The Casual Language of Sexism and Homophobia

For the past week I was chaperoning a dizzying tour of colleges in PA. But instead of leaving with a flavor for each school, I left with the muddy taste sexism and homophobia crusting in my mouth.

I was a tour guide for my college, so I understand that when you’re giving a tour sometimes you’re coming up with your words on the spot. I do not think our tour guides meant to be offensive, but as a queer feminist, their language was hurtful and isolating, even while it was also mundane.

But when a female tour guide describes the all-female dorm on campus as “the quiet dorm because it’s all girls” what am I supposed to think?  First, these are women, not girls. They are adults. Second, women are not naturally more quiet or passive or reserved. These are harmful stereotypes of women being perpetuated on college campuses and repeated to high schoolers.

When the same female tour guide later says, “our school’s 60% female, but that’s not a problem” my first thought is, why would it be a problem? What makes a majority of female students on a college campus threatening or a dissuading factor for students to apply? Why aren’t we celebrating these women?

On a different college campus, a male tour guide (who expressly said he is a feminist, that he cares about anti-racist work and participates in community service) said, “I’m not gay, but I love that dean.”

I’m not gay, but…

And in an instant, a space which should be welcoming to all becomes hostile. Because I am a female. I am queer. And your college campus is suddenly a threat.

I spoke to both of these tour guides after the tour and let them know how their language was harmful. Please, speak up when you hear things that make you uncomfortable, whether it’s about an identity you hold or not. These small things, this casual language, must also be stopped if we are ever to address the larger issues of rape culture and more blatant homophobia.

Please, speak up so that public spaces can be our spaces too.

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Asexual (and queer)

I use queer as an ace inclusive term. Because the LGBT doesn’t include my experience (or the experience of pansexuals, demisexuals, and many others!) and when I hear LGBTQIQA, I feel like I’m back to being a first year student in college and timidly approaching the Queer club’s representative asking, “Does the A stand for Ally or Asexual?”

I’m done having to “come out” even in queer spaces.

Yesterday, at C2E2 (Chicago Comic Entertainment Expo) I went to the panel “Where are the Asexual Voices?” presented by Lauren Jankowski. Jankowski runs Asexual Artists: a blog dedicated to highlighting asexual art and artists, so anyone on the ace spectrum knows they are not alone in the creative process. Our work matters and our sexual orientation should be celebrated.

7155e1d6b8c14e380dbc6f4f233b9d57And while I’m openly queer online and have published essays about coming out as asexual and my asexual experience in Wilde Magazine and Voices and Visions (available to read for free), I identify as queer in most online spaces. I identify as queer and not ace.

If I say I’m queer you can assume I’m a lesbian and I won’t have to correct you. If you assume I’m a lesbian you assume you understand my sexual orientation and do not ask further questions.

I fear going back to high school, when I didn’t have the language to say I’m asexual and instead floundered through conversations about how I didn’t understand crushes and had no desire for a boyfriend or to have my first kiss. And even well intentioned friends told me, “You just haven’t found the right person.”

As an ace person, we face invalidation every day. We are not straight enough, we are not queer enough. We are infantalized. We are instructed on how to use a condom by ill-intentioned room mates in high school summer programs. We are outed at social gatherings as a spectacle. And I’ve put all this behind me because hey, it happened 4 or 5 years ago and I’ve also had incredibly loving conversations about being ace where my friends and my mother are respectful and show nothing but support.

But just a few weeks ago, I co-facilitated a queer ally training for seniors in high school and made the decision to come out as queer. And while I recognize the immense privilege I have in holding a job where I can come out to my students at all, it still felt like a lie or an omission because I did not come out as ace. I still fear the questions about my sexual orientation.

Being queer and not ace has allowed me to hide and cloak myself in a more understood and accepted term.

I’m done hiding. I am an asexual homo-romantic writer. I am asexual (and queer), but I cannot keep hiding under the queer umbrella.  I am proud to be ace.

Demonizing Teenage Sexuality

I work with high schoolers everyday. Other adults, snort and chuckle, pat me on the back and say:

“Ooh, that’s rough.” “How’s that going?” “Good luck.”

When I once failed to properly lock the staff restroom, a teacher who followed me in demanded I learn to  lock the door properly. “Believe me,” she said, “you don’t want one of them getting in.”

Them. As if high school students are dangerous animals and that just because we see them everyday doesn’t make them human beings. We herd them from class to class on a bell schedule to manage them. We place security officers in the hallways and the cafeteria to control them. We expect criminal behavior.

And because our school system does not trust young people to walk from class to class without, of course we do not trust them with their own sexuality. Yes, teenagers make mistakes. And yes, those mistakes are especially harmful when they involve sex and sexuality, because what is a healthy sexual decision and what is rape might not be clear.

So, let’s talk about it!

I grew up in liberal blue-Democratic Connecticut, and our sex-ed program only focused on STDs. While I don’t remember it being an abstinence-only education, in health class there was still no discussion of healthy sexuality. Furthermore, sexuality was heterosexuality (and allosexuality–not being ace) only. There was no way to be a teenager and also make smart choices.

Teenage Sex = WRONG.

This is especially challenging for queer students (promiscuous stereotypes, anyone?) and students like myself who are ace and might not even have the language to say so.

But what happens if we change that narrative?

Chicago schools have begun to institute sex ed as early as kindergarten in order to promote a healthy shame-free understanding of sexuality from an early age. As from thinkprogress.org said in 2013, not teaching accurate sex education

has led to disastrous consequences: damaging women and LGBT Americans’ sense of sexual self-worth, fueling the STD epidemic, and creating a moral environment where rape culture has flourished.

I am privileged to work one-on-one with students where I have fewer restrictions than teachers. I can question the sex ed curriculum and American sexual mores. One of the most liberating ways to do this is to not shy away from sex language. If it’s not a big deal for me to say “queer” “sex” “vagina” “penis” “trans” “cis” these words become a little more normalized. Young people then have space to consider what healthy sexuality means to them and how they can develop healthy and smart relationships. My expectation is not perfection, but it certainly isn’t failure.

I refuse to be embarrassed by high schoolers singing and dancing to songs about sex during a school dance. As long as there is no coerced sexuality or romantic conduct, I would not step in. If high school students are shouting and singing about sex acts, this might be the only place where talking about sex is a free act. And if we, as adults, are embarrassed or demonize this freedom, then shame on us.

We have clearly not created inclusive spaces in schools and youth programs where people of all sexualities and genders can discover what healthy sexuality means for them. It’s time to create those spaces.