Why It Matters to Me: Gender and Sexuality

By Troy D. Smith

December 16, 2010

A month or so ago I posted a couple of blogs that were to be the first two parts of a three-part series, “Why it Matters to Me.” I looked at the ways my own experiences with race and class had informed my views on the subject and compelled me to champion various causes. This last portion, gender/sexuality, has been delayed somewhat by the end-of-semester madness that runs amok in academia, but now at last here it is.

Because my encounters in this particular area have mostly been on the periphery (being a heterosexual male and therefore not an object of imposed power, other than the adolescent societal pressure of maintaining what scholars on the subject call “heteronormativity”), many of my experiences have actually been watching the experiences of others. Since it’s not my place to broadcast other people’s private, or inner, lives –or to “out” anybody that has not chosen to announce their sexual identity –I plan to be as circumspect as possible in this essay, being vague in places and changing details in others.

That being said, I’ll address the same question I asked myself about race and class- when did I first become truly aware that there was such a thing as gender/sexuality classifications? Obviously, that kind of thing is presented to us all, culturally, from birth, and kind of sinks in by osmosis. Girls are “supposed” to act one way, and boys another. There are “tomgirls” (like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird ) and “sissies”- kids who don’t exactly conform to the “rules” of gendered behavior.

I was in a bit of an unusual situation –although it only seemed unusual compared to the ideal families of television, I guess. My parents separated when I was quite young, and I have no memories of them together. My formative years were spent in a household with two very strong women, my mom and her sister Essie. I had no real positive male influences. There was my older cousin, Essie’s son Stanton, who was as close to me as a brother, but he –though several years older –was still just a kid like me. Two of my mom’s brothers also lived with us, and I adored them, but never pictured them as someone I wanted to be like (they were fun-loving, hard drinking, quasi-employed bachelors.) I loved to read- and devoured comic books even before I could decipher the words, either having my cousin read them to me or figuring out the plots by the pictures alone. I loved movies, too- basically, I suppose I just loved stories.

So I took my models for masculinity from the stories I read and watched. Cowboys, superheroes, war movies. My dad and his brothers were all in the military; when I was three my Uncle Arthur came to visit us, in his Army uniform, and brought me a huge play-set of plastic Army men (in four different colors, to better facilitate imaginary warfare.) He and my Dad looked a lot alike, and I actually thought he was my Dad… in fact, I think I was thirty before I mentioned the incident to my mom and she told me who it actually was. Because I associated my father so much with the military –mostly because of that three-year-old’s confusion –it’s probably not surprising who I wound up choosing as my main masculinity models at ages 3 to 5: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood… and Nick Fury. Fury was a Marvel Comics character who had two ongoing series at once –one set in the (1970s) present-day, in which he was a middle-aged leader of a government spy organization, and one set in his younger days as a commando leader in WWII. The character has been played on screen by Samuel L. Jackson and David Hasselhoff, neither of whom capture the essence of the 1960s and 70s Nick Fury:

NICK FURY (drawing by Joe Sinnott.)


In my young mind, real men sported whisker stubble, chomped on cigars, often wore hats, and frequently dressed in leather, flannel, and boots (if you know me, you know I often do all those things, though the cigars are a very infrequent treat .) I think those images were substitutes for my missing father, and that dressing myself accordingly –in pretend clothes and paraphernalia as a kid, and real ones when I grew up –was a way of clothing myself with my father, which is really clothing one’s self with the essence of comforting (or yearned for) masculinity.

When I got a little older, I was still turning to fictional characters for masculinity guides, but on a more sophisticated level. Later in life I realized how profoundly influenced I had been by certain characters from my pre-adolescent years: Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird; Gary Cooper as Will Kane in High Noon; Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca; Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life; and perhaps most of all Spider-man, who co-creator Stan Lee portrayed as learning that “with great power comes great responsibility.” From all those characters, I concluded that real men are good men, and honorable ones. Their defining characteristic is the willingness to do what they know is right, no matter how hard it is or how much it costs them. I later realized that I had come up with the definition of, not just a man, but of a good person of any gender. Anyone who knows me knows that the “me” I have cultivated and constructed –and all our selves, inner and outer, are a combination of our own constructions and the fears we fortify ourselves against, with a healthy dash of genetics –has elements of all those fictional characters. With a little Andy Griffith thrown in.

But of course, it is never that simple. I had other qualities as well, which did not fit into the American cultural paradigm of masculinity, and I had no stereotypical male figure around to teach me that I am supposed to suppress those things. I was extremely sensitive, and extremely emotional. I was “bookish,” and lived in a world of my own imagination. Those are all qualities I would encourage and nurture in any child of mine, no matter their gender… but in the late 70s/early 80s, and no doubt still today, they are qualities that mark a young boy as a target by his peers.

