Veronica Zazzaro, MS
I’ve never really fit in. Not since I was very little. I grew up in a very Christian, Conservative town—raised Jewish, for starters. As soon as I entered the first grade, it was made very clear to me that I was an “other.” The customs, values and traditions that I treasured, identified with and shared with the people I loved were seen as less than and to some, a threat. Even among the Jewish community, I was an “other,” actually. Call it a stereotype, but, many Jews are well-off. In my experience this is because of the emphasis on education and financial stability as a cultural value. Well, my family was not what anyone would call financially stable. Showing up to Hebrew school and Youth Group with clothing from the thrift store among a group of private-school kids who went to Jewish sleep-away camps that cost an arm and a leg for summer was a clear physical manifestation of my “otherness.” My peers took notice and I was more or less shunned by them. Again, I was often perceived as less than or threatening, albeit to their social standing. I also struggled with mental-illness as the result of a toxic family environment and a learning disability. I was the “weird” kid. To top it all off, in the middle of high-school, I realized I was a lesbian. I don’t imagine I have to explain to you the kind of social consequences that had on top of everything else.
I realize how this blog is beginning to sound. “Boo-hoo, woe is me, I’m so weird and different and people don’t like it! The world is HARD!” Of course that IS how it felt for many of my childhood and teenage years, but, what I would realize in my early adulthood is that it granted me a very valuable perspective. I’ve not had the option to conform. I make most people uncomfortable just by being. So I had practice making a very important choice that I think everyone eventually has to make, regardless of their inter-sectional identity. Truth be told, we are all really friggin’ weird deep down, aren’t we? We try VERY hard to deny it or hide it but, wow, what a bunch of lunatics we all are! Otherwise, I, along with all of my colleagues would be out of a job! You know that “thing” that you hide away? That “thing” you harbor that if ANYONE found out about you, it would be so terrible and people would think you’re disgusting or horrible for it? Yeah, we all have it. We all, very likely, have a few of those.
The “choice” I’m describing came to the front of my mind as a fully-formed sentence for the first time when a concerned colleague sat me down to ask me something. This was during my internship experience for my graduate degree where I worked as a counselor at a Domestic Violence shelter. She sat me down in her office and asked “Veronica, why can’t you tone it down?” I assumed she was referring to my sometimes sarcastic, playful personality that I don’t bother stifling (thanks Drama Club!) I was confused by this because most people that I had interacted with in our place of work seemed to enjoy my jokes and overall demeanor and I was treated with respect for what I did there. I responded “I’m sorry?” She went on ” If you could just humble down and act normal, things could be a lot easier for you.” I responded, still confused “I haven’t noticed things being harder for me.” She seemed surprised. Then, I realized she wasn’t talking about my personality, she was talking about my open queerness. At this point in my life I have a lot of my hair shaved and I dress in a fairly androgynous manner, see the picture above. I also talked openly with the staff and my clients about my budding romantic relationship with my now long-term partner and didn’t think anything of it. Apparently, some of the more religious members of the staff were talking behind my back making all kinds of judgments.
She continued “do you really just need attention that badly?” She was insulting me now. “You would be a lot more comfortable if you’d cut it out.”
I piped up “No, I wouldn’t.”
She retorted “What? You absolutely would be.” It seemed obvious to her.
That’s when I spoke about the “choice” for the first time.
I sat forward in my chair and I said to her “I’m going to be uncomfortable no matter what, but, I have a choice.”
She furrowed her brows at me.
“I can choose from two sets of comforts and discomforts.”
I went on to explain “I can either tone myself down, stifle who I am and enjoy the comfort of being acceptable to others, while suffering the discomfort of shame internally. On the other hand, I could be unapologetically myself and not feel ashamed, enjoying the comfort of accepting myself and deal with the discomfort of people’s judgments externally. I choose me.”
She didn’t have an argument for that.
I live a life where no matter who I speak to, chances are, some major part of my identity is going to make them uncomfortable. I constantly have to make this choice. Do I hide and pretend for them? Do I free myself and endure the judgement? Do I make myself lovable to them? Or do I love myself instead? We all have to make this choice at some point. No one who reads this is free from the pressure to fit in or conform to something that confines them. In my experience, the choice to shrink myself into whatever is acceptable to them has always stunted my personal growth. Fitting in, turns out, was never worth it.
So, who will you choose?