Friday, October 29, 2010

Now that's Queer...

My work, as I have mentioned before, exposes me to situations and people that can be very challenging.  Racism, bigotry, hatred and ignorance are the things that fill my work days.  It can be draining some days to even open my filing cabinet or turn on my computer at work.  I know I am going to spend another day examining the darker side of human interactions, rolling around in hate and intolerance until the stink of it fills my nostrils and makes me want to scream or punch out.

Enter S. Bear Bergman.

Bear, and hir husband j wallace, came to my office when one of my colleagues encountered them at a health and sexuality conference in Ottawa (or maybe Toronto, its been a while).  Bear immediately captured the audience’s attention by beginning hir talk with “In a male to female trans surgery, the penis is split lengthwise and the internal tissue is scooped out.”  Needless to say, ze got our attention.  Bear laughed and joked that the comment always stops the chatter in the room and makes most of the men in the room squirm.  Bear was right.

For those of you who don’t know, Bear is a writer, advocate and storyteller.  Bear’s books Butch is a Noun and The Nearest Exit May be Behind You are about gender issues, gender identity, gender bending and life as a gay/lesbian/trans/queer person.  At least, that’s what they are about on the surface.

My wife recently brought home a copy of The Nearest Exit May be Behind You and I started reading it on the bus last night.  My seatmate gave me some very odd looks indeed.  I don’t know whether it was the laughing out loud or the crying that did it.  I am pretty sure she thought I was having a melt down of some sort.  I gestured to the book a couple of times, as if to explain that it was the cause of my emotional rollercoaster, but I think she just thought I was having some sort of shaking fit.

Bear’s book establishes just why ze is such a successful storyteller, and makes such a wonderful advocate for the queer community, hell for humanity as a whole.  Bear’s stories and experiences remind us that we’re all, in our hearts, the same.  We all want to be loved and accepted.  We all want to be recognized for the work we do, and helped when the work gets too hard.  Bear reminded me that we need to stop and help each other out - not just when its convenient, but when people need us.  Bear reminded me of the importance of family, and made me think about the ways that we define family, and what that means to me.

Most of all, and its for this reason that I am writing this blog, Bear reminded me that the sorts of situations I deal with on a daily basis are not the truth of all humanity.  Many people, maybe even most, are good, decent, caring human beings.  There are people out there who are fighting for equality and the rights of themselves and of others.  The world is getting better, making strides forward.  Sometimes it can be hard to remember, and sometimes it seems like we’re backsliding, but when I read Bear’s book, and listened to hir and j wallace speaking in my office boardroom, I knew that things were going to keep getting better.  With outstanding people doing amazing things every day, the future looks brighter and brighter every day.

I don’t usually shill products - not since I left sales on that fateful day so long ago - but I can’t say strongly enough that these books should be read by everyone.  They are both available at Venus Envy here in Halifax, and online from Amazon and Chapters (or at least I found them both there).  Go and get them.  If you can’t afford them, let me know and I’ll lend you my copy.

I also know that some of the terminology above may be new to some folks.  “Ze” and “hir”???  What the hell is that you ask?  I am pleased to answer.  Bear, and presumably other folks in the queer / trans community, are challenging the way we identify people by gender, after all, what is gender really?  Ze and hir are gender neutral ways of using pronouns, plain and simple.  If only all our gender based battles could be solved so easily!

That said, I note that in Bear’s “Pre-approved version” to be used for introducing hir at a speech or presentation, Bear is now using the pronoun “he.”  Not being sure which version is more up to date (as gender identity and expression can and do change for some people) I decided to err on the side of caution.  Which is unusual for me, I know.

Either way, I just wanted to say “Thank you Bear” (and I am sending an email at the same time to say it to Bear’s face) for being a good person, for reminding us to look past our preconceptions and for challenging the world to do better, to be better. 

As I tell my sons all the time - “You can do it!”

Friday, October 22, 2010

To be or not to be...

The recent attention being paid to teen suicides, particularly the suicides of young LGTBQ people in North America is... in a word... interesting.

I've held the view for years now that being a teenager, despite our parent's assertions that it was "the best time of our lives", is the scariest, most challenging, most dangerous and hardest part of our lives.

Lets face it - its no cup of tea.  Yes, many teens have a boat load of fun. We engage in behaviour that we look back on as adults and wonder "How the hell did I survive doing that to my body?" and we do it with huge, often drunken, grins on our faces.  We forge friendships and bonds that, in many cases, will last a lifetime.  We tan, we drink, we date, we fornicate our faces off, we buy our first cars, we have our first jobs, we fall in love for the first time and we are firm in our belief that we are invulnerable.  Except when we aren't.