Which leads me to the first hints I received that gender and sexuality are categories people can be put into. My first exposure to the concept of homosexuality came when I was around nine… Fred Sanford was describing a “sissified” (I knew that term) man as “kind of…you know…” and then made that famous Fred Sanford “comme ci, comme ca” hand motion. His friend Bubba, as I recall, said “Oh, you mean he’s gay.” Fred was confused by the term, and so was I, both of us thinking gay meant happy. I asked my mom what the heck he was talking about, and she explained that some boys liked to kiss other boys instead of girls. In that same time period I saw Archie Bunker interacting with a transvestite, and Billy Crystal’s character on Soap wore women’s clothing and wanted to get an operation to turn him into a woman. Well, all this seemed rather strange to me, but I didn’t give it much thought. I sort of chalked it up to just another weird thing grown-ups talked about which I didn’t understand.

I was pretty sheltered in some ways during elementary school, in part because of my school, Baker Elementary. It was small- only about a hundred students total –and only went to the fourth grade. Basically, then, you had a group of about twenty kids that you went to school with every day from kindergarten through 4th, after which you all went to the much bigger “city school.” I never rode the bus in my Baker years, and my older cousins –like older cousins and older siblings from time immemorial –avoided me like the plague when their friends were around. What all this means, and the reason I am bringing it up, is that I was never around any “older kids.” In my experience as a father and step-father, kids’ first exposures to the seamier concepts in life often come from older kids on the bus. In my case, at the age of 10 I had never heard the f-word (though I’d seen it carved into a chair arm at the movie theater, and wondered what it meant), or the term a-hole, or any of the sexuality centered insults. I had seen the word “queer” on a bathroom stall –again at the movie house (or as we called it, the Show) –and just assumed it was an expression of postmodern bemusement (although of course I didn’t have those terms for it.) “Queer” was a word my grandmother used often to describe anything strange, pronouncing it “qwar.”

Then it was on to fifth and sixth grade at the “big school”- as well as riding the school bus (and being around high schoolers) for the first time. It was a whole new world. Almost every single fifth grade male swore in practically every sentence, often using words I had never heard before. One kid, a well-known bully, approached me on the playground my first week there.

“Hey,” he said. “You look queer. Are you queer, boy?”

Well, this was an easy enough question. I delighted from a young age in the idea of being a non-comformist –of course this would make me seem strange.

“Why yes,” I said. “In fact, I’m probably the queerest kid in this school.

” This was not the response he was expecting. He was dumbfounded. He gathered his friends around.

“This kid is crazy!” he said. “Go ahead –ask him if he’s queer!”

“Um, hey kid, are you queer?”

“I sure am,” I replied. “It’s no big deal, I’m kinda proud of it.”

Needless to say, I was not getting off to a good start in my new social circles. It didn’t take me long to figure out what the word meant when they said it, and to absorb it –and a lot of other cool dirty words- into my vocabulary. By the end of that school year I, too, was “burning” my friends by questioning their heterosexuality. A favorite tactic –and one that, with my verbal skills, I excelled at –was to turn someone’s words around to make it sound like they were admitting that they were gay (for example, someone once called me “queerbait” and I said “it works, too, ‘cause here you are.”) This was often accompanied by gestures whose significance none of us really understood at the time. Somehow it seemed to be ratcheted up several degrees when we entered middle school.

So, then, was I introduced to that world of burgeoning male adolescence, so lovingly portrayed in Lord of the Flies. It was a good thing, in some ways, that I had a sharp wit and a sharp tongue, because I needed them. I was a scrawny, cerebral, artistic kid, and looked like easy pickings for bullies. When confronted, my usual tactic (if there was a crowd around) was to verbally humiliate the oppressor, then refuse to “meet him outside” to fight. He would eventually figure out that picking on me was more trouble than it was worth, as it would get him ridiculed; if they caught me outside alone, of course, it helped that I could run really fast. The bully would then move on to easier prey.

This is the part of the story I am ashamed of. I wasn’t really joking in my Lord of the Flies reference; kids aged 12 to 14 can be very, very nasty to one another, and it is not uncommon at all to see them engage in masculine (or feminine) bonding that involves singling out some outsider and attacking them. The weaker the outsider is perceived to be, the better. Here is a basic truth about middle school: there are four types of kids, bullies, victims, defenders , and bully enablers. There are very, very few defenders, and for good reason. The whole process is about developing community by choosing an “other” to define yourself against- and at this age, peer community is just about the most important thing in one’s life. If you see another kid being bullied, and you come to his aid, you risk ostracism as well- and that goes against the grain of self-preservation.

There were certain boys that were always singled out to be victims. They were usually the more sensitive ones, who did not fit into the prevalent view of “proper” masculine behavior. Some of those kids later came out as gay; others were perceived to be gay, and that was enough. They were considered fair game. Sometimes, as I said, I was singled out as the prospective victim. I can remember several specific instances where I was the defender, and I felt really good about myself afterwards. But most often- I either ignored it, or joined in (both forms of bully-enabling.) I joined in to take the heat off myself. And I was extremely cruel. Sometimes, I was the bully.

