Out or Not?
I decided to blog about my experiences after one of my employers decided to reassign my students to other sections because I was diagnosed with cancer. It was not my first impulse. My first impulse was to tell my employers so that they would know why I was in the hospital. I would tell my family and my close friends. My mom often speaks of my secretiveness. It is not my nature to broadcast my personal matters.
I rarely discuss my health with people. When you open the door to discussion of a topic it is difficult to cordon off any portion of that topic. Many years ago I went on a diet that required me to give up eating solid food for about eleven months. I managed a hotel at the time. The decision to not eat in the dining room of the hotel affected other people. For example, my chef needed to know why I was not eating. Once I told someone, everyone knew what I was doing. I can still recall working late one night when a waiter stopped by my office to tell me about his diagnosis with HIV. In those days, HIV did not have any “successful” treatment options. The nature of the disease had yet to be determined. People diagnosed with the disease often were shunned because of ignorance about their disease or ignorance about the cause of their disease. It was associated with homosexuality, which was an independent rationale for some to discriminate.
I worked with many gay and lesbian employees in the hospitality industry. Prior to the advent of HIV as an epidemic, these employees had been casual about their sexual orientation. After the disease became a subject for news stories, some of these employees became more private about their personal lives. It became very important to appear healthy. Employees “worked out” and discussed their physical exercise activities. It was a substitute for asserting HIV negative status.
This young man disclosed his diagnosis because he was looking for emotional support from people in the workplace. He was new to D.C. and had few friends in the area that were not coworkers. He had been intimate with at least one coworker and anticipated some emotional reaction from that person to his news. He expressed his fear with anger. He said something like, “I expect you know what it’s like to be a social freak, being fat and all. Only you think you can get well. I don’t have that option, do I?”
He was not the only person to react with fear that day. I was not angry, but my response was something like, “Do you really think overweight people are freaks?”
Of course he did. We shared our discomfort with other people’s perceptions of us. As long as we did not discuss our personal situations with others, polite people did not weigh in. Once we shared our situations with others we were subject to vocalized and privately held judgments about our personal lives.
I am now being treated for cancer that is very likely the result of my continued weight battle. I have been asked what caused my cancer after I have disclosed my current condition to people close to me. People do not ask this because they mean to hold me responsible for my illness. Nevertheless, there are times when I feel defensive about the relationship between my body weight and uterine cancer. Having had my class taken away, I now have a second reason for fearing people’s reactions to my condition. How do you dispel fear if you hide?
I once received an invitation to meet two friends for lunch at a “hole in the wall” restaurant. We rarely socialized together even though we had known each other for some time. One of them was a friend. The other was becoming one. I sensed that the meeting was very important to them but had no idea why. I tried to move the lunch to a restaurant that I would enjoy more after I reviewed the online menu and learned that the principal ingredient of meals was goat. The other two were adamant that we eat in this restaurant. So I went.
While I searched the menu for a meal that would not require me to stretch my palate more than necessary, they exchanged meaningful looks. I realized that we were not there for the food. “What’s up?” I asked.
They disclosed to me that they were followers of Reverend Sun Myung Moon. I lived in Washington, D.C. for about eighteen years and my sole exposure to the teachings of Rev. Moon involved efforts made by his followers to expand their ranks by proselytizing. When my college friends and I would wander into the Georgetown neighborhood to shop or dine or drink we ran a gauntlet of cult enthusiasts’ tables. The Unification Church and the Church of Scientology each vied for my attention. At one time in my life I owned four unread copies of Dianetics.
I reacted to this new disclosure by saying nothing. I understood how vulnerable these two people felt. Internally I was stunned. They had feared that I would reject them for deeply held, deeply personal beliefs. So they were “Moonies.” It did not change my feelings toward them. It did change my feelings about the Unification Church. It is difficult not to expand your notions of “normal” when you allow yourself to learn about others. How do you dispel fear if you do not trust?
I understand why some find it more comfortable to hide their orientation, their relationships with persons to whom they are not married, their religious beliefs, their political views, and their health histories. Once you are “out” it is tough to stop people from commenting. You have no control either over people’s internal judgments. However, I am inclined to trust even strangers with some of my vulnerabilities in the hope that they will open their hearts and respond to my disclosures with outward respect and internalized acceptance.
I would be dishonest if I did not admit that it would be easier to keep my cancer a secret from most people who know me. Already I have been judged for it. But I cannot effectively protect my rights as a cancer survivor without mobilizing others on my behalf. To mobilize others I have to speak about my private life. If I do not return to DePaul College of Law I will have to explain the school’s decision to terminate my teaching in the middle of a semester. At that point I also will be vulnerable to ignorance and prejudice.
I am told I am welcome to return to teaching there when I return to the “fullness of life.” I have no idea what that means. I am going to have radiation and chemotherapy. If I lose my hair or look sick will I again be excluded? Is that less than full life? I probably had my cancer for a decade during which it was a secret and my competence was unquestioned. At this point, I understand that I am cancer free, yet I am viewed as unreliable because I shared my diagnosis with a supervisor. Admitting my condition will expose me to more judgments.
The alternative is, for me, cowardly.
I can still remember when I was a younger woman with friends whose expressions of love and sexuality exposed them to the risk of unwed pregnancy. At the time, this was morally questionable behavior. I supported several friends who terminated pregnancies rather than tell family and friends that they engaged in premarital sex or unprotected sex. A doctor later informed one of these women that she was infertile. She still regrets deeply her decision to have an abortion. Today, when many children are born outside of marriage, her decision would attract less critical attention. I know she wishes she had been braver when she was younger.
Private matters sometimes involve personal choices. In the society in which we live people are not always following social rules that visit discrimination on the children of unwed parents. They are not always finding others’ religious beliefs suspect. They are not always declaring gay people to be sinners. They are not always mocking overweight people. They are not always judging cancer survivors to be unreliable. These incremental gains in acceptance have come from people acknowledging their personal choices, owning their identities, and, by doing so, challenging stereotypes.
If I mean to answer discrimination with education, then I have to be willing to risk hearing or being the subject of more unpleasant judgments. I need to dispel fear with openness and trust. I’m starting small—telling current and former students and business associates. But I hope there will be a time when coming out about my cancer will neither mean getting shut out of my profession nor called out for my personal struggle with my weight.
If you have a problem with that then I have a problem with you. Bring it on, baby.