A couple of years ago, my family took a vacation to Jamaica. Friends had visited the country, and we looked forward to the food and the beaches and the time together. At the same time, however, reports of violence against LGBT persons had arisen around the world, and the question forced itself into my mind: Is it safe for me to go there?
I never told my family or friends about the question, and I don’t believe they asked it themselves. But before the trip, I searched country reports and guidelines. There had, indeed, been reports of violence against gay persons in Jamaica around that time. The culture, I read, was not particularly open to gay people. If you are gay, you should exercise caution.
I had spent about two decades in the closet, so I was used to being different from those around me, and to hiding the ways in which those differences affected me. It had made me tough and independent. I loved the family vacation, and I hid my concerns from my family.
Still, I cried before going, and in Jamaica I tried to be cognizant of my speech and mannerisms when we went out into public. Keep the lilt in my voice under control. Hands in the pockets or holding something to avoid an inadvertent flick of the wrist. If I see an attractive guy, just look away. I did these things because I wanted to have the absolute minimal risk of danger to myself and my family. I didn’t want to be another report of someone being physically attacked for being gay.
I have very fond memories of that vacation, and I would definitely consider doing it again. But I would check the news and country reports first, and exercise caution the entire time I’m there.
I have friends who want to visit Moscow and do service in Haiti. I’d love this as well, but as a gay man I have to weigh travel against the risk of physical and other danger. ISIS kidnaps Christians and murders and tortures them for their beliefs, but the horrors against gay persons are unspeakable, not only under ISIS, but also in Russia and other countries my friends want to put on their Instagram pages.
Do you feel afraid to go on vacation? If not, that’s what we call straight privilege. It is a privilege to feel safe.
But we don’t even need to go abroad. As recently as last week, a friend in the US shared that while riding a public bus, a stranger called him a f***** and threatened him with physical violence for wearing a rainbow wristband.
Are you afraid of going home?
If I were considering going to a country where over a dozen people were murdered in a store because they looked like me, I’d strongly consider cancelling the trip. I’m going to Texas next week. I know that if I were at a Walmart in El Paso with a white friend during this month’s shooting, he would have been allowed to get up and leave. I would have had to run and hide. If you were there with me, would you have been allowed to leave, and to leave me behind?
Some of my black and Hispanic friends, when they walk into a room, count the number of the persons of color. I do it sometimes. It’s an interesting game to play in your church, your work, your school. Another game, a morbid one: in this room, which of us would have been allowed to live and which of us made to die?
Do you think about how there are people that would want to shoot you in a Walmart but let many of your friends walk out unscathed? If not, that’s what we call white privilege. It is a privilege to feel safe.
I’m not sharing these experiences to shame you, but I hope that it can help you understand why the experiences of people like me are different from the experiences of people like you in very important ways. Life isn’t fair for many of us, for reasons that are not our fault. What are you going to do about it?
Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops.