Think of the children

“Hi there, I need to make an appointment for my 11 year old to see the orthodontist.”
“Sure thing. What’s… um… sorry, did you say your child is a boy or a girl?”

“No, I didn’t, actually. They’re gender queer, so they don’t identify as male or female. Their name is J and they use ‘they and them’ as pronouns.”

“oh, sure, fine, that’s perfectly fine, no problem.”

If the receptionist had gabbled that any faster I think her tongue would have caught fire. But it was a pretty good response, on the whole. Her anxiety was around making sure we knew she wasn’t going to be difficult about it. Sometimes it’s trickier than that.

To be honest, when J told me at 10 that they were gender queer I was really sad. Not because of the whole gender queer thing, which was just another piece of the puzzle that is our 11 year old. We are all puzzles of one sort or another, and you can’t fit a puzzle together without pieces that are the right shape. I’d be the last person to want to tell someone they should try to be someone they know they’re not.

She captures her reflection then she throws the mirror to the floor
Her image is distorted screaming, “Is it worth it anymore?”
No-oh-oh
Are you scared of the things that they might put you through?
Does it make you wanna hide the inner you?
Change your life – Little Mix

But J’s openness and honesty about their gender identity scared me, as their deeply protective parent (they have another very loving parent, but he is a little less “OMG WRAP MY BABIES IN COTTON WOOL AND PROTECT THEM FROM THE WORLD” than I am. Thank goodness.). Not because of their desire to be openly true to themselves. I applaud that with all my heart! But because I knew their life was going to be harder than it needed to be, because of the ignorance, prejudice, and rigid gender norms that seem to be clamping down harder than ever on our society.

Because of the rubbish like: “We can’t have unisex toilets! Because ARGH! Won’t somebody think of the CHILDREN???”

Well, let me tell you, I am thinking of the children.

I am thinking of the children who feel like they don’t belong, and have to make choices every day about how much to hide who they are in order to feel safe.

I am thinking of the children who are growing up thinking that the opposite sex are dangerous, different, and mysterious, when they are just people like us, being forced into boxes they don’t fully belong in.

I am thinking of the children like me, who went to a girls’ school and felt like a misfit and an outcast all my life, until I fetched up in the male dominated field that was Computer Science and finally felt a sense of belonging. I’m not gender queer, but gender segregation gives me a lot of trouble, because I always prefer to hang out with the guys.

I am thinking of the little girls who grow up with everyday sexism, believing there is some stuff girls just aren’t good at – like sport, technology, engineering, and building stuff. And the little boys who are told there are things they really shouldn’t do if they want to be real men – like cry, and nurture, and be affectionate.

I am thinking of the children – both gender queer and not – who deserve to grow up in a world where you are free to be who you are without judgement and without prejudice. Who can be born female and have short hair and wear overalls without being called unnatural. Who can be born male and like bows and dresses without being called anything other than their names.

I am thinking of the children who deserve to grow up to be whatever they want to be, and do the things they love, without being told that people like them just aren’t good at that stuff.

I am thinking of the queer children of my acquaintance who are loving, accepting, and embracing of diversity and difference. Who stand up to bullies. Who protect and love the people around them. Who set an example we would all do well to follow.

I am thinking of the children, and I wonder, sometimes, what the children think of us. I hope they are finding love and compassion around them, and I really hope that they are watching our mistakes and resolving to learn from them in ways we haven’t.
Because the children are definitely thinking, and that’s what gives me hope.

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I hate Christmas

I love Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun”, but it makes me incredibly melancholy, because the words are all about how much he loves to reconnect with his family, and how these are the people who will make his daughter feel safe as she grows up.

That’s not the way I recall my family Christmas. My Christmas was a time of emotional blackmail, shouting, and trauma. Every year it got worse. Every year I dreaded it.

That’s a thing of the past now. Mum’s dementia has progressed to the point that she doesn’t understand the concept of Christmas (or indeed relatives) at all. She is physically well cared for, and emotionally absent.

