July 18, 2020

What if we really are this queer?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 3:11 pm by chavisory

A research study on sexual orientation among autistic people, actually published a couple of years ago but recently making the rounds of social media, has found that just under 70% of autistic respondents identified as non-heterosexual, whether they be LGBTQ+, or on the asexual spectrum, or both. While this may sound like an incredibly high number, it roughly accords with both anecdotal accounts from within the autistic community over the years, and my own (very rough) estimates of what might be the case, loosely extrapolated from earlier studies on the rate of transgender identification and gender non-conformity among autistic youth tending to find rates seven to eight times higher than among non-autistic teens.

While the underlying reasons for these results is not yet well-understood, a very common response to them is that rates of non-heterosexuality are probably actually similar in the non-autistic population, but that autistic people are simply more honest, or are less impacted by heteronormative socialization, care less about social disapproval, or do not pick up on social messages of disapproval around gender and sexuality like non-autistic people do.

I both find these explanations unconvincing, and think we should be very cautious of embracing them, for several reasons.

1. There is ample evidence that autistic people are perfectly capable of perceiving negative messaging from our social environments. No, we don’t necessarily do it as well or in the same ways as non-autistic people. But autistic adults have written endlessly about picking up anti-autistic and ableist messaging from our environments and internalizing those attitudes. Even if no one giving us these messages even knew what autism was, we readily picked up on the fact that it wasn’t considered okay to be the way we were. We frequently realized that people didn’t like us or considered us weird even when parents and other adults explicitly denied that was the case. We learned to suppress stimming and how to fake eye contact in many cases without even being explicitly told to.

And compared to anti-autistic messaging, homophobic messaging in our society during the time many of us were growing up was very, very overt. In many places, it still is.

The controversy over Ellen’s coming out (and that it nearly ended her television career), the murder of Matthew Shepherd, the nasty comments made about teachers suspected of being lesbians, the fact that “gay” was one of the more common insults available…these were features of my early teen years.

Believe me, I did not miss the memo that it was considered wrong and looked down upon to be gay or bisexual when I was growing up (there was much less mainstream recognition of asexuality, let alone asexual spectrum orientations like demisexuality). It was not especially subtle. I don’t know how much people realize this who didn’t grow up in proximity to evangelical Christianity (which my family did not follow, but its cultural presence was hard to miss), or in socially conservative parts of the country, or during the culture wars of the 1990’s, but it did not go unspoken. It was not subtle.

Hannah Gadsby said in a recent interview, “If I could’ve been more feminine, I would’ve been. Where I grew up, that would’ve made my life a whole lot easier.” I probably would’ve, too, if I’d known how. I didn’t know how. I couldn’t meet those expectations; I didn’t just not understand they existed.

Which isn’t to say that ableism isn’t often spoken aloud, or that subtle manifestations of homophobia can’t be harmful.

But I think there’s a particular danger of this narrative, too, to autistic youth in parts of the country where homophobic and transphobic messaging is still very overt, that it doesn’t matter as much what they hear because they won’t absorb or be as affected by it.

Because we know that autistic youth absorb and are profoundly affected by ableist and anti-autistic messages even when they are relatively subtle.

Why would queer autistic youth not be by homophobic ones?

2. I don’t think most people are being fundamentally dishonest about their most visceral experiences of attraction and desire, and I do not think making this assumption sets a good precedent.

I’ve written about this before, but I just don’t think that our media environment is pervaded with assumptions about how sexuality works for most people….because they’re actually all lying about it and this relatively small fraction of us (most of whom are not autistic) are the only ones who didn’t get the message that we were supposed to.

I don’t think that generations of queer people have been met with shock, rage, and confusion upon coming out to their families, that a shocking percentage of kids living on the street are queer because they were kicked out of their homes for it, or that the existence of an organization like PFLAG was necessitated to help straight parents come to understand and accept their gay kids, if nearly everyone really was queer and just denying it.

We don’t like being told that we’re not capable of knowing our own minds. We don’t like it for good reasons. We object when people tell autistic trans youth that they’ve just been brainwashed into thinking they’re trans and deny them gender-related healthcare. Or self-identified autistic people that they only think that because they’re quirky or awkward and autism is an internet fad.

“You only think you’re what you say you are because that’s what society told you” is not a rhetorical stance I think we should be adopting.

People have a right to self-identify and by and large I think we should believe them.

