Saturday, November 24, 2012

When Did You Realize You Were Straight?

No one asks these questions. Why not?

A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a text, asking one of those classic "outsider looking in" questions, and I responded (as per usual) with a novel.  Be gentle with this one, guys. I did my best not to be judgmental about it, and it really is based on my own journey and experience. Also, I didn't really do any editing. So grab a snack, sit back, and enjoy!

Okay! So, to recap on what you asked and how I responded via text:

You asked: It's kinda a dumb question, and if someone asked a similar one of me I would be a bit incredulous. I know it's much easier to develop into a straight orientation, since it's generally expected. but for u, did u experience any confusion or uncertainty? did u always know that you were gay, or did u start realizing it later on (i.e., ur teen years)

And my response is:

I get that question a lot, which is surprising and kind of weird for me, because I understand why someone would ask that, but I think it really illustrates the heteronormative nature of society. No one asks a straight person when they knew they were straight, despite the fact that straight people also have a realization at some point in their lives that they are not only capable of being sexually attracted to someone, but that they are attracted to specific types of people. So... it's kind of a weird question, because I think a lot of people think that I somehow had to actively decide, or assert, that I was attracted to women.

And really, you're asking two different questions. Your words say "did you always know that you were gay, or did you start realizing it later on?" But what you're actually inquiring is whether or not I realized I was sexually attracted to women at a young age or as an adolescent, which for me is two different questions, and I have two different answers.  Asking whether or not I always knew I was gay is really a cultural question. When did I realized that there was this cultural construct called 'gay', which was ascribed with socially unacceptable behaviors and characteristics?  When did I understand the implications of identifying with such a word, such a loaded and political word, and identity? When did I realize that people would respond negatively to such a personal and private part of my being? Those are complicated questions.

Do you see what I'm saying? Those are very different questions. And also, I think that when people ask this question, they're thinking in the back of their heads, when did you become a pervert, because you're wanting to know about someone's sexual development, which we as a society don't like to think about. No one wants to admit that children are also sexual beings, or at least that this development of the self happens younger than we'd care to recognize. So I'm always pretty wary of this question, for all the above reasons.

So I think in order to really understand my answer, you need to know what you're really asking, and how those are two different questions with complicated answers. And hopefully, having answered them, you will understand that this development of identity is not only for gay people, it's really what happens to all of us.  Straight people just have the privilege of not having to look at it.

To answer when I first discovered and understood the word 'gay' and its cultural significance... that's a long journey that I feel I'm still experiencing. Because I grew up in a very diverse family, I didn't grow up in an environment that necessarily favored one orientation to another (as we understood sexual orientation back then-- recent research has really tried to expand beyond the binary).  And as far as early sexual development and exploration I wasn't really prohibited from that in my early years, in my opinion.  I think my family has a very good understanding of gender and sexuality, and doesn't really approve of inhibiting or shaming children's sexual development. So I had pretty healthy ideas about sex and sexuality from a young age.  I had no concept of sex being bad (although I understood it to be personal), and likewise I had no concept of separation between gay and straight. Being gay wasn't anything special because I wasn't taught that it was something to "watch out for" or be wary of, or as something to avoid.  Expression of sexuality and sexual identity was always around me.  So I didn't (and still don't) see difference in sexual orientation to be bad or good, it's just different.

In fact, it wasn't until I was about 10 years old that I even understand the concept of sexuality as a politically charged topic.  I'd spent most of my life on neutral territory, as far as that goes. I didn't know that in this society is was acceptable and very common for people to judge you, discriminate against you, to be violent towards you for being gay, and to be honest, I hadn't connected "gay" and sexual preference until that time.  And that's really because of outside society influence. I had a real Aha! moment when I was 10, like "Oh, that's gay?  So all these women I know are gay, that's what that means..." And that's also when I first started seeing the binary-- because I just thought you picked who you wanted to be with regardless of sex or gender, it was about who you connected with, and that's all that mattered.  I didn't see the need to label one person as straight and make them only be with the opposite sex, and then have gay people over here who can only be with people of the same sex. I have always thought that was kind of stupid and weird.  I believed in fluidity before I knew it was called that.

So I was really... re-educated.  Society needed to reteach me about what sexuality meant, what was acceptable and not acceptable to express as far as sexuality, and really restricted my ability to establish my own sexual identity.  And that was a weird time for me as a person, this young little human being exploring and trying to understand the world, because (to answer your second question) I saw in myself the capability to be sexual, and the capability to be sexually attracted to someone, at a very young age. But at that time I didn't feel the need to prefer men over women, or vice versa. They were people, and I was attracted to them. I wanted to kiss their lips and hold their hands, I wanted to be near them so I could just... nestle in their energy.  I wanted to hold and be held. I wanted to share sandwiches and give valentine's cards and read books together. You know, little kid stuff.  But when I moved up to Grass Valley, that's really when everything changed for me, and that's when I was re-educated.  Suddenly I was this middle-schooler in a place where I was supposed to like boys only, and I was supposed to chase them and love them and hate them!  But there were also barriers to this heteronormative world for me, because I didn't fit this vision of beauty and sexual attractiveness-- I was the fat black kids among barbies.  So it was incredibly frustrating, because I couldn't express my attraction to whomever I wanted to, but I also couldn't follow the rules of hetero-suburbia because I didn't fit the criteria.

