Checking the Left Column: Queerness, Normalcy, and Having “Problems”

Five years ago, I was sitting at the doctor’s office, waiting for my physical as I filled in a standard teen mental health checklist.

I’ve noticed that it’s generally not a good sign when a question requires me to check one of two boxes (seriously, I don’t even like true/false questions on tests). But this survey went a step further and ordered the “yes” and “no” options for each question so that they formed two obvious columns: the “normal” column–which included a “yes” to having friends and a “no” to drugs and suicidal thoughts–and a “problem” column with exactly the opposite.

And then I hit a kicker: a yes to “I have had sexual or romantic feelings toward a person of the same gender” would mean a big fat check in the problem column.

It was too clearly organized to believe that there were truly “no wrong answers.” It was made so that a normal person could make their marks straight down the right column, picking the right answers, barely stopping to read the questions if they so wished.

Because to stray into the left column would be a loud, clear, intentional statement that you have problems. That you need help. And as someone who could get along just fine, who could get everything done and answer “good” to “how are you? (and many times mean it), I had no reason to open up that box.

Besides, just because something was in my head, didn’t mean it had to be real.

I am fine, therefore I check the right column. And that was it.

———-

At this point in my life, I had mostly dismissed any concerns about sexuality being evil or sinful, as most of the people around me had too. But just as scary was the prospect of being troubled.

I could be queer, I guess, I had recently admitted. I could be that normal, happy, casually out queer with a girlfriend and snappy responses to people’s probing questions. I could be bi, I guess, as long as I wasn’t one of the slutty, cheating, attention-seeking ones who go through phases. But heaven forbid, I could never be questioning, confused, or struggling. I couldn’t have uncertainties or fears. I had to be queer perfectly or not at all.

The former option seemed impossible when I saw that my sexuality would automatically place me in the same column as depressed people and drug addicts–so I would have to pick the latter.

People around me, people like me didn’t have problems. They didn’t need help. At least that’s what I thought.

———

Clearly there was something wrong with this situation. What was, however, is less clear than it might seem. Was it just the fact that non-heterosexuality was placed in the “problem” column, the fact that there was a “normal” column and a “problem” column in the first place, or the fact that checking the “problem” column is made out to be such a huge, scary deal?

I’ve been thinking about this lately with the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage and the celebration surrounding it. In many ways, the marriage equality movement has showcased the epitome of queer normalcy: ads showing gay white picket fences and couples with 2.5 children; legal arguments centered around thoroughly non-pathological families, squeaky clean personal narratives, and “just like you” rhetoric.

And now the ruling has left a rainbow on every other profile picture and cell phone ad, in a display of mainstream (at least in some places) visibility and support that I could have never imagined as a kid. And that’s a beautiful, affirming thing in many ways. But what if people are only willing to see the rainbows and not the rain?

Where is this normalcy we’re aiming for, anyway? Even within the general population, more of us fall into that “problem” column than we like to assume. About half of Americans meet criteria for a psychological disorder within their lifetime. As you might expect, the numbers are higher within the queer population, particularly for bisexuals, trans people, and people of color. This stuff is harder to talk about than weddings and parades, and is fueled by numerous structural and social factors, with no one easy legal fix.

But if these numbers can remind us of anything good, it is that none of us is the lone “problem person” in a sea of normalcy, as we might believe. And if we started acknowledging that it’s okay to need help–including but certainly not limited to limited to the clinical sense–we might be better equipped for a world which is not all rainbows and sunshine.

Say it with me: I am a problem person. And that’s okay.

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