The Oscars were this weekend, which I conveniently forgot and missed until Monday morning’s storm of response articles and videos. Patricia Arquette aside (that’s a whole different ballgame), one of the most noted acceptance speeches was from Graham Moore, the writer of The Imitation Game.
Moore seemed to draw a line between the struggles that Alan Turing faced and his own struggles as a teen, saying
“When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird, and I felt different, and I felt like I did not belong. And now I’m standing here, and so I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. I promise you do. You do. Stay weird. Stay different. And then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along.”
It seemed to echo many of the It Gets Better speeches from gay celebs. Except of course that Moore isn’t gay. And so there has been a minor media frenzy to point out that being weird and being gay are not the same thing (thanks to the Brigade of Obvious for that one).
New York-based writer Kevin Joffré said “Being gay means more than ‘being weird.’ It means living as if you owe people an explanation for your feelings and your life. Your loved ones can be the biggest burdens in your life. You can be actively otherized every day of your life. That’s what being gay means.”
Meanwhile Guy Branum, a gay comedian and writer added: “The primary purpose of the gay rights movement is to make it OK for straight white guys to talk about how they got picked on in high school”
Slate posted an entire article explaining that Moore’s speech is indicative of a larger cultural way of thinking that equates being gay with any other sort of difficult life experience like bullying or feeling awkward in high school. But the way that all of these people are talking about Moore’s speech seems very off to me. Take the way Slate described his youthful experiences: “Moore…revealed that his own vague adolescent weirdness and concomitant difficulties led him to the precipice of suicide when he was 16.” Wait…vague adolescent weirdness? That seems to imply that what Moore experienced is the average teenage angst that happens to nearly everyone in high school.
The problem with all of these people saying that Moore’s experience was not predicated on structural oppression seem to be missing the ridiculously large elephant in the room: Moore has depression. He did not just come to the brink of suicide. He made an actual suicide attempt.
“I grappled with very severe depression when I was young, but I would also say this is something that has not gone away,” Moore said in an interview after the speech. “This is something I’ve had to deal with every single day of my life. It’s something that a lot of people deal with but not a lot of people talk about publicly.”
While Moore didn’t mention his depression in his speech (which I might chalk up to the obvious anxiety he was feeling), the world as a whole should be able to figure it out: over 90% of the people who commit suicide have a mental illness. An awards show obviously isn’t the place to get into the nitty gritty of his depression, so the quick and shallow explanation he gave of feeling “weird” seems to be a gesture towards his clearly more serious depression.
So here’s where this gets complicated: is being depressed the same as being gay? No, of course not. Are both of them axes of oppression? Yes, of course. Are both extremely difficult experiences that have some similarities, especially when you’re a young person who feels as if there’s no end to the struggles? Probably. So is it useful to bring them up in the same speech? Umm…maybe?
We know that it doesn’t help to equate or compare different kinds of oppressions in some kind of weird Oppression Olympics or “gay is the new civil rights” (sorry civil rights is the new civil rights). While Slate might imply that the bullying Moore (or other straight, mentally ill kids) faced was just the cool kid in math class, not the whole of society, what that misses is that having a mental illness is not some teenage phase. It’s possible that some people with mental illnesses don’t face structural oppression (although as a whole they do), but the constant torture of living with a brain that is driving you to suicide is a very real kind of oppression, even if it comes from your own brain. Just as much as you can’t stop other people from tormenting you, you can’t turn off depression.
I don’t know that there’s a good point to be made here, because bringing up a different oppression as a parallel to being gay or being black or being female doesn’t always make sense and isn’t always helpful, but sometimes it can provide a bridge between two communities. Was an Oscar acceptance speech about a movie starring a gay man the best place to talk about depression? Probably not, but at the same time people use their Oscar acceptance speeches for really random shit, so at least Moore made some attempt to be topical.
But please, whatever you do when discussing this speech, do not erase mental illness. It happens too much already. Don’t equate depression and suicide attempts with average high school difficulties. The conversation we need to be having is not whether being weird and gay are useful parallels, but whether mental illness and sexual orientation are useful parallels.