Teaching Empathy

“I’m not an empathetic person,” my brother said.

I saw my brother for the first time in nearly a year at Thanksgiving. We were discussing the Syrian refugees coming to America and he said he would not let any of them into this country because it’s their problem not ours. He shrugged and said, “I’m not an empathetic person.”

I do not understand.

How is it possible to be a human being and not be able to put yourself in the position of another human being? I’m wondering if empathy can be taught. For myself, I did not grow up empathetic and my world view was limited and circling around myself. I’m working on becoming a better person.

As an educator, I’ve learned to ask questions because a student should learn an idea on their own and not be fed my opinion (which can be wrong or misleading). But I’m not a teacher all the time and don’t want to be. I don’t always have students and the power that puts me in charge just because I’m out of college and the students are in high school does not make me qualified to teach empathy.

I think writing helps create empathy. I think that if you can imagine yourself as a character born out of your head, you can understand another human being, or at least know a few steps in the right direction.

I think reading helps create empathy. I can only hope to read more broadly about the experiences of those who I am not, whether through gender, sexuality, religion, class, ability or nationality. There is much to learn and billions of lives with stories which may or may not ever be told.

Please send me any thoughts on how best to become more empathetic. How do you teach empathy? Thank you for your thoughts.

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Queer and Going Home

While Thanksgiving is an incredible way to connect families around a shared meal, it can also be a means of stress, especially if you are queer and have not yet come out to your family (or extended family, friends at home, etc). It feels like you’re stepping back into the closet and closing the door.

Though I am not out to most of my family, I am deeply privileged for having an incredible mother who supports me. I recognize that this is not the case for every queer individual.

Here are some tips for passing the potatoes without feeling threatened to spill the beans.

  1. If you have an ally, use this person. Tell them you’re feeling uncomfortable and they can be a means of support to redirect awkward conversations about who you’re dating, your gender, etc.
  2. Reroute a conversation. Remind your aunt about how great her apple pie is. Ask your uncle about how his new job is going.
  3. Don’t be afraid to stop a conversation directly. If possible say that a question or a comment was hurtful or uncalled for.
  4. Keep your cool. Breathe deep. Know your limits. Excuse yourself for a moment in the restroom to collect yourself when it feels safe to do so.

This is not an exhaustive list and I know I cannot speak to all manners of experience.

Your health, mental and physical is a top priority. Happy Thanksgiving.

Happy National Coming Out Day!

I never know what to say on National Coming Out Day. On the one hand, I am incredibly privileged. My mother is the most supportive and incredible human being I could ever imagine. My friends, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, are accepting of me as asexual and homo-romantic. I pass as White, I’m cis, I live in a liberal city.

But I have yet to officially come out on Facebook. My Aunt as well as one of my Uncles are my facebook friends and I’m not ready for them to know I’m queer. My Aunt might tell my grandfather and I definitely don’t want him knowing I’m queer, especially because I’ll be home for the first time in months for Thanksgiving and I don’t want my sexuality to be the conversation of choice.

I joke sometimes that I think my grandfather suspects I’m not straight (i.e. a lesbian) because he’s made hints that it’s okay if I don’t get married. He knows I’ve never shown an interest in men. But when I come out to the rest of my family, I want to be honest. I won’t come out as a lesbian because I’m not a lesbian.

I’m asexual and I’m homo-romantic and I won’t compromise on that to make my identity simpler to understand.

Again, I’m privileged. It I were to come out to the rest of my family I’m sure I would still be loved. I would still have a place to live, I would still have employment, and I would still have people in my life like my mother who would stand with me.

On National Coming Out Day, I celebrate these brave individuals who take these steps though their lives might not be so certain on the other side. I celebrate those who are out and proud every day, showing that queer life can be normal life and that we are everywhere. Thank you to the queer community for all your bravery today.

Coming Out Part II

Theoretically there should have been a “coming out part I” but this blog was one of my ways of coming out as asexual. Now, I’m coming out as homo-romantic and it feels like I’m stepping out of the closet all over again.

Ever since I’ve defined myself as asexual I have also defined myself as aromantic because I had never fallen in love.

I knew asexuality (like all sexuality) is a spectrum, but I was scared that having vehemently denied being sexually and romantically attracted to anyone that if I were to reveal romantic feelings toward any gender I would be immediately thrown under the bus as “not a true ace”.  I feared  all the comments I would receive along the lines of “So, you are a lesbian after all! Why didn’t you just say so?”

But I told my mother about being homo-romantic and how one day I might come home with a girlfriend. She listened and didn’t question me. She took it in stride as just another aspect of me as a whole person who is more than her sexuality. Her only comments were to tell me as we drank tea and coffee in NYC a few days later:

Whoever you decide to spend your time with had better treat you right or else they’ll have to answer to your Bronx mother.

The next morning she told me she had a dream where I had brought my partner home and we announced we were getting married. My mother said that in the dream she embraced both of us and told us how proud and overjoyed she was. To celebrate she suggested we all make bread.

My mother is the most amazing woman I could ever ask to grace my life. She is a rock of support and I cannot be thankful enough for the love and understanding she brings to each day she graces. I know not everyone is lucky enough to have such a support system, but finding even one person in your life who you can trust can make all the difference in coming out. When you have such people in your life, coming out feels a lot more like stepping between rooms of your childhood home: you don’t even think about it.

 

“No, I’m not gay”…I’m just not straight

My mother is a wonderful person who cares deeply about the rights of every human being. Although she initially told me being asexual was a phase I would grow out of, she is now my staunchest supporter. She wants to ensure that I feel comfortable with my sexuality and am treated with respect. She works that this same respect is given to everyone as a matter of course. I am grateful beyond words.

