My living room is occupied by a group of 12 year olds, hanging out together. They all belong to the LGBTQIA club at their secondary school and they are firm friends. I take my hat off to their school for tackling this reality head on, and to the amazing ‘out’ teachers who started the club. It can’t be easy for the school to do this – and the school population, teachers, students and their families are obviously divided on how they feel about this being made a publicly discussed and lived reality within an educational institution. The school has perhaps come a long way from concerns about children shouting “ewww, that’s gay” at each other and bringing Stonewall in to deliver a short assembly on gay rights, to this.
They spend the afternoon chatting, playing games and being relatively carefree kids. Except, these 12 year olds each have a firm relationship to their identity, that is being played out in different ways in school and at home. And these young people have opened my eyes to a world that I never paid much attention to, and definitely never tried to understand much before.
What I have come to understand is what many cisgender, heterosexual people may not realise – that both gender and sexuality fall on a spectrum and can be fluid. Accepting this is vital to being a better ally to LGBTQIA (or QUILTBAG as I learned it can be called) people who face unique experiences, oppressions and issues, due to how they identify in regards to their gender and their sexual identities.
Three of the group are at various stages of exploring their transgender identities. It’s with some relief that I see my child positioning themselves as a firm ally to her friends who are up against the school’s, their families’, their religion’s and society’s reactions to their living the way they do. I am happy that she is not only tolerant, but openly supportive. She has helped her friend’s parents agree to allowing them to wear a chest binder, helped their friends and teachers get used to calling them by the correct pronoun (although many openly refuse to), and she is patiently walking her own confused parents through the meaning of it all.
The year I was Peter
When I was at primary school, I had a growing and pressing desire to be a boy, which I made a conscious decision to enact. I was a Tomboy anyway, with a growing collection of Action Men, Tonka cars and even a much-loved Evil Knievel wind-up toy motorbike. I played football in the playground with the boys and was cheeky and naughty in class, unlike any of the girls I knew.
One day, I asked my friends to call me Peter. I wrote the name Peter on all of my notebooks. I dressed and acted as Peter. I lived as Peter for a time and was a pretty convincing boy I think. This wasn’t too difficult in the 1970s where boys with a jaw-length bob weren’t unusual and hippy parents were comfortable with children of both sexes having access to, and exploring areas of play, dressing up and expression that were considered to belong to the opposite sex. My brother hated football and was really into knitting a one point in his early life. You only have to look at the Lego advert I grew up, compared to the awful #genderedcheese we have today, to see why this was considered no big deal. It passed in time and I accepted that I am, what I still am today, a female, who feels comfortable with some parts of my ‘male’ side more strongly than those that are perceived to be female.
What I have come to understand is that, for me, this rejection of being female back then, was tied up in a desperate desire to be “not me”. I didn’t have many male role models, with no father at home. But I was acutely aware that this was where the power and autonomy lay, and I wanted some of that. As a vulnerable child in a chaotic and precarious home, being female as demonstrated by my strongest female role model, my mum, was associated with being inappropriately and unpredictably emotional, being left behind and abandoned, by weakness and having no control over one’s life. My father’s distant and remote existence in my life was one of having choice, being financially independent, and having the emotional control to be able to come and go freely from our lives without batting an eyelid. I wanted financial security, emotional stability and to be able to just leave whenever it suited me.
I often wonder what would have happened if the surroundings I occupied took my foray into being a boy more seriously, and if I had been made to choose one or the other, and to step over the line from being a woman to being a man, with no way back.
Life is difficult enough growing up, why complicate it further?
“Life is difficult enough growing up, why complicate it further?” is what I heard one parent I know say, in a moment of ignorant derision combined with concern for any young person who would challenge the status quo and draw attention to themselves by embracing their own fluid gender identity. It echoed things I heard growing up, about gay people. This was perceived as a lifestyle choice of the slightly indulgent and probably perverted. We might have moved on somewhat, by accepting that people are not born straight and then choose to be gay or bi-sexual. And I see that we also need to evolve along the lines of understanding that this spectrum, both regarding sexuality and regarding gender, just is, has always been, and always will be, despite us regarding it as a new-fangled, modern invention.
But it is complicated. It is generally accepted that gender – and expectations of men and women based on their gender – is socially constructed. Yet the limitation of this thinking seems to be that we accept that men and women are different, and that what is expected of them is both biologically determined and socially constructed. Some compromise by saying that even though biologically we are different, socially, we should allow people some level of flexibility around the sorts of roles we can perform as men and women, to challenge gender-based stereotypes. We want more men in caring professions and to be free to choose to be stay-at-home parents, we want to see more women leading organisations and in positions of power.
By calling us all gender fluid, are we in fact enforcing binary gender?
I have said it before, that my children educate me and guide my understanding of the world, as much as I do for them as their parent. My older daughter made me realise that our pre-occupation with gender fluidity, could in fact be hardening the boundaries and binary nature of gender, rather than creating a blurring, or softening of the lines. For many of us we have accelerated beyond expectations of boys not to be a sissy and girls to be ladylike, to actually forcing a decision to identify as one or the other in some cases.
In reality, I am not sure we have progressed at all. We are just living in a mad soup of conflicting messages. The gendered expectations still exist in the most liberated of households and schools – and they play out in the division between girls and boys when it comes to choosing subjects at GCSE and beyond. It plays out in where I allow my daughters to go as opposed to what I might do if they were boys, and in the division of labour in most households even when both parents work full time in equally paid and or equally prestigious jobs.
The most stark expression of this lack of progress with regards this delightful group of young people in my living room was what I witnessed in their behaviour, that was so exposing of how far we need to come. There they were, learning to play the game of bagatelle. It is an ancient wooden family heirloom that resembles manual pinball. There’s elements of skill, luck and maths in equal measures to it. I watched in awe as the children gathered round listening to the way the game works. Although it was impossible to tell by the way they dressed and much of their body language, which one was born a boy, and which a girl, their reaction and language gave them away.
“Move over! I’m so going to win!” vs. “Oh no, I’m so bad at these kinds of games, forget it”
“You do the adding up bit, I’m rubbish at maths” vs. “That’s easy, I’ll do the scoring!”
“I’m going first!” vs. “I’ll just watch”
So binary, you couldn’t make it up.