Those firsts are all accompanied, unfortunately, with their darker "first" counterparts.  We - usually - lose our first love, sometimes to another person, sometimes to a drunken car accident.  That first job is our first real taste of having responsibilities and not being able to do what we want when we want.  That fornication sometimes leads to far greater responsibilities than we are prepared, or able, to accept.  That new car needs work, which takes more money than you have, which means a loan, which means you have to work more hours... That's part of life, right?  Well... yes it is.  Nothing is permanent.  Nothing stays the same forever.  But here's the thing that many of us forget when we become adults - we didn't know that when we were 13.  Or rather, we knew it, but we didn't understand it. 

It takes age and experience to learn how to deal with the crushing pain that loss brings.  It takes dealing with dozens of assholes to learn how to deal with a bullying boss or a bullying classmate.

Teens are still learning who they are - and that's the hardest part of all.  They have friends telling them to be this way, media telling them to be that way, parents telling them to be another way and, if they listen hard, a little voice inside themselves telling them to be their way.  That little voice is the only one that they really ought to listen to, but it gets drowned out by all the others, which are much louder and more capable of enforcing their views.  The lucky ones have a support network that lets them listen to that inner voice, and that encourages and assists them in making that voice truly theirs.  Unfortunately, most don't.

For kids who want / need to go against what society is telling them, that's hard to accept.  Whether its not taking over the family business so you can go to art school, not dating a guy your mom introduced you to because you are lesbian, wearing pink instead of blue or picking up The Origin of the Species instead of The Holy Bible these are the moments, and decisions, that define teens' lives, and the roadblocks that they face in these moments are huge.

Add to that being bullied, and it gets even worse.  Now you have a teen, unsure of themselves, wanting desperately to feel appreciated, supported and loved, and you push their faces in the mud, often literally.  When these teens have no one to turn to, when their social networks, their parents and their teachers won't stand up for them, then the situation goes from terrible to tragic.

I was bullied in school.  The fat kid, the smart kid and the wiseass, I had a target for bullies on my back about as wide as the seat of my "husky fit" jeans.  Add in a fear of physical confrontation, and it was made even worse.  Physically assaulted, called names and teased, I went through much of junior high trying desperately to avoid pain and humiliation.  When I tried to talk to my family about it, I got nowhere fast.  I thought about suicide, even halfheartedly tried it once.  Until I was in my late twenties, I really thought I was the only one who felt that way.  To my surprise, almost every person I speak to relates similar stories.  I was not the only one.  Hell, in comparison to some, I had it pretty easy.

US President Obama just did an PSA for the "It Gets Better" campaign, and, despite my growing disdain for PSAs in general, I liked what he did.  He didn't focus on any particular group, didn't overly single out the LGBTQ community for comment.  And that's the right way to look at it.  All teens feel these tremendous pressures, and all people, regardless of age, deserve and need support from the rest of us.  We all made it through, scarred and battered, so we know that it doesn't have to be as bad as it is.  And we do know that it does get better.

Now, adulthood has its own challenges, no question about it.  And the responsibilities can really crush you sometimes.  But at least you have the experiences of your past, and some greater security in your own abilities, as well as a greater understanding of your recourse when a situation exceeds your capacity.  And its important that we remember all of that, when our kids come to us and tell us that they're upset or frustrated by their situations.  Its vital that we, as adults and thus the holders of all the power, stand up for our kids and all kids, and not accept bullying, not accept intolerance. 

Bigotry and hate are everywhere.  Small minded people the world over are spouting messages of hate and ignorance, and other small minded people are listening to them.  But the voices rising against them are getting louder, more persistent.  They are yelling back, and shining lights on the dark little caves these bigots are trying to hide in.  And their messages are getting through, slowly, a little bit at a time.

And yes, different people are still being singled out, and the urge to conform, to just do what people seem to want of you is huge. But the world is changed, every day, and in every way, by the very people that refuse to conform, by those that stand up and demand change, by those who listen well to that inner voice and act on its demands. 

Nothing ever stays the same.  But nothing ever changes, really changes, over night.  And I just hope we can tell that to our kids, and remind them that it does get better, and support them with our love and our actions while that happens.  So that they'll be here when it does.