My friend Michael has had a huge influence on the way I experience life. He welcomes all-comers, gives short shrift to bullshitters, entertains the bizarre and unusual and finds fresh way of looking at old things.
I credit him with my love of magazines. He always carried dozens. And on the long journeys we shared, I would be introduced to art, photography, performance, style, politics, environmental issues, architecture and strange new trends through their pages. Often in myriad languages. Taking this small-town girl into a far wider world than she could ever have imagined.
Sometimes I would glimpse echos of what we had seen in things he said, sang or photographed. Or find myself talking about them with someone at another table, on another bus. And smile at the thrice-shared information. He is an artist in many ways, but in this one particularly – in embracing the world in its fullness and threat – he is a master. So when he recommended I watch this speech by Lana Wachowski – I knew I must.
My work with people who live with HIV has shown me the destructive power of labelling, of stigma, of fear, of shame and of self-hate. I have witnessed public humiliation – watching as someone crossed the road to avoid greeting an old friend with a new diagnosis. I talk with women who hide their ARV medication in the hen-house or on the roof of a shared public toilet: so that their husband (who most likely infected them) will not discover their positive status. Their fear if he does: that they and their children will be expelled from the home. And I have sat with person after person, listening as they recounted their decision to commit suicide: “in the absence of words to defend myself, without examples, without models, I began to believe voices in my head – that I was a freak, that I am broken, that there is something wrong with me, that I will never be lovable.”
Those are Lana’s words: but they could have been spoken by any one of the hundreds of thousands of people in my country who live with the stigma of HIV every day. Or by any one of the millions of people all over the world labelled “different” (by our narrow, narrow definition of the word) through their sexuality, faith, beliefs, looks or disabilities.
Wachowski (who along with her brother Andy is the director of the Matrix trilogy and Cloud Atlas): opened up about her journey as a transgender woman while receiving HRC’s Visibility Award in San Francisco this past weekend. There is much about this speech that I love, but it was Lana’s description of her parent’s reaction that stopped my breath:
“In Sydney, Australia, I finally came out to my family. When I told my mom what was going on, she jumped on a plane immediately. It was this big, tear-soaked baptism, and she confessed that she had been afraid to arrive and grieve the loss of her son. But when she arrived she found it wasn’t so much a death as it was a discovery. That there was this other part of me, an unseen part, and she felt it was like a gift because now she could get to know that part of me.
We went to dinner. I dressed as feminine as I could, wanting to be seen by strangers as Lana. Hoping that waiters would not call me “sir” or “he,” as if these people suddenly had the power to confirm or deny my existence. My mom is also a bit talkative. She always introduces herself to the waiter or waitress. And she’s like, “Hi, I’m Lynne. This is my daughter Lana.” And the waitress smiles and says, “Wow, she looks just like you.”
(Lana pauses here – and her smile of delighted pride, on its own, makes watching her speech worthwhile.)
“When my dad arrived he shrugged it off easier than accepting that his wife and daughter had once voted for Jane Byrne instead of Harold Washington [for Chicago mayor in 1983] – a choice that still rankles him today. He said, ‘Look, if my kid wants to sit down and talk to me I’m a lucky man. What matters is that you’re alive, you seem happy, and that I can put my arms around you and give you a kiss.’ Having good parents is just like the lottery. You’re just like, “Oh my god, I won the lottery! What the — I didn’t do anything!”
But she did. Lana started the process by accepting herself. Opening the way for others to show her their support, love and acceptance: “I know I am also here because of the strength and courage and love that I am blessed to receive from my wife, my family and my friends.”
She’s done her part. Recrossing that road to give someone a hug and asking simply – ‘How are you doing?” – that’s ours.
(Find the full text of Lana’s speech here.)