We’ll have a small family Christmas with my in-laws, and it will be low key and fine, but the ghost of Christmas past claws at my heart and I find it really hard to relax. The whole “peace on earth, goodwill to men” thing has a hard time being heard above the screaming inside my head.

I was in San Francisco for Thanksgiving this year, and I went for a walk in the morning, before visiting dear friends for lunch. I had walked in that neighbourhood the previous three days but Thanksgiving was special. People took the time to wish each other – and me, a perfect stranger – a happy thanksgiving. There was a sense of breathing deeply, and being kind to each other. For the first time in days the air was clear, and it seemed hearts were too.

Christmas here is like that. If you walk on Christmas morning you will see kids trying out new scooters and bikes, roller blades, remote controlled cars and kites. People wish each other a Merry Christmas, and there’s a kindness and compassion in the air that has otherwise felt particularly absent in 2018.

I am a big fan of compassion, but I tend to find it very difficult to be compassionate towards myself. I get frustrated with my Christmas angst, and rail against the tension that ruins my Christmas, and if I’m not careful, the Christmas of everyone around me. Every time I get grumpy I get grumpy about being grumpy, and that kind of thing gets out of control fast.

So this year I have a new plan. I’m going to listen to White Wine in the Sun, and I’m going to spend the time quietly contemplating all of the people who have made 2018 a delight for me. Although I have nominally been working alone, I have never felt so supported. I’ve made amazing new friends, done speaking tours, been to countless conferences, and both I and my work have been hugged at every turn.

New friends and old have supported me and my work in ways I never dreamed possible. I took a flying leap off a crazy high cliff last year, expecting to succeed or fail on my own merits. It never occurred to me that I might wind up crowd surfing my way into the future.

So if, like me, Christmas is hard for you, see if you can turn away from the trauma and contemplate the people who love and support you. Call them, text them, send them an email. Let them know how much you appreciate them. That’s my kind of gift – something to feel truly festive about.

100% yourself

There’s an awesome scene in Love Simon where the lead character, who is gay and struggling with how to come out, imagines what it would be like if straight people had to come out, instead of gays.

Mum? Dad? I have something I need to tell you. I… I’m straight.

There was an episode of Dr Who set in ancient Rome where Bill Potts, who is both female and gay, refuses the advances of a Roman soldier with some trepidation.

