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?”
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.

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.