What normally comes to mind when somebody addresses you, but prefaces whatever they’re about to say with “sorry if this might seem a little weird” or “you don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to,” or both?
Lots of things, I’m sure. First you assume it’s likely a personal question. Then your guilty conscience plays up as well. Finally, just to get in on all the mind-racing action, your deepest secrets barge into the forefront of your memory, begging to remain in the safe dark corners of your mind forever and ever amen.
A bit of advice – stop at the first one. Breath. Relax. Usually, the reason someone would preface a question like that, myself included, is an inability to think of the proper phrasing to use. Everybody wants to be tactful, respectful, and ultimately not a complete douche, but sometimes the first two seem harder to accomplish. Usually, once the question is out in the air, lingering heavily between their face and yours, it suddenly seems much more benign, and though it all happens in a split second, the other party is likely to feel somewhat sheepish about all their worrying.
So, here I return from my rambling digression to the anecdote at hand. This happened to me last night, as it has countless times before (apparently I’m some kind of complex enigma), but instead of a friend, classmate, or random anonymous internet user, the question came from my youngest brother.
I have two brothers. The oldest is 18, and the other just turned 15 about a month ago. To put it in perspective, I was a freshman in college at 18 (my brother is about “a year behind” because his birthday’s in autumn) and at 15 I was just kinda dicking around on the internet and RuneScape, running a clan (which I’ve done now for nearly eight years), and being your average undiagnosed teenage boy. But 15 is also an important milestone for me because it was around that age I began to come out to myself, and eventually to my mom and the rest of my family, my peers, and so on and so forth.
So as if starting with “you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to” wasn’t enough, his phrasing of the question was indeed rather odd – to an outside observer, that is. The exchange went like this:
“Are you still…gay?”
“So…what was all that with dating [a guy] for so long? Like…what are you actually?”
Well…here it gets complicated. I wasn’t about to lie, obviously, so I initially said I wasn’t really sure – it sounds like a cop-out but if the truth’s not good enough, go away – but decided I could elaborate a bit. It was easier for me to say I was gay than to try and explain what I actually felt. Historically, I’ve always found some women attractive and some men attractive, but there’s always been something not-so-traditional about them. I hate traditional ideas of both female and male beauty – especially tall, hairless, expressionless men with bulging muscles who look to be chiseled out of some shiny constantly-wet by-product of clandestine government experiments in the synthesis of adamantium.
“So you’re bi, or…? I mean it doesn’t matter, I’m just curious.”
Yeah, I guess. I tend to say “pansexual,” because I don’t really care about dividing and classifying people into two – and only two – groups. In my mind, that’s not how bisexuality actually works, but it’s all too often the way it’s perceived, especially in the queer and trans communities.More...
By that token, there are only “two” possibilities to be attracted to – men and women – with trans people falling into the category with which they identify. But not all trans people want to “fit in” like that. I know a bunch of them, and while they certainly don’t make it obvious on the outside, they all talk about it pretty openly with people they trust. So that right there sets them apart. I didn’t have to go through anything as tough as the transitioning process to be seen as a male, and they did/do (as the case may be).
What I have to admit surprised me the most, though, is the direction of the conversation. I jokingly asked if he thought he was bisexual as well, fully expecting him to say no, but that wasn’t the end of the topic. In fact, he mentioned that one of his friends is pansexual and “he gets a lot of crap from people about that.” I asked what he meant – as in, do they say things like “pick one” or “you’re just greedy” and so on, and he said that yes, it’s stuff like that.
This kid’s apparently not getting bullied terribly, at least not physically (which is always a relief to know) but is certainly witnessing the age-old phenomenon with which this particular essay shares a name. It’s Latin, and it translates quite literally to “they condemn because they do not understand.” It’s a phrase I used as a signature on the official RuneScape forums for many years, including when I was an official moderator. It’s among my most seriously considered potential first tattoos. But most importantly, it’s a reminder of how I justified coming out – first to myself, then gradually to others as I saw fit – when I felt confident in either their ability to understand or my ability to help them do so.
However, achieving the level of understanding necessary for compassionate acceptance is a difficult task for people who simply cannot relate to the individual’s particular situation. It’s usually not because the willingness to learn and accept isn’t there, but rather because at this age, everything is new and trendy and popular. Everything is a way to get attention, and nobody wants to be outdone. It’s a sad failing of our educational system and an equally upsetting failure on the part of parents everywhere that even an individual’s own developing (and highly impressionable) identity is seen as fair game for constant unwanted and ultimately hurtful scrutiny.
The only person allowed to question your identity is you.
Granted, it’s hella nice to have people along the way to help you out. I’ve been questioning this and that about myself in some way pretty much constantly since I was about 13, which is when the brain tentatively begins to make its first brave forays into the uncharted realms of critical thinking , divergent reasoning, and logical abstraction. But the final verdict rests with you, and you alone. While it’s always nice to find people who really truly relate to you, the fact of the matter is that nobody else necessarily has to understand you. They were perfectly content with their lives until you just had to come along and rock the boat, throw a wrench in the mix, add another variable, or whatever you wanna call it.
Well…that’s not entirely true.
