Facing Horror: Implications for Life and Activism

Jonathan Mathias Lassiter I LGBTQ Rights I Analysis I January 22nd, 2014

Facing horror is hard. When you read that sentence you might think to yourself, "duh." However, how often do we really face horror? You and I may come in contact with it but how often do we really look at it in its face? Take notice of the acne scars, the discoloration, the lines in its face? Horror is ugly. The horror I write about in this essay is not the image of a serial killer or supernatural monster portrayed on a movie screen or read about in a Bram Stoker novel. The horror that I am writing about are the feelings generated when we are placed face-to-face with the darkest aspects of humanity. Such horror is generated by jagged, heavy, shocking, and revolting experiences and is not intended for our pleasure. It can be felt when we are discriminated against, abused by loved ones or strangers, harassed in our schools and churches, and when faced with real and perceived threats to our lives and livelihood.

Horror can haunt us and be relived and retold in personal and collective horror stories. It is understandable that we may want to run from, bury, or eradicate it. However, avoiding horror has negative consequences for our lived experiences and the work we do as people and as activists. Until we can face horror, feel it, and accept it as a fact, we will not be able to effectively and sustainably move forward to struggle for a world where horror is not a hindrance but steppingstone.

In this essay, I begin with a brief examination of the definitions of horror and horror stories. I move to provide examples of personal and SGL- and trans-specific horror stories. I then briefly review the scholarly literature on the motivation for activism. The concepts of avoiding and facing horror are then discussed. The essay is culminated with an exploration of how facing horror can transform the jagged, heavy, shocking and revolting experiences into integrated parts of ourselves that comprise the mosaic of life and fuel sustainable, more effective activism and more fully lived moments of being.

Defining Horror

Horror has been defined by Merriam-Webster (2013) dictionary as: 1) painful and intense fear, dread, or dismay; intense aversion or repugnance; 2) the quality of inspiring horror; repulsive, horrible, or dismal quality or character; something that inspires horror; and 3) (when plural): a state of extreme depression or apprehension. On dictionary.com (2013), it is defined as: an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; a shuddering fear; 2) anything that causes such a feeling; 3) such a feeling as a quality or condition; 4) a strong aversion; abhorrence; and 5) (informally) something considered bad or tasteless. A horror story has been defined as an experience that is very unpleasant. When one ponders these definitions, commonalities that surface among them are the qualities of acuity and unpleasantness. In this essay, I conceptualized horror as feelings that are intense in nature, painful, and terrifying. Examples of these types of feelings are depression, despair, and anger. A horror story can be considered as 1) an experience that invokes feelings that are intense in nature, painful, and terrifying or 2) a story that we tell ourselves and others about our horror. Specifically, horror stories are experiences that elicit horror or stories that we tell about our horror.

Personal Horror Stories

We all have horror stories that stick with us and shape our views of ourselves and influence the actions we take in the world. Some of my most protracted intense, painful, and terrifying feelings were elicited as a result of the conflict between my religious beliefs and sexual orientation. Christian-based homonegativity was a prevalent theme of one of my life's great horror stories that put me face-to-face with despair, depression, and suicidal ideation. The horror it elicited became ingrained in me and internalized. I believed-as preached in the churches of my youth-that God did not love SGL people and that if I was unable to deny or get rid of my same-sex attraction that I would go to hell and forever be separated from my higher power. This particular horror story was not only proclaimed from the pulpit in stylized sermons but also portrayed in dramas acted in my church and community. For example, when I was about nine or ten, my mother and father took my brother and me to see a Christian-themed play at the local arena in my hometown. The play was a "come-to-Jesus play." It presented a cast of characters who were "sinful" in some way or the other. These characters experienced some type of hardship that usually meant they lost their jobs, became infected with a disease, or lost a significant relationship. Then they would meet a "true Christian" who pointed out the error of their ways and by the end of the play the "sinful" characters repented and were accepted by Jesus. In this particular play, one of the sinful characters was an SGL male who wore tight pants and shirts that exposed his stomach, worked as a hairdresser, and sashayed around calling everyone "chile." This character was portrayed as a fun loving but misguided character at the beginning of the play. His back-story included having been disowned by his family and having several male sexual partners. He was warned by several "true Christians" to change his ways but he continued to dress as he did and share vivid details about his sexual experiences to the female patrons in the beauty salon. Having not heeded the warnings of "true Christians," who were cast as the representatives of God, he eventually contracted an unnamed fatal disease. However, to show God's redemptive love and mercy, he was "saved" and accepted by Jesus after repenting, denouncing his same-sex sexual orientation, and exclaiming that he "wanted to be the man God made him to be." Everyone in the audience cheered and clapped at his proclamation. I…was horrified!

