On Being Other, 50 Years After The Stonewall Uprising

I’m gay. I have bipolar disorder. And I’m a recovering alcoholic. To put it succinctly, I am other.

What is it like to be other? The answer highlights how far we’ve come as a society.

On this 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, I’d like to point out how rapidly gay acceptance has come in just a few years.

One of the most remarkable lessons of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s unforeseen marvel of a presidential campaign is the acceptance he has won as a gay man. Buttigieg is being embraced by Americans of almost all demographics. Mayor Pete has carved out his spot in the top tier in the campaign for president, his sexuality being no big whoop on the debate stage this week. It is estimated he will surpass $15 million in contributions for the second quarter of 2019, at the end of June.

Not so long ago, LGBT was not even a recognized acronym.

And as recently as three decades ago, there were almost no representations of LGBTQ people in the mainstream. Being gay was absolutely taboo. Gay bars in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood had blacked-out windows. Fundamentalist Christians demonized gays for practicing sodomy. And young gay men and women were told to “pray away the gay” at sexual-conversion “therapy rehabs.”

Gay men in particular were singularly associated with AIDS by some who were ignorant. In fact, some people thought that if you were a gay man, you more than likely had AIDS. And up until 2015, gay men were not permitted to donate blood, prohibited by the FDA.

I remember watching a 60 Minutes story about homosexuality with my dad circa 1992, when I was 12. He turned to me and said, “We’re lucky we don’t have any of that in our family.”

Yes, back in the Clintonian ’90s, we felt like we were different, other — lesser even.

During that era, LGBTQ people were revealing their sexuality slowly but surely, led by milestones such as the coming-out of Ellen DeGeneres on the April 14, 1997 cover of Time, whose headline read, “Yep, I’m Gay,” and shows such as Will & Grace and MTV’s The Real World featuring gay main characters.

Despite increasing acceptability in pop culture, there was still an element of shame in being gay. Indeed, I felt ashamed. The word “fag” was vernacular in high school, and declaring “that’s so gay” as a putdown was commonplace. “God Hates Fags” was a mantra among anti-gay born-again Christian zealots.

I wasn’t going to come out in conservative Iowa, where I went to college. When I did come out, my mom actually asked, “Are you going to get AIDS now?” Nowadays, almost no one would ever say that because gay people are now not associated with only one characteristic, in this case a disease. (My mom came around pretty quickly to accepting my sexual orientation.)

The percentage of Americans who identify as LGBTQ is murky because that is information that is volunteered not quantified. But estimates range from four to ten percent of the population, according to various sources, including Gallup and the Kinsey Report. We are no longer a silent minority.

In 2019, we are all sewing a patchwork quilt of diversity. Every day, we create the constantly changing constellation that is America, and it includes LGBTQ people, ethnic and religious minorities, those who struggle with mental illness, immigrants, and an increasingly miscellaneous pastiche that call the United States of America home.

Our America is great — and it is becoming more inclusive.

But there are those who are still stuck in the past. The alt-right and the white supremacists in Charlottesville fear a new normal: one that is heterogeneous. Followers of President Trump feel this way too. That is why they are trying to paint immigrants as dirty, unwelcome, and other, ignoring the fact that we are a nation of immigrants.

In a sense, I’ve had to come out three times in my life — first as gay, then as bipolar, and finally as a recovering alcoholic. Although I acknowledge that I have white privilege, I also have triple-threat minority status.

I was diagnosed bipolar in 2008, after a major manic episode in New York City, when I experienced extreme psychosis, delusions of grandeur, and panic attacks. I was working as a producer at MTV News in Times Square, and everyone at work knew I was mentally ill because of my very public meltdown at the office.

Mental illness is still — even in the 21st century — hugely stigmatized. When someone needs to take a medical leave from work to treat and address mental health symptoms like clinical depression, they are often seen as weak, not ill. But if someone needs six or eight weeks to recover from a physical ailment, such as hip-replacement surgery, it is much more widely accepted.