I also don’t think we should present identifying one way or another as more honest or virtuous, or imply that someone who says they’re straight is categorically more likely to be lying.

Someone’s professed orientation should not be a moral issue and we should not make it one.

3. Differential interpretation of available data is not necessarily dishonesty.

Both the beauty and the horror of the human mind, I was saying to a friend recently, is that it’s capable of assembling data into narrative in a basically infinite number of ways. We often like to believe that if other people had the same information we do, they would draw the same conclusions or the same logical consistencies from it, but that is often not true at all.

Many people, for instance, believe that if only I knew what they knew about how some people are affected by autism—that some autistic people are intellectually disabled, or can’t speak, or self-injure, or need intensive help with activities of daily living—that I would be in favor of curing or preventing autism, at least in some cases. But I do know those things, and I still don’t agree. The fact that we have access to the same information but draw different conclusions from it doesn’t mean any of us is being dishonest or disingenuous or only saying what we’re saying out of fear of disapproval, rather than that we see that information differently, interpret it differently, and genuinely disagree about the best possible course of action based on that information.

Likewise, among the populations peripheral to the autistic community–the people we refer to as autistic cousins, as belonging to the Broad Autism Phenotype, or simply as neurodivergent but without being able to categorize someone exactly and definitively as belonging to a specific diagnostic category, there probably are people who could in all honestly identify as autistic, but who don’t, for a variety of reasons. Some may really just be in denial. Some may not be ready in their own minds to identify as autistic yet, but will eventually. Some never will because they don’t feel the weight of their experience justifies it. They may be right or they may be wrong but the rest of us generally take them at their word as far as their own experiences.

Conversely, within the LGBTQ+ community, we recognize that though in many cases, the terms “bisexual” and “pansexual,” among others, may be being used by different people to describe extremely similar patterns of attraction, there are subtle distinctions between them which are meaningful to some people but not others. (I somewhat suspect that the same may be true for the categories of “demisexual” and “gray-ace.”)

mr buress with a psa
[Image is a meme of comedian Hannibal Buress, a black man in glasses, depicted with four multicolored emblems representing the pride flags of bisexuality, omnisexuality, pansexuality, and polysexuality. It is captioned to read “These broadly overlap but the distinction matters to some people and that’s okay.”]

One thing we do know is that autistic people prioritize information differently than non-autistic people, that we tend to show a bias for specific, localized information over broad, generalized information.

And so one thing I think may be happening, not even just between autistic and non-autistic people, is that some fraction of people may experience incidental same-sex or same-gender attractions, but not as significant enough in the grand scheme of things, in their overall pattern of attraction, to identify as queer or bisexual rather than straight. While another person, for a hundred different possible reasons, including but not limited to an information-processing style that prioritizes specific over generalized information, may experience or interpret those attractions as meaningful enough to identify as bisexual or queer.

Neither of these people is necessarily being dishonest or hiding the truth from themselves, rather than assembling information in a way that feels most meaningful to them.

I think that’s something we should actually honor, rather than suggesting that they’re either brainwashed or too fearful to be true to themselves.

It probably is the case that more people are queer than currently self-identify as such, because internalized homophobia does exist, and because we live in a society that in so many ways can make it hard to find good, non-judgmental information about the real variety of experiences and identities that exist in the world, much as it is the case that autism is likely still under-diagnosed, because of a whole range of prejudices and lack of accurate information made available to families, and yet it is not the case that “Everyone’s really on the spectrum somewhere!”

And like the “Everyone’s a little autistic!” line, which we rightly hear as a dismissal, it hamstrings the ability of queer people to talk about actually being different from the majority in important ways.

Just like I don’t believe that so many autistic youth go through our childhoods feeling lonely and alienated to the point of deciding that we’re not really human at all because we really are just like everyone else, I do not believe that so many queer youth go through our early lives feeling alone and ashamed because a stunning majority of our peers really are just like us, but that we alone (including non-autistic queer people) just didn’t get the memo that we’re not supposed to be that way.

4. If we really are more queer on average than the non-autistic population, why would that be wrong?

Why would that be undesirable?

Why do we even feel the need to reach immediately for this explanation that “Oh no, we’re not really more likely be queer, we’re just more honest about it?”

So what if we were?