I learned these 'rules of engagement' pretty fast-- we're supposed to kiss boys, not girls, we're supposed to know what constitutes as attractive, what doesn't, how you're not supposed to act sexual, but you have to look sexual. And for the most part I followed the rules without hassle, but I did have a few hiccups-- I kissed a girl at school, on the lips, not even because I was sexually attracted to her but be cause we had just won a game of touch-football-- but I learned how to put any opposite-sex attraction at the forefront, and to talk about it all the time, to make it part of my life's goal to go on a date and make out, and eventually have sex and babies and get married to a man.  And it's not as if people were malevolent about it-- they just saw these rules as how you were supposed to live, how you were supposed to think and behave. And I really tried to internalize all of these methods of social control-- of course I only like boys, of course I'm going to wear makeup and try to be skinny and pretend I'm as light-skinned as possible to attract someone.  Which really did a number on me, not only in terms of my sexuality but also in terms of my identity as a woman, and as a person of color (but those stories are for another day). So keep in mind, I'm experiencing all of these restraints and policing at once.  Again, people weren't doing this necessarily out of malevolence, Grass Valley just isn't diverse, so no one has to look at and understand sexuality, gender, race or even really class, they get to be blissfully unaware of the ways in which they perpetuate discrimination and inequality based on those 4 social categories.

And I don't want you to think that this is exclusive to Grass Valley-- it isn't.  And who knows how I would've developed had I stayed in the Bay Area.  I might have been more grounded, more confinent in myself, more willing to resist social norms and accept the consequences. Or I might have done exactly what I did in Grass Valley. Who knows.  There's no real point in dwelling on what could have been, because you can't go back.  But I just wanted to kind of clarify that little bit.  Grass Valley is certainly part of the problem in regards to social justice and inequality, but it's really one little peg in the whole machine. And we've really got to fix the whole machine, not just one little peg.

So! By the time I was in high school, my whole perception of gay was really altered.  It was something that didn't actually exist-- everyone talked about gay people, but they didn't actually know gay people, and although I did, who was I to educate people?  I was being indoctrinated just as much as they were, and at this point I was separated from most of the people who had provided the neutral ground of my early years. They weren't able to counteract the social reprogramming, so to speak.  And I had managed to put treat my sexual attractions differently.  My attractions to men were "real"-- I could imagine, in a really romanticized and sexless way, falling in love with boys and having their babies and marrying them-- and I would relegate my attractions to women as just a desperate need for friendship.  Like, I don't want to kiss you, I just want to be your best friend, kind of a thing. Because, you know, I totally thought gay people were rad, but I wasn't myself gay, I couldn't do that, oh no.

At the same time, there was still, in the back of my mind, closer than I thought, the old me.  The one who thought, well these rules are kind of silly, and I don't appreciate them. First of all, why can't I just be attracted to whomever I please, and how is it really anyone else's business?  And second of all, why is this heterosexual attraction to men more important, more sacred than women attracted to women?  And why are these categories of friendship and sexual "love" so rigid-- why can't I kiss a girl, enjoy it, and still be a friend?  Why does kissing a girl automatically put me in a box with all of these rules, because I know I'm going to break them.  Why set me up for failure?  So I started trying to push the boundaries with some of my friends-- holding hands with girls, truth or dare kisses, all that. But at the same time, I knew when I could break the rules and when I could not (or should not). So I would still gab about boys and talk about my body in terms of what boys wanted it to look like, and how it stubbornly wasn't complying. I really wish that I had resisted this indoctrination. For one, it would have made it way easier to realize that I had fallen in love with my best friend and saved me a lot of heartache. If I had given myself space to explore my feelings on neutral ground, Kourtney and I might have bypassed all the drama and frustration and started dating WAY earlier. All's well that ends well, but our story could've been a lot different.

So, as a senior in high school I first started identifying as being gay, because I was in a relationship with a girl and it didn't really make sense anymore to identify as straight. But I was still really stuck in this binary-- now that I was dating a girl, obviously all those attractions to boys were now invalid, just a facade for my extreme gayness. And for awhile that's what I understood being gay to mean. But as I moved on to college and had found this safe space to really participate in a dialogue about not only sexuality, but gender and race and class, my understanding of all of that, and of my understanding of my experiences and feelings, my understanding of my own sexual identity has changed. And I now have the vocabulary in which to describe the things that happened to me, I can adequately articulate all of these complex intersectional experiences in my life. Because if you had asked me, fresh out of high school, when I realized I was gay, I probably would've said, "I dunno, when I was a kid," and I would've felt REALLY unsatisfied with that answer, but I wouldn't have known then how to really answer you in a way that is true to me.  Because for me, there is no way I can answer that in simplistic terms, it just doesn't give you a fair understanding of my experience and of my identity. Because when it really comes down to it, you're really asking me about how I have reached this place that I am now-- as a queer, feminist woman of color.  And that is really only one part of my story, but it is an important part.

So... there you are.  That's my answer. What's yours?

Edit: just to clarify, I don't think that Grass Valley itself is the only vehicle of indoctrination in my life-- we are all socialized, from the beginning of our existence.  It's the ways we are socialized that make the difference.  The vast ways in which I've been socialized have had positive, negative and neutral consequences in my life.  The process of socialization in Grass Valley is just one of them, but it had a particular and intense affect on me.  One that I will probably spend my life analyzing. And please, understand that this was my personal experience. Other GV natives may have similar experiences, some may have vastly different experiences, and these are all interconnected with their race, gender, and class experiences. So! Take all I've had to say with a grain of salt.

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