A little while ago, I posted about an event I hosted titled “LGBTQ World Cafe” where I invited young LGBTQ people, a few of their straight counter parts and a PFLAG mum to come and discuss their experiences, ideas and opinions on gender and sexuality. I promised to post the results of the discussion here and while it took a little longer than I admittedly thought, I’ve now complied it below. I’ve also included some footage of the discussions to give you a taste of the atmosphere. We were a little awkward at first, but by the end of the night we were high with laughter and truly trusting and respecting each other’s opinions. The participants were just that incredible! Hope you enjoy reading and I hope there are plenty of points below that really encourage you to reflect and consider your own ideas on gender identity and sexuality.
There were three major topic areas we discussed (Sex & Gender, Labels & Identifiers, Homophobia). We began by recording several questions to do with each topic area (recorded on a whiteboard) and then separated into smaller groups to discuss these questions. The majority of the ideas were recorded on butcher’s paper covering the tables and some discussions were recorded on video. This is what came up:
SEX + GENDER
Our first topic was the subject of Sex and Gender. The main underlining question was – “How do we define our gender?” “What is a man?” “What is a woman?” In our modern society, where our views on gender and sexuality are changing rapidly and gender roles are beginning to be done away with, how much has sexism and stereotyping contributed to our definitions of gender? As one participant asked, “Is a woman someone who is feminine, looks after the kids, stays at home and is a man masculine…?”
So then is gender based on physicality? We decided the answer was no, as transgendered individuals have a gender identity independent of their physical sex. But then it was asked, “Why does it even matter?” “Why do we care if someone’s gender identity is different from how we expect it?” “Why do we find it difficult to comprehend when people bend the lines of gender or sit in the middle of a gender spectrum?” When in actual fact gender is an identity and it doesn’t necessarily have to correlate to your physical sex, and if it does consider yourself lucky. What we found was that western society has difficulty separating the two. Some Asian cultures have up to five genders, two of which correlate to our definitions, one that correlates to Intersex, and two that we just have no equivalent of. And there are many other cultures that have many other pronouns to use to communicate their gender identity. So why do we only have two?
Another interesting concept that surfaced during the course of the discussion was the double standards of gender, specifically when it came to the acceptance of LGBTQ individuals. During the discussion it was suggested that a small section of homophobic behavior could be attributed to the uncomfortable attitude many heterosexual men feel when asked to consider being sexuality attracted to a member of the same-sex. However, the attitude is changed dramatically when a lesbian couple is presented to them, with most men finding it sexuality arousing. Even heterosexual women find the idea exciting, whereas many are severely uncomfortable with a gay couple. Why is there such an intense separation of the two interactions? Perhaps females, being stereotyped as the more nurturing and tender gender, display physical affection towards each other much more frequently and more easily making the leap into lesbianism not as socially unacceptable as male homosexual behaviour (as men are often taught against the sharing of tender physical contact).
What I find the most interesting concept that arose during the discussion was this question: To what extent has sexism contributed to stereotypical views of gender and their roles in society? In a modern progressive society where it is finally becoming acceptable to change the historic expectations of the behaviors of men and women, especially in the light of women’s suffrage, perhaps much of the opposition to transgenderism and homosexuality is the stubborn attempt to stay in possession of what little residue is left of sexist ideals. This would certainly explain the intense homophobia many masculine women, feminine men and transgendered individuals encounter on a daily basis regardless of their sexuality. Ancient traditions such as marriage and sex are no longer solely dedicated to procreation and the survival of a bloodline. Therefore such strict homophobic ideals of heterosexual only relationships are almost irrelevant in today’s society. Yet such traditionalist views are slowly becoming a minority with education and exposure of the fluid and flexible nature of gender, sexuality and behaviour. As one participant said, “It is important to remember that we are on the cusp of a society in change, we’re at the point in history where the gender roles have finally been broken and different sexuality is finally being brought to light. In the future such ideals will be broken and everyone will accept that people love people, and all people are different and unique in their identities.”
LABELS & IDENTIFIERS
Another link in the key chain of ideas was the treatment of labels and identifiers.
