On November 28, 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered an impassioned, historic speech before the country’s House of Commons in Ottawa, formally apologizing for the federal government’s “systemic oppression, criminalization, and violence against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and two-spirit communities.” Trudeau was referring of course to the time, in the not-too-distant past (throughout the Cold War era, though as late as the 1990’s) when thousands of LGBTQ2 Canadians were systematically purged from federal jobs and active service in the military simply because of who they were.
I was eating dinner with my 93 year-old mother at the family home, where I was born and raised and where my Catholic European mother still lives, when the segment aired on the evening news. My mother, who would have normally turned the volume down on such issues, said nothing, and did not touch the remote control, as Trudeau delivered his speech.
It is with shame and sorrow and deep regret for the things we have done that I stand here today and say: We were wrong. We apologize. I am sorry. We are sorry.
When Trudeau said the word “shame” I thought of my book, whose title is The Inheritance of Shame, and I had to look away, overcome with emotion. I thought for sure I’d start to cry, and not just with a trickle of tears but with a full on wail of grief. Somehow, I didn’t.
After the news, as my mother drank her evening coffee in the living room, she asked a series of surprising questions.
“Can you please explain this acronym ‘LGBTQ2’ to me?” she said. “I understand lesbian and gay, but . . . how can a person be bisexual? You are one or the other, no?”
I wondered how much my mother really wanted, or needed, to hear. Should I talk about sexuality occurring across a spectrum, and that more people than would often care to admit are truly “bisexual”?
“A lot of people are not necessarily gay or heterosexual, they are attracted to both genders.”
My mother looked unconvinced.
“And what about this word ‘queer’?” she continued. “At one point all of these people were called ‘queer.’”
“In a disparaging manner, yes. But the word today has been reframed in a positive light; it’s now more of an umbrella term to describe a lot of different sexualities, even heterosexual people who are considered allies.”
For a moment I heard the dialogue between my mother and I, as if outside the conversation, and I wanted to laugh. Even still, I felt tense, on guard, prepared to perhaps still defend myself against an onslaught of moralizing judgments, which had been the history between us.
“And I don’t understand transgender. Or is it transsexual? Isn’t that the same as homosexual?”
“Transsexuals or transgender people have nothing to do with sexual orientation. One is about gender identity or expression, the other about sexual desire. A person could be transgender and also homosexual.”
“And what is this ‘Two-Spirit’?”
“'Two-Spirit’ are the Indigenous communities.”
From the look on my mother’s face I could tell that she had reached the point of over-saturation, and the entire subject quickly waned.
“I'm just too old fashioned, I guess,” she said, shaking her head. “In my day, men were men and women were women and they got married and that was all there was to it. I loved being a mother. There was no greater joy. I’m proud to be a woman. I don’t understand what’s wrong with ending it at that.”
I left my mother’s house later that evening still thinking about the Prime Minister’s “apology.”
Though I’ve never faced any systematic attacks on my sexuality by the country’s federal government, I was born and lived the first few years of my life at a time in history when homosexuality was still a criminal offence in my own birth country.
A criminal offence.
I was already nine years old before homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness and removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM.
Today, I have to wonder what it must have been like for me as a child in my family home, or in the school playground, or during Sunday Church sermons, when homosexuality was still considered the worst of all crimes against humanity. As I neared puberty in the mid-1970’s, how must I have experienced the palpable dread of knowing that I was “becoming” what there was no greater shame in being: a homosexual. What must that have been like for me, or others like me, as my own body was like a runaway train that I could not stop from nearing a cliff of my own undoing: toward eternal damnation, or at least toward social ridicule and familial and religious alienation? Where do we turn when the shame of who we are, or what we’ve been told we are—or what we have become because of some injustice committed against our person—cuts so deep, like a vein cast through our very soul, that even sleep provides little respite? When mornings bring us back to ourselves, and our ever-present elusive shame, what then? And what happens to all that shame once we learn to view ourselves more humanely, when we finally do begin to “heal”? Does knowing differently really mean that the shame is expunged from our soul?
Shame, I’ve learned, is definitely learned and inherited, and while apologies from those who’ve wronged us in some substantive way truly matter, since they recognize and validate harms committed, they do not necessarily undo damage caused by the acts inflicted. Apologies do not necessarily rid survivors of their own shame. Apologies matter, as even the recent #metoo outrage demonstrates, but even after receiving such apologies survivors must still face the lifelong impacts of their own personal shame or guilt. Like my mother, I’d like nothing more than to “end it at that.” But I also recognize that this “inheritance” lingers on, like the gift that goes on giving, rippling through my life, and every day I am faced with it yet again.