13 October 2010

Forced heterosexuality and other American ways

"Dear America, when you tell gay Americans that they can't serve their country openly or marry the person that they love, you're telling that to kids too. So don't be shocked and wonder where all these bullies are coming from that are torturing young kids and driving them to kill themselves because they're different. They learned it ...from watching you."
~Sarah Silverman

As a co-advisor for our campus's LGBT group at my college, and as a longtime supporter of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students (and non-students), I've often had to talk to homophobic people about their point of view. Usually in class it comes up as a student says something is gay, as in "That movie was so gay." I generally start by asking them what they mean: does that mean the movie only finds other movies of its same type attractive? Does that mean some movies are so straight? As an English instructor, I tie it back to the power of language, and how if we're going to use a sexual orientation term to say something is stupid or lame, it will by association suggest that the sexual orientation we're referring to is also stupid or lame. Students learn quickly that I don't let those comments slide in my classroom.

But recently in class, I had a conversation that I'd never had before. We were talking about V's birthday, and how she was turning 5. One of the students said "Just wait until she's turning 13, and obsessed with boys." Much of the class laughed in agreement, but I said, quite honestly and without thinking, "or girls." The entire class gasped (except for the lesbian in the front row, who quietly applauded). I've never shocked an entire room of students so thoroughly and unexpectedly! We talked about it a bit more, and aside from pointing out that sleepovers would be a whole different deal if she's a lesbian, the students listened to my thoughts on the matter and no one stormed out, so I'll call it successful.

I always find it disturbing when parents or any one, espeically if they've never met my daughter, assume they know V's sexuality. I mean, she's freaking five years old. Maybe she does know which sex she'll want to marry, but I certainly don't, and I don't want anyone telling her that what she feels is wrong one way or the other. And I've seen it play out over and over and over, among my friends and my students, that a big part of the heartache of being LGBT is the family expectations, and the feeling that they are letting their family down. I don't want V to be sorry for who she loves. I want her to make good, affirming choices, and find loving healthy partners, and be comfortable in her own skin.

Last year, I had a gay student in the PSEO program, meaning he was a senior in high school, taking college courses. When we talked about V over a year ago, and I said I didn't care if she was gay or straight as long as she was happy, he said "But you'd still rather she was straight, right?" I get this a lot from people, but from him I was a little surprised. No, I said. I want her to be happy and love whomever the hell she wants, as long as they're good to her. Huh, he said. As a man who'd been aware of his own homosexuality for years, he was still astounded that a parent could say this about their own child. His family is a type of "christian" who view homosexuality as a sin on par with child molestation. They are very good, though, at loving the sinner and hating the sin, and when he came out at 15, his family and church supported him, provided he didn't act on his "sinful urges." When he got his first boyfriend at 17, his parents kicked him out of the house.

This young man was not a rebellious student. He loved his family and his church, but he also knew unequivocably that he was gay, and he couldn't change that. He lived with his non-denominational aunt and her family for awhile, and his father threatened to yank him out of classes, and took away his car. They stopped paying for his cell phone. Eventually, he had to move out of his aunt's house, and got an apartment with 6 or 7 other students. He worked hard at his part time job. He ran out of money over and over. He missed his family. He and his boyfriend broke up, and within another month, he moved back home. He promised to give up his "gay lifestyle" and petitioned to get back into the church. He dated a woman, but whenever he told me about her, it was obvious to me that his interest in her was tied to pleasing his family: I've never forced myself to have sex with someone to impress my parents, but that's what he was doing.

The last time I talked to him, he was hopeful that his church would change, and come to see homosexuality not as a sin. I couldn't bear to tell him that it's unlikely to happen in his lifetime.  I told him that he was in the highest risk group for suicide, and made him promise to call me if he needed me. In another class, one of my colleagues told him she hoped, despite the rejection from his parents and his church, that he had someone who loved him unconditionally. He said he did. He said my name.