Mental illness isn’t something to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s quite normal. Approximately one in five adults experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Despite this high rate, however, talking about it is verboten. However, mental illness should be embraced with equal respect to any group aligned with sexual preference/identification, religion, or ethnicity.

Having depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, or any of a wide range of mental illnesses is still considered unmentionable. I would argue that those who struggle with mental illnessare the largest “fringe” group not yet accepted by the mainstream.

Addiction is also stigmatized, but not nearly as much as it used to be, especially when compared to mental illness.

But addiction is more common than most think. There are 15.1 million adults, or 6.2 percent of Americans, with alcohol-use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The opioid crisis is alarming. Every day more than 130 people overdose on opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Although it is extremely increasingly acceptable, one in seven Americans use marijuana, just as many who smoke cigarettes.

After my breakdown at work, I was laid off and began drinking like an alcoholic and doing hard-core drugs. But after my family staged an intervention, I went to rehab and haven’t looked back. Today, I am proud to announce that I have seven years sobriety. When I mention that to anyone, I receive praise for having beaten my addiction, even though I still battle the disease every day. Once an addict, always an addict. One can become sober, but addiction is still like a dormant volcano. Addicts must work to stay sober.

Nowadays, being other is sometimes not only widely accepted but celebrated.

Celebrities such as Mariah Carey, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Kanye West are seen as heroes for speaking out about their bipolar disorder.

There was virtually no stigma when these celebrities “came out” as bipolar. But that’s Hollywood. We idolize our celebrities and believe they can do no wrong.

I am not, however, afraid of stigma. While I don’t broadcast it when I meet people, I am perfectly comfortable talking about my recovery, my illness, or my sexual orientation. I’ve written a book about it and didn’t use a pseudonym, so all of my secrets are out there for the Google machine to find.

On the LGBTQ front, we have nationwide marriage equality. Straight people enjoy attending Pride parades. They bring their young kids, who happily wear beads of every color of the rainbow thrown from parade floats. Seeing a gay character on television is no longer groundbreaking or cause for product boycotts. The phrases “his husband” and “her wife” no longer sound like pronoun confusion.

But it’s not all pony rides and cotton candy: as far as we have come, there are still states where it is legal to fire someone for being LGBTQ. The Supreme Court is now considering a review of three cases that ruled on whether sex discrimination covers gender identity and sexual orientation.

Unlike the gay community, I can’t say mentally ill people are being seen as anything other than unspeakable creatures of abnormality. But we as a nation are talking about it more and more, and that’s progress. I look forward to the day when we can talk about having depression or bipolar as openly as someone who talks about their diabetes or breast cancer.

After coming out three times in my lifetime, I’m tired of feeling like I’m other — which is a far cry from being viewed as unique, a word loaded with positivity. But when the other label is applied, the negative connotations make me feel subhuman.

Today, we in the village of gay are finally coming into our own. But, just like with the women’s rights movement and the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, we still have a ways to go. So, too, does the mental health community.

Other is different than “different.” Other implies ostracism. I don’t want to be ostracized anymore for my mental illness like some curiosity in a circus sideshow.

I don’t want to be labeled a freak because I am gay, and I definitely don’t want to be a victim of violence because of my sexuality, something that still happens all too often on the reg despite gains as a gay community.

I am not a kook. I am not flawed. I refuse to be relegated into second-class citizenship, a mutant humanoid who can flip out at any moment.

I believe we are all individually special in one way or another. Our personalities, our eccentricities, our characteristics are all distinctive.

I envision a utopia. A utopia in which it is acknowledged that everyone is other. We’re not there yet, but the train is pulling into the station. And that’s a heck of a start.

Conor Bezane is a writer who covers mental health. He’s contributed to MTV News, AOL, and VICE. His first book The Bipolar Addict is available now on Amazon.

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