At that time, my same-sex attractions were just beginning to become palpable. I didn't fully understand what sex was but I knew that I felt tingly around boys in a way that I did not around girls. When I first saw that character on stage I questioned, "am I destined to become him?" In the midst of the audience's roaring approval of the character's "come-to-Jesus" moment, I sat in that space feeling accused and doomed. Would I contract some unnamed disease and lose the love of my family? This experience of horror became one of the stories that shuffled around in my mind for many years, influenced the negative self-view I developed, and the restricted way I interacted with the world around me and those in it. I viewed myself as unloved by God, soon-to-be rejected by my family when they found out about my same-sex attractions, despised by others, and destined to go to hell. I believed I was repulsive, doomed to calamity, and deserving of it.

This particular horror story is one that I wrestled with for a long time. I tried to ignore and repress it. The more I did, the more it wreaked havoc on my psyche and the horror intensified. I became depressed and fatalistic until I learned how to face my horror. As human beings, we all have personal horror stories. What messages caused you to experience horror? Do you try to silence your horror through repression and denial? Our reactions to horror are powerful and affect not only our personal experiences but also influence our perspectives on horror stories around us and horror in others' lives. In this way, our own horror and our reactions to it have implications for how we respond to collective horror stories and horror.

Collective Horror Stories

Like all human beings, SGL and trans people experience horror at various times throughout their lifespan. Unfortunately, we sometimes are subjected to horror stories at disproportionate rates throughout our lives because of our sexual orientations and gender identity/expressions. Our horror stories are often characterized by stigma. Herek (2009) has identified three different types of stigma: enacted, felt, and internalized. All three types have negative implications for the well being of SGL and trans people.

Enacted stigma encompasses explicit behaviors that communicate prejudice or disdain due to one's sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. SGL and trans people are at-risk of being the victim of enacted stigma in the form of discrimination in the areas of housing, employment, healthcare, and education (Institute of Medicine, 2011; Sears & Mallory, 2011). SGL and trans people are also often the targets of prejudice and violence perpetrated by strangers, members of law enforcement, and loved ones. For example, research has found that at least 19% of transgender individuals have been homeless at some point in their lives, another 19% have been denied an apartment or home, and 11% have been evicted because of their gender identity/expression (Grant et al., 2011). SGL people disproportionately find themselves facing housing barriers as well. For example, in a 2005 national survey, 16% of SGL women and 18% of SGL men reported experiencing housing discrimination. Similar patterns of discrimination have been found in the areas of violence and abuse enacted by family members. Many SGL and trans people experience fear and anxiety related to disclosing their sexual orientation and gender identity to their parents (D'Augelli, Hershberger, & Pilkington, 1998; D'Augelli, Grossman, Starks, & Sinclair, 2010). This fear and anxiety is not unfounded. In 2012, approximately 14% of known violent offenders of SGL and trans people were their relatives (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs People, 2013). SGL and trans people's horror stories are generated by both structural and interpersonal sources.

Felt stigma is an awareness of the possibility that stigma will or has been enacted in a particular situation. Felt stigma can also be conceptualized as microaggressions, which are "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward members of oppressed groups" (Nadal, 2008, p. 23). Sexual orientation microaggressions inflicted by others include the use of heterosexist terminology, endorsement of heteronormative culture/behaviors, assumption of universal LGBT experience, exoticization, discomfort/disapproval of LGBT experience, denial of the reality of heterosexism, and assumption of sexual pathology/abnormality, and threatening behaviors (Nadal et al., 2011). After such encounters, one may be left with a nagging feeling of having been treated unjustly but without the language or awareness to to explain the feeling, or to describe the particular injustice. One may simply have a "gut feeling" that she was excluded or treated insensitively by others. Felt stigma can serve to dehumanize and "other" SGL and trans people in covert ways.

Internalized stigma is the belief held by SGL and trans people that the negative messages communicated through enacted and felt stigma are true. This type of stigma contaminates SGL and trans people's self-perceptions. Some internalize these horrors and may begin to view themselves as horrific, fundamentally flawed, and grotesque. They may even come to believe that they deserve the prejudice and discrimination to which they are subjected. Such a view about oneself is a hard one with which to cope.