Bill: Right, listen, there’s something I should explain.
Soldier: What?
Bill: This is probably just a really difficult idea. I don’t like men…that way.
Soldier: What? Not ever?
Bill: No. Not ever. Only women.
Soldier: Oh! All right. Yeah, I got it. You’re like Vitus, then.
Bill: What?
Soldier: He only likes men.
Vitus: Some men. Better looking men than you, Lucius.
Soldier: I don’t think it’s narrow-minded, I think it’s fine. You know what you like.
Bill: And you like both?
Soldier: I’m just ordinary. You know, like men and women.
It’s the same idea. Taking what we consider “normal” and setting it as the outsider. The unusual case.
That appeals to me. This morning I was reading an article that talked about higher rates of depression in gay and bisexual kids from an alarmingly young age (as young as 10).  The researchers attributed the problems to feeling different. “As these differences emerge so early, we suspect that a sense of feeling different might affect mental health before children can even articulate that difference.”
This really struck a chord with me, because I’ve felt different all my life. I’ve had it relatively easy, because I am straight and cis, but in hindsight I probably was depressed for a significant chunk of my teens, because I felt so odd.
The first time I felt totally accepted and stopped trying to be someone I wasn’t was in my postgraduate office, where I found a group of guys (and yes, they were all guys) who seemed to love and accept me for who I was. In this nerdy, affectionate group I found my people.
But as we grew up and got married, something strange happened. The guys started having poker nights. And they invited my husband. Not me. For reasons I don’t understand – probably will never understand – I wasn’t one of the guys anymore, and apparently poker only worked with guys.
I had various conversations about it with various members of the group. Some professed puzzlement with the scheme, but not enough to challenge it. Most said it was because other members of the group wouldn’t be comfortable with a woman being there.
I was pretty upset. But a part of me accepted that maybe there was something about being together with a group of guys that would, indeed, be ruined by the presence of a woman. That, once again, who I was didn’t fit, didn’t belong. In short, I knew it was really my fault for being wrong.
But recently the topic came up with a new friend, who was outraged on my behalf. And when I said it was maybe fair enough, they actually snorted. “Right, because you play poker with your genitals.” And that set fireworks off in my brain. I’m not wrong. I’m just me. 
I used a gender neutral pronoun there because I can’t actually remember which of my friends said it. And I have, without setting out to, without even knowing I needed to, collected a group of people around me in recent years who don’t just accept who I am, they embrace it. Literally and physically. (I am a hugivore, and I am very well fed.) So it could have been any one of them.
I’ve found my people. If people don’t include you because of some aspect of who you are, then they’re simply not your people.
The sad thing is, for kids who are gay, or trans, or gender queer, finding their people can be much harder. Because they are a relative minority, and because many people who are gay, or trans, or gender queer, often have to hide it for their own safety, both at home and in public. So they might even have their people nearby, but because those people are in hiding, they may never find out.
That’s heartbreaking.
I think we can all relate to the intense delight of finding “someone like me”. Some years ago I met a female, former Computer Science Academic turned High School teacher who was so much my mirror image I am amazed there wasn’t some kind of cosmic explosion at that moment. Even after years of wonderful conversations, I sometimes still spontaneously combust when she understands some aspect of me or my feelings that I was sure was wholly inexplicable. It’s bliss.
Everybody needs access to that bliss. But to make that possible, we have to make it possible for everybody to be publicly, confidently, happily who they are. You can’t bond intensely with someone if you feel like you can’t be wholly yourself around them. And for that to be a thing, we need to stop taking other people’s identity so personally.
My gender identity is wholly my own concern. As human beings we love to be able to categorise things, but we need to be able to let go of those categories now, and give people the freedom to define their own. Born genetically male but identify as female? I will use your chosen name and chosen pronouns, because it’s important to you. Identify as gender queer? I will use they and them and get used to it, even if it takes me a while. Because it’s important to you. Why would I insist on branding you as something that causes you distress?
That is surely something no-one wants to be – a person who intentionally causes others distress. But by insisting on your own definition of gender, or by judging queers as “unnatural” (yes, people still say that) or even “evil”, you are deliberately choosing to hurt people. Let go of your discomfort. Let go of your definitions, and look people in the eye.
I think it’s time. Time we embraced everyone around us for who they are.

Women in STEM – Recognising that we have a problem

Today I’m doing yet another interview about Girls in STEM. I’m always glad to have my voice heard – as a woman in STEM you sometimes find you get shouted down, or more frequently simply not invited to the table at all.
I’m going to be answering the usual questions, so I thought I might prepare by answering them here.

What are your experiences as a woman in STEM?
I’ve been lucky, because I’ve been in a position to make the decision not to work with anyone who doesn’t take me seriously because I’m female, and that has been incredibly liberating. I don’t think you get that option in academia. Which means you have to accept that you’re going to have to work a lot harder than your average man, to receive a fraction of the recognition.

But it’s really important to have women active in STEM. As a result of my work I’ve seen the number of girls taking my subject skyrocket. I’ve had girls tell me I am their role model and their hero. I’ve seen girls go into Computing degrees and careers who would never even have considered it if it wasn’t for me.
I’ve had fantastic experiences like the Superstars of STEM program, and I’ve met amazing women who have taught me incredible lessons in feminism, resilience, and workplace politics.

I love working in STEM, and I want everyone to have the chance to find out whether it is something they would love, too. At the moment we are pushing too many people away – not just women – without even realising it.