Why would it even be implausible? We don’t know that much about how exactly sexual orientation originates to begin with, but like autism (in most cases), it doesn’t seem to be the result of one “gay gene” or “straight gene,” but rather a complex interplay of many factors, both genetic and environmental. The affirmative declaration of the gay community for years and years was “Born this way,” and while there’s been some backlash to that in recent years—that it shouldn’t matter whether people are born queer or choose to be, our mistreatment on that basis is still wrong—progressive society now tends to accept sexuality as innate enough so as to make it not just wrong, and harmful, but probably useless, to try to change or cure it.

The same is (slowly) coming to be considered true of autism. That yes, while it poses certain challenges and often requires particular supports, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.

We also know that autism is highly correlated with other complex conditions, for reasons we don’t totally understand, that are definitely physiological and not a matter of personal interpretation of experiences, like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and epilepsy. There’s also a whole raft of more nebulous conditions like alexithymia and prosopagnosia whose precise relationship to autism (whether they’re “genetic stowaways,” or result from the inherent neurological differences that comprise autism, or are downstream consequences of those processing differences) is still unclear.

When discussing those conditions, we don’t tend to say “But probably they occur in non-autistic people at similar rates. We’re just more honest about it because we’re not affected by social pressures the same way.” At least not that I have ever heard.

Why when it comes to gender variance or sexuality do we reflexively feel the need to attribute some higher virtue to our identification, or emphasize that it’s not really that more of us are? When we don’t do that with regard to other aspects of identity or disposition whose relationships to autism we don’t really understand yet?

Why could it not be the case that some aspect of autistic neurology or development gives rise to a higher rate of non-heterosexuality than more typical neurology or development does?

What would be wrong with that if it did?

August 17, 2017

Letter to my representative on H.R. 2796

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 1:16 am by chavisory

This is my letter, going in the mail tomorrow, to my congressional representative regarding H.R. 2796, the Civil Rights Uniformity Act of 2017, which you can view here.

Dear Representative Espaillat,

I’m writing to ask you to vote against, and take any action possible against, H.R. 2796, deceptively titled the Civil Rights Uniformity Act of 2017.

From what I understand, this bill was written specifically with the intent of excluding transgender people from protection under existing civil rights law.

While I am not transgender, this represents quite literally a matter of life and liberty for trans people I know and love–a matter of access to employment, housing, and public life.

Furthermore, in this bill’s reliance on a poor understanding of the science of sex and gender–biological sex is extremely complex, and most individuals do not know or have any documentation of their “genetic sex”–it represents a potential invasion of privacy and serious access barrier to anyone at all who fails to conform to simplistic and repressive ideals of what a man or a woman should look like.

I thank you for your time and thoughtfulness on this issue.

September 26, 2014

Signal-boosting post!

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 1:32 pm by chavisory

There are so, so many issues and projects and new art and fundraising campaigns out there right now that deserve time and attention and money, and I could almost write a post per day every day to get to all of them.  If I could I would just give the money to every project I like that needs it, but for the present moment I’ll have to settle for calling your attention to a few of my favorites:

1.  The deadline is coming up for submissions to Typed Words, Loud Voices!  This will be an anthology of writing by people who are non-speaking either some of the time or all of the time, who type to communicate.  The editors are Amy Sequenzia and Ibby Grace, two of my favorite advocates and bloggers.  Project description and submission guidelines are here!

2.  The Autism Women’s Network is planning an anthology on autism and race, and we have less than two days left in our fundraising campaign, with almost 50% of our goal to go!  This book is so important because the vast majority of discussion and visibility of autism centers on white autistic men, while autistic people of color suffer from an immense lack of recognition and understanding.

Project information and fundraiser are here.  If you are interested in submitting writing, guidelines are here.

3.  The WordPlay Shakespeare series, which I’ve been working on for about two years now with the New Book Press, has just released its third edition, Romeo & Juliet!  These are Shakespeare’s plays in dual text and video e-book format, and include both the full text and video of its performance by really stellar Broadway and Off-Broadway actors on every page, along with note-taking and study tools.

Almost every person, and teachers especially, who we show samples to, says that they wish they’d had these when they learned Shakespeare in high school.  I’m immensely proud of them, Romeo & Juliet is probably the play I’ve had the most fun working on so far as we’ve refined our understanding and process for this hybridized film/theater/new media format of production, and is available on iTunes and iBooks now.

4.  On Monday night, we had the CD release party and concert for the cast recording of Tamar of the River, a fantastically distinctive new musical that I stage managed last fall, the second original cast recording to be released for a show of mine.  If you have an interest in unique vocal music or storytelling technique, this is a piece you’ll probably love, and proceeds benefit Seeds of Peace, an organization that brings together young people from regions of seemingly intractable conflicts to work towards peaceful solutions.

