Last week we celebrated National Coming Out Day. I live for celebrating stories of authenticity, courage, and acceptance. But, behind all the love I want to pour out for others on this day there is a tender, bittersweet memory that hangs over me.
It was the same time of year that the choice to come out was stolen from me. Just days before Coming Out Day fourteen years ago I was outed for being #bisexual and #polyamorous by a now-defunct Republican blog.
I cannot understate just how traumatizing it was to lose control over how and when I came out. I didn’t have a chance to approach my family privately. I didn’t have a chance to surround myself with support. On a Friday afternoon at 4pm, I had to deal with it right then and there because a newspaper was already sniffing around for the story. It wasn’t just that I had been outed, it was that they added the false narrative of “a lobbyist who traded sex for votes” to make sure they got the attention they wanted.
Gossip is conditioned humiliation disguised as truth-telling
Eager to make a name for themselves they wanted to expose liberals acting badly. Everyone was fair game, especially elected officials. But I was just a nonprofit advocate quietly blogging in my corner of LiveJournal about my new bisexual and polyamorous journey, a chronicle of those early years of both marriage and motherhood. I didn’t appreciate the gravity of my position or how it might garner unwanted attention. Nor did I account for how much public humiliation had become the official political pastime.
As I was dating, I became downright reckless with my online settings in order to accommodate lovers who didn’t have a LiveJournal, but wanted to see what I wrote about my dates with them. (Yeah, you read that right. My journal was more open to the public in order to appease men who wouldn’t make the effort to follow me. We all make mistakes!). It was low hanging fruit, a salacious glance into my “liberal agenda”, whetting the appetites of conservative strangers locked in an echo chamber of their own sexual repression.
The goal wasn’t just to expose liberals, but to punish them. I was ripe for the picking in 2006 when Amendment 43, a “one man, one woman” constitutional amendment, was on the ballot. They wanted to expose not just the evils of bisexuality and the slippery slope toward polyamory, but liberals as a whole. They couldn’t resist the opportunity to slut shame a young, Democratic woman. When no one took the bait, they invented enticing details constructed entirely from their speculative scrutiny of my life. They wanted a public spectacle, to etch the imagined sins of my private existence onto my skin for all to see.
The truth is far less salacious and far more ironic than the layered embellishments they made up. But, it’s easy to get attention when you wrap the truth in a distortion.
Gossip is about making ourselves feel superior
When you train others in consent and balancing power dynamics for a living, you start to see the micro-aggressions, the small ways in which we tear each other down in order to feel better about ourselves. Gossip is no different. It exerts power and influence to bolster one’s superiority, even passively.
What compels us to expose and share someone else’s story? Who are we to declare ourselves narrator of their life story? What compels us to disguise opinions and empty judgments as facts in order to get the pearl-clutching validation that we want? What is so broken about ourselves that we need to stoop to pulling the rug out from under someone in order to feel better about ourselves? Why are we so intent on making others’ lives our business to the point of punishing them for details that only succeed in making them an avatar of their worst day?
Because we want to punish those who deviate from the norm. We, as a society, have been sold a specific narrative of what we should aspire to be. We have accepted this impossible fairy tale, a two-dimensional image of success, love, happiness, morality. We flatten and distort others’ stories in order for the subtext to tell the story we really want the listener to hear: validation that unlike this person, we are actually normal.
We become desperate for the approval and attention of others. We want to know we’re accepted, that we’re heard, we’re valued. And the less that we see these things in ourselves, the more we draw negative attention to anyone who is “worse” than us. We medicate our fear of rejection, judgment and separation with gossip and passive aggressive communication. Tarnishing others so we appear to shine brighter.
Make no mistake, I was outed by a man, likely one I rejected. A man that now represents the angry, intolerant smallness of men I’ve rejected throughout my life. Men who offered to swing a vote my way if I’d go out to dinner with them, meet them at their hotel room, come back to their car with them. Men who tried to grope me in crowded lobbies or lonely bars after a long day. But this time, I rejected some guy and he were able to exert enough influence to ensure I was adequately punished for it.
We have all done this – spread gossip, whispered in ears, shared private information. Small changes in our tone, our wording, project the image of the story we want someone to hear. We actively contribute to a first draft of an idea that might start with kernels of truth but become embellished with time. The more we let our insecurities play with others’ stories, the more we conjure false realities to soothe and medicate ourselves. These false narratives play on our own fear of judgment and our repugnance to authenticity. The more someone deviates from our expected norms, the more easily we can justify our derision and dehumanization of them.
Gossip distorts our reality to profit off our misery
Remember the days we played “Telephone” in elementary school? You whisper something to the person next to you and it gets passed down the line, whisper to whisper, ear to ear. You start by whispering “I like Ryan because he’s cute when he plays guitar” and by the end of the exercise it becomes “Janet chased Ryan and broke his guitar because he’s cute”. The truth is in there somewhere.