What challenges or bias have you observed?
A lot of my challenges have been around working part time, which is not exclusively a female issue, but it is predominantly women who are part time. Policies are nearly always created with only full timers in mind. So I’ve had to fight to have my teaching load proportionate to my working hours. To have grants allocated to Early Career Researchers take into account career breaks and part time status, instead of simply considering number-of-years-since PhD completion. To get the equivalent meeting allowance as full timers. To get the equivalent Professional Development allowance. It’s not hard to take part time and career breaks into account, and to make all policies fair to part timers – it’s usually very simple maths – but it seems to be very difficult to remember to do so. So you have to fight just to get fair treatment. And that’s exhausting.

When it comes to promotion, it’s really hard to separate gender from personality and qualifications, but that’s also a trap, because it’s easy for people to tell you you didn’t get a particular job or leadership position for all kinds of valid reasons. And the curse of imposter syndrome makes this easy to believe. But when you see a person with a fraction of your experience and expertise handed a permanent role that you had to jump through crazy hoops just to get as an acting position (and which was then advertised out from underneath you), it’s difficult to see that as anything other than gender based. I’ve been not invited to meetings where I was the only one actually qualified to comment on the subject matter. I’ve been talked down to, ignored, and bullied.

One of the problems is that many men don’t accept that there is any gender bias in STEM. And when those men are in positions of power, it makes it really difficult to tackle the problem. We have seen robust, repeatable studies showing that the same CV is ranked differently when it has a male name versus female, yet perfectly rational, logical men will tell you that “of course that doesn’t happen here. Here’s it’s all on merit.” while sitting in a board room predominantly white, male, and over 50 (pale, male, and stale).

Some of the challenges are really subtle. I recently submitted a proposal to a conference for a Birds of a Feather (BoF) Session, and one of the key selection criteria for BoFs was how well known the people on the submission were. This is classic gatekeeping. If you’re not already well known, it’s hard to get a proposal accepted, which means proposals get accepted from the usual crowd, which, oh dear, turns out to be largely white, male, and over 50. When I did some stats on the BoF sessions from the previous year it turns out that BoF sessions were run by 84% men. 78% of sessions had no women at all. There were 48 sessions run by only men, compared with 3 sessions run by only women, out of a total of 78 sessions.

How can we fix it?
First and foremost, I think we need to publish our selection criteria, and our statistics. Right through from High School. We need to look at the percentage of girls in STEM at school, in undergrad, postgrad, academic positions, speaking at conferences, and in leadership, at every single educational and research institution. How many girls do we have coming in? How do we treat them? When do they leave? We need to make it mandatory to publicly report these statistics. Because then the institutions are doing it right serve as a counter example, and the organisations that need work have incentive to change. You can’t say “girls just don’t want to do STEM” or “women just don’t make good leaders” when there are thriving, successful organisations showing the opposite.

Every institution I know of that is failing to act says “We select on merit.” So, ok, prove it. Publish your selection criteria. Make your selection process open and transparent. Publish your procedures and policies, and LISTEN when people then show you all of the ways in which you are discriminating against various groups.

Don’t wait for women, part timers, people of colour, carers, or anyone else to fight not to be discriminated against. GO LOOKING for all of the ways in which you currently discriminate. Ask people. Critically evaluate your policies, and make them open to critical evaluation from others. Actively seek out the things that are inadvertently gatekeeping and ensuring a lack of diversity in your organisation, department, or event.

Ultimately we all need to recognise and challenge our biases in order to fix them, and it takes transparency and accountability to do that.

Lessons for the All or Nothing Kid

I’ve had a series of injuries over the last couple of years that have stopped me running, which has been unexpectedly annoying. I never expected to even like running, much less love it. My sister is a runner, and I was quite happy to leave it to her. I admired her strength and fortitude while privately questioning her sanity (sorry Jane!).

But my husband kept quietly suggesting it might improve my cycling… build my strength… and I am a morning person, so leaping out first thing and getting those endorphins is kind of attractive. I love the morning air, the morning light, the peaceful morning streets.

I can’t quite remember how I started, but I got hooked really fast. And, in typical fashion, I injured myself really fast too. My running career has been a cycle of running hard, injuring myself, and collapsing sulkily on the couch until the injuries heal. To be honest, it got a little old. And so did I. At 47 I have a lot in common with the Dad in Fowl Language.