5.  Out of Order is still fundraising!  This is a documentary about the journeys of LGBTQ candidates for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA), amidst evolving attitudes in the church about what it means to be both queer and a Christian.  I was excited for this to be out, like, yesterday, and the team (all of whom are working pro-bono out of belief in the importance of this film) is in a fundraising push to finish editing and post-production.

Please take a look at any or all of these that may be relevant to your interests. : )

March 11, 2014

“Exile and Sound,” at NeuroQueer

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , at 5:48 pm by chavisory

I have a guest post up this week at NeuroQueer:

I’ve been realizing how much I need and miss the influence of natural sound in my life.  It’s like the cadences of those things are the language that my emotional concept of the universe was wired in.  I need it in a way so deep I don’t even know where to begin or how to describe.
It’s strange to think of being starved for sound in New York City, but it can feel that way.  The city is so abundant in every other variety of overstimulation imaginable, but incredibly poor in that one, although there’s plenty of noise.  It’s not the same thing.

spring robin

Visit to read the whole thing!

June 26, 2013

Posted in Marginalization tagged , , , at 5:56 pm by chavisory

It’s my birthday today.  I’m 31.  Yikes.

And I had just finished breakfast this morning, in the kitchen of a friend I’m visiting, when we got the news, just after 10:00 AM, of the Supreme Court decision overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, and shortly thereafter, Proposition 8.

I remember being a teenager, sitting at my own kitchen table, at breakfast time, in the house where I grew up, reading the news about DOMA’s passage.  I wasn’t all that attentive to what went on in politics or the world at that time, I didn’t know things I do now about my own identity, and I didn’t think I knew any gay, trans, or queer people.  I still believed some things about sexuality and morality then that I don’t anymore and am not particularly proud of to look back on.

But I remember reading about it in the morning paper and being so sad.  Something about it just profoundly didn’t sit right with me.  I couldn’t think of another instance within my own lifetime in which a law had been passed for the deliberate and express purpose of depriving a specific group of people of rights or protections.  And based on very little except the perception by the majority that they were simply the wrong kind of people, or willfully deviant–a burden which I had always felt, though for different and at the time unnameable reasons.

And no matter what I felt about homosexuality, I couldn’t believe that that was right.

It was part of a long pattern, that I identified with the wrong people in the given narrative.

I honestly didn’t think it would be so soon–though of course it’s been more than long enough for a lot of people who have suffered under the consequences of this law–that I’d get to look back on that day with a bittersweet happiness.

The world does change when people persistently stand up for what is right.  We are capable of making the world kinder and fairer.

Remind people of this day, tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after, when they tell you any version of the lie that we can’t make the world safer by standing up for each other, or that it’s better to just keep your head down, fit in, and not speak up for justice or piss off anyone in authority, because the world never changes.  It’s people with a vested interest in the world never changing who keep telling that lie.

(Edit:  I hit publish on this, and then realized that I hadn’t come up with a title, but when I went back to edit one in, I thought that the date was kind of title enough.  DOMA:  1996-2013.  RIP.)

April 7, 2013

Out of Order new trailer!

Posted in Marginalization tagged , , , , at 1:40 am by chavisory

Really happy to see an update from the Out of Order team this week.  Seeing this film get made is a wish very dear to me.  It will come as no surprise to anyone, probably, that I treasure stories of people being told that they’re not supposed to exist, and then doing it anyway.

And also because I’ve had people who are not allies to the cause of equality tell me that they’re really and truly trying to understand the position of people who consider themselves both faithful Christians, and avowedly queer.  Being able to point them to this film would be a great place to start, but it has to get made first.

Earlier this year I shared the first trailer for this documentary project.  I know that everything and everyone is asking for your time or money for something, and I know that queer Presbyterian aspiring clergy might seem an obscure or marginally important topic for a documentary, but the filmmakers have this to say:

This important film is about people making a stand for what they believe in. It’s not merely about Christians or gay and transgender people. It’s about wider humanity and doing what’s right, despite institutions telling you you’re wrong, broken and don’t belong.

I know that’s something that probably a majority of my followers can identify with in some way.

They have an IndieGoGo campaign.  They’re just over halfway to their funding goal, and have four days left in the campaign.  Pledge levels start at only $5!

