It starts with an email, asking me if I’ll come speak to Gender/Sexuality Alliance teenage students in a local high school, for me to share my experience with them as a gay woman. It’s always a Yes. I feel it’s important to share my personal experience with self-betrayal and societal-rejection, and my journey now back into self-acceptance. If only I knew what I know now at their age. (I take that back. I wouldn’t have listened.).
Just to make my life a little more interesting, the Universe has recently pulled me into learning some additional things about race, gender, culture, and religion. Where I thought I might be losing sight with my purpose and mission, what I’m now learning is that it’s all connected to the bigger picture. These teachings are taking me to a depth of personal work I’ve never previously experienced.
A few months ago, the term “White Feminism” showed up in my social media feed. I was like, “White Feminism?” I didn’t understand…and I ended up confused and triggered by how I felt reading the comments. One thing I know is this: Me + Triggered = I have work to do. So, I’ve jumped into doing personal work on White Supremacy, White Privilege, White Feminism, White Fragility (which was what I was experiencing through those triggers), and the topic of Intersectionality. I’m actually embarrassed at how little I knew (and still know…just scratching the surface).
My thoughts were, “How can I speak about equality, discrimination, and marginalization, unless I’m aware of its impact in other areas?” Sure, I see and experience it through my LGBTQ and woman lens, but it felt hypocritical to not understand more fully and open my mind to how these issues impact my fellow humans in other areas.
Back to the high school. I arrived early, sat in my car and took in my surroundings, well aware that this school is located in a low socio-economic part of the city. As I walked up to the school, a very tall rot-iron fence surrounded the entire school. There was a police car parked in front. I thought, “Wow, this high school feels and looks like a prison.” My mind flashed to all of the school shootings these students, teachers, and administrators have to sadly consider just to show up each day.
I walked into the front office to sign in. The woman who greeted me wore a hijab, as did some of the female students in the front office. My mind drifted to the New Zealand shooting that happened a few days earlier, killing 50 or more Muslim worshippers. Although helpless in knowing what to say or do, I felt immediate compassion and empathy, which is actually the best most of us have in those moments. I recalled how I felt after attacks on my community…the gay nightclub in Orlando, the USS Cole attack in Yemen, 9/11…my gay, Navy, and American family…they were personal, and I get it. An attack on one is an attack on all.
I met up with the counselor who led me to the classroom where I was to give my talk. As we’re walking, I notice the ethnic diversity of the students, who had just been let out for lunch. Black, Asian, Mexican, and Muslim students dominated the population, with an occasional sprinkling of a white student. My mind drifted to my new learnings in racism, cultural diversity, and intersectionality and how these dynamics, in addition to their gender/sexuality diversity factors, also greatly impact the lives of the students I’m about to talk with.
I speak to the students about my struggles with identity at their age, being gay in the Navy, witch-hunts, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and being closeted for fear of being kicked out. I speak to them about the times that I betrayed myself, some out of self-preservation, and some out of my internalized homophobia. I speak to them about the fact that everyone struggles fitting in, even the ones who act like they aren’t struggling, especially at their age. Lastly, I speak to them about self-acceptance, and its crucial role in evolving as an unapologetically authentic and happy person.
These young people are always awesome and the themes in the high schools GSA groups are the same from school to school. They have challenges with acceptance, bullying and social media. They experience lack of acceptance in their families and from some of their classmates. Many are not safe to express themselves for being who they are, at home and at school, and have to stay closeted out of their own self-preservation. They’re just teenagers, trying to find their way. Lastly, they’re kind, intelligent, and I feel incredibly blessed to share time and space with them. I have a deep hope that my message on self-acceptance is something that will benefit them.
As I’m leaving, I think about their challenges ahead…not just the gender/sexuality ones, but their cultural and societal challenges as well. When Kimberle’ Crenshaw discusses Intersectionality, she lays out areas where intersections overlap in someone’s life, such as gender, race, sexual orientation, religion and class (there’s more). For example, a young genderqueer Muslim boy has at least two intersections: Genderphobia and Islamophobia. A young transgender (male to female) black girl will have to navigate three intersections: Transphobia, Racism and Sexism. As a white woman in America, I had to navigate two: Homophobia and Sexism.
I hope they heard me when I said, “It gets better.” I hope they heard me when I said, “No one can reject you…only you can do that.” I hope they heard me when I said, “Finding your way back to self-acceptance is a necessary journey for all of us.”
I’d love to tell you that I felt hope and happiness when I left that school. But I didn’t. I felt sadness. I walked out of the school, that felt like a rot-iron prison, and thought about the challenges young people face today. They’re similar and also different than the ones I faced. Many of those challenges can be addressed by us adults working on making our world a better, a much safer, and a more inclusive place for them. It might even get better for all of us in the process.
p.s. If you’d like to learn more about the issues I discuss in this writing, here is a good place to start:
– Kimberle’ Crenshaw: Start here – Intersectionality TED Talk
– Layla Saad: Me and White Supremacy (Free Workbook): laylafsaad.com
– Rachel Cargle: White Feminism – www.rachelcargle.com
– Robin DiAngelo: White Fragility – robindiangelo.com