But He Doesn’t Act Gay…
We all know people who have, perhaps with some difficulty and a bit of grumbling, come to accept and include a gay relative. They feel they don’t understand him or her being gay, but they somehow get beyond that because they genuinely love the family member. The love and the “family” cards typically trump the choice to just condemn and discard that which we do not understand.
I myself, as a gay man, have a cousin who has let it be known to other family members (so it would get back to me) that he is cool with my being gay because “He’s family.” Even my mother said, “But you don’t act gay.”––whatever that means, and that’s one of the things I want to explore in this post. What does that mean?
Straight people don’t understand a person being gay. I get that. But let’s not forget that I don’t understand a person being straight. Straight people don’t get that fact and never will. To expect them to is futile. They can only accept this fact on an intellectual level just as I accept the fact that most of the people in the world are straight.
But let’s peel back one more layer because I want to write about something else I don’t get, something else I just don’t understand. And, in all probability, I share this difficulty with most of my straight friends and relatives.
I suspect that most straight people think that all gay people understand and accept all other gay people including those with atypical gender identities and gender expressions. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Below are some things I don’t understand.
A-typical Gender Expression: Huh?
I don’t understand atypical gender expression. In other words, I don’t really understand men that feel a need to express themselves in feminine ways: dress like women (in drag: dresses and makeup), gesture and posture in ways that are typically described as feminine, enjoy doing things that are typically associated with women. And the reverse is also true: women who express themselves in masculine ways, etc. I’m just not wired that way. I simply don’t understand it.
Society teaches gender norms early on. We start with something as simple as colors: blue and pink. Hannah Gadsby brilliantly talks about this in her Netflix comedy special, Nanette, also on Netflix. But I’ve come to learn that gender expression is vastly more complex than something simply taught to a child. I didn’t really realize this until recently.
We all know people who do not express their gender in the typical ways. As a child I heard them referred to as sissy boys and tomboy girls. But here’s an adult example.
I recall, several decades ago, working with a female colleague that had a rather masculine manner about her. She always dressed in feminine ways (though she wore a lot of tweed) but was decisive, direct and blunt. She told me that at home she did the chores that men usually do. Her husband1 expressed his gender in very feminine ways. He made all of their daughters’ and his wife’s clothes. He was an amazing seamstress. He did all of the cooking and kept the house clean. This was just what he enjoyed doing and always had.
When I met this man, he was astoundingly flamboyant with excessive and large gestures and rather feminine speech patterns. I was very caught off guard. I was absolutely convinced that he was really gay and just couldn’t admit it to himself or others. Foolish me. He wasn’t.
He was actually really a straight man. He was consumed with affection for his wife and loved her dearly. I could go on and on about this couple and even another. They fascinated me. Aren’t those who fall outside the norms the more interesting? They broaden and thereby enrich our lives and perspectives.
Me, Myself, and I…
Now, I’m not the butchest, most masculine of all men, but I’m very comfortable with being a man and expressing masculine gender norms. I simply do not understand men who express feminine gender norms. But, because my sexual orientation is atypical, I’m attracted to masculinity.
Masculinity runs just as deep in the gay community as it does in the straight one I suspect.
And I assume feminine gender expression runs just as deep in the straight male community as it does in the gay community.
I now realize that sexual identity (asexuality, bisexuality, heterosexuality, homosexuality), gender expression, and gender identity are separate things. Until recently, I had never given this much thought. Gender is a complex matter.
I’ve come to not need to understand atypical gender expression in order to just accept that it exists differently in different people. Another person’s gender expression really doesn’t impact who I am in the least. I find it a bit odd. Like being gay, it is atypical, after all. But I accept it. Atypical gender expression simply is what it is. Whatever.
Many gay men are not so accepting. They make fun of effeminate men. I’ve been guilty of it. They make fun of masculine women. They make fun of gay men who pump iron and steroids. People are people, and ignorance and bigotry can run deep in anyone. Straight people don’t have a monopoly on ignorance and bigotry. Religious people don’t have a monopoly on it either though they seem to be addicted to screaming ignorant bigot-speak all the time.
I don’t understand the more complex forms of gender identity. For example, I don’t at all understand people who feel as though they were born with the wrong genitalia. I don’t understand those who are born with ambiguous genitalia or both male and female genitalia. And I don’t understand other people deciding what gender another human being is supposed to be. How can anyone else possibly know such a thing but the individual themselves?2
I had no idea this has been standard medical practice in the US for decades when a child is born with “ambiguous genitalia.” In these cases, doctors have been deciding and assigning gender at birth, typically through surgery, sometimes through consultation with the family, sometimes not. According to the UN, between 1 and 2% of infants are born with the physical characteristics associated with both males and females. Turns out those X and Y chromosomes do some very unexpected things even in people who appear otherwise typically male or female!