December 9, 2012

Out of Order

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 2:13 pm by chavisory

I’m very excitedly looking forward to the release of this documentary:

From the project website:

Most gay and transgender people know what it feels like to be told they are broken and to be rejected, and often this message comes from Christians. Out of Order is a feature length documentary following the journey of three queer members of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

With unprecedented access, this groundbreaking documentary joins a group of queer future ministers at a secret retreat in the South. The critical decisions they make there will forever alter the course of their lives.

October 29, 2012

What makes you think you’re safe?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 9:11 pm by chavisory

Playwright Doug Wright posted a Facebook status the other day that went:

I wish my moderate Republican friends would simply be honest. They all say they’re voting for Romney because of his economic policies (tenuous and ill-formed as they are), and that they disagree with him on gay rights. Fine. Then look me in the eye, speak with a level clear voice, and say, ‘My taxes and take-home pay mean more than your fundamental civil rights, the sanctity of your marriage, your right to visit an ailing spouse in the hospital, your dignity as a citizen of this country, your healthcare, your right to inherit, the mental welfare and emotional well-being of your youth, and your very personhood.’ It’s like voting for George Wallace during the Civil Rights movements, and apologizing for his racism. You’re still complicit. You’re still perpetuating anti-gay legislation and cultural homophobia. You don’t get to walk away clean, because you say you ‘disagree’ with your candidate on these issues.

I had been thinking along those very same lines myself, with regards to the alarming pattern of statements minimizing rape and its consequences, and advocating depriving women of the option of legal abortion even in cases of rape and abuse, on the part of Republican candidates lately.

That frankly, every time I hear someone defend their Republican votes, despite that party’s deplorable stances on women’s and LGBT rights (among a host of other issues), saying “I only vote on economic issues,” what I hear is, “Your rights as a citizen and presumed equality as a human being with control over your own life and body are disposable to me, and here is exactly the amount of the tax break or economic advantage for which I would sell them.  Your worth and dignity, your rights to medical care and privacy, are for sale to the highest bidder as far as I’m concerned.”

But rationally, I know that it’s not exactly a fair accusation, because people are neither that simple nor that consistent nor that self-reflective, and really, really talented at double-think.

That people are, in fact, somehow capable of seeing absolutely no conflict between believing that they love and respect their wives, daughters, sisters, and their gay, lesbian or transgender children, friends, and coworkers–and voting for candidates whose policies directly threaten our well-being and civil rights.

I don’t understand this, but I know that it’s true.

My more vexing question for these voters is, “What on God’s green earth makes you feel safe at the hands of these people?”

Because let me tell you something:  They are not only threatening me.  They are not only threatening women, gay people, trans people, religious minorities, poor people, illegal immigrants, various demographic groups whose voting patterns they don’t like, and the societal resources that make all of our lives richer and more stable.

They are threatening you.  And they are telling you that they are.  And you keep voting for them.

How many times have we heard children who didn’t want to be bullies, but who witnessed their “friends” or ring-leaders bullying others and did nothing, talk about why they didn’t?  Because they were afraid that their “friends” would turn the ugliness on them if they stepped out of line.  And indeed, many teenage bullying victims report that this is exactly what happened.  That they were part of the clique, part of the in-group, one of the right people, until they weren’t.

When someone will do something horrible to other people, ostensibly for your sake, what they are telling you is not that they so vehemently have your best interests in mind.  What they are telling you is not that they will go to whatever practical lengths necessary, however hard-hearted they seem, to uphold the beliefs you both share.

What they are telling you is that they will do horrible things to other people.  They are telling you exactly who they are and how they treat people.

And if they will do terrible things to other people for your approval, then know exactly what they will do to you when they decide they need someone else’s approval.

I used to listen to Dr. Laura.  I was young and thought I was a conservative.  But, as a broken clock is still right twice a day, I think she said about two things that are utterly true and brilliant, and one of them was:

If they will do it with you, they will do it to you.

And when these guys talk about what they think or what they want to take away from the poor, jobless, disabled, and marginalized…and you think that doesn’t apply to you?  Ask yourself just how confident you are that you will never be one of the poor, jobless, disabled or marginalized.  (And before you decide, recall that a lot of people who thought they’d done everything right were pretty confident of this before 2008.)

This is one of those things that I grew up instinctively understanding, and am mystified by people who don’t, who I guess have just never been in a situation in which you had to know this.  I have always had to know this.