The collective horror stories described above place SGL and trans people face-to-face with the darkest aspects of humanity. Yet, the horror stories do not stop there. Horror stories incited by others' disdain for SGL people's sexual orientation and trans people's gender identity/expression is also compounded by the horror stories they are subjected to because of their racial/ethnic minority status, education level, income level, geographic location, language, immigration status, knowledge, and cultural beliefs. For some, these intense, painful, and terrifying feelings lead them to disengage from themselves through denial or soothing with substances, negative interpersonal relationships, or sexual encounters. Others are so scarred by the internalization of the stigma embedded in these horror stories, that they seek to stamp it out. One way some might do this is by becoming involved in activism dedicated to eliminating horror and the horror stories that generate it.

Motivations for Activism

Activism is action (e.g. campaigning, educating, marching, and protesting) aimed at reaching a particular goal or set of goals. Research has found that people generally participate in activism for both altruistic and self-centered reasons. A precursory examination of studies in this area identified several motivations for activism. Sullivan (2011) found that male and female SGL activists reported that growing up in a politically-active home, being exposed to social activism at a young age, having a disposition that resisted injustice, having a concern about the welfare of others, and having a desire to legally protect their families were all catalysts for activism. In another study, Latino gay men involved in HIV/AIDS activism expressed that they were driven by a desire to feel good about themselves, manage stressful life situations, give back to others through support and education, to feel a sense of belonging, and give support to others (Ramirez-Valles & Brown, 2003). Other researchers' findings suggest that the motivations cited above are not uncommon (Bebbington & Gatter, 1994; Ouellette, Cassel, Maslanka, & Wong, 1995) and also include feeling a moral obligation to take action. Overall, these findings suggest that motivations for activism are varied; some are intrinsic and others are birthed out of need. None are necessarily "good" or "bad." However, motivations do have an effect on the caliber and impact of one's activism.

My motivations for activism are both personal and political. As an African American, working-class, able-bodied, SGL, cisgender male activist, my goal is to struggle against systems of oppression based on imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy. I have been intimately acquainted with the outcomes (e.g. those personal and collective horror stories described above) of such systems and have seen their influences on my life and on the lives of those around me. I have lived the horror stories and felt the horror that result from these systems. I am motivated to struggle against them. But what is fueling my motivation? Is it born out of a desire to avoid the horror that is tied to these systems? Are the intense, painful, and terrifying feelings engendered when someone whispers "faggot" or tells me that I "don't sound Black," driving me to rally, research, and speak out against those systems? Is my activism an avoidance strategy? If I write an essay about the Trayvon Martin case and how it is a symptom of white supremacy, does it help me escape that horrific feeling of being physically at-risk of violence or murder as an African American male in America? When I conduct research studies that question religious texts' condemnation of SGL people, am I trying to pacify my own angst from religious rejection? When I mentor a young SGL or trans person, am I doing so to make me feel like I am not a part of the problem? Is my activism a way of assuming control of something over which I am powerless (e.g. my own horror)? I ask myself this question and invite you to do the same because, as stated before, our own horror and our reactions to it has implications for how we respond to collective horror stories and horror.

Avoiding Horror

Activism can be a fitting behavioral avoidance strategy of horror for someone who practices sublimation. This type of activism is born out of a need to disprove, defeat, and defy. It is a reactive activism that despises horror and fights it at all costs. Sometimes, in an attempt to escape the horror we feel personally, we attempt to eradicate it collectively. We cannot stomach the feelings within ourselves and we detest them in others. Imagine the degree of horror one must feel due to an internalized negative perception of her sexual orientation, that she prays for God to let her die in her sleep. That is the type of horror that can get lodged in the pores and debilitate a body. Imagine the horror one feels when his very maleness is attacked and his classmates mock him on a daily basis due to his non-gender conforming expression. That is the type of horror that can inflame the heart and numb the mind. It is a horror that threatens to crumble a person. It is understandable that one may want to avoid this horror; but we must be careful.