 

So after the latest round of injuries, when my physio said I should try run/walking at 1 minute intervals, I sulked for a bit longer, and eventually gave it a try. I left the house sulky, grumpy, and convinced this was going to be the least satisfying run in the history of sullen running. And something odd happened.

I loved it.

My asthma has flared up this winter, after a nasty virus, but run/walking meant it was more manageable. I was out for longer, ran/walked further, and felt better. I wasn’t sore the next day. I started small (another challenge), built up a little, and still no sore bits! I’m only 3 runs in, you understand, so I make no promises or bold pronouncements, but it fascinated me that it felt so good.

I used to feel like every time I slowed to a walk was a personal failure. It meant I wasn’t fit enough, wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t tough enough. But somehow following physio instructions gave me permission to run in a way that feels vastly better, is much more sustainable, and with any luck might not lead to me hitting the wall.

My new job feels a bit like an endless run without any signposts or fitness trackers. There’s a long, long way to go and very little indication of tangible progress. So few moments where I can go “Tada!”. When I was teaching I had “tada!” moments every day. Every time I explained something and saw the “aha!” light in someone’s eyes. Every time someone submitted an amazing assignment. Every time a class discussion took off and flew.

Building a charity, working on changing the face of education – that’s no short term game. There are occasional “tada” moments, but mostly there’s one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. It would be easy to start running and try not to stop. To keep running until I hit that old familiar wall. But that won’t get me to the finish line (if there is one!).

So I’m trying to take weekends. To garden. To read. To breathe. And to run/walk in life as well as in exercise.

I can’t guarantee no injuries. There are always doorways and random furniture keen to leap out at the likes of me. But there’s sunshine, and flowers, and more to life than work, even for obsessives like me.

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Blindsided

Here in Australia it’s Fathers’ Day, and I was not expecting it to matter.

My husband and I don’t do the hallmark holidays, so our kids don’t take them particularly seriously either. We appreciate each other throughout the year. We do our best to recognise each others’ contribution to our lives, although, being human, we don’t always succeed. We don’t need a day on the calendar to tell each other that we matter.

But this year we were staying with my in-laws and, unbeknownst to me they had a formal Fathers’ day lunch planned.

And on Friday, by sheer coincidence, I drove past the restaurant, normally far out of my daily round, where, together with my sister, I saw my Dad for the last time before he died.

Throw in friends missing their dads, celebrating their dads, and preparing to farewell their dads, and the stage was set for an emotional blindsiding I was in no way ready for.

As regular readers will know, my Mum is dying by inches, slowly succumbing to dementia in ways that are profoundly traumatic, and simultaneously scare the crap out of me.

I’ve written many times about the pain and complexity of my relationship with my Mum, although I’ve never really gone into detail, but my relationship with my Dad was somehow more painful. I can forgive Mum, to some degree, for all of the pain, because I know she was mentally ill. My Dad, though, doesn’t have the same excuse.

He was, to be fair, dealing with Mum’s increasingly complex mental health, while dying himself. Who knows what was going on in his head? He was Mum’s primary carer and he was dying, and he couldn’t even have an honest conversation with us about what that meant, because the stability of his home life depended on him pretending that everything was fine.

In the weeks and months before he died he repeatedly threatened me with legal action – for telling his brother he was dying, among other things – insisted he was strong and healthy and going to live a long time (which we could see was a lie), and fought us all, anytime we said we were worried about him, or concerned about Mum. Going back through my emails I found one that insisted I wasn’t even to tell my husband anything about Dad’s health. Fortunately I’ve never been one to do what I was told. If I had tried to cope alone, as he wanted, I think it would have killed me.

My Dad, who was supposed, as a father, to love me unconditionally, withdrew his love often, according to the irregular ticking of Mum’s whims. I’d be cast out for transgressions both real and imagined. He rejected me to protect himself, and his relationship with Mum.

I know that many people suffer much worse at the hands of their fathers. Objectively I know I grew up safe, and relatively loved (most days). It could have been worse. But he was my Dad. He was supposed to love me unconditionally. And there were always strings attached.