When someone threatens any vulnerable person or group of people, they are threatening me.  They are coming for me next.  They are broadcasting that this is what they do to the wrong kind of people.  (In my heart, I’ve always been one of the wrong kind of people.)  It doesn’t matter that it’s not you right now.  It’s going to be whoever they need it to be.

They’re telling you what they will do to people.  They’re telling you, on the basis of their authoritarian religious beliefs, and with no economic reasoning whatsoever, what they want to be able to do to us.

They are threatening to take away access to health care.

They are threatening to take away our rights to control over our own bodies, and to privacy of our reproductive and medical decisions.

They are threatening to invalidate marriages and families.  They are threatening to take away from children the securities intrinsic to having legally married parents.  They are threatening to turn back the clock on the progression of equal rights under the law no matter the sex of the person you love.

Even if you don’t give a damn that this is being done to women and gays, try looking out for yourself and your own self-determination for a minute.

They consider themselves uniquely justified in imposing their religious beliefs on other people’s lives.  Why do you imagine you’ll be exempt?

Why do you think you’ll be safe?

Do you seriously think that they’re just morally bankrupt enough to do this to me and the people I care about, but not to you and the people you care about?

Think again.

September 9, 2012

Let’s talk about sex (education)

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 1:21 am by chavisory

So apparently school started again this past week, and (in)appropriately, I ran across this article on Salon.com (Americans Want Sex Ed), summarizing a report from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.  The report presents the seemingly paradoxical findings that while a solid majority of both adults and teens in the United States believe that teenagers should be taught about birth control, and also that anti-abortion leaders should support the availability of birth control, and also that they (teens) themselves have the information they need to avoid unplanned pregnancy…a somewhat scarily large percentage of teens then go on to report knowing little to nothing of contraception methods.

But I suspect that the discrepancy obscures, at least in part, a disconnect between the fairly binary way in which we conceive of what “sex education” can and should be–either abstinence only or abstinence plus safety and contraception–and the nuances of students’ real lives, or how well what students are taught about contraception does or doesn’t match up with how they really need or want to be educated about sexual relationships.

If, for instance, you’re a 15-year-old lesbian, it may be true that you know what you need to about contraception at the moment even if that isn’t very much.  Or if you’ve genuinely decided to wait for sex–till marriage or just till you’re older–you might not be wrong that you don’t need to know everything about possible contraception methods right this minute.  Or if you’re on the asexuality spectrum and not seeking a sexual relationship…this information might not be taking up space on your hard drive, but you know where to find it if or when you want it…or if, like some students taking this survey, you’re 12 years old.

Or imagine how profoundly unhelpful a group role-playing game full of scare tactics about the dangers of promiscuity is to someone desperately trying to figure out how to have one good, safe, physical relationship.

It’s also easy to mistakenly think you know everything it’s possible to know, when what you don’t know is what you aren’t being taught.

I was, probably unsurprisingly, one of the kids who thought that I knew what I needed to know.  I’d been through fairly decent classes on what to expect from puberty.  I’d been given information on available contraception.  (In a totally brilliant move on my mother’s part, one day she had picked me up Seventeen magazine’s Environment Special Issue, which she said she thought I’d enjoy, environmental activism being my primary obsession at the time.  It also had Your Complete Guide to Contraception in the back of the issue.  It was years before I realized that handing that over had probably been deliberate and not an oversight on her part.)  I was a biology wonk and already knew more about disease transmission and risk than what was in the health class videos and graphic slide shows.

And, for reasons that turned out to be a good deal more complicated than I even thought they were at the time, I’d taken a stance that I was delaying sex…pretty much indefinitely.

In this state of affairs, I wound up, despite my protestations that the requirement was insulting, in my school’s “Health and Family Wellness” class.  In which I somehow managed to be continuously stigmatized for the very choices that the class purported to be encouraging, because the ways in which I’d made them did not comport with the core presumptions of What Teenagers Are Like or How Dating Works.  At the same time that I did indeed think I knew what I needed to, as far as what I saw available, I felt this gaping absence of anyone anywhere accurately describing how I actually experienced myself or my desires, and how to build a life or be safe and respected in those things.

Now I look back and know that I cannot have been the only one experiencing this, because people who were not represented as having sexual or romantic relationships worth talking about included gay people, queer people, trans people, disabled people…so also disabled queer people…any kind of gender fluid or gender variant people, people on the asexuality spectrum, or now that I try to think of it, very many people of color or of cultures other than Normal American Teenager.  Let alone any of those people having relationships with each other.

