Today I went to the high school where my friend N.F. teaches a class in American cultural studies. They’ve just finished a unit on gender and identity; I was there essentially to talk about things with them that they can’t talk about with their friends/relatives/teachers. (To talk about intellectual, gender things. Mostly. I mean, I kept the explicit descriptions of orgies to a minimum. At least until the principal left the room.)
So at the beginning of the two-hour class, I talked about myself. Then N.F. asked me questions about myself, which was terrific, because of course the only thing I like more than talking about myself is listening to other people talk about me. Then I read the class part of Swish, and then there was a question-and-answer session.
I understood before this last began that there would not be a great deal of intellectual heavy lifting going on here. First of all, while it’s true that the students were seniors and had therefore passed the age at which children are at their most loathsome, really what can one expect from people to whom “We’re here, we’re queer, and we can spell potato” is meaningless? Second, with so many positive gay role models around like
Larry Craig Ted Haggard Charlie Crist oh whatever, these kids’ basic questions had almost certainly been answered. Nonetheless, I was glad to be able to offer them the perspective of a very slightly older person, and I looked forward to enlightening them in whatever way I could, whether about how being gay isn’t really a choice, or about how the common stereotypes aren’t universally true, or–well, you get the picture.
So the first question was, “Is acceptance something you’ve found or something you’ve created?”
After a few moments of shock I started stumbling through an answer about being drawn to certain communities but also having to function in communities that I haven’t chosen and–
“Well, what I actually mean is self-acceptance.”
It went on and on like this, question after question. “Do you feel pressured to conform to binary gender norms?” “What’s the relationship between sexual attraction and other parts of gay identity?” “How do you feel different when you’re the only gay person in a group from how you feel when there are others?”
And I was like, binary gender norms?
Eventually I recovered some of my equilibrium, more or less: I feigned long-standing familiarity with the concept of binary gender norms (a phrase I had never encountered in my life, much less uttered, before this afternoon), I spluttered something that I think sounded moderately convincing about sexual attraction and gay identity. When I was really desperate I drew some Venn diagrams. I’m just glad nobody started talking about signifiers without signs because then I would really have been fucked.
What kind of high school is this? What is N.F. teaching them? I began to worry that I was actually on the episode of the new Doctor Who where Giles from Buffy is both the school principal and a giant bat and he and the other giant bats have somehow arranged for the students all to become super-geniuses before they eat them.
Political climate aside, it is inconceivable to think that in my high school anybody would have been able even to frame ideas like these, much less ask the questions.
So now I’m thinking that it’s possible—just possible—that there’s hope for the young after all.
Binary gender norms. I mean, come on.