After dinner recently, a friend mentioned to me the idea of “symbolic annihilation.” Rather than look it up and solidify my understanding of it, I’ll recklessly paraphrase what I think I got out of the conversation.
I grew up without a model for homosexuality, positive or negative. Because there was this absence, tossing it into the all-too welcoming conceptual abyss of “Other,” we can assume negativity reigned; i.e. that there was little inclination for me toward positive creativity in the wake of nothing to hold onto. I didn’t know I didn’t know what homosexuality was, and so I unwittingly inherited whatever cultural/familial norms there were in relation to it. In my case, this meant indifferent deflection of it as a tangible possibility in my life, which I suppose is better than overt antagonism that might’ve caused me to internalize self-hatred should I prove to be this thing that wasn’t really a thing, insofar as things take on thing-ness by virtue of us seeing them played out in our reality.
Excuse my default-mode intellectualizing, and let me state the point clearly: I don’t know how to be gay. I don’t know what it means to be gay. Up until a few years ago, I didn’t even know I could be gay, and up until a few months ago, I didn’t know I am (now at least) gay. How is this possible? This is where symbolic annihilation comes in.
Basically, it means that if we see no models for a symbol, it gets annihilated from our mental architecture, unable to fit into our sense of world order. Possible roles in social reality are generally dictated by the various social playbooks given to us by our various authority figures (e.g. parents, teachers, media). In all of them, it seemed, I was given the same story about sexuality: it was something that happened between a man and a woman. I never learned any alternative. It wasn’t that alternatives were dismissed or attacked, but more that they never came into existence for me (which is its own terrifying form of violence and power). As a result, whatever I might’ve become earlier in my life was framed by what was presented to me as possible to become. Being gay simply wasn’t among the possibilities. And why should it have been? Almost every relationship I witnessed was a healthy, committed heterosexual one. It was straight people all the way up.
Let me point out that I can only now look back and label those relationships “heterosexual” because only now do I have other forms with which to compare it. Heterosexuality was so normal and normative that it required no label. I could just go with “relationship” or “marriage,” unqualified by what type each was because there weren’t types plural.
When I did start to notice “other” types, I dismissed them as strange (of course). I can’t even remember the first gay person I met, let alone the first representation of one I saw, but I’m fairly certain the representation came first, which means a stereotype came first. Since the stereotype wasn’t exactly a healthy, positive one, my understanding of “gay” rested on negative assumptions, and so I certainly wasn’t about to entertain the possibility that I was this negative thing that really only existed “out there” in a world I didn’t have to care about.
Before diving even deeper out of my depth (well, into my depth), let me ask: how do I look back on this lengthy incubation? Primarily with love, which is to say, primarily with the wish to understand how it happened. If anything, I’m grateful for the process, and amused by life’s circumstances. (Thanks, Ayahuasca and San Pedro.) I completely get why I couldn’t look at my sexuality before; there was really nothing to look at, no decisions to be made. So instead of examining what was going on inside, I projected outside and followed the norms I was expected to follow. Never mind that I always felt anxious and uncomfortable as a physical, sexual being; that must have come from something like good old Catholic guilt, right? You can only rationalize experience through the means you have, and there was nothing in my means that gave me a way out (of the closet, which…is such an absurd metaphor). This meant that whatever discomfort I experienced was forced into an ill-fit glove, which only increases the discomfort. You keep wondering why you’re still confused and lost, and you end up blaming yourself because you have no other recourse. There must be something wrong with you instead of the worldview you’re blindly following. You don’t even know you’re blind, so you can’t start there either.
So how did I begin to see? I don’t know (grace, maybe?) and I also don’t know that I’ve figured anything out really (also grace, maybe?). Because now I wonder what other symbols I annihilated. Who else might I become? That is, who else might I become beyond the possibilities already within my current worldview?