What worked for other people was clearly not going to work out for me, but there were no examples of what would.  Or of how to talk about what was true for you, if that wasn’t what was presumed to be the default.

There’s a quote from Adrienne Rich that I think of more and more often:  “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.”

So…not getting pregnant was actually not my biggest problem.  The ways in which our school’s sex ed didn’t have much to offer me went way deeper than “I already know all about contraception, this is a waste of my time, and I’d rather be taking art.”  But that was all I was able to express—in no small part because of the poverty of education or language available about relationships, sex, and gender that went beyond the very superficial.  And so I sat in class day after day, feeling more and more alienated from my peers and from how adults presumed I should be treated based on the fact that I was 15 and not much else, being told by unqualified teachers “I’m sorry you think you’re too good to be here,” rolling my eyes at badly produced educational videos, and learning most of what I really knew about love and respect from Mulder and Scully at home alone on Friday nights.  (And I’m not the only person I know who says that I learned what love was supposed to be from those characters.)

How would I have answered a survey question “Do you feel that you have all the information you need to prevent an unplanned pregnancy at this time?”  Yes.  But it would’ve been a stand-in answer for the fact that the question didn’t address anything real in my life.

I can well imagine that if you go to a school in which the name of your sexual identity is literally a bad word (“Don’t say gay” bills have been introduced in both Missouri and Tennessee), or a subject that faculty feel forbidden to address, up to and including when you’re being violently victimized for it, that you might reasonably feel that your ability to name risks and benefits of five different kinds of contraception is a little bit beside the point.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t teach comprehensive information about birth control, obviously, or work to ascertain whether kids feel they have the information they need about it, but I think in the common conception of what sex education is, this is widely thought of as the ultimate question: whether to teach abstinence only, or whether to teach risk management methods.  But even the seemingly right answer to that question is misleading and even counterproductive when contraception as risk management is taught without a bedrock of positive and healthy attitudes about sex, real-life examples of all types of healthy sexual and romantic relationships, a vocabulary to describe what’s true and desirable for yourself individually, and knowledge and respect for your own sexual identity and those different from you.

Without that kind of knowledge, which should be basic and not controversial, I suspect it may be hard for students to draw easy conclusions about whether the health information they have matches up to the realities of their lives.

August 17, 2012

Nothing’s wrong with a boy in a dress; what’s wrong with the rest of us?

Posted in Cool kids, Marginalization, Uncategorized tagged , , at 5:53 pm by chavisory

What’s so bad about a boy who wants to wear a dress? (New York Times Magazine, 8/12/12)

The answer, of course, is that there’s nothing bad at all about a boy who wants to wear a dress…but what I’d like to know is why this is the question.

The article is well worth reading, and I’m thankful for these parents who make a decision to accept their sons as they are and to not force them to suppress their gender expression, and to get them support in their schools and neighborhoods.  I know it does take courage to do it in the face of a lot of misunderstanding and pressure to the contrary.  They make me hopeful and thrilled for their kids.

But it just shouldn’t need to be considered a revolutionary act to stand up for your kids.

I’m impatient despite my relief that these people exist, and will probably keep growing in numbers, with an article written mostly by and for people who are only just now learning to face up to the things that people like their kids have always had to.  And that this is an eight-page article in the Times, not because we’re suddenly aware of the existence of gender-variant people, but because a certain number of otherwise mainstream parents have decided to accept it in their children.  Not even completely and unconditionally, but to one degree or another.  Not that gender fluidity has always been a normal part of the fabric of human identity and yet that these kids have almost always lived under a terrible burden of abuse and repression (and probably still do more often than not).  But that a relative handful of parents are willing to stand up to a cruel and unjust culture to prevent abuse of their children for being who they are.  To say that maybe conformity is not the highest possible goal, to recognize that it might be easier for them but not actually the best thing for their child.

Lots of people have fluid or androgynous gender expression, and young children can be far more self-knowing than we give them credit for.  The question I wish a writer for a major, mainstream news publication would address is “what the hell is wrong with a society that would treat the most vulnerable of children the way that we currently do?”  How is it that ostracism, bullying, ridicule, forced suppression, employment discrimination, and violence are considered the normal responses to deviations from it, and acceptance is considered the curiosity?

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