“If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
I always wondered why this question inspired so much discord. Unlike the infamous dress we couldn’t agree was blue or gold, or whether the animal in question was a duck or a rabbit, this question doesn’t involve an optical illusion. It asks nothing about our perception of color or how we interpret information. It asks us to evaluate the existence of an occurrence.
By not witnessing this occurrence do we erase its truth?
Must something exist in our awareness for it to be real?
I think about wars, famine, inequality, and domestic violence. How many tragedies happen without a witness?
But I’m not here to defend the existence of the tree. I’m here because I think I can relate to it.
A tree belongs to its very own ecosystem. It’s part of a community. It receives and sends information on a daily basis with its fellow trees. If a tree falls in a forest surrounded by other trees, believe that the tree community will notice.
Nature is a perfect creature. Our ecosystem is interdependent. The soil takes sustenance for the water to help the tree grow and the tree in turn offers the atmosphere oxygen, offsets the carbon and, as a bonus, offers us shade.
Humans are not that different, I think. There’s a reason why solitary confinement in prisons is the worst punishment. We are not made to be alone. We exist in relation to others. We only get a sense of belonging when we find a tribe, a community we connect with, whether it be family, friends or a group of dog lovers.
We are moved, we are challenged, and we shift, adapt, change, contract and expand in relation to others. After all, our deepest desire is to be seen. This is a gift that can only be granted by another human being.
This urge for proximity, for intimacy, for community and belonging has led to the formation of what we call society.
In the end, we just want to belong.
What if I were to rephrase the tree question into the following:
“If a lesbian falls in your city, and you didn’t know she was there, does she matter?”
As a semi-closeted Hindu lesbian newcomer to a rural town at the southern tip of the world, this haunts me.
My cousin recently married and moved to Europe to live with her husband. This meant she had to leave her mother all alone in the family’s five-bedroom house. So my cousin asked me a small favor: Could I stay with her mother until her younger brother returned from college? For a couple of months, a year tops.
It never occurred to me to say no. My family lives in Punta Arenas, the southernmost city of Chile, in the Patagonia region. The land of penguins and whales, of glaciers and mountains and clean air. It is an oasis for the human soul. This was my chance to reconnect with nature, save some money and spend time with my extended family.
Little did I know how difficult the transition would be. Surrounded by my conservative family, my patriarchal grandfather, and years of generational oppression, I have quieted my queerness down to an idea. Invisible to everyone but me. I’m best known as the spiritual, creative, quirky member of the family. I’m loved and accepted as long as I don’t color outside the lines. After all, we have a stoic reputation to maintain.
My existence here feels almost two-dimensional. When I lived in the capital of Chile, Santiago, I used to think that my sexual orientation was just another fact about me; I never thought it was that important. I was many things and gay was just one of them. I didn’t advertise my sexuality but it did come up in casual conversations regularly. I would joke with my straight friends about the benefits of lesbian sex and I would flirt with pretty girls without knowing if there were even into girls. That freedom was always there for the taking.
Now I realize how naïve I’ve been, how easily I took my visibility for granted.
Here in this southern city, I have never felt more invisible. Losing my community — that collective of human beings that know you and accept you and love you for no apparent reason — was a loss I hadn’t factored in. I’ve gone from being an extrovert to a wallflower. I’d no way of knowing the repercussions of my separation. While I haven’t lost my people entirely – they’re usually just a phone call or a Zoom meeting away – the absence of their presence in my everyday life has led to my imperceptible existence.
I ask myself:
Am I still gay if I don’t flaunt it?
Am I still gay if I’m not out?
Am I still gay if I have to hide who I am?
Am I still gay if I’m single?
Am I still gay if no one in the town I live in knows it?
Do I still belong to the community?
Am I still a part of the movement?
Do I even exist?
The loneliness and isolation creep in and a part of me wants to rip a page out of Elsa’s book, run to the mountains and let it all go. But I’m not much of a runner, or a hiker for that matter.
These days, I take solace in the people in my life that know me, in the relationships I’ve built and sustained over the years with beautiful souls even at a distance. I’m not taking anything for granted. Even the smallest glimpse of recognition matters. Thank god for technology. We are able to nurture our relationship daily through Whatsapp and DMs, by sharing TikToks and sending voice notes to each other.
Even this moment, of having my words read by a stranger who might understand my sentiments, is validation enough to feel that I matter.
This experience has taught me how important it is to be known, to be seen, to be loved and know I belong.
It has taught me about the importance of presence. Each one of us has the ability to be a witness of someone else’s truth. To cherish it and safeguard it.
If someone falls, we can pick them up. We can make sure they never think that they don’t matter. That’s the power of community. Of existing. Of being visible.
As invisible as I feel, as closeted as I need to be in this moment of my life, deep down I know there will always be a part of me that belongs to something much larger than me.
This is my way of celebrating as we wrap up Lesbian Visibility Week. This is my glow stick, my whistle, my flare gun pointing up in the sky to say “Hey, I know I’m not that noticeable right now, but I’m here. I swear I’m still here and I’m totally, undeniably and irrevocably queer.”