What is true is that truly understanding somebody is not a key requisite for accepting them. Case in point, a la my earlier digression: trans people. I’ll never truly understand how they think and feel. I can’t. I’m not trans. My brain works differently on too many levels to count. But I understand what they go through. I understand why they act in certain ways in situation A, but not ever situation B. I understand what they communicate, directly and indirectly, in their quest for acceptance. In other words…I know that feel, bro.No,
What drives this home for me is also the fact that took a little while to actually dawn on me in the first place. This pansexual friend of my brother is presumably 14 or 15, meaning he’s Form IV, much earlier than I had any idea what to call myself or my peers had enough familiarity with the vocabulary for me to be sure they’d even get it to begin with. Oh and also, this kid goes to the same school I attended. Both of my brothers do as well.
My alma mater happens to be a “small, non-sectarian, all-boys private college preperatory school,” according to their Mission Statement (and reality). It’s expensive and prestigious and very, very highly regarded in most circles with an idea of how private schools function and what makes them stand out. I graduated in 2010, almost four years ago now, and I can’t say I had the best time while I was a student there.
For one, I wasn’t a great student. I struggled with all sorts of learning disabilities and other crap that prevented me from performing to the fullest of my potential. Most I’ve since overcome or at least learned to address. Some still bother me (see: using the alphabet to do complicated math, which is meant to be made of numbers for fuck sake), but my biggest problems were all social. Those issues persisted into my even more tumultuous college years, where they mutated into emotional shortcomings stemming from AS and general crippling anxiety, insomnia, and an inability to talk to people I found attractive. Mostly the last one. But at prep school, it was my sexuality. That I came out at all is still kinda stunning to me, although nowadays telling people is no sweat at all unless they’re religious or in a position of authority.
Being surrounded by a hyper-masculine atmosphere for so long is actually something I tend to credit as kick-starting my gender identity questioning,. In fact, as I humorously remarked to my brother, being surrounded by exclusively boys for thirteen years may have actually lessened my attraction to males, or at the very least helped me figure out my (very very picky) preferences regarding them. I don’t do sports, and I don’t do people who do sports. Personal preference. Those exist.
But the fact I still decided to come out in such an environment isn’t actually all that shocking. People do it all the time. I was consoled by several important things to note:
- The school has a diversity group that explicitly includes sexual orientation and gender in its description. It’s mostly minority kids talking about race issues (“can people please stop thinking I play basketball?!”) but they’ll jump to queer equality issues just as readily.
- The school is not affiliated with any religious organizations.
- A sizable percentage of the teachers were young, energetic, and just generally really pleasant people. The ones who weren’t young were typically just as pleasant, but in a kind of wizened, “respect my intellect and I’ll help nurture yours” way.
- Regardless of personality, a large and visible majority of the faculty are very liberal.
- I wouldn’t be the first or the only queer kid there, but I’d be the first in my year to really “come out” to everyone in no uncertain terms, and I have to admit that sounded kinda alluring.
But the courage to come out as pansexual at age 14 or 15? The fact he is so far along in his self-discovery? Coming out as a minority sexuality within the queer minority itself while surrounded by predominantly straight young men? That all boggles my mind. This kid’s got a level of confidence I certainly lacked at that age (not to mention understanding of his own identity, cemented or not). The fact he felt safe coming out at all speaks for itself. That’s a huge step forward for any all-male institution for far too many reasons to list.
Just knowing that gives me hope and even a sense that maybe all of the activism and advocacy and lots of talking that I did in my last couple years there, including bringing my boyfriend to one of the diversity meetings and running a school-wide survey on the current state of gay acceptance, among other things…maybe all of that, coupled with the fact I was not the only one in my year to come out, nor were we the last year to boast out queer students, has had a profound and lasting effect on the atmosphere and culture itself. The understanding and acceptance gets passed down. The current Form VI (of which my other brother is a part) were not yet in the Upper School when I graduated. The entire population has changed since my time there only four years ago, and yet the legacy is still there.
Could it be something as simple as “oh yeah, his older brother likes guys so don’t make gay jokes” when younger kids see my brother? Maybe it’s more than that – maybe there are kids who are well-liked and accomplished in one thing or another (at this school it’s actually considered cool to be smart so long as you’re not an arrogant twat about it) and are queer as well. People think twice when they realize “well shit, beyond that, we’re not all that different!”
After all, at a small, single-sex private school, you end up closing ranks as you progress through the years together. By the time you graduate, you can probably tick off at least three facts about each and every one of your classmates, and the temptation to be a smart-ass about it has long since given way to some higher form of intellectual and social maturity.
Does that mean people likely remember me as “the bisexual kid?” I’d certainly imagine it comes to mind fairly quickly, but then again, so does my hair – it’s just as distinctive a characteristic, after all, and frankly people cared more about that than my sexuality!
At the end of the day, I suppose the message is something like this: If you find yourself part of an academic community, a social circle, or any situation at all where you are invited and encouraged to “be yourself,” the best course of action is to accept that invitation whole-heartedly and feed off that encouragement until your confidence does the rest for you.
Perhaps this is my elaborate and drawn-out way of saying “it gets better,” but it’s so much deeper than that. Growing up is challenging, dealing with life is challenging, being an adult is challenging…but being true to yourself only gets easier as you go.
I can promise you that much. I leave you now with a brighter, future-oriented revision of what became a sort of motto to me in my early teenage years:
Condemnant quod nunc non intellegunt, sed non intellegent perperam sempiternum.