27 January 2015

3 things I wish I’d known about sexuality and identity

The transition from childhood to adulthood can be a confusing time.  (Do I win some kind of award for understatement of the year for that?)  Sexuality and gender identity can be especially hard to understand and deal with if a kid suspects their answer isn’t totally aligned with the norm.  This stuff can involve a lot of questioning and soul-searching, and it’s hard to know what to ask or how or to whom when you’re only just emerging into a world that’s willing to give you the proper framework for it rather than tell you you’re too young to be thinking about that stuff yet.  You can end up saying a lot of stupid things to a lot of people you care about along the way, and however genuine and necessary those statements and questions are, years or even decades later you might look back on those conversations and know that the other someone still knows you said that, and you will wish you could call them and explain yourself now that you understand what you really meant.  (But it’s not like I’m speaking from experience or anything, here.)

We’re getting better about helping kids through this stuff now (I hope).  Acceptance of homosexuality is on the rise, the word “transgender” appeared for the first time ever in the President’s State of the Union address, Gamergate was a perfect demonstration of how strong our movement for women’s equality has become (and how far we still have to go).  So maybe this post is a little old-fashioned now – but as my kids grow up, I fully intend to make sure these adult messages are getting passed along to them in a way they can understand.  Here are a few of the things I wish I’d known around, say, the age of twelve, in the interest of avoiding some of those acutely embarrassing memories I still harbor:

1. Gender is a concept, and it’s complicated

Here is a fact which bears repeating because of how confusing it is for most people when they first encounter it: Sex, Gender, and Sexuality are three totally distinct things.  Your sex is (more or less) the set of genitalia you were born with.  Your gender is (more or less) what’s in your head – your feeling about what type of person you are.  And your sexuality is, to put it simply, what you’re into. 

The idea of gender being in your head is especially hard for people.  It’s infinitely depressing as I start down this path of raising a child to hear how early and often people ascribe masculine or feminine personality traits to their children based on their sex.  It’s so deeply rooted in our culture to have only two genders and to have those be defined entirely by genitalia that many people wouldn’t dream of an alternative.  And it’s destructive even for cis-gendered kids – kids whose gender identity does happen to coincide with what’s in their pants.  It makes young boys feel they can’t express their emotions through tears.  It makes young girls feel they have to love pink.  It creates all our favorite damaging stereotypes about adult men and women.  So imagine what it does to kids who don’t feel as canonically masculine or feminine as their genitals dictate (and, if we’re being honest, that’s a lot of us). 

For me, the biggest revelation I came upon way too late was the notion of male privilege.  It was never presented to me explicitly how fundamentally differently society treats men and women.  I saw it all the time, of course, but I lived it, too – and when you live it, it’s hard to see just how pervasive and persuasive it is.  So at the time, it was hard to see that for me (and I stress that strongly, here), a yearning for male privilege was a large part of my sometimes-expressed wish I’d been born a guy.  Certainly not all of it – but a huge, undeniable part.*  I didn’t understand at the time that gender is nothing but a construct, both a social and a personal construct – and that because it is social in addition to being personal, it’s very easy for outside forces to influence a person’s thoughts about what they’re really feeling.

What I would say to Young Me now: “You may think your decisions about gender are entirely your own, but they’re not.  They can’t be, because you’re a social creature and you belong to humanity.  You don’t exist in a vacuum.  The best you can do is think long and hard about it, quiet your soul, and ask yourself: how you feel, how that feeling impacts your daily life, and whether you need to make an external change to reflect your inner self.”

*This is such a critical point that I don’t want it to get lost: This was my experience, and it wasn’t all of my experience.  Everyone has a different journey and my road, thank God, has been a relatively easy one.  I applaud the courage of those whose battle with traditional gender roles is far more personal than mine.

2. Neither your gender identity nor your sexual orientation has to be set in stone

I’ve said before that our society (our species?) puts a lot of stock in labeling.  We want you to tell us you’re [insert-label-here], and we want you to stay in that bucket.  Jumping buckets just might be some kind of sin.

In high school I heard a self-identified lesbian spewing all sorts of hatred for a girl who had previously declared herself gay and then dated a guy.  I sat quietly by and let this person rant.  And I thought, “Wow, good thing I’m straight and don’t have to worry about this!”  Ha!  There are so many things wrong with that memory.  This person’s hate for someone who changed their mind – or didn’t change their mind at all but didn’t feel the need to tell an outside person all the minute details of her inner desires!  The assumption on my part that I was straight despite all the still-building evidence to the contrary.  My fear of other people’s opinions about my sexuality.  My belief that a person could only ever be one thing and any “deviations” along the way were nothing more than an attempt to figure out what that one thing was.  My inaction in the face of her hate.

It may not be the most relevant use of this quote, but whenever I think about these kinds of things I’m reminded of Maya Angelou: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” 

The more I’ve learned about gender and sexuality, the more comfortable I am in saying simply, I like people.  I can’t tell you what kinds, really, I just know it when I see it.  Or get to know it.  Or hear it from across a crowded room.  And tomorrow I might not feel the same way.  And it’s none of your damn business anyway.  And your interests and self-identity are none of my or anyone else’s damn business, either.

What I would say to Young Me now:  “If it helps you to think of your gender and sexuality in terms of labels, then by all means do it – but don’t feel you have to hold onto those labels forever.  Wear them while they suit you.  And if anyone tries to push you into donning an outgrown or ill-fitting coat, push back.”

3.  It is NEVER okay to belittle someone else’s experience

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve repeatedly had to learn this one the hard way.  As a simple and obvious example, even into high school I used to call all sorts of things ‘gay’.   I said it even though I had an amazing friend who early and often yelled at me for it.  And I’m still learning how to see the world from other people’s eyes.  Even today I caught myself wanting to defend my hometown as I read about someone else’s awful experience in it.  #NotAllTucsonans, style of thing.  It was pathetic.

Acceptance comes up often in discussions of sexuality and identity.  We all view the world through our singular experience, and by definition that makes it difficult to get into the mindset of another person.  (Neuroscience tells us we get better at this as we get older, thank goodness!)  We’re called upon again and again simply to trust that someone else is sincere when they tell us they like people who identify as the same gender, when they say they’ve never felt comfortable in the bodies they were born with, when they carefully explain why the word ‘gay’, when used pejoratively, is offensive to them.  And the moment we persist in arguing they must be wrong or they shouldn’t be such a baby about things, we invalidate them and their hard-earned sensibilities.  We’re saying our stupid comment matters more to us than the reality of their everyday experience.  We’re letting our singular, myopic view of the world dominate the dialogue.  Wouldn’t it be nicer and easier all around to just give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re intelligent people with the ability to decide for themselves who they feel like and whom they like?  Wouldn’t it be better to embrace their experience as another shining example of the vast spectrum of human individuality?

What I would say to Young Me now: “You will make mistakes and offend other people.  That’s life.  So when someone tells you they’re offended by your words, take the time to figure out their side.  And if you still insist on saying what you’re saying, know that you’ve just given your comment priority over someone else’s feelings.”

I hope as my kids grow up and figure these things out for themselves that I can direct them toward information like this to help them build attitudes of acceptance and self-assurance.  I know as their mom I’m more or less a background voice to the tapestry of friends and classmates and media outlets that will no doubt contribute to their worldviews far more than I will.  But maybe, just maybe, I can at least give them a little bit of a leg up.

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