On a June Monday I dropped off my daughter at Queer Rock Camp at the YoungTown’s Cultural Arts Center at the base of Delridge in West Seattle an area that is part of the Duwamish tribal lands and the neighborhood that Richard Hugo wrote about in his first three books of poetry and his memoir about Seattle, The Real West Marginal Way. Waze, a navigation app designed to shunt you around traffic, guided me down West Marginal Way in the morning. We travelled through an alternate version of Seattle with empty streets, green belts, industrial lots, and Pigeon Hill a neighborhood of one-room houses. We drove through the knot of overpasses and bridges that pass over Harbor Island and the river and connect West Seattle with Seattle, GoergeTown, Beacon Hill, 99, and I-5. The cultural center occupied one of the old Seattle school buildings, a massive brick rectangle with a steep slope for the roof. On the way there was passed a sallow looking teenage person on Delridge in black clothes. I said, “I think she’s a vegan.” (Later I found find that the pronoun ‘she’ is an assumption.)
We were on time which meant that we were early. A few volunteers hurried down the hallway carrying handful of guitars. A volunteer greeted us with name tags, and this was the first sign that this wasn’t going to be just about rock and roll, this rock camp, and the guy (and as I might learn later if I needed to distinguish someone by their presentation, the male presenting individual said, ” please fill out your name tag with the name you would like us to call you and your pronouns.”
Your pronouns? This seemed interesting and positive and I could tell my daughter was pleased. She identifies as female. She is gay. She came out when she was still in middle school. This is still unusual enough that she was only of only two openly queer kids at at school. Yet not unusual enough that all of her classmates seemed that interested in it. She received very little negative or positive or any sort of attention about it from her classmates. This is not say that there aren’t more than two gay kids at her school. Some of these kids are afraid of declaring this aspect of their identity in public because they have families that have done horrible things to family members who have come out. One family sent their oldest son to a Catholic boys school in South Africa. Other kids are afraid they’d be kicked out of their houses. The global culture, not just US culture, still terrorizes homosexuals, and trans kids are an even more difficult spot.
The camp was a deliberately designed safe zone, so I left her and went to work. When I returned she was excited and had been playing music all day and had met queer kids from nearly the full spectrum of queerdom. And then in her telling the story of her day during that week at camp my wife and I were introduced to a profound shift in how you identify someone else. While it wasn’t exactly news — I have known transgender people before and I have a few transgender friends on Facebook — and I have thought about it. On my daughter’s bedroom wall instead of pictures of Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers she has pictures of transgender and feminist celebrities and cultural activists such as Laverne Cox, Kathleen Hanna, and drag queens like Jerick Hoffer.
My daughter said that this was the first time she had met “non-binary” people, who I learned was different from asexuality. And then I learned that they were more than the single polarities compacted into the binary male/female that straight society assumes tells the entire story.
This assumption, too, one that I felt at one time a kind of “there is a material reality to the X and Y chromosomes,” which is just a more sophisticated, but nonetheless crude, way of saying boys have boy parts and girls have girl parts, when in fact, when you are faced with thirty some children who are telling you, um, no, that doesn’t tell my story, then you listen. There is something profoundly powerful about getting a group of queer kids together because their queerness lacks community for the most part. They can find each other online and in social media, but these kids didn’t know each other as a physically proximate group. They were still isolated and often isolated even within their own families, and so this is what my daughter learned and then in her stories about her week in camp told me
There is nothing absolute about identity. Identity is formed by the person who has the identity. It is not imposed on them from an external structure such as society, and so on. Certainly these things may influenced or whatever, but at the end if you respect a person’s autonomy, and most of us do, yeah? then you must respect their identity and identity is a personal thing. And it is can be a flexible and dynamic thing.
So a possible model (and a model this is only a way of looking at it but does not suggest itself as the way things are any more than the duality of male/female tell you anything about gender). The concept that we are molded by our culture and our parents like Play-Doh in a plastic press is wrong. By wrong I mean ti leaves enough out of the story that it causes more confusion as a model than illumination. The nature vs nurture debate, are we born in our shapes or does our environment shape us, is meaningless when you consider the person who is in front of you, or who you are. It may matter to you if you are born or made, but doesn’t it seem that self-awareness and consciousness empowers a person to make their own decisions about who they are, what their shape is, what they are free or compelled to be?
I gathered from a week of talking to my daughter about her experience at camp that there were at least four polarities. They could be labeled:
- Romantic attraction
Gender is the societal construct that you identify such as: male, female, or non-binary. Gender is more like a spectrum than a box to check on a form. Males wear male signifying clothes and may adopt male signifying behaviors. Female may wear dresses and make-up and adopt female signifying behaviors. Non-binary is neither of these two polarities. Just to make things confusing even though these are all binary position, either/or, you can also think of it as a spectrum such as “more male” or “less male.” Thus you may present as female, but be male.
Sexuality is your sense of male or female sex. Male feels that they are male. Female feels they are female. This may not correspond to the sex assigned to at birth or your chromosomes. A sex then does not identity if with either polarity. Again this can exist on a spectrum.
Attraction is who you are attracted to sexually. They might be attracted to men or attracted to women. There are people who are not attracted to anyone. And there are people who are open to being attracted to to all types, pansexual.
Romantic attraction is who you can fall in love with or are open to falling in love with. They might find they can have long term relationships with men or woman. They may not be attracted to anyone. Or they may be have long term relationships with no one.
For someone who has grown up in an unexamined world in which all of these concepts have been bundled into male/female and the assumed configurations these two binaries, this seems needlessly complex. Orientation is an immutable given and because it is mind-blowing initially to contemplate what seems to be linguistically black and white (male and female) has a spectrum and then that it is not only a spectrum on one dimension that there are multiple dimension.
And what do you call someone?
Hence the power of the pronoun. Just ask them. What is your pronoun?
This is a powerful way of re-framing the simplistic mold of the duality of male and female in our language. It immediately subverts the assumption of syntax. Even though you know then that they go by they, for example, that is just a hint into the complexity and multiplicity of their identity. You don’t know then. Identity is private. Coming from what they call the cis (short for cisgender) world you assume that there is not much private in the word, “male” and yet there is. Only a few people know your penis size, who you are attracted to, who you are romantically attracted to, and so on. These are intimate details.
If you respect individuality and autonomy, accept that you don’t know. And I guess this ends up being the thing that is radical and threatening to the larger culture: the re-invention of privacy.