Identity

A blog on the concept of ‘Identity’.

It’s an odd thing, identity. You can have legal documents that prove it. It can, unfortunately, be stolen. One thing I firmly believe, however, is that it cannot be touched. Not in the truest, most pure form of the concept. Your identity is your own, and nobody can knock it.

 

Imagine, for a moment, a world of automatons. Everyone looking, sounding and acting the same. Hideously dull, isn’t it? This is why, when some balk at the term “diversity”, I feel a great swell of pity for them. To exist entirely in an echo chamber and a mirror simultaneously would be immensely boring. The world doesn’t work that way. Life doesn’t work that way. If it did, evolution would grind to a halt. Life relies on diversity in order to evolve and progress. To me, the greatest source of diversity among humans is found in the core of every person. Their identity. Every person is truly unique and it all comes down to their identity.

 

So, what makes up your identity? Let’s begin with the most obvious. A name. They’re important, after all. You come to know someone’s name and they know you’re talking to them when you address them. Seems simple enough, yet we can share names. I know plenty of ‘Davids’ my own age, yet have only come across a handful of them in my own teaching career. Names come and go in popularity, just as they can come and go by choice.

 

We’re given a name at birth, but some choose to change their name legally later in life. This can be for a number of reasons, all of which are relevant only to the person making the decision. Being happy with how you are addressed is important to our sense of identity. Introducing ourselves by name is our first point of contact with another human being. You never start a conversation with “Hello, I’m an engineer, my name is Ryan!” We want people to know our names, to know how to address us. Nicknames are, of course, an extension of this. Names that we’re happy to be called by certain friends. It’s also why name-calling can actually be more hurtful than we sometimes let on. It’s a name we’re not happy to be called and it feels like a dismissal of this first point of human contact. While this might seem like I’m making a point that contradicts my assertion that your identity cannot be touched, it is my firm belief that it is how we deal with others that determines the strength of our identity. You and you alone get to decide on your name. If someone calls you something other than your name, ignore them. They may think they’re talking to you, but you know they are not.

 

‘Dead-naming’ is when someone addresses a transgender person by their former name. It is a particular source of strife for the transgender community, especially when done deliberately and maliciously. The excuse sometimes thrown about is “You’ll always be (blank) to me.” Well, here’s the thing; you don’t get to dictate other people’s identity based on your perceptions. That person’s identity is theirs to determine and theirs alone, just as yours is for you to determine. Addressing someone correctly is a basic act of respect and it isn’t difficult. Remembering their pronouns isn’t actually all that hard either, but in the case of a genuine mistake, the important thing is to correct yourself as swiftly as possible. If your friend comes out to you as transgender or non-binary, show them you respect them.

 

My gender matches my sex. That’s my identity. There are some who feel that how other people identify with regards to gender and sex somehow impacts them in turn. The fundamental truth is, it doesn’t. When someone identifies as a gender that differs from their sex, it does not effect the identity of anyone else. My gender matches my sex and I am attracted to other people of the same sex. I identify as homosexual. If a transgender person identifies as homosexual too, this does not take away or lessen my ability to identify as homosexual. Facets of identity are not some finite resource that cannot be shared. There’s plenty to go around, and someone sharing a trait with you does not diminish you in any way.

 

We’re fortunate to live in a time when our understanding of human sexuality and gender is expanding (though sadly some seek to drag our understanding backwards). We’re giving voice to aspects of both sexuality and gender that previously went unheard. Just as a few examples, we’re affirming the concept of asexuality, where before we might have ignored it. We’re making the distinction between pansexuality and bisexuality. We’re beginning to recognise the spectrum of gender and accepting that some people are non-binary. I think this is a rather exciting time to be alive, and I only have pity for those who can’t see it. The concepts of sexuality and gender are as complex as life itself, and we’re only beginning the exploration.

 

Anyone who knows me will know how much I value empathy. As I said, my gender and my sex are the same and I am attracted to other men. That’s a big part of my identity. I can, however, more than accept that this is not how everyone identifies. As we’ve established, the very idea that everyone should identify the same as everyone else is not only absurd but downright dull.