Activism can become a tool of oppression when motivated by avoidance. In an attempt to escape horror, SGL and trans activism has largely transformed from resistance to assimilation. This reactive activism strives to disprove others' definitions of SGL and trans people instead of defining ourselves for ourselves. This type of activism is restricted by the parameters of SGL- and trans-negative stereotypes and ignorance. It is activism that is obsessed with extremes. It attempts to overcome extreme horror stories of oppression by fighting for extreme acceptance into a flawed paradigm. It fails to create a new system free of subjugation and promotes horizontal oppression (i.e. oppression of marginalized people by other marginalized people) that serves both to reinforce the privileges of imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, and to stifle the progress of other marginalized people who either cannot or do not want to live within those systems of oppression.

Many SGL and trans activists seem to be working within the patriarchal heteronormative (and often white) gaze. A prime example of this is marriage equality. Fourteen years into the 21st century, seventeen states (California, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage (freedomtomarry.org, 2014). Same-sex marriage does provide legal protection for same-sex partners previously denied, such as social security, federal employment, immigrant, and tax benefits. However, it also plays into a politics of respectability and rather than abolishing systems of oppression, seeks to secure a position within those systems.

Avoidance often leads to denial. When people try to avoid the horror of being deemed deviant, they begin to place themselves into the chains that are most appealing to their oppressors. They take on their oppressors' flawed customs to prove their "normalness." People and institutions that do not conform to this "new normal" are marginalized and erased to create the illusion of a homogenized group that is nonthreatening and "just like" their oppressors. The largely promoted pale, middle class, and mostly cisgender male image of SGL and trans people, devoid of heterogeneity, is a glaring example of denial in an attempt to avoid horror. GLAAD (2013) found that only 29% (on broadcast television) and 30% (on cable television) of SGL and trans characters were people of color. Only three SGL and no trans people with disabilities were portrayed on television in 2013 (GLAAD, 2013). Furthermore, there were only two transgender people represented on mainstream television (one female-to-male and one male-to-female person). Most of these characters (people color and Caucasian) appeared in comedic or sexually nonthreatening roles and were portrayed as affluent.

A more accurate representation of SGL and trans communities would include more people of color, more women, and more people who are not affluent. Several research reports present more realistic facts that are the opposite of the promoted myth. Gallup, Inc. (2012) found that there are 4.6% of Black, 4.3% of Asian American, and 4.0% of Latino(a) American SGL people compared to 3.2% of Caucasian SGL people in America. They also found that women are more likely to identify as SGL than men (Gallup, Inc., 2012). In addition, SGL people are more likely to be living in poverty than their heterosexual counterparts (Badgett, Durso, & Schneebaum, 2013; Gallup, Inc., 2012) and trans people are more likely to be living in poverty than SGL and heterosexual people. Such a realistic portrayal of SGL and trans people could be a problem for SGL and activist organizations who seek to assimilate into mainstream culture. These complicated and unsanitized images threaten to agitate the propaganda that seeks to avoid horror and gain the acceptance of heterosexuals and access to the privilege that comes with heterosexuality in a heteronormative society instead of challenging heteropatriarchy.At the beginning of the 20 th century, every state in the United States criminalized same-sex sexual behaviors and legally discriminated against people in the areas of housing, education, healthcare, employment, etcetera on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. Starting in the 1920s activists began to form groups such as The Society for Human Rights, Daughters of Bilitis, the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, and Queer Nation to address the ubiquitous discrimination to which SGL and trans people were subjected. Early publications such as Fire!! by Wallace Thurman, In the Life by Joseph Beam, and The Words of a Woman Who Breathes Fire by Kitty Tsui documented the unfiltered, death-defying, straining-to-be-heard essence of SGL and trans life that was rendered deviant and pushed to the margins of the margin. The overwhelming focus of SGL and trans people's activism at that time was literally the struggles of life and death as they worked to stop violence and fight HIV/AIDS.

However, as HIV medications began to prolong the lives of many SGL men (those with the means to afford them), activism began to shift its focus to the securing of the trappings of mainstream America (read white, heterosexual, and middle class). With the advent of fundraising behemoths, such as the Human Rights Campaign (with a leadership staff that is largely white and male), a majority of SGL and trans activism shifted from grassroots movements to organizations tied to Fortune 500 corporations. Such mainstream organizations and SGL and trans activism seem more in line with avoiding horror-those intense, painful, and terrifying emotions generated by horror stories that invalidate and debase-than facing it.

This is dangerous. Running from horror, denying it, trying to disprove it only creates more of it. Fighting horror does not decrease its impact. If anything, we increase horror and the impact of horror stories by fighting them with such blind passion that we end up fighting ourselves. Our horror, as intense and painful and terrifying as it is, is a part of us and must be faced.