Distortions are inherent in how we communicate, how we listen, speak and describe the world to one another. We miss information and fill in the blanks with whatever our brain conjures as the truth. And sometimes, just sometimes, we intentionally alter one word, one image, one small phrase that tells the listener/reader exactly what WE want them to hear about that person or event.
In deviating from the straight, monogamous norm, I presented an alarming and incongruent reality in their lives – I was living my truth and they weren’t.And when faced with a situation that challenges their reality, exposes their flattened existence, they filled in the blanks to assuage themselves from confronting the depressing default reality they had never questioned before.
The Gossip Establishment, the forces that profit off our desperation to be “normal”, tell us what to think. They snap a photo of a celebrity kissing someone we didn’t expect and we busy ourselves to arrange the scant facts of the story according to whatever will keep our reality intact. We tell the story, filling in blanks influenced a cultural norm of monogamy, for example. Even though we are not actually privy to the details of their romantic life and are sifting through intentionally filtered information, we conclude that they must be cheating!
We project our own feelings onto the situation, crafting a narrative to support our emotional response to this new stimuli. We craft a judgment based on images of what we want to affirm in ourselves. The benefit is that we share the news to the profit of those invested in fueling our lust to prove our normalcy.
Which is what can be so pernicious about gossip. It preys upon the cultural miseries we’ve been fed to snake its way through our relationships, slowly infecting them with anxious judgment and shameful paranoia. It encourages us to overthink, make assumptions, rush to judgment, adopting narratives and stories that help us feel superior to anyone else. We superficially fill a hole that only grows deeper as we punish authenticity expressed outside our norms.
Weaponized Shame: Patriarchy’s Favorite Power Tool
It would be bad enough if it were just privately held distortions, but when we weaponize it with shame, we consistently undervalue the collateral damage it will cause. The Gossip Establishment does not care because so long as we are engaged in examining everyone else’s life, we don’t have to pay attention to examining our own.
My fatal flaw all these years was internalizing the disproportionate hyped-up shame leveled at me by people already predisposed to misunderstand me. It wasn’t that I cared that much about the opinions of those people, I cared about the impact those opinions had on those I worked with, those I advocated for, those that I fell on my sword to protect. While the impact of PTSD, anxiety and depression has at times been overwhelming, it’s nothing compared to the vicarious impact on those I served and loved.
The reverberations of that event are in my face everyday in the weight I gained as emotional armor, the startle response when the phone rings, or my household’s deep aversion to watching the nightly news. I internalized the judgments about my perceived selfishness (“isn’t one man enough for her?”) and culpability (“If you didn’t want to be judged, you shouldn’t have put your information our there.”) continuing my punishment long after those men forgot my name.
It wasn’t until Harvey Weinstein was arrested that I started to see how easily men who follow cynical formulas of privilege are threatened by self-possessed women. They routinely have to lower themselves to manipulate and force an outcome. They tarnish and cajole, coerce and undermine to ensure their superiority, to make the rest of us suffer for their narcissistic wounds. It wasn’t until we had the moment of justice that I started to reclaim my own story.
Liberate Our Authenticity to Reject the Gossip Establishment
Honestly, my story is kind of bad ass. Here is how I have reframed this story to take back the narrative once again:
I was a fiercely compassionate, systemically minded, endearingly hot Chicana do-gooder on a mission to serve as the hands of the goddess. In only my second legislative season, I demonstrated that I could master chaos and make it my bitch through honesty, transparency and love. I took the wild, impossible dreams on our legislative agenda and made them a reality. I owned my sensuality but tempered it with regular re-examinations of my own ethics. I nurtured my family and spoke from the heart. I was a true believer and a lead by example in both politics and in love.
How dare I live such an authentic, substantive, open-hearted life?
When I internalized their victim blaming narratives, their weaponized shame, it corroded my confidence and kept me trapped in cycles of self-loathing and woundedness. It blocked me from seeing that it wasn’t my existence that was the problem, it was that it made them aware of the painful truths they might otherwise avoid. My life made them aware that they were living an empty existence fueled by rage channeled into an obsessive pursuit of “winning”. My openness showed them they were just making excuses for abusive, deceptive behavior to cheat on their significant others. They building a carboard empire that was vulnerable to the faintest whiff of a woman’s fully-deserved success.
All of this makes me wonder how much of our history is just gossip that has been preserved, aggrandized and exaggerated into legend? How much of the stories we tell years later are told to gain the reaction of an invisible audience or control over a real one? How willing are we to consume the worst of others as a balm for the worst in us? How much are we willing to sacrifice to the anticipated rejection of the Gossip Establishment to continue our passive, default lives? How can we tell a new story?
Only when we are willing to see ourselves and each other for the valuable, complex people we really are will we truly be free. We must be willing to let go of the shame narratives that manipulate our sense of self. But in freeing ourselves to recognize the goodness in each other, to witness stories of courage, empowerment, and resilience, we can finally break apart the systems that depend on our collective insecurity and ignorance.
Shine your light, my friends. Celebrate the true you to create a more nurturing world for us all.