 

Empathy, the ability to put yourself in the place of another and begin to understand how they feel, is vital when it comes to respecting the identity of someone else. I am not transgender, but I know plenty of people who are. I have not gone through what they have, but I can make an effort to understand. I don’t see any point in trying to distance myself from someone just because they identify differently to me in regards to gender. To attack someone over it just seems ludicrous and spiteful. That’s why, whenever possible, I make the effort to stand up for my transgender friends the same way I would for my other friends in the LGBTQ community when they are attacked. I stand against anyone who would attack others for simply identfying differently.

 

Why do some people attack others for being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer? Why is it some people see someone who differs from them and think them a threat, even when they aren’t? The answer is simple. Fear. Our ancestors learned that some things that are different might try to hurt you, and sadly, some people today still hold to this instinct even when it isn’t necessary. They are afraid that the existence of one identity will somehow eclipse or erase their own. If you hold fast to your identity, it cannot be touched by anyone. If you seek to dictate to others how they should identify, well, you can expect them to hold fast to their identity too. There’s an old phrase that really needs to come back. It’s ‘live and let live’. Imagine a world where, upon meeting someone who identifies differently to you, instead of putting up our defences or trying to change them, we said “That’s fascinating. Please, tell me more.”

 

Naturally there are other aspects to identity and the truth is, everyone has their priorities when it comes to this. Some people hold the country of their birth as being the core of their identity, whereas to some it’s simply a geographical happenstance. To many, the colour of their skin is very much linked to their sense of identity, whereas many hold their religious beliefs to be paramount when it comes to defining who they are.  Most people are proud of being something, and this is usually the fundamental source of conflict between us as a species. This raises one final question; is it okay to be proud of your identity?

 

Answering such a question could merit an entire blog, but if you’ve made it this far into this particular blog then I’ll be mercifully brief. Ultimately, yes, I believe it is okay to be proud of your identity. I am proud to be gay.

 

However, being proud of any aspect of your identity does not mean having to attack others for a part of their identity. All too often, the ones who cry “Am I not allowed to be proud of who I am?” are the ones simultaneously attacking others for being themselves. Too often, the right to be proud of yourself is used as an excuse for attacking others. Well, it doesn’t wash with me. If the strength of your identity rests solely on attacking others, that isn’t pride. It’s paranoia. Someone moving into your area who is different to you does not constitute an automatic threat.

 

I’ll leave you with that phrase that really does need to be used more.

 

“Live and let live.”

 

 

 

 

 

Love Matters

A brief blog on why homophobia is always so much worse than it appears.

It’s a terribly bad habit, falling into conversation online with homophobes. Over the last few months I’ve found myself embroiled with a few particularly unpleasant examples. While I maintain that is important to stand up to such people, both online and in real life, it can become tiresome. However, someone said something that really brought home the underlying mantra of homophobia.

 

In a thread all about same sex couples raising children, one particular Twitter user was asserting that same sex couples cannot be considered the parents of a child because they’re not biologically related. When I pointed out that many children are raised by parents not biologically related to them, and that these children love their parents, I was countered with;

“Love isn’t all that matters.”

That, perhaps more than anything else, was the most revealing comment. It’s the one thing that those who oppose the very existence of the LGBTQ community won’t admit to. They don’t think us capable of love, or rather, they want to portray us as being incapable of love. It’s the sinister undertone to practically everything they throw at us.

 

Love is an essential part of being human. We need it as we develop all the way through our lives. It can be romantic or platonic. We all need it, we want to find it and we are driven to feel it. Why then, do some people want to paint the LGBTQ community as being incapable of feeling love?

 

It’s quite simple. What cannot feel love is easy to demonise. Apply that to a person, or an entire group, and you can swiftly dehumanise them in the eyes of others. They become somthing ‘other’, ‘lesser’. Not only do they want others to see us this way, they have to see us this way themselves. It is the entire basis, the only justification they can muster for their fear of us. If we cannot feel love, they must be right to oppose us. They don’t want to think of us as human beings.

 

Their main way of going about this is to attribute only one thing to our existence; the act of sex. When they see two people of the same sex living together, that is all they see, two people who are having sex. Obviously they don’t approve of that, so they justify their discomfort by attempting to strip us of anything that might make us like a heterosexual couple.

 

They don’t want to think of us doing the dishes or laundry. They will not hear of us discussing our day at work. They don’t want to know about the arguments or the disagreements that all couples have. They can’t imagine us doing something nice for a partner who’s been going through a rough time. No. All they see is two women or two men that are having sex. You won’t see them thinking the same of a heterosexual couple, oh no. They’re obsessed with our sex lives and seem to think it’s all we live to do.

 

Naturally they don’t think we’re constantly going at it. Nobody has the stamina. The point is that they seek to define us purely by who we have sex with and disregard every other aspect of our lives that make us just like everyone else. The biggest of these being love. If all we live to do is have sex, in their eyes we are incapable of love. That makes us so much easier to hate.

 

Now, when you try and point this out, many will try to flip it right back. “You all define yourselves by who you have sex with, why else would you have Pride events? You want to be different but be treated equally when you’re not!”

 

Here’s the thing. We define ourselves as LGBTQ because we have been made to. Pride is necessary because we had to fight for the right to exist as we are. Pride is about love, and how we are just as capable of loving each other as everyone else. It is my sincerest hope that one day no one will bat an eyelid at seeing two people of the same sex living together. I wish we didn’t have to stand up for ourselves in order to prevent being discounted altogether, but we do.

 

This is the underlying tactic of those who wish to push the LGBTQ community back into the closet. They paint us as loveless and sex crazed. They apply it to every situation. They accuse us of being paedophiles when a LGBTQ person wants to work with children because they define us solely on the act of sex. They think it is our only motive for doing anything. They cannot, and will not, consider the possibility that we can feel anything but lust. Not sorrow, not compassion, not empathy, and most notably, not love.

 

Love matters, and there are those who are striving to convince others that we cannot feel it, simply because we are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In other words, ‘different’.

 

Don’t let them do it. Show them that love matters. Cherish it. Love yourself and love others.

 

 

 

No Return to Section 28

A defence of the ‘No Outsiders’ project at Parkfield School, from someone who lived through the ignorance of Section 28.

The purpose of school is to prepare young people for the outside world. Now, perhaps that’s a radical or unrealistic idea. I certainly know plenty of teachers who would say that such a goal is noble, but that sadly the real purpose of school is get exam results. However, for the moment, let us go on the assumption that school is meant to teach children about the world at large.

 

The world is a large and diverse place. This is far from being a recent development. The world has always been complex and anyone who pines for the ‘simpler times’ of yesteryear is deluding themselves. Put away the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, for they lie to you.

 

The point I’m rambling towards, if you’ll indulge me for just a little longer, is that there are those who are currently actively campaigning to turn the clock back on the education system and on LGBT rights, all under the guise of religious freedom. I refer of course to the recent protests at Parkfield School in Birmingham, which resulted in the school’s No Outsiders project being suspended.

 

This saddens me more than I can say. I grew up during the Section 28 era. The gagging order that prevented teachers from ‘promoting the homosexual lifestyle’. During my entire schooling, only one teacher ever even mentioned the fact that homosexuality existed. This was a passing reference to a playwright we were discussing. All lessons relating to relationships and sex were geared towards the idea that boys go with girls. One might even call it  ‘aggressive indoctrination’. Years of messages, all designed to guide me towards a happy, healthy, heteronormative lifestyle. Did it work?

 

Did it bollocks.

 

It took me until the age of 18 to come to terms with the fact that I was gay and to realise that there was nothing wrong with being gay. I was fortunate to have the support of family and friends, but the education system let me and many others down. A few mentions of the fact that other sexualities exist and I might have had an easier time of it. The truth is I was one of the lucky ones. When the word “gay” gets thrown around the playground as an insult and all around you are expecting you to be a certain way, the conflict inside a young person can be staggering. The harsh reality is young people have taken their lives because they have been unable to reconcile who they are with what society at large wants them to be. One person killing themselves rather than live with the supposed shame of being gay is one too many.

 

Section 28 has been defeated, but there is still a long way to go and this is no time to start walking backwards. There are those within the Parkfield Parents’ Community Group who have claimed that the No Outsiders project is ‘indoctrination’. Here’s a simple fact; you cannot persuade someone to become gay. You are either inclined or you are not. The true fear of many groups is not that schools will somehow turn their kids gay, but rather that they will teach them to tolerate homosexuality. The ultimate catastrophe for many of these groups is that these kids start asking questions. Who knows where it might end? They may even start thinking for themselves.

 

Again, it’s a radical notion, but this is meant to be the purpose of education on any given topic. The classroom is supposed to be a place of debate and discussion, where children learn to exercise their minds and form their own opinions. These parents, however, would seemingly prefer their children not to know of the existence of the LGBT community. Without debate and discussion, only ignorance thrives.

 

It is extremely unfortunate to see this setback at Parkfield, but I have to believe it is only a temporary one. If certain groups were to get their way and block LGBT inclusive education across the country, it will only lead to more young people taking their own lives. That’s the harsh reality that is mostly getting overlooked at the moment, simply because it’s something we don’t want to think about.

 

We cannot put our heads back in the sand.

“You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy …?”

The case against censoring ‘Fairytale of New York’.

In case anybody needs reminding, it’s Christmas time. The songs all over the radio and in the shops make it abundantly clear. The one everyone’s avoiding is, of course, Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas’ (I’m still in, as of typing this!) The one everyone seems to be talking about this year, however, is ‘Fairytale of New York’ by the Pogues and Kirsty McColl.

 

It seems as though, this year more than any other, the debate is raging over this song. One particular lyric is the cause of all the hubbub.

“You scumbag, you maggot, you cheap lousy faggot!”

Some appear to be divided over whether the word “faggot” should be censored. Shane MacGowen himself has now come forward and said he ultimately doesn’t mind if the word is bleeped out, even though there was never any offence intended by the use of the word.

 

That is why I’m stepping up to say that it absolutely should not be censored. By and large I have never fundamentally agreed with the principle of censorship when it comes to difficult issues. “Least said, soonest mended”, the age old proverb for pushing problems away in the hope they won’t bother us much longer. You don’t deal with the problem of genuine homophobia by censoring it, you tackle it head on and show it up for what it is.

 

That being said, anyone who believes that ‘Fairytale of New York’ is designed to encourage homophobia needs to take a good hard look at their priorities. There is no denying that ‘faggot’ is a term used for a homosexual man when offence is intended. However, the word itself was not coined for this purpose. It was never created to inflict offense, rather it was hijacked.

 

The word was originally used as unit for a bundle of sticks as early as the 1400s. Women who went about gathering firewood eventually became known as ‘faggot-gatherers’, leading eventually to ‘faggot’ being used as a derogatory term for old women. The perceived femininity of gay men is most likely how the term came to be the slur we immediately think of today. It also happens to be the name of a kind of meatball I’m rather fond of. My point is, language is a tricky thing and the moment you start censoring words you don’t like, you’re in dangerous territory.

 

I am not for one moment disparaging the feelings of those who feel strongly offended, even targeted when ‘faggot’ or ‘fag’ is hollered in their faces. I understand the hurt and the fear that causes. It is, however, because of that fear that we must not try to censor the word but rather rise up and truly take ownership of it.

 

The simple fact is, there are people out there who would very much like to harm those of us in the LGBT community. Physically, emotionally or politically, they’re determined to get us. The moment you try to tell society that they can’t sing along to a song because a word causes you offence, they’ve got you. You’ve just handed them a weapon. They know that word can hurt you. Don’t give them the satisfaction.

 

Words have power, but that power shifts. To some, words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are codes to live by, while to some they are dangerous buzzwords of no true value. ‘Pride’ means a lot of things to a lot of people. Some words have power because we allow them to. It is taken for granted that the word ‘hello’ is a greeting. If we were suddenly encouraged to take offence at the use of this word, we’d laugh. Why can’t we apply the same to ‘faggot’?

 

When someone does use ‘faggot’ offensively, their intent is pretty clear. Censorship does not tackle that intent. Education and a willingness to breach divisions can certainly help, though the sad truth is some people are just too mired in their prejudices to ever really change. A close friend might  hypothetically call me a ‘fag’ during a rare hypothetical argument and then feel terrible about it later, but believe me I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

 

I am not offended by words. Actions offend me. I am offended when a governing body seeks to strip an entire group of people of their rights based purely on their orientation. I am offended when people are attacked and killed. Those are the real issues that need tackling, not whether someone uses a word we might not like.

 

So in conclusion, the next time you hear ‘Fairytale of New York’, sing out “cheap lousy faggot”, loud and proud, along with the rest of the song. Straight, gay, bisexual, it does not matter. Words don’t belong to anyone in particular. Words are their own entity, yet ultimately have no choice over the meanings we assign them.