Being enough

Posted: August 25, 2013 in Blog
Tags: , , , ,

Newer national research informs us that the average coming out age for LGBT kids has dropped to 13 years old across the country, down from 19 less than a decade ago. With this change, we are also seeing a shift in how old kids are when they start to wrestle with their own awareness of their orientation and/or gender identity, which is now estimated to be between the ages of five and seven. Five and seven. Basically first grade.  (http://tinyurl.com/bptkoyb)

It’s curious to me that most people who have heard that I’m working on a memoir assume that it is a coming out story. Being queer, of course, that must be part of the story.  I think I’ve disappointed a few people when I’ve replied that my coming out occurred in real life several years after the story I’ve written ends, so no, it’s not about my coming out. Which seems to lead inevitably to the question, “Well, when did you know?”

The references in Urban Tidepool are not veiled. I mention my struggle with dressing in stereotypical female clothing in a number of scenes. In fact, in one place, I am very specific about my contempt for being asked to wear a dress: “But to be forced to wear a dress –and not just to church, but the entire day—this was torture. I could no more feel at home in a dress than I could walk down the street on my hands, juggling bowling pins on my toes. I felt like an imposter, stuck in someone else’s clothes. I never knew how to sit right, or stand right, or where to put my arms and legs and more importantly, I didn’t care. I didn’t want to know.  Pants, I knew how to operate.”

My memories of this struggle go back as long as I can remember and continued through every job I held as an adult until my current one. My clearest memory of trying to share with the father that I was not expecting to grow up to be female comes from when I was maybe three years old.  I sat on the edge of the sink one weekend morning while he shaved, babbling at him about something he probably only half-heard. But he was being a good sport and he just let me keep rambling on while he worked on his shave. He set the shaving cream can down next to me, a tiny tail of the foam left on the nozzle. I didn’t stop talking for a second. I watched him swipe shaving cream over his face, then I poked out a finger, caught the tail of the foam on the nozzle and mimicked his actions, pressing the foam to my face and rubbing it in.

“Daddy, will this help me grow whiskers like you when I grow up?”

He smiled at me and shook his head. “You won’t grow whiskers.”

At 3, that seemed absurd. Of course, I would. At 48, I wonder what the hell I was thinking—who ASKS for more facial hair? But that, my friends, is a story for a different day. The point is, at 3 I knew something was up about how I lived in my body and what was expected of me. I didn’t figure it out for another 20-something years, but I knew at 3 that I didn’t fit in the body I was working with. Excuse me, waiter, this is NOT the body I ordered!

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Many of the friends I’ve met in adulthood share those painful moments of not fitting in their bodies when we were repeatedly told that we weren’t dressing or walking or standing or talking appropriately. That our interests or passions somehow made us less female, therefore undesirable, unlovable, substandard, a clear message that unless we present ourselves to the world in a way that was already scripted…known…accepted…that we would always be less than.

The problem with that in 1970 and still to some extent now is that so few people stopped to ask (no one, in my situation), if those images about what female bodies should look like and be dressed like and walk like ever resonated with me. I am very clear now that they did not.  It’s taken me years to get past the messages of what I SHOULD do or be or dress like to make everyone else comfortable with how I experience myself in this world.   Let me tell you, people worked hard to make sure that I made them comfortable with my presentation—with no regard to how I viewed myself or what I related to.

“So when did you know?”

The unavoidable question…I can tell you that unlike kids today who have language for this much earlier than my generation did, I knew only that I felt different and I felt weird. But at 5, there was no language to explain this. There was only discomfort. And embarrassment at being forced to wear clothing that felt foreign and restrictive and un-me-like.

As I got older, the sources of such messages grew to include school and sometimes other female friends who would bluntly tell me, “Don’t wear or do _____. You’ll never get a guy.” As if somehow, my entire value as a human being became based on what guy would be attracted to me depending on what I was wearing or what I was doing.  Clearly, being myself and being genuine about it was not going to be enough.

But I think that tide is beginning to change. This week, I saw a post for a clothing company for girls’ clothing that goes beyond the stereotypes that I fought against so hard.  (http://tinyurl.com/morly72) Going beyond the scope of orientation and gender identity, it actually might open dialogue about these limiting messages given to girls about what they must look like, what they must wear, what they must be passionate about. Maybe it will even start dialogue on the very frightening idea that girls are enough, in and of themselves, no matter what they wear. If we can change the binary system that looks at gender and declares one better than the other, that looks at gender presentation and declares one better than the other, that looks at sexual orientation and declares one better than the other, then by default, won’t we be assisting all of the kids for whom those binaries don’t resonate?

We are enough. Other people’s comfort with us is not a measure of us. We are enough.

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Comments
  1. Carolyn says:

    Beautiful and oh so true. Thank you.

  2. islandgirlnww@comcast.net says:

    Beautifully stated!!!!

    Kathie Keller-Rogers

  3. Melissa Thompson says:

    This is so powerful and spot on. Our youth today are so fortunate to have a framework and words to help them know who they are. We are making some steps forward.

    Regardless of where you sit on the side of the orientation camp, girls in particular receive so many messages about how appearance and being female should be a key measurement of success in their lives.
    Your blog along with the clothing line you shared was fabulous and its about dang time someone created clothing that was for real girls – not clothing that sexualizes children like A & F.

    • We are taking some steps forward for sure. I’d like to see us build us some more momentum on this issue! (And we haven’t even mentioned yet how boys are gender-policed–that might have to be another post!)

  4. Irene says:

    Gender and sexuality are frequent discussions in both my classroom and my home. I am 6 years into teaching now, in a super rural area, and it has changed so much already. It has changed for the better and was better than I expected it to be when I arrived. Now I teach art so I am dealing with a specific population that is most likely already a bit more open minded and I am also getting a higher concentration of the youth that identify as LGBTQ due to my content area (and perhaps my reputation). This has led to lots of young people pushing the boundaries of gender identity, dress, expectation, etc. in class. It’s kind of all in a day’s work, although it tends to shock the football players that occasionally take my class because they think art will be easy.

    • I am so appreciative of your comments, Irene! I hope some of the other educators who watch the Urban Tidepool Facebook page will take a moment to add to the conversation!

  5. After 61 years of living on this planet, I have yet to come to understand the importance of subscribing to one or the other end of a mentally constructed binary system of gender. Your self-depiction of a history wrought with understandable confusion (forgive the oxymoron), resonates for far more persons than you will ever know. You speak the truth. And despite oppression on every level, truth, in the end is the only survivor of an unwinnable war.

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