Facing Horror

When we face horror, we look at it squarely. We look at those phantoms and feel the pain in the dark crevices of our horror stories. We recognize that while the horror stories that created our horror are unjust and must be addressed, the horror itself is a fundamental part of us. It is our power. Facing horror means being aware of, being able to sit with, examine, and understand horror nonjudgmentally and without a need to soothe it. Facing horror is a scary process. Maslow (1999, p. 225), writing about growth psychology stated:

"…each step forward is a step into the unfamiliar and good and satisfying. It frequently means a parting and a separation, even a kind of death prior to rebirth with consequent nostalgia, fear, loneliness and mourning. It also often means giving up simpler and easier and less effortful life, in exchange for a more demanding, more responsible, more difficult life. Growth forward is in spite of these losses and therefore requires courage, will, choice, and strength in the individual, as well as protection, permission, and encouragement from the environment…"

Maslow's words about growth psychology can be applied to the concept of facing horror. Facing horror requires faith, it requires approaching our intense, painful, and terrifying feelings in a new way. Usually when we feel pain, we flee. Facing horror requires us to feel pain and observe. This approach to pain is a lot more demanding. It requires for us to give up our hedonistic longings for a more responsible and more difficult life. While more difficult, such a life where once faces horror is a life lived more vibrantly. It is a life that allows us to embrace all of ourselves. And we must embrace all of ourselves and each other if we are to take those jagged pieces of horror and smooth them and integrate them. That is the only realistic way to effectively and sustainably engage with horror. Avoiding horror is a delusion machinated by our minds. Horror is there whether we want to face it or not.

Horror is an essential part of our human experience. It is the intense, painful, terrifying feelings that are at once inevitable, unconquerable, yet navigable. August Wilson (1988, p. 71) writes in Joe Turner's Come and Gone about an essential part of a person:

"you a man who done forgot his [horror]…A fellow forget that and he forget who he is. Forget how he's supposed to mark down life…The only thing I knew was something was keeping me dissatisfied. Something wasn't making my heart smooth and easy…That [horror] has a weight to it that was hard to handle. That [horror] was hard to carry. I fought against it. Didn't want to accept that [horror]. It was my [horror]. It had come from way deep inside me. I looked long back in memory and gathered up pieces and snatches of things to make that [horror]…And that [horror] helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn't bite back at me." 1

Horror can be heavy when we don't face it. It can weigh us down. Horror can be manifested as our feelings of depression, hopelessness, and worthlessness. Pulling these feelings closer to us is counterintuitive and will most likely cause us pain initially. However, when we pull horror close to us, feel the pain, and recognize that we are not failing and crumbling, we can recognize its power. We must pull the horror close to us, not the messages and the stories we have been told about it. Sometimes when we experience horror, we tell ourselves that something is wrong with us. Yet, what it really means is that we are human. The orchestrators of the horror stories that create perpetuate systems of oppression are flawed, not us.

Activism as Manifestation of Our Being

Horror that is divorced of its negativity, its messages of deviance, and its stigma can be used to help us move down the road to engage in activism that is not reactive but creative. We can engage in activism informed by our horror but not defined by it. This kind of activism is not reactive but is, in actuality, a manifestation of our being. Activism as manifestation of our being does not seek to persuade. There is no need because what we are struggling for, we already know for ourselves and thus require no external confirmation. Activism as manifestation of our being does not need to disprove internalized anti-SGL and trans prejudice because such prejudices have no real bearing on how we experience ourselves. Inspired by Audre Lorde's thoughts about militancy (1984, pp.141-142), I believe that activism as manifestation of our being may resemble:

"…working for change, something in the absence of any surety thatchange is coming. It means doing the unromantic and tedious work necessary to forge meaningful coalitions, and it means recognizing which coalitions are possible and which coalitions are not. It means knowing that coalition, like unity means the coming together of whole, self-actualized human beings, focused and believing, not fragmenting automatons marching to a prescribed step."

Activism as manifestation of our being addresses the systems of oppression that attempt to dehumanize us from the outside and from within. It does not replicate them. When we are able to face horror we are able to shed the straight jackets that keep us bound to symbolic practices. Practices, for example, that amount to tearing down the oppressors' house only to build one with a rainbow flag in the window. Facing horror allows us to advance into our future one step at a time with a sense of both heaviness and freedom.


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1 I substitute the word song with the word horror.