When I was younger, I thought bisexuality was a party trick. I thought it was something that teenage girls used to get attention. Since I've stopped being a teenage girl, I've learned that there are more than just the three oversimplified dimensions -- gay, straight and bi -- of sexuality. But that's why youth is for the young. I should have known that when I was labeled "lesbian" (a negative connotation I never understood) by my peers on my first day of high school, it wasn't just those ignorant meanies who didn't understand sexuality (or gender, for that matter): I didn't understand it, either.
With PrideFest 2012 just around the corner, I wanted to share a small amount of the information I've gleaned over the past decade and a half about sex, sexuality, gender, culture and a whole lot more that I'm still wrapping my head around. And it begins with an apology.
Last December, I wrote a Breeality Bites piece called "Hey, hot Tranny: Where'd you get that sparkly tank top?" Whoa. Back up. Read that headline again. I, the proud ally who spends a good amount of space and time speaking to (and sometimes, I think, for) the people of the GLBTQ community, used a transphobic slur? What an asshole.
Like a lot of seemingly socially acceptable and harmful ignorance, that column was based on a joke between some friends -- you know, my friends who are gay, so I thought it was appropriate. It wasn't. Just because Amy Poehler -- a woman I consider to be an upstanding female citizen -- dressed up like Christian Siriano and wandered around on SNL dropping "tranny," that didn't make it funny, or less demeaning. A very kind and assertive acquaintance who identifies as trans called me out -- hard. I had no idea how detrimental that joke was, just by it existing. I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. Or at least hope that the story was magically deleted from the Internet.
But when you choose to reveal everything about yourself for readers to see, sometimes you mess up.
I was born in 1980. I grew up in a pre-Internet, pre-Glee world, a world where "transvestite" was an umbrella term for not-straights, every "gay"-identified person on television had a lisp and a poodle, and George Michael's kicking down of the closet door was still surprising (and demonizing) to some, even as he trumpeted his coming out to the world.
I also grew up in a very accepting, open household that taught me to understand the dangers of people like Anita Bryant, Fred Phelps and the other "god hates fags"-style toxic rhetoric spewers. I watched Ryan White dispel myths about HIV and AIDS, Pedro Zamora use MTV as its once-intended political platform, and I hung out in Cheesman Park in high school because it was the "cool place" to go. I fell in love with Keith Haring's art, John Waters's movies and RuPaul's Supermodel of the World in its entirety. But that doesn't mean I know everything. Or anything at all, for that matter. After the "hot tranny" situation was brought to my attention, I was hyperaware of everything I wrote, said and did. I've never considered myself to be the knower of all things gender and sexuality-oriented in American culture, but I couldn't believe I had been so ignorant. I felt like a jerk.
This year, I volunteered to help with the Communikey Festival, and my job was to pick up musicians, artists and performers from the airport. JD Samson of MEN was on my list of arrivals, and I flipped out. Not just because I was picking up a former member of Le Tigre, but because I didn't know JD Samson's personal pronoun. I had recently witnessed a personal-pronoun debate between friends go down in flames on Facebook, and I was agonizing over it -- do I ask JD for a preference? Is it appropriate to even ask? Should I already know these things?
My very helpful roommate told me to chill out. What was I going to do, jump out of the car at the airport and immediately be forced to greet JD with, "Well, there SHE (or HE) is"? No. My roommate was right. It wasn't going to matter. JD's personal pronoun had nothing to do with anything.
When I was given an official Communikey sign to hold up so that JD could identify me, it simply said "MEN." Making small talk with Sampson and musical partner Lee Free after the meet-up, I explained how awkward it was to stand in an airport full of businessmen swishing by, holding up a sign that just read "MEN." JD basically said, well, that's kind of the point/joke of the band name. The joke was on me.
I haven't even begun to read all there is to know about personal pronouns, cisgender, transgender, genderqueer, and every degree of orientation, identification, sex and sexuality between. But basically, what I have learned since my first ignorant assumptions about bisexuality is that if you don't understand something, read about it. Do not assume anything, and do not ever assume that just because you have a friend who identifies as something different than you that they want to be your go-to resource. This doesn't mean you can't ask, but keep in mind that, just like you, not everyone feels the need to talk about his/her/their gender and orientation all of the time. (Fortunately, the Internet -- and, coincidentally, the library -- is full of information about all of the different kinds of people on this planet.)
My kind and assertive trans friend sent me this story, "The T-Word: Taking on the Transphobic slur," which was a great point of entry for me. I have also been closely following the public transition of Laura Jane Grace (formerly known to the world as Against Me! lead singer Tommy Gabel), which has taught me a lot already. Even reading Patti Smith's Just Kids opened my eyes to the types of people who exist within relationships that don't fit our culture's constraining and baseless "norms."
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And beyond reading and asking, just get out into the world. It is easy to exist in a place where everyone you know looks, acts and talks like you. It's also really boring to remained unchallenged by what you think you know.