In a strange way, announcing something this personal in a public forum is easier than doing so with friends or family. It’s probably because this website has been a beacon of liberal thinking and debate, something which hasn’t always been true when discussing a topic as sensitive as this with one’s parents. This is my coming-out story.
Not living in the same country as your parents has its own pitfalls, as well as perks. The upsides include freedom from the intrusive village grapevine run by the old-granny mafia and not subjecting my home to the combined 80 cigarettes my folks plough through in any given day.
The downside is that each visit will conjure up the inevitable conversation that begins at the “so, what’s new in your life” stage and rapidly degenerates into a cold war between traditional and new age thinking.
And when I use the term traditional, I expect Jewish, Indian and fellow Mediterranean descendants will join me in a collective sigh of recognisable frustration. They will be all too familiar with the tribulations of arguing with people who grew up in a very different time, a very different world.
By traditional, I really mean old-school conservatism that often belies logic and reason for the sake of centuries-old customs that have never before been questioned because they were made customary law by some grey-bearded fellow with a big hat. So it’s with a relative amount of trepidation that I look forward to my next sitting with Papa and Mama, where this bombshell will very likely result in my umpteenth expulsion from the family home.
Even in my formative years, I knew something wasn’t quite right. For most of the time I believed the problem lay with me. Or so it felt. On the outside I was just another typical boy attending a co-educational model-C school in the wind-swept suburbs of Port Elizabeth. There was no traumatic event or unduly influential set of circumstances that caused me to drift from what my parents and teachers were advocating as “normal” behaviour. Nor was I exposed to an excessive amount of offensive material to make me this way, it was simply a natural outcome to something that stirred within me.
As I write this, I recognise the anger I feel towards a system, both educational and societal, that I can now claim to be morally corrupt. For years, these standards and teachings made me feel inadequate as a person, merely because I was someone with a different outlook to the norm and too afraid to express it to the world.
Looking back, I can see how unjust it was for parents, teachers and clergy to enforce what they thought was acceptable behaviour upon me and others who were no doubt just like me. For the sake of the next generation, I sincerely hope the curriculums of schools have been updated to remove the archaic biases that we had to endure.
It was only when I had the opportunity to leave home after university, to the big smoke of Jozi, that I felt comfortable exploring these feelings.
Mind you, it wasn’t easy to begin with. Years of indoctrination don’t simply unravel overnight and I often found myself, almost robotically, spewing bigoted arguments during our late-night philosophical digs debates. But slowly, my rational mind was waging war with years of misguidance.
Quite fortunately for me, this was around the same time this internet thing and Google were taking off. With literally terabytes of material being uploaded each day, not even the hurdles of dial-up connectivity or Telkom could stop me from expanding my mind beyond the clutches of what society had deemed normal on my behalf and at my expense.
While I feel aggrieved with my parents who had conditioned me into a particular way of thinking, I understand that they were just another by-product of centuries of misinformation. They merely extended the ill-advised lessons their parents had taught them, and their grandparents before them. But that would turn out to be the deceitfully clever part of the propaganda campaign.
It had woven itself so closely into the fabric of what it meant to be Greek (or Jewish or Indian) that breaking out from the constraints of this thinking would be akin to denouncing your own culture, and bring shame on the family name. It’s no wonder that so many like me choose to rather live behind closet doors, away from the prejudices of old.
I try not to think of how many major life-changing decisions I’ve made on the back of these lies. Or things I’ve said and done, knowing only too well the hypocrisy of those actions but still succumbing to the societal pressure to conform. I still easily recall situations where my life could have been very different had it not been for the conformist teachings drummed into my psyche.
And the years of guilt I carried for actions I was told were immoral according to this cultural code, I will never get those back. Yet even worse, I shudder to think how many people have been persecuted, victimised and even killed for not keeping their views sheltered from bigoted bullies.
But if any generation can stand up to close-minded thinking and irrational teachings of the past, it’s ours. With the freedom of information that the internet brings to personal experiences, hopefully we can reduce the stigma attached to the stereotypical thinking that has dominated our past.
In writing this piece, I am hoping in some small way that it will not only help me to come out but possibly spur others on to join me and publicly declare their allegiance in the fight against the persecution of our kind and freedom of choice.
And still, even after baring something so private, on a forum for thousands to see, it doesn’t make the task of sitting down with my mother any easier and uttering the words: “Mom, I’m an atheist.” DM
With a high-school prize for best supporting actor in a one-act play and as captain of the chess team, Charalambous qualified to join the esteemed ranks of the Daily Maverick opinionistas. He now resides in Cape Town, working in media and irritating the old guard of the South African rugby with some liberal thinking.
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