A Saving Grace
Written By: Lillian Allen
An articulate and personable telling of a “masculine- identified boy” who navigated the trials of growing up a gay man in society. In Tim’m T West’s “A Saving Grace '' Published by The Ladder: Storytelling Across The Curriculum (Fall 2012), West speaks specifically of times where he was often discriminated against and ridiculed for his sexual orientation. West makes clear that through his upbringing, many people celebrated heterogeneous relationships, whereas the thought of homosexual relationships were blasphemed and rarely promoted. This notion, despite the immense leaps that the LGBTQ+ community has made in the fight for equality, still remains present. West addresses the perpetual social “norms” that were impressed into his life constantly, via various media, human interactions, and heinous words. West, like many, was left in a depressive state. Although West speaks of his hardships, he does so in a contemplative manner. He recounts his experiences in a very matter of fact way. West specified the events which occurred in his life, but rather than dwelling and uttering continuous negative remarks about the individuals and events that caused him a tremendous amount of pain, he focused the entirety of his remarks, tying each anecdote, into what he refers to as “a saving grace.” After reading West’s piece, I found it admirable that he was able to speak of moments in his life which, in a sense, were drenched in darkness, and reflect on them in a way that highlights the light: the angels which surrounded him in a time of despair, and the few, yet recognizable graces, which rescued him indefinitely. Touched by his sentiments, I felt compelled to dive into West’s ideology and I yearned to hear more about his complex past, which his now enchanting confidence and success was initially built off of. In order to further enlightened myself, and others, I spoke with Mr. West where he answered a myriad of questions I had in response to his written accounts published by The Ladder: Storytelling Across The Curriculum.
You mention in the commencement of “A Saving Grace”, that “sharing stories is one way to broach a difficult topic with complex solutions-in-the-making.” When did you first begin to feel comfortable to share your story? Was there a specific moment where you sort of had an epiphany like: “hey my story can really help others” or was it more over time?
I'd become a teacher and in my multiple experiences saw first hand how much of a difference it made for students to be able to identify an openly queer teacher they loved and respected. I think if there was any particular moment, it was getting a wedding invitation from a student I didn't even teach but who went to a school where I taught. In the card he noted that he struggled some with his sexuality, but knew that he'd be okay because, in his recollection, the most popular teacher was a queer guy. If I had that impact on students I didn't teach, I can only imagine how positively Influenced those I saw daily. Teachers spend lots of time with students, so the ability for our students to have mirrors and windows that both reflect and reflect back their identities, the more affimed our students will feel. I didn't have a Black male teacher until my senior year of high school. I don't recall an LGBTQ+ teacher at all; and having one may have prevented lots of pain and confusion.
As a child, when you mentioned your peers would innocently play “house” with the conception that husband and wife should be fulfilled by female and male roles: during this time in which you were constantly reminded the only “normal” and “okay” form of matrimony was between two people of the opposite sex, and at such a very young age, did your younger self ever obtain this sense of “saving grace”, which you speak of, or was it not until later in your journey did this grace appear?
It's a bit of a double standard that children who will grow up to be heterosexual have constant affirmations of their lives to be, while queer kids have to try to imagine what a life for themselves might look like. I knew I had an attraction to boys and girls at an early age. It wasn't sexual, but it was attractional and affectionate. A combination of adultism and heteronormativity often prevents queer kids from the kind of validation their presumably heterosexual peers might receive. It's not uncommon to hear that little Billy who is 2 years old is "going to break the little girls hearts" or that Jessica "is going to make some boy a beautiful wife someday." It's not uncommon for educators to joke about opposite-sex crushes students have, especially in middle or high school. To the question of grace, there was none. Growing up there was a singular narrative that same-sex attraction was evil, wrong, and bad. The sense of grace I referenced was, in some ways, contrived by me. I needed to invent a world where not everyone thought I was sick or wrong, so I looked for little clues that there might be people who are okay with me. I almost didn't make it, and I taught because kids shouldn't have to search so impossibly hard just to feel good about themselves. In some ways, "A Saving Grace" was written to encourage more teachers to consider being more intentional about supporting queer and trans kids.
Could you talk about some of this “insidious, homophobic bullying”, which you witnessed at your school setting? What would be the best-case scenario as to how a bystander should approach these situations in efforts to diminish these acts?
“It's commonplace, especially in the sports areas I found myself in, to commonly and regularly hear homophobic and sexist slurs. It's a toxic part of the culture that is normed. It was never directed at me as a "straight-passing" cisgender, masculine guy. Still, the comments directed at others felt like they were meant for me to hear, and I absorbed quite a bit of guilt for not speaking up. I kept thinking, what if they start treating me badly? We all know that LGBTQ+ students are bullied at disproportionate rates. Why would we expect students to be more kind, when it's often teachers and staff who have homophobic and transphobic mindsets and beliefs. As a bystander, just interrupting the comment and saying "That's not cool" or "That wasn't nice" can be powerful. Often kids and youth are homophobic because they think it will gain them favor from peers, not because of any thoughtful, deep-seated beliefs. If schools shift the culture so that those kinds of statements are frowned upon with consistency, you often see more affirming settings where learning isn't interrupted by bigotry or fear.”
What is your advice for the vast amount of youth who have not found their “saving grace”, whether that be in sexuality or any challenges that they may be struggling with?
“People are out there. One of the things I think is great about the concept of a Virtual GSA, is that kids now can often find their tribe from a smartphone. I'm sometimes challenged by the simplification of "It Gets Better" because it actually doesn't for some... for a while. I would say that daring to reach out and seek support; and that seeking cues for who might be an ally can be life-saving. In hindsight, I think there were teachers I could have shared my identity with and who would have supported me. I sometimes wish I'd trusted that gut feeling, but I was too afraid, and it almost cost me my life.”
What would you say your number one “saving grace” was, and where were you on your journey did this grace appear?
“My high school biology teacher, Mrs. Wilbur, was a bit of a rebel. She wasn't traditionally feminine, had a bit of a potty mouth, and this made her cool. She was also that teacher who believed in me as a Black student and who recognized the racism I had to navigate in the rural South, even if we never explicitly talked about my sexuality. I think that her courage to show up as different provided a kind of saving grace. I believe I translated her brilliance as a science instructor and her social justice mindset as a preview into a world where there were lots of people like her. She encouraged me to apply to Ivy League schools and other schools out of state because I think, somehow, she knew I was queer and was struggling. I would love to find her and thank her now.”