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Learning Myself

I still have pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, but the apolitical, British working-class, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant has matured into a politically aware, Jewish, lesbian, feminist. The changes accumulated slowly but steadily.
Elisabeth Hurst

Issue #31, March 1997

I used to avoid discussions of politics and morality. Such debates usually led to harsh words and hurt feelings, even when the people involved appeared to be on the same side of the issue. More than anything else though, I believed that I had nothing worthwhile to contribute; my opinions on the issues were simply common sense, and neither politicians, governments nor the courts restricted my rights. That is no longer true. My access to what I consider to be basic human rights has decreased as my identity has evolved over the past ten years. I still have pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, but the apolitical, British working-class, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant has matured into a politically aware, Jewish, lesbian, feminist. The changes accumulated slowly but steadily. Some resulted from conscious choices, such as converting to Judaism and becoming an "out" lesbian. Others are my way of reacting to the biases of those who do not approve of the way I identify myself. The simple fact that I do not seek their approval is irrelevant in their view. As far as the bigots are concerned, as a woman who opted to leave the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, heterosexual majority to join two minorities (Jews and homosexuals), I opened myself to their judgment and to discrimination.

I haven't always been aware of prejudice. In fact, while growing up in a small industrial town in the north-east of England, I rarely saw anyone who did not identify themselves as white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and heterosexual. My first conscious realisation that we shared our country with other cultures came when the Ugandans fled Idi Amin's reign of terror for the "friendlier" shores of England. "Friendlier" is a term I use loosely in this context. The few Ugandan refugees who came to live in the cold, damp climate of northern England were not greeted with enthusiasm. Stories abounded about how good, solid British citizens were evicted from their homes and laid off from their jobs for no reason except to make room for those "ungrateful" and "greedy" refugees. My favourite urban legend related how "a friend of a friend's family" was evicted from their council house (British government housing) and forced to live in a tent in the backyard so Ugandan immigrants could move into the house. These patently false stories arose out of fear and intolerance, and did nothing but cause problems for all people of colour in the area.

When I was about ten years old, my knowledge of non-whites became more actual than intellectual. My father came home and announced that he was being sent to the southern tip of India on a business assignment and we were invited to go with him. I was far too excited and too young to consider the potential consequences. All I could think about were the things that I would experience for the first time: seeing a city, flying on an airplane, and maybe even meeting wild lions, tigers and snakes just like the ones in Walt Disney's version of The Jungle Book.

I did briefly visit London; my first trip to a big city. I got to fly on an airplane. I even got to see a snake on the streets of Bombay during the first week I was in India. The cobra didn't talk, but it did dance sinuously to the snake charmer's music; both of them utterly fascinated me. In the final analysis though, while all of these experiences were important to a ten year old girl, what I gained most from the eighteen months or so that I spent in India is an understanding of what it means to be the victim of prejudice. Like so much else at that age, it was something that I learned in school.

After my parents pulled my brothers from the local, company-owned school because of the abuse they received from their teacher, I had the distinction of being the only white child there. Everyone else — the students, the teachers and the administrative staff — was Indian. As I type this article, I can once again hear the chants of the children, the name-calling and the insults. I understood the English words. The ones in Malayalam and Hindu were incomprehensible, but their meaning was crystal clear: I was different, and I was not wanted there. The adults not only did little to stop the children, many of them added their own twist to the experience. Going to the teacher for help was out of the question. The older Indian lady who taught most of my classes frequently ridiculed me, ordering me to the front of the class and hitting me with the ruler for the flimsiest of reasons, taunting me for my lack of understanding of Sanskrit, Hindu and Malayalam. The other children were too advanced in those languages for me to catch up, so I received individual tutoring. Leaving the room at the beginning of those lessons was an ordeal. My teacher would always announce where I was going to the whole class, insinuating that I was not intelligent enough to learn Indian languages with them. It was a devastating ordeal, and I have never regained the confidence in my own abilities that I had beforehand.

Peer pressure and the urge to conform are integral parts of the teenage milieu. Some few, exceptionally hardy outsiders manage to survive their teenage years and keep their inner selves intact. The rest follow the leaders: joining the whirlwind of heterosexual dating, dressing in the current fashions, listening to the same music as their peers, and rarely expressing an opinion that is different from the accepted norm. Remembering the exclusion I found in India, I worked hard at becoming invisible. Beyond all else, I was determined not to stand out; never again to experience that kind of discrimination. If something about me was different from the mainstream, I either changed it or made sure that it was hidden from public view.

I went so far as to consciously alter the way I spoke. When I first arrived in Canada from England, the teenagers at my Canadian school teased me endlessly and viciously about my accent, and made me intensely self-conscious. I've always been able to mimic other people, so it took very little time for me to adopt the speech patterns of my peers. Over the years, this practice has become routine. Whenever I move to a new city, my accent rapidly conforms to the norm for that region. In Savannah, Georgia, I gained a southern drawl and the pacing of my words slowed down. That drawl returned in a slightly different form when my family relocated to Houston, Texas. Remnants of each of these dialects remain to this day in the way I pronounce certain words, but overall my accent is generic North American.

What I never realised until it was too late was the emotional pressure and personal cost of "fitting in." My quest to avoid being labeled "different" or "other" led me along some strange paths and eventually into job in the corporate world. Like almost every other corporate employee, I ostensibly worked from nine to five (which generally translated to "from eight to whenever") in a homogenised office environment filled with computers, squared-off cubicles, and earned just enough money to prevent me from finding new employment. While the middle class, suburban world inhabited by my family and co-workers seemed alien and incomprehensible to me, I struggled to transform myself into that acceptably bland image by acquiring all the outward symbols of that life.

