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Saturday, March 19

On Gender, Sexuality and Identity - Part 1

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This is a series of stories that is part of my own healing. I welcome you to read along, or not, but I'm going to write it anyway. I hope you take something good from it, and I hope I do too.

If you have thoughts of suicide, please call 1 (800) 273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Crisis Hotline, or call 911. Please know, admitting help is not a failure. Life can be beautiful, you just have to live it first.

Fun Fact: In elementary school, I had a fairly equal distribution of male to female friends, all of various racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Of my closest friends in elementary school, both male and female, slightly more than half (57.1% to be exact) would go on to “come out of the closet,” so to speak, later in life.

I find this fascinating. While it’s not an objective scientific study, it does shed light on my relationships with other children while growing up. This was not a conscious intention on my part.

I suppose I was fairly naive.

As I child, friends were other children or adults with which I simply got along. All I knew at the time was “boy” or “girl”; “old” or “young”; “nice” or “mean”; “engaging” or “annoying.”

Race was not a factor as far as relationship building was concerned, and neither was perceived gender. I say perceived because, as an adult, I know that biological, physiological and/or psychological gender is one that cannot be assessed on sight without further investigation.

As a child, I never played the “I’ll show you mine, if you show me your’s” game. In fact, I didn’t even know what a penis looked like until I was 16. So, as a child, if another child looked like a boy/girl and if he/she elected to tell me he/she was a boy/girl, I just believed him/her. Why would a child lie about that?

It goes without saying that sexual orientation was not a factor, either - because I didn’t even know what it was.

The naivete fostered quite beautiful friendships, I must say, as many of my friends have been my friends since a young age. I love them dearly. Hello, you beautiful people (should you happen to be reading this).

The question here, I suppose, is what made us gravitate toward each other? Why were we such good friends? What attributes fostered our relationship and strengthened our bond?

Most of the adults I knew were in heterosexual partnerships, including my own mother and father. I learned from observing the families of my friends that parents could be any sort of thing - multi-racial, single parent, divorced, re-married, adoptive, biological, foster, etc.

When I say I went to a diverse elementary school, I really mean it.

This continued into middle and high school as my mother encouraged my sister and I to spend our free time doing community service at local children’s homes and homeless shelters.

To me, there was no such thing as one standard for what a family should be. In fact, I knew very young that there were children and people who didn’t have families or did at one time and no longer do. Family was a fluid concept.

Nor did I get the cisgender (i.e. “gender normative”) social influences that some children (most children?) might have gotten. It was all a spectrum to me.

Most of my friends whose parents were still married had either stay-at-home mothers, or mothers that were secondary income earners to their husbands. My mother was the primary income earner in my family. She remained the primary earner until the day she retired. Furthermore, she worked as a Pathologist for the Department of Agriculture. She was a scientist.

A primary earning female-scientist-mother-wife was an anomaly in my observable world. In fact, only 29.3% of married women earned more than their husbands in a dual-income household as recently as 2013. Only 17.7% of women earned Bachelor’s degrees in Science or Engineering in 2011. That figure drops to 14.2% in Florida, where I grew up and where my mother worked. Of those, it’s likely that only 15% will go on to later be employed in a science or engineering occupation - and those are statistics for women living in this decade!

Imagine how unlikely it was for me to come across another child who also had a primary earning female scientist as a mother in the 1990s.

So, yes, to me, in my world, my mother was an anomaly.

Certainly it goes without saying that at this point Disney had yet to make a movie about a woman who was a scientist but also probably a Princess rescuing a man in distress living in hiding from his evil step-father, the King - who was jealous of his beauty - all while he sang with magical woodland animals and lived in the care of seven women with dwarfism who spent their days mining natural resources. The man, obviously, should be in an endless state of longing for a mate, preferably a Princess, that would make all of his dreams (mostly dreams about just, like, being married to a Princess) come true. (Patriarchy, amirite?)

Obviously my mother existed. Obviously other mothers existed. These were things I knew. I concluded very early on that mothers, more specifically women, could be quite literally anything they wanted to be - married, single, re-married, divorced, working, stay-at-home, Princesses, non-princesses, mermaids, humans, and the list goes on.

Quite a budding young feminist I was.

All that to say that my parent’s relationship was for the most part egalitarian. In no instance were they not equals. They shared cleaning, cooking and caretaking responsibilities equally. Both had jobs. In the one instance in which my mother was primary and my father secondary (finances), it and its significance went unnoticed to me as a child until much later in life.

My father was my primary caretaker and drove me to school, since my mother worked days and he worked nights. This was also an anomaly in my little universe.

I knew then that fathers, more specifically men, could be anything, too. But more importantly, I learned that fathers (men) were gentle, loving, and protective. Those were characteristics my own father had. My mother was the disciplinarian. Loving and protective in her own way, but disciplinarian none the less. Harsh, stern - a contrast to my father’s more gentle parenting approach.

My parents were not openly affectionate with one another. I can count on one hand the times I’ve seen them kiss or hug, and most of those instances happened before I was in middle school.

Though my father was a gentle parent, he was a far less delicate husband to my mother. He had, and has to this day, an explosive temper. Both of my parents can exhibit harsh temperaments when angered, but my father’s was and is characteristically explosive - 0 to 100 in seconds - and wildly unpredictable. He could be terrifying.

While he never directed that anger to me (and I mean, literally and virtually never), I witnessed a few incidents when he directed it at my mother. My mother could put up a good fight of her own though. The altercations I witnessed were primarily verbal, save for one which I won’t enumerate on here.

This affected me greatly, in ways I’ve just now come to terms with. My parents only fought in Bisaya - not English - which I could neither speak nor understand. I had no context to explain why they were fighting. All I knew at a young age was that they fought, and every time, it broke my heart.

My models for relationships, gender and sexuality were quite different from those of my peers. Because of this, I had little to no standards set for what sexuality in general “should” be. As a consequence, I learned to accept most things, so long as I didn’t see them as harmful, or hurtful.

A young Kristine knew only the following things:

  • Love was important.
  • Happiness was important.
  • When I loved people, and they loved me back, I was happy.
  • Love was always kind, gentle and accepting.
  • Boys could be kind or cruel. But the good ones were always kind.
  • Girls could be kind or cruel. But the good ones were always kind.
  • Both boys and girls could go to school.
  • Both boys and girls could get jobs - any job. I knew were male and female police officers, teachers, principals, doctors and yes, scientists.
  • Boys and girls, then, could be anything they wanted to be.
  • Families could be two parents, or one, or none.
  • Marriages could be happy or unhappy.
  • Marriages could remain in tact or end in divorce.
  • Parents did not necessarily have to be married.
  • A woman did not need a husband to have a child - I had friends raised by single mothers, and family members who had children before marriage. Even if I didn’t know sex was a thing, I knew babies could be a thing without marriage before I was 9.
  • Some children did not have biological parents, or they did at one time but they no longer did - they were adopted, or in foster homes, or in the care of their grandparents, aunts and uncles, or older siblings.

By about age 6, and certainly by age 7, I knew my mother would no longer entertain my incessant questions about why the world was the way it was. So, I learned to just accept things as they were, but remained curious - a curiosity that has yet to dissipate, even in adulthood.

Before I knew it, I had all the foundations that would later lead me to the following conclusions:

  • Gender is fluid.
  • Sexuality is fluid.
  • Identity is fluid.

All that matters is that you are kind.

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