So I’ve never been big on Fathers’ Day. “Happy Fathers’ Day Dad! I love you. Do you love me? Today? Just checking.” It’s a tricky conversation.

I loved my Dad. We shared a passion for music, a fairly twisted sense of humour, and a fascination for science that my Mum was never a part of. Which, I guess, is why his betrayal hurt so much more than Mum’s. Why, when he turned his back on me, it hurt so much more.

He had a lot to deal with, in those months before he died. He was fighting to keep Mum stable, get the treatment he needed, and not admit to being sick, all at the same time. Fighting to the point where the police were called numerous times, as we only found out afterwards. Fighting to to point where he would call us for help and then abuse us for “trying to interfere”. Fighting to the point where he was sobbing in my arms one minute, then telling me it was all my fault the next.

But he was my Dad. I miss him, and I hate him, in almost equal measure.

So I hate Fathers’ Day. I hate how other people have fathers who love them and support them no matter what. And I hate that I hate that, because everyone deserves that kind of love.

And I have it. I never had it from my parents. But I have friends, this year more than ever, who love and support me unconditionally. I have family I adore. I have the kind of family I got to choose – some related by genetics and love, some just by love – who I would walk over hot coals for, and who would do the same for me in a heartbeat. And I will move on, and maybe some day I will forgive my Dad. But for now, if you see me on Fathers’ day, just hug me and don’t mention it, eh?

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Is it wrong?

So much of my response to Mum’s dementia begins that way. “Is it wrong to…”

  • Wish she’d died before Dad
  • Wish she’d wind up in hospital after a fall or infection (because then someone might actually be able to treat her)
  • Wish she’d fall unconscious and not wake up (because she’d be happier that way)

But today’s the big one. It’s Mum’s birthday, and she is 80 years old. And more than anything, I hope she doesn’t make it to 81.

Is that wrong?

Let me tell you a little about Mum’s life.

She doesn’t know where she is, and keeps begging us to take her home (but she also did that when she was still living at home – waiting for her parents – dead these 30-40 years – to come and get her).

She bullies the other residents. One in particular she has taken a random but intense dislike to, and she is rude and abusive to the extent that the poor lady stays in her room to avoid the vitriol.

She doesn’t recognise photos of my Dad anymore – the love of her life, the intense focus of her whole existence, is gone from her memory, along with her children and grandchildren.

She is angry, afraid, upset, or distressed the whole time.

The staff can only medicate her by putting pills in her tea. She refuses to allow any kind of medical examination so the GP is guessing on diagnosis, treatment, and dosage, from a safe distance.

She staggers from bed to table, sits blankly clutching her handbag, surfacing occasionally to snarl at someone.

She is miserable. This is not life. It is slow, drawn out, torturous death. It is needless, unbearable cruelty.

The irony is that even if euthanasia were legal she would never have seen it as an option – not one to look reality in the eye, she was insisting my Dad would live forever right up until the day he died, even though we clearly saw his death marching on him inexorably. He was barely functional by the end, but even the week before he sent me an email berating me for my concern, and saying he was perfectly well and expected to live a long and happy life.

Terrified as Mum was of the dementia that claimed her father, there is no chance she could have admitted it was coming in time to prevent it with the only weapon we have – a peaceful, dignified death – even if it had been an option.

It fascinates me that we insist, as a society, on forcing Mum to live this miserable, traumatic life, but we do it by locking her, and others like her, away from the public eye. We refuse to countenance a peaceful exit, but we’d rather not look the reality in the eye.

Unless we are lucky and Mum turns out to have some undiagnosed health issue that eventually gives her the only freedom we can hope for, Mum will gradually deteriorate. She’ll wind up in bed, unable to feed or toilet herself. Unmoving, unresponsive, and undignified. Just as her own father did.

And this, we say, is out of respect for life.

But this is not respectful, or compassionate, or dignified. This is not life.  This is fearful, arrogant, and cruel.