The visible accoutrements of suburbia — a husband, a house in the 'burbs, a car and an hour-long commute to a downtown office job — came with my second husband. He also brought Judaism into my life. I began the conversion classes believing that I was doing it to make my then-fiance happy, but it came to be something that I was doing for myself. Judaism has given me many gifts, including joy and a grounding centre to my spiritual life, but it also brought prejudice back into my life.

The discrimination this time was far more subtle but no less easy to ignore. Rather than outright rejection and name-calling, there were the two older women sitting behind me in the synagogue wondering out loud what such a nice Jewish boy was doing with a shiksa. At home, my mother (who had always made an effort to prepare dishes that my vegetarian stepsister could eat) resolved that she did not need to "cater" to my food preferences. The office manager at my law firm objected vociferously to my taking time off for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. But the most disturbing encounter was the discovery that the police were an integral part of High Holyday worship at my synagogue. Each year off-duty police officers were hired to protect the synagogue and the worshippers to ensure that neo-Nazis and others could neither harass the attendees, vandalise the property, nor desecrate the building with graffiti and painted swastikas.

Confronting prejudice as an adult was a completely different experience. I had a network of friends supporting me, and the expectations of my husband and his family to meet. Giving in to the office manager's threats was not an option — there was no way to explain to my husband or his family that I would not be able to attend synagogue on Rosh Hashana. Unable to figure out a way to keep everyone happy, I listened to my conscience and decided that the office manager was wrong. It was the first time I ever resisted unreasonable prejudice. While I only achieved partial success (getting the time off, but not getting paid for it), a part of my inner self that had retreated into hibernation when I was younger started to emerge.

Discrimination no longer automatically made me hide my head in the sand. Instead, it started me thinking about my own personal and political ethics, a process that continues to this day. As I grew more secure in my own beliefs, the unthinking anger and rejection inherent in bigotry became less frightening and more disturbing. I began to think carefully about what was important to me and to stand up for those rights that I considered inalienable.

I certainly never won every battle, but there were a few successes: being paid for the Jewish High Holydays at my next job, the protection of freedom of speech on an internet mailing list, helping a co-worker realise that even white people can understand the effects of prejudice. On the other hand, my belief in affirmative action resulted in diatribes from co-workers on "realism." How could women possibly presume to demand equal treatment in the workplace when their employers could not anticipate if and when those women would also demand time off work to have children? My response was always the same: how could those employers treat any employee well if there was no guarantee that he or she would not become sick, have a serious accident that required months off work on disability, or decide to seek employment elsewhere? I never succeeded in convincing my co-workers to change their positions. For them, affirmative action was a synonym for special protections and a diminishment of their own entitlement to jobs and a decent income. It's not an argument that I have ever "won", but it is one that I will always debate.

Whether I won or lost, came out frustrated and hurt or feeling as if I have made a little corner of the world more comfortable for some people, each confrontation with prejudice has taught me something about myself. The confrontation with my office manager and the other, less direct forms of discrimination I suffered strengthened my connection with Judaism. When my second husband and I separated, several people made the assumption that I would return to Protestantism. On the contrary, there was no question in my mind except that I would continue to identify myself as Jewish.

In February 1996, in a hotel lobby in Toronto, another piece of my inner puzzle clicked into place. I fell in love with another woman. Unlike the fairy tales, "happily ever after" was not the automatic result.

She's American, and I'm Canadian. In contrast to my experience with my first husband (who was also American), she can't sponsor me into the United States. While the debate about same-sex marriages rages in the courts, the government and the newspapers, we struggle to find a way to live in the same country at the same time permanently. Immigration is difficult at the best of times, but reality requires that if I am to successfully emigrate to the United States, we must hide our relationship. Even if we had enough money to hire lawyers to take the fight to the Supreme Court, fighting the discrimination against homosexuals ingrained into immigration law is not an option. The inevitable outcome would be the denial of my immigration application. So, I must "closet" myself until it is over, and then work on changing the system for the future.

The irony is painful. For almost twenty years I avoided questions about my sexual orientation and maintained an outward appearance of heterosexuality because I dreaded homophobic reprisals and rejection by friends, family and strangers. I wasn't even aware that this fear had diminished until after I met my partner, and I had to decide whether I wished to remain in the closet or join her as an "out" lesbian. Although I agonised every time I told a friend or family member about my new partner, I was not terrified that they would reject me. Those few times when I met homophobia, I faced it directly using the strength and tools that I gained from standing up to religious prejudice and sexism. This time the intolerance hurt me, but it did not destroy me.

There will always be those who do not understand how I could surrender the security of a Protestant, straight, blonde, blue-eyed existence. The truth is that I was never very secure in that identity. I have found more far more comfort, strength and pride as a Jewish, lesbian feminist, and the personal ethics that those labels represent. Yet I have not discarded everything that came with my WASP upbringing; the belief that I am entitled to certain personal, societal and civil rights remains. The personal prejudice of those who believe that I forfeited those rights by identifying with two minorities, and the institutionalised discrimination of them and their forebears, have become obstacles to overcome, rather than impermeable barriers to happiness. Moreover they have provided the impetus that eradicated my political apathy and forced me to take my personal ethics into the political arena. I no longer sit at home expecting to have access to my civil rights when I need them. Instead, I watch developments in the government, the courts, the entertainment world and other social arenas, and take action both to preserve my civil rights and those of others before they can be further reduced, and to regain those that I have lost.

Elisabeth Hurst looks forward to the day when she and her partner live in the same country, and she no longer needs to use a pseudonym. Messages can be sent to her via:

Copyright © 1997 by Sarah bat Avraham. All rights reserved.