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Eye Contact

Everything

Eye Contact

Courtney Bither

by Courtney Bither

I'm having a hard time. People won't look at me. They won't make eye contact. 

The university I attend discriminates against gender and sexual minorities in its policies. My friends there have been forced to endure racism. When confronted, faculty and staff choose to turn away.

The problem is, these are people. And the "turning away" isn't a metaphor. People I’ve worked and worshiped with won't look me in the eyes. People I have known for years now turn away from me.

I'm not trying to shame anyone. I'm pointing this out because I need to see where I am situated in the system I operate in and where others are situated. This helps me understand what is happening and why.

But people I care about won't acknowledge my physical presence. And every time it happens, I feel a little more erased. A little more like I’m not supposed to be here. A little more like this is really my fault. After all, how can all of these people be wrong? It makes me wonder if I’m really a human.

Maybe my purpose was to validate, approve, and prop up others. Maybe I’m only valuable as long as I am useful. Maybe I’m not useful anymore because I am not silent.


Meanwhile, my religious denomination is splitting over the “issue” of GSM/LGBTQ+ people existing. I keep hearing from people who are upset about this decision because they were willing to “live in the tension.” I imagine this is similar to the ways my professors are willing to “live in the tension” with racism, sexism, and bigotry. They are willing to watch it happen, take no side, let the students duel it out. They’re willing to watch because they aren’t responsible for what’s happening. After all, it hurts them, too (they keep on telling me). Like Pilate, they’ve washed their hands and turned away.


But I keep hearing people ask questions about the split. Questions that make me confused. Questions like, why do we have to take sides? Why can’t we live in the tension?

It’s a lie.

Not everyone can actually live in the tension, let alone be comfortable in it. Even this language – “tension” – requires that we understand there is pressure. And this pressure is not equally distributed. GSM/LGBTQ+ people experience this pressure most significantly. It is unhealthy. It is death. (In case you don’t believe me - also why would you not believe me? - there are studies on it.)


I don’t feel tension. I feel crushed. Tension for some is death to others. And I have a suspicion it is because we are situated differently in our system.

Right now, living in the tension means GSM/LGBTQ+ people are not allowed to be affirmed in leadership positions. It means we allow bigotry in our worship services. It means I am afraid to go to church. Because I know someone will say something cruel about LGBTQ+ people. And I know that nobody will do anything about it. The tension means valuing the person who believes my existence is sinful, wrong, and deviant over valuing my actual existence. And for the record, my existence is pretty great. I'm good at baking and I'm really funny.

But none of that matters if we want to live in the tension. It doesn’t matter if I’m funny. Or pursuing a degree in biblical studies. Or a gifted writer. Or a good speaker. Or a loyal friend. Or a Quaker. 

None of that matters in this system. Only one thing matters about me: that I shut up. Because as an out LGBTQ+ person, my existence fucks up the tension.

By the way, I’m going to start substituting “oppression” for “tension” now, because that’s what we are really talking about.


Anytime I remind people of my identity (and that my identity includes being bisexual) I mess with the precarious balance that allows for this particular type of oppression to continue. 

Because good, nice people are oppressing me. And they can’t handle hearing that. I need to shut up. 

Or be silenced.


Here’s the ugly truth: the people comfortable with the tension feel secure in the current situation because they are gagging me and people like me. They feel tension because I’m resisting their hands over my mouth. The tension is uncomfortable but livable for the people gagging me. It is not comfortable for me.

I must resist. In a system where the opinions of people who think I shouldn’t exist are only offering another “perspective” on this “issue,” I have no choice but to fight for my right to exist. Or to die. 

People talk about how tired they are. I know that’s true. Because they’ve been gagging me. Their arms get tired.

But for me, the tension comes at a cost. 

My life. My livelihood. My place in community. My inclusion. The inclusion of my friends and people I love.

The cost is me. And others like me. 

And now the people who were comfortable feeling the tension of my body against their hands are upset that I demand that they let me go. 

Let me go.

Let us go.


This “tension.”  Perhaps you are implicated.

Letting go may feel hard. But it doesn’t have to be. I know it might seem like you are now being forced to take a side, but I need you to let go of me, look at me, and listen to me so that you can see what you have failed to see: you are already on a side. 

And it isn’t with me. Or others like me. You’ve been forcing me to fight for my life. You’ve been asking me to give up parts of myself so that you can have a false unity. You’ve been asking me to apologize for existing. You’ve forced me to choose between my voice and my belonging. You’ve asked me to die so that you might live.

But I need you to let go and turn towards me, not away. Please. Look in my eyes. See me.


Turning away doesn’t fix the problem. Because LGBTQ+ people are not the problem. 

I’m not an object, I’m a person. And as long as I ask to be treated like a person rather than an object, I will be fighting for my life in this system. Because the tension is oppressive. I’m calling it out. It. Is. Not. Just.

Calling out injustice doesn’t create division. Recognizing injustice means that we identify the division that already exists. You might need to acknowledge that you’ve been hurting the people next to you in church. Or in your classroom. Or in your family. 

I’m asking you to take your hands off of me. I’m asking you to listen. I’m asking you to look in the eyes of the people you have been hurting.

Please.

Don’t turn away.