He's transferred, now, to a different college, and he still lives at home. He was engaged to marry his girlfriend, and I could see a light fading in him (though I've since heard that they've broken up). He doesn't want to leave his church, but he will have to, eventually. Or he'll live a lie.

At first when I started to get to know this student, I was furious. I wanted his parents & church brought up on child abuse charges: how is this not profound emotional abuse? But I know that will never happen. Most of the churches in America take a similar stance on homosexuality. Just look at the ELCA, who, when they agreed to allow openly gay and lesbian clergy (but only if they were in long-term relationships, which I find crazy), lost many congregations. I don't understand how much fear and hatred can be tied to an essentially private, personal matter, but I have seen more than once the ramifications.

I know V will feel pressure from the rest of the world to be a straight girl. And I know if she's not that her life may indeed be more difficult than her straight friends. But I don't want an ounce of that difficulty to come from her family of origin. In the meantime, I will vote for people willing to overturn "Don't ask, don't tell" and offer marriage rights to any two consenting adults. And I will allow V to figure out what sex she finds attractive. Because it's not up to me, or anyone else.


Anonymous said...

As usual, beautifully stated. It has always been difficult for me to say I wouldn't rather have straight children than gay children. I believe that is because I wouldn't wish the pain of living as a gay in our society on a child of mine. Am I honest when I say that? I think so, but how well do we really know ourselves? I would certainly want my gay child to be happy and loved, but this is not a kind society and I have known too many gays who have been terribly hurt and rejected. skj

Jess said...

You are amazing as always. V and your students are so incredibly lucky to have you. Oh, and me, too.

ilene said...

Funny, I had a moment recently talking to my 13 yr old daughter & she said something about getting married someday to some guy & I interjected "or girl". She looked at me funny & said, but I like guys & I said, I know, I'm just sayin' either way would be okay. She just nodded.

Charlotte said...

I agree with Jess, V is lucky to have a mom like you! And you are an incredibly talented writer. Very good post, Jen!

Anonymous said...

You are a great ally for your students, friends and family!!! You're a rockstar for doing what you do everyday! V will grow up to be fabulous, just because you let her be herself!!! Oh and that quote from Sarah Silverman is pretty much right on the money!!

Mink*e said...

Great post, Jen. I have had friends tormented over this issue, suicidal, rejected by family, fired from jobs, and assaulted by strangers. I have seen high school students of Joel's kicked out of the house and homeless. Twice, while I lived in Loring Park (a gay-identified neighborhood), I was harassed and threatened for just walking side by side with a female friend. And while I can lovingly agree to disagree (and thus keep the lines of communication open) about this issue to some extent with people I love, if one of my sons turn out to be gay, I will not tolerate his rejection or exclusion from friends or family for a minute. It is one of the last semi-condoned forms of bigotry and it has to stop. What a sad story about your student - and what heartache his potential wife and family are likely in for if it feels like his only choice is to deny who is is. And from this Christian's perspective, the prophets, Jesus, and the Biblical authors say nothing about homosexual orientation as we understand it today, and seem, in fact, rather deliberately unconcerned with varieties of sexuality. Love between God's people is another story: in addition to the many descriptions of love between men and women, there are several examples of ardent love between same-sex people (Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Daniel and Ashpenaz), but the bible is a book about God, not sexuality. It *is* very clear about this: as we search for truth, we are to love one another.

Anonymous said...

Jess was right - genius! I'm glad I took the time to read it, and even more glad that there are people like you out there teaching children!
Jen H

Anonymous said...

Dear Jennifer.....I am behind in reading posts....but as I read this one I again have to say how much I appreciate you, what your thoughts are, and how you share those thoughts with us your friends and family; how we need to look at people, how very special and unique we all are, and as you said in another post "celebrate the relationships we have with one another". I too would add how we are to love one another and care about one another, and appreciate our differences. Thank you GMA S