Neither biology nor psychology is without variance by subtle or even profound degrees. Neither one is exactly binary. And while it might make things easier for us to understand if the world were black or white, this or that, one or the other, few things are so easily and precisely categorized.
Thankfully, variance makes our world a more interesting place. But interesting typically makes for complexity when attempting to understand, and we often find the complex more difficult to accept. Complexity requires more of us. But I’m making the case here that we don’t have to understand something to accept it. After all, I don’t understand what causes gravity in space-time, but I have to accept it.
You could accurately say that I don’t begin to understand the concept of gender identity or gender expression. Recently, Netflix hosted a National Geographic documentary, Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric. (I highly recommend the documentary! She illuminates these complex and confusing topics with her beautiful sensitivity and respectful inquisitiveness.) But I don’t have to understand. It doesn’t directly affect me. I just need to understand and respect that some people have to deal firsthand with these profoundly difficult and complex issues. I just don’t happen to be one of them.
I can think of no good reason why those who are working through their gender identity should not be given the dignity and respect to work through the challenges they face. Can’t our society, though plagued with ignorance and bigotry, extend the simple dignity of emotionally safe space and kindness to those working through their personal identity?
Why wouldn’t we simply treat human beings as the people they truly believe themselves to be? Beyond the golden rule, none of us has any idea how anyone other than ourselves should live their lives. To assume otherwise is arrogance at the very least.
I read of the amazing work that a Georgia high school principal did last year navigating the gender reassignment of a student born as a boy who identified as a girl. He, soon to become she, had a girlfriend when he had male genitalia. The student and the girlfriend remained in the relationship after the surgery and hormone therapy. I confess, trying to understand this just twists my brain like a pretzel. I don’t understand it, and I don’t have to.
The principal worked with the staff, the students, and the community to navigate this difficult and sensitive issue. I can’t imagine the challenges that were faced by everyone in this situation but especially the student who felt as if she was living in an alien male body. What a difficult path to navigate.
This example, however, stands in direct contrast to the horrific situation in Oklahoma this very week in which a middle school had to be closed because of public death threats made in social media by parents against a transgendered student at the school. One parent declared “open season” against the student. “If he wants to be a girl, a sharp knife should do the trick.” Why. So. Much. Hatred?!
Fortunately, the school community and law enforcement are rising to these challenges and supporting the students at the school. Death threats should send a person to prison for a good long while as far as I am concerned.
I’ve mentioned Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special on this blog. She is a powerful testament to the horrific damage ignorance, intolerance, and insecurity can do to a young human being marinated in the hateful expressions, ignorance and brutalities of others. But more than just an example of the damage done, she is also a beacon of hope for the power of the human soul forged through unspeakable adversity and abuse.
The weak prey on those who they perceive are weaker. Tearing down another person to make oneself feel superior is immature, disgusting, and pathetic: adults making death threats against a 14 year old, a self-reported billionaire mocking a handicapped person. Abhorrent and despicable!
No society should teach its youth to hate themselves because they are atypical. Atypical is normal for them. Life in the 21st century is challenging enough without throwing heaps of self-loathing into the mix.
It’s Really About Us, Isn’t It…
We have all been attracted to something or someone who was not what or who we initially thought. And how we deal with the realization that our initial assessment was inaccurate, for whatever reasons, is completely and totally a declaration of who we are. How we deal with the realization of our mistake, our error of perception or judgement, has nothing to do with who the other person is. This is a very fine point to make and therefore perhaps difficult for some to grasp. But this point is important, is critical.
How you and I deal with a person’s sexual orientation speaks to who you and I are, not who they are. How we deal with a person’s gender identity speaks to who you and I are, not who they are. How we deal with a person’s gender expression speaks to who you and I are, not who they are. They are simply other human souls trying to navigate who they are–trying to become their authentic selves and live fully.
The inappropriate response to a person we do not understand is to try to control them, to try to make them into who we think they must be, to try to devalue them, to dehumanize them, to ostracize them. These responses speak to who we are. Such responses speak to our lack of compassion, empathy, maturity and dignity. They broadcast to all our personal inhumanity.
The biology and psychology surrounding sexual and gender identity and expression is fascinating and complex. But the bottom line is that we are all far more alike than we are different, and the world is a big enough place for all of us as we truly are. We humans can be better than we presently are.