April 16, 2008

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.

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14 Responses to Today I went to the high school where my friend N

  1. Jeff says:

    Love it.

  2. initials says:

    Herr Doktor… You were just over-thinking their querries. Gentlemen of a certain age (and I do put myself on the trailing edge of this category,) were only used to negative emotional reactions re:homosexuality in High School. We view this problem, understandably, I think, in a VERY emotional light, and thus tend to use “soft” language to describe our experiences. However, these kids were using very clinical, entry-level concepts (binary values imply only on and off, right or wrong…) to frame what might otherwise have been very volatile questions. They have years and years of indoctrination in political correctness holding back whatever disgust they may feel (in the form of a super-ego block… I mean, they can’t POSSIBLY be more correct than anyone else, right?). And this is the great trick… They may still be disgusted by the differences they percieve between themselves and you, but the confluence of curiosity, good teaching, and a simple sense of self-preservation (who the hell wants to spend time in the guidance office after offending a guest lecturer?) created a positive experience for all. Sadly, this type of tolerance only works at a remove. If you had actually found a random out student in the hallway and questioned her/him closely, I think you’d have found that though they’re much safer in corpus at school these days, personal interactions with their peers are no more emotionally pleasant than they were for you at that age. Don’t take these faux-intelligent questions, therefore, as actual brain trust… After all, these kids are in no position to bully you. And yes, you ARE still smarter than they!!!

  3. Jeffrey says:

    I don’t know about hope for the young, as I’m of the opinion that children should be neither seen nor heard (except for my niece, who is brilliant), but I squealed a little when you made a reference to “Doctor Who.” I had no idea you were that big of a geek.

    Of course, it would mean that your friend N.F. is likely a giant bat who eats children.

  4. Jeffrey (another one) says:

    “slightly older” … hmm … such a curious turn-of-phrase.

  5. matt says:

    Ha 😀

    Yes, there very well might be, for some of them at least.

  6. Christian says:

    They sure know fancy big words. That sure do scare l’il Faustus.

    Anyway, did you think about borking them? There sure are some hot high school seniors. So, did you think about borking them?

  7. Stephen says:

    I am in a high level college Cultural Studies class and we don’t even ask questions like that.

  8. N.F. says:

    What I find so distressing about Initials’s post is how binary it reveals his own thinking to be. Is it so inconceivable to imagine students who are wrestling with their own preconceptions and who are trying to gain a degree of understanding and empathy? I can assure you-high school students are not given to mouthing politically correct platitudes; quite the opposite, in fact, as they view PC as the “language police.” Whatever Initials’s pain is – and I would never belittle someone else’s hardships- he is foolish to take that pain and use it to dismiss the efforts of young people to grow. When my students read his comment, they were rightly offended- who is he to belittle them- especially when he wasn’t there? And what if some were, at first, “disgusted,” as 17 year olds with limited experience might be? I would think that conversations like theirs, with eloquent and humane men like Joel, would be the first step in broadening their perspectives and making them more empathetic young adults.

  9. goblinbox says:

    Binary gender norms: yay for the new meaningless slang!

  10. Todd says:

    My take on “binary gender norms” is that the binary portion is (straight)male/(straight)female. Anyone who has spent any time reading this blog knows that IF the reverend Dr. Faustus has ever felt pressure to conform to society’s interpretations of those norms, he has pushed back and been gloriously victorious in that task. I mean really, knitter, step-aerobics instructor and a fiercly intellegent, droolingly hot man all at the same time! Fit that into a box!

  11. Paul says:

    Good God. What are they feeding children these days??

  12. Sarah says:


    I think it’s more than clear that you are still tackling some unresolved issues from your high school years. Therefore, I think you are pretty ill-prepared to attack the students of whom Joel speaks. Whatever it is you haven’t gotten over yet, please remember that no matter how many years you have on high school students, your powerful wisdown will never give you the ability to rightly judge people you have never come into contact with.

    Thank you.

  13. AJ says:

    it was not long ago that i was a student in a high school trying to navigate sex and gender in ways that would subvert them but not get me in trouble. I wish we had had units on gender, but we never did.
    Our queer generation seems to have an awfully hard time finding common ground with the older lgb generation. Unless we can find that common ground and share our stories, we’re going to lose our history.
    So thank you for bridging that gap, at least a little.

  14. Convivia says:

    Well, these children are a somewhat self-selected lot, given that they’ve enrolled in NF’s American Cultural Studies class and have been part of it for (mumblety) months and all.

    But, yeah, it’s awfully nice to hear the young’uns talking about this stuff earnestly, isn’t it?


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