boy you are. (I assure you they were not looking at you, given their on-screen alternative.)
A sort of panic fills you, along with distraught feelings you thought you had escaped. Yes?
Let’s go back to our story.
Later, the boy’s best friend gets a dog, and he learns to like that one. He enjoys playing with it and even considers getting a dog as a pet some day.
Indeed, he meets many dogs, some even terriers, with whom he bonds, and he puts his childhood fear into an appropriate context: That dog was frightening; all dogs are not.
Growing up gay, you were not drawn to women. They stayed outside your self-imposed prison of safety. You did not learn that women are as varied as dogs, or fish, or men.
Had you been het, you would still have experienced anxiety but its flip side, anticipation, would have won out. You would have looked for kind and gentle girlfriends and gained perspective on what happened to you as a little kid.
You were not in control then — kids cannot even decide when to go to bed. The shame you suffer for your abysmal treatment is not yours to carry. It belongs with the adults who failed at their job to protect and nurture you.
Look what this has cost you. You fear half the human population to some extent. Lesbians, closest to you in philosophy and culture, you now view as most threatening. Would you not be happier if you sloughed your gender phobia and enjoyed the camaraderie of the entire queer community?
Although the argument is logical, changing one’s beliefs is not a cerebral activity entirely. You may find that investing in a bit of therapy would be productive in learning the steps of emotional and social reconditioning. The timing is ideal, as you enter the process with insight and goals.
I suspect you are not alone in reacting to some of the content you viewed at the festival. Closet doors kicked open, the film fest no doubt welcomed the curious, questioning and frightened alongside the more flamboyant and seasoned fans. Regardless of the specifics that bump us out of our complacency or apathy, we are all lucky to have such a catalyst for change!
See you at the movies!