Now I’m going to be vague. I know a lot of people who were victimized for their perceived sexual orientation or relative degrees of masculinity. I knew such people in middle and high school, at church, through the extended church network I was hooked into, and when I was college age. I know six people who were either gay or perceived to be who committed suicide. Most were casual acquaintances, one was a very good friend several years younger than me. Some of them I defended, some I ignored, some I helped persecute here and there. I’m haunted by all their memories. And despite that, I found myself doing the same thing as an adult in the workplace years ago. I’m quite embarrassed about that; it goes against all the ideals I have tried to define myself by. I wouldn’t do it again, and it hurts to even think about it.

I have also known people who belonged to conservative churches who felt that their desires were sins they needed to struggle against. They tried to make themselves straight, getting married even though they had no sexual desire whatsoever for women. That’s their right and their choice. Most of the ones I know have had sad lives, though (as have their wives.) I often imagine what their lives could’ve been like if they’d had the freedom to just be themselves.

I tried to raise my daughter to be open and accepting, and to have a concern for social justice. When she was eleven or twelve I was proud of her for getting into arguments with older relatives in defense of gay marriage. I was touched when, around that time, she asked me: “Dad, if I were to grow up and tell you I was gay, would you disown me?” We had been discussing the tragedy of a teenage girl who committed suicide in the 1950s because of her sexual orientation. “Of course not,” I said. “I am your father, and I’ll always love you and stand beside you no matter what. Unless you become a Republican (which was only a joke, by the way.)”

When she was sixteen, my daughter told me she had realized she was gay. It was one of those situations where you are very surprised, but not surprised at all; a lot of things sort of clicked into place and made sense. She has been wrestling with concepts of identity, sexuality, and gender since then, refining her understanding of who she is and how she wants to be known. It is a very important journey, and like any parent I have been worried about her on the road while also finding joy in her journey. It is an odyssey that has been very instructive to me, as well, as I’ve seen this person I love so much face obstacles and challenges that I have never really known.

Recently she told me that there was something very important she wanted to discuss as a family. I knew that since starting college she had become very impassioned about gender and sexuality studies, and seemed to be learning about herself at an accelerated pace in her new academic setting. I had a pretty good idea what she wanted to talk about. She was very nervous, but she did not need to be. She told us she did not feel that traditional gender classifications fit her as a person, that she felt neither male nor female but somewhere in-between, and always has. It is a form of identity known as genderqueer, or GQ. Again, it made sense when I thought about it. She was frustrated at the unfairness of being put into a box that was not of her own making, of having an identity thrust upon her. She asked us to think about calling her by a different, ungendered name, and to refer to her with gender-neutral pronouns. Henceforth in this essay, therefore, I will refer to them as my child. My very beloved child.

I am going to share with you what I said to my child that night, as best I remember it. Maybe I’ll add a little that I should’ve said and left out. I have permission to discuss it in this forum, and I’m glad –because it is the thing parents should say to their children, whatever paths they take, and maybe you know someone you should say it to.

“I love you with all my heart. I don’t love you just because you’re my child; I don’t love you for who I want you to be, or who anyone thinks you ought to be. I don’t love you because you’re a reflection of who I wanted to be. I love you because you are you. I am proud of your courage, in approaching me (and ultimately the world) with this. I am proud of your passions, and compassions, and desire to help others and make a difference in the world. What you ask of me is not easy –I feel a sense of bereavement for the little girl I knew, who is gone forever. But she would be gone anyway; you’ve grown up. Whether you are still that little girl or not, or whether in fact you ever really were, you are still YOU, and it is you I have loved, not an image. I told you once not to feel bad about leaving me some day –it is your job to leave me; it is my job never to leave you. Wherever you go, whatever you do, whoever and whatever you are- I will always be your father, and I will always love you. And I am very, very proud to have had a hand in bringing the world such a beautiful person. Despite my part in that, I have no proprietorship in you- your life, and your identity, are yours, and that is as it should be.”

In the process of writing this essay, I’ve realized a couple of things. For starters, unlike the essays about race and class, this effort to sift through my early experiences with gender resulted in me talking at length about who I am, and why. Wouldn’t it be simpler, and better, if we could move beyond societally imposed barriers and boundaries, drop the terms gender and sexuality and sexual orientation, and just call it who-I-am-ness? Or maybe just call it “me” and “you.”

The other thing I realized: I started out to pinpoint when in my life I first became aware of race, class, and gender-and-or-sexuality, and it turns out all three were at around the same time. Middle school, around age twelve. All three of those identity markers are socially constructed, and it seems they get constructed at around the time of adolescence (this would be a good point to clarify something; sex refers to the genitals you have, gender refers to how you view yourself and are viewed by others.) We get to middle school, and segregate ourselves by race and class in ways we never did before, not of our own volition. And within those constructs, we pick out a handful of people who don’t fit in and put them on the outside, to further define ourselves as insiders, like chickens in a barnyard. It makes sense that things would play out this way; adolescence is the transition between childhood and adulthood, when we are struggling mightily to come out from under our parents’ shadows, to become our own people and find our own identity. Pack mentality has a tighter hold on us during those years than at any time in our life. If we want to minimize friction centered on race, class, and gender/sexuality among teens, they need to be better educated –and their teachers should be, too. I thought we had made a lot of strides in that direction in the last couple of decades, but the evening news seems to indicate otherwise.