Monday, June 8, 2015

Normalizing Our Experience

Trigger/Content Warning for suicide and homo/transphobia.
It starts when you're young.

So much of what we learn about the world--about "how things are"--is absorbed before we're ten years old. Before we're five years old, even. We learn about what reality is, what truths are inescapable, and how our selves fit into this patchwork quilt of a world. 

What we don't often get are resources for rewriting the rules if we happen to be born into a situation that presents lies as truths.

And as we've seen, living a lie can (and frequently does) kill us.

I read "Transgender Children's Books Fill a Void and Break a Taboo" this morning--a New York Times article featuring the growth of the trans-books-for-kids-and-teens movement and discussing its effect on kids today, coupled with adults bemoaning the lack of such materials in their own childhoods. The article, predictably, features a comments section full of people screaming about indoctrination and perversion and nooooo my children are going to be warped by the gay agenda. Most tragic of all, I think, is the common sentiment among detracting commenters that this is an adult issue and introducing it to children (or allowing kids to "be transgender" while they're still kids) constitutes corruption and damage to their young psyches.

Tell that to Leelah Alcorn

Well, you can't, because she's dead.

Her mother, in interviews about Leelah's suicide, expresses bafflement because "he was such a good boy."

Leelah explains in her suicide note that she tried to talk to her parents about being transgender and that their response was to declare complete denial, announce that God doesn't make mistakes, and send her to Christian counselors whose intention was (of course) to convince her transgender people don't exist. But she knew since she was four that she was a girl, and she didn't find out until she was a teenager that a word for it existed. Her suicide note says she cried in relief when she found out, only to realize she would never be able to be her true self because every other person in her life repeatedly sent the message that her reality was a delusion. And she couldn't live with it.

Trans kids and teens kill themselves at multiple times the national average, and if they do survive, they also become homeless at several times the national average. Even in the face of celebrities coming out as trans--Chaz Bono, Caitlyn Jenner--all these kids hear is "that's disgusting" and "they're turning themselves into medical experiments--they will never be REAL men/women" and "these are deeply disturbed individuals." Even in places where being trans is marginally accepted, this is an everyday part of their lives. They are literally unable to say they are transgender without some stranger barging in and bleating about how their gender identity is not valid.

Enter kids' books about trans experience.
In Jazz Jennings's book about being a trans girl--designed for children--she frankly discusses her trans experience in the context of a happy, satisfying childhood. And of course, as soon as you say the word transgender, immediately you have people shrieking "WHOA WHOA WHOA, how do you justify introducing this adult subject to kids?"

Being a girl isn't an adult subject. Being a boy isn't an adult subject. Being a gender that isn't boy or girl, or being no gender at all, isn't an adult subject. It's not about erotica. It's not about adult relationships. It's not explicit and doesn't contain explicit language. It is about a thing that happens in our world, and there is a child-friendly way to describe it. Jazz's book demonstrates that. It's adults with an anti-LGBT agenda who are slapping all LGBT subjects with warnings about adult material.

But that's not really their problem with it. It's never actually about what's safe for children, because they certainly don't seem to have similar problems with child-centric books that bring up other very adult subjects, like--for instance--war. We can have a book about someone whose parent is a soldier and these same people will wave flags and praise its patriotism and dump accolades all over the place for a sensitive portrayal of a difficult situation, even though your parent might die is indisputably an uncomfortable and disturbing part of these children's reality. And you know, you're even allowed to acknowledge the reality of straight relationships--showing a mommy and daddy who love each other and kiss on the lips, or showing a storybook prince pursuing a princess and "winning" her hand in marriage. 

Even though these straight relationships clearly imply that the couple probably has sex within their marriage union, people don't lose sleep over it, because they're not actually talking about the sex that probably happens within the context of the book. LGBT children's books are exactly the same way when it comes to explicit subjects, but this is drowned out by cries of NOOOOOO MY CHILDREN SHOULD NOT BE SUBJECTED TO GROWN-UP TOPICS. Well, these people are the ones injecting those "adult" associations with these topics, and doing their very best to attach as much shame and disgust to them as they can so children will learn to find them repugnant. (Which of course is especially damaging if the subject applies to them personally.)

Like it or not, some people in our world are LGBT. I don't know what we can really do to change people's minds about its being wrong or against someone's religion, but I do know that there are tons of people who do not have religious hangups on this subject who nevertheless think these topics are inappropriate for children. But people who are LGBT need to see themselves in media if they're going to understand themselves as belonging in the world--and not just as tragic characters or comic relief to someone else's "real" life--and people who are not LGBT need to see these LGBT media representatives in context so they know it's a real thing that exists in their universe.

Media needs to normalize our experience. Show us examples of others thinking and feeling how we do. Reflect the world how it is instead of hiding certain parts of it that the people who distribute the media think isn't fit for consumption. These attitudes kill our kids and instill those who survive with shame they often spend their adult lives shedding. These attitudes teach non-LGBT people that it's okay to brutalize and mock LGBT people and that they exist to be laughed at (or, conversely but still uncharitably, they are portrayed as something to pity or something to Teach Real Members of Society about Tolerance). Labeling these regular experiences of LGBT people as hush-hush until you're older--up to and including their existence--sends the very clear message that there is inherently something secret, something gross, something taboo, or something perverted about being a gay, bi, or trans kid. And this isn't a message we should stop sending just because it leads to so many kids killing themselves or living in misery. We should stop sending it because it just plain isn't even true.

We need kids' books like I Am Jazz. We need teen books like Some Assembly Required. We need celebrities making a big deal out of coming out and celebrities who don't make a big deal out of coming out. We need to see Cartoon Network shows like Clarence where one of the main characters just happens to have two moms. We need more casual queerness both in the background and the foreground so it doesn't always read like an Issue no matter where we see it--so it can be on TV and in books the way it is in real life. So people whose identities are developing can see it normalized and as acceptable--not as something you can't have the mental abilities to "decide" until you're an adult. There is not a switch that flips on at age eighteen that suddenly enables teens to figure out their identities responsibly if those identities have not been fostered throughout the most formative years of their lives.

Fostering them requires creating and distributing and allowing access to media that reflects who they are. Do not push these concepts into a dark corner that poisons them with ideas of secrets and inappropriateness which will continue into their adulthood too. (If they're lucky enough to live to that adulthood.) If you don't understand why this is so important to LGBT people, just admit you don't understand, and then do what most people learn to do in similar situations: LISTEN. You listen, don't just say you don't get it and conclude that they should shut up because you can't conceptualize their desperation.

These messages are necessary for LGBT children and teens, but they are important for you non-LGBT people too. Listen to what they're telling you. And if you refuse to do so, don't wonder what went wrong if they never talk to you about it again--one way or the other.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! On second thought, YAAAAASSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!