But I spent time visiting my grandfather who believes gay people shouldn’t get married and says he believes so because that’s how he was brought up. I don’t think he understands that being queer is not a choice. And, even more unfortunate, he doesn’t think to question why he holds the beliefs he does. Like my brother, he believes that because he has a right to his own opinions, this right extends to saying whatever he wants. He has no understanding of his privilege as a straight, white cisgender man. And I knew my grandfather was conservative (he watches Fox News religiously), but when I told him his comments were hurtful he did not understand.

“How am I being hurtful?” he asked.

“I have a lot of gay friends and they do not have the same rights that you do–”

He interrupted and turned to me. “Where did you meet these people?”

“At my college. I have a lot of gay friends and they deserve to be married and have lives for themselves. They’re great people.”

We went on for a bit, back and forth and getting nowhere. He assured me that if he were to meet any of my gay friends (as if being gay is always as visible as a birthmark or a scar) he would still treat them with courtesy. I wonder if this is worse: closeted homophobia. It certainly feels worse to be on the receiving end.

For years now, I was certain my grandfather has been waiting for me to come out as a lesbian. I have never dated and never showed any interest in boys so therefore the only option for me was lesbianism, in his view. And after all these years he finally asked me the big question:

“Tell me, then are you gay?”

And I stared at him and kept my face blank. “No. No, I am not.” I came so close to following my statement and revealing the truth that No, I’m not gay, but I’m not straight either. 

I’m queer. I’m asexual. I won’t bring home a woman on my arm anymore than I will bring home a man. But I didn’t say any of this and, though I know how lucky I am to have my mother on my side, I felt shoved into the closet. My grandfather and my aunt are my only immediate family I have not yet come out to. I am fortunate that I can easily pass as being straight.

Still, I don’t think my grandfather believed me when I told him I’m not gay. He asked me later that day about when I would want to get married and I told him that I don’t want to get married. He didn’t press the issue then and told me it is my decision–though he would have been able to hold a lovely wedding reception. I was not surprised when he brought up the issue of my refusal to marry to my mother. Again, I see how damaging closeted homophobia is. I fear my grandfather will never see me the same way and, even worse, he will never tell me so and our anger and misunderstanding will simmer away under the surface.

I know I am not the only one to feel closeted and to be concerned about coming out. I know I am incredibly lucky to have my mother as my support network. I know I care about queer issues beyond my own sphere and this conversation with my grandfather really brought homophobia home for me. I am even more dedicated to advocating for queer rights because no one deserves to suffer under homophobia or any other type of bigotry.

A few months ago I spoke on a “Queer + [Blank]” panel  where everyone who spoke came from a place of intersectionality. I have a shirt from the event that proudly displays “Queer + [Blank]” and I have yet to fill in my intersectionality because I am afraid to wear this short outside of my campus environment. When the panel was first being publicized I did not yet know that I was speaking and I talked with a queer friend of mine about the design for the shirts. She is very open about being a lesbian, but she said she had to ask herself whether or not she would want to walk down the street and have everyone know that she is queer. I agreed, but I felt I needed to do buy this shirt because I needed to embrace being queer as an essential part of my identity.

I do not know if I will come out to my grandfather anytime soon, but I will not get married–even if it means I stop entirely passing as straight.

 

I’m Not Here for your Entertainment

As if I need an excuse to love P!nk any more than I already do. But the other day I received a message on my cell phone from my brother where he told me in simple speech:

I’m bored.  Entertain me.

It’s terribly insulting to know that someone you love only calls you when they’re bored. You become a child’s toy to be picked up and abandoned at will, serving the whims and happiness of another. This is the underlying message made to women daily, which just so happened to be proclaimed in its full sexist glory on my cell phone.

I called my brother back later that evening and told him that what he said was sexist and insulting. He apologized and he said he meant it as a joke. But even as a joke it represents ideas that are pressed into the brain that men and women may not even be aware they possess. I wonder if my brother understood why what he said was sexist or if I was just throwing out words that told him “you insulted me” without a good explanation as to why.

It was so easy to drop the subject then. He apologized. Why should I press the issue?

But I don’t feel as if I am viewed any differently by my brother or by men in general (if you can indulge me in a momentary generalization). The prevailing attitude remains that women exist for the purpose of serving men in any way possible. From the most blatant to the most subtle. And no matter the form it takes, it remains sexist.

So, for your entertainment I want to bring back P!nk who’s music is always a great reminder for me of a woman who has broken the mold and sings the truth about gender relations.

Tense Discussions

I post a lot of blogs about things my brother has said that have been offensive and sexist. But I spent this past week at home for Spring Break and I love my brother. The line between conservative and liberal is barely there.

Although it seems impossible sometimes to hold a conversation with him, as we both believe so strongly in opposing positions, we make an effort to not step on each other’s beliefs.  Our relationship is not built on political views. It can be easy to assign the opposition of your viewpoint as someone who is stupid, or misinformed, or even evil. It gives you a sense of justice and moral superiority. It’s easy, but that’s what makes it terrible. If I have learned anything from discussions with my brother it’s that his opinions are well thought out and grounded in his perception of reality.

If I want to be heard for my beliefs I must first listen to his.

Whenever my brother and I debate, we know we won’t come to any conclusions. We know we won’t change the other’s mind.  But when we can, we have a dialogue going, and I appreciate this. We love each other no matter where our discussion leads.

Not everyone is having these tense “discussions” with family members. When we argue with friends or even strangers the stakes can be higher. I just want to say that no matter who you debate with, try to see that your opponent is more than just his or her opinions. We are not limited to liberal or conservative as our only markers of identity.