The question was asked, why is it necessary to “come out”? “Why is the default setting heterosexual?” Who initiates these assumptions? Is it parents? Do parents subconsciously project a vision of what they hope their child will one day be, unintentionally including the kind of person they will one day marry in the process? Could it be movies and TV? Children pick up on these signals. Is it books, is it music, is it games, is it their school, their teachers, their friends, their neighbors, strangers? But we already know, it’s all of these. And these subliminal messages form a restrictive mental formula on being heterosexual. Which is great if you are heterosexual, but if you’re not this formula programmed into us from a young age has to be changed. And for some, it’s not easy. As annoying as it is we don’t receive a rainbow manual in the mail.
On this topic of labels and identifiers the World Café panelists found that for some, labels provide a kind of stability, a definitive way of knowing where people belong. But labels can be restricting. They often come with assumptions about your beliefs, your ideas, your opinions, your experiences, your behavior, your lifestyle, your character, your personality…. That can create prejudices even within the LGBTQ community against certain labels. And most of the time these assumptions are incorrect.
Throughout the blog I’ve been using the term LGBTQ (which stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer). This is to be inclusive to all the labels and identifiers in the community. And it is the correct acronym to use. But as was pointed out at the World Café, the acronym is constantly being added to, gaining more and more letters. And I think it’s great that we are trying to be inclusive and recognize these different identities. But you have to admit; it’s starting to become a bit of a mouthful. The question was, will we cover every possible nuance and combination there is, until eventually we are reciting the entire alphabet? Perhaps what we need is to redefine our definitions of sexuality and gender to recognize all the possibilities (including heterosexuality) and the spectrum that is it. And when you really think, the more we label ourselves the more we segregate ourselves from each other and the more the LGBTQ community continues to be “other”.
Labels often come with assumptions about your beliefs, your ideas, your opinions, your experiences, your behavior, your lifestyle, your character, your personality…. And sometimes it is the misuse and disrespect for labels that promotes “society backlash”. For example, many (including those inside the LGBTQ community and outside) consider bisexuality “invalid”, saying that it does not exist and those who identify as such are confused and need to “choose”. There are many other misconceptions and presumptions when it comes to this label and this concerning “society backlash” was suggested to be caused by the misuse of the label as many lesbian and gay individuals in the process of coming out reveal themselves to be bisexual first as a way to test the waters. Not only that, but also many young girls identify as bisexual to attract men, as many men find the idea of a lesbian couple arousing. Such misuse prompts disrespect and prejudice against those who are genuinely attracted to both genders; hence many who are bisexual choose not to label themselves as so.
This prompted another question for those at the World Café, to what extent are labels chosen for the purpose of communicating and are these labels chosen by society? Or what the individual choses to label themselves? As it was said during the discussion, “Labels…it works, and I’m happy using a label but it shouldn’t be me.”
The last idea that joins the chain is of course homophobia. Not content with just stating that it exists, the participants dived in without any prompting and proceeded to look the lion in the mouth and find out why his teeth were so sharp by uncovering the various reasons behind homophobic behaviour.
The question that was the most perplexing to everyone during the event was why coming out changes anything? If the individual has always had the sexuality/gender identity they just came out as having, why do some people suddenly change their opinion or attitude towards the individual once they know? Why does sexuality/gender identity matter so much?
While the extent of homophobia is increasingly becoming less present, it’s very existence presents LGBTQ individuals with the potential for an unpleasant and even dangerous encounter. It is commonly agreed that a broader picture of the possibilities of sexuality and gender identity is required to educate society of the normality of LGBTQ individuals. This means that openness, visibility and discussion are the most effective forms of education. However, a fear of the possibility of rejection and homophobic behavior makes this task difficult to accomplish. Many LGBTQ individuals wish to be open and visible with their identity but don’t want to “shoot themselves in the foot” (as it was said by a participant) by outing themselves in an unaccepting environment. Yet more concerning, is the knowledge that this issue may continue for the rest of an individual’s lifetime (as LGBTQ individuals are constantly having to “out” themselves to individuals) unless homophobia is eradicated.
Below is some footage of the final discussions for the night. We started a little awkward but as you can see, we soon were laughing hysterically. Hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
Thanks for reading! Please comment and add your opinion to the discussion. Let me know what you think!
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A thesis documenting the project’s findings is available for reading so email me at email@example.com if you would like to give it a read!
Check out the interview with Bunny Bennett from Steam Powered Giraffe! https://becausewearediverse.wordpress.com/2013/08/29/lgbtq-interview-with-bunny-from-steam-powered-giraffe/
Read Joseph Harwood’s interview here! https://becausewearediverse.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/a-chat-with-joseph-harwood-3/