Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Night I Graduated High School


Graduaaaation night! Thursday, June 18, 2015.
Photo credit: www.katietrinque.com


The girl in line behind me - #42 - was freaking out. 

"I'm starting to get nervous. Really nervous," she admitted to me. She sounded shaky. 

We were moments from the stage, caps and gowns on, all lined up by number. I was #41 of about 80. Right in the middle, and apparently in the perfect place to talk someone down from an escalating panic attack. It was serendipitous. I can't find my keys half the time, but I manage anxiety like a boss. 

I reassuringly rubbed #42's shoulder. We had only just met a few minutes before, but when you're about to accomplish a life goal with someone, you tend to bond pretty fast. In the time we creeped up the line, we had done all but swapped spit and Christmas lists. I knew her story, she knew mine. And we both knew how important this was to each of us.

"It's okay" I said. "I'm nervous, too. That's why I have this on my wrist. I looked at it right before my last exam. I look at it when whenever I'm worried about my daughter. And I think we need to look at it right now." 

I lifted up the cuff of my gown to reveal the wrist tattoo I got last year. 

Breathe. 
Now, shine.

"Perfect," she said with a weak smile, and took a breath. I did, too. Others turned around in line to see what we were doing, looked down at my arm and spontaneously did the same. We all had a nervous laugh and faced forward again. It was almost time. People filed ahead of me one by one. 

And then, "Amanda Jetté!" they called from the stage. 

Breathe. 

They didn't even botch my French name. Impressive. Everyone in English Canada gets it wrong. I wouldn't have cared, but it was a nice bonus.

"Good luck!" said #42. I walked forward and the lights hit me. Shine.

***

The earlier part of the day was fraught with mixed emotions. I had gone for a hike a few hours before to sort them out, and pondered what it all meant with a rather tame deer who was grazing peacefully beside the trail.

"I'm feeling an odd mix of pride and embarrassment. How does that make sense?" I asked the doe. She looked up from the tall grass she was munching on and gave me a quizzical look before going back to eating.

"It's like I'm ashamed that I didn't finish this a lot sooner and I feel silly about being so excited for my grad at 38 years old. And yet I'm also so proud of me for sticking it out and finally getting it done. Did you know it took me eight different high schools to do this? Eight!"

The doe gave zero fucks.

"The funny thing is that I wouldn't rate this as my biggest accomplishment this year. But it feels so important. It feels like I needed to get this out of the way, like it was psychologically blocking me from moving forward. So yeah, tonight is pretty huge."

The doe walked behind a bush and disappeared. 

When it comes to therapy, you get what you pay for. 


***

"THAT'S MY MOTHER!" my eldest yelled from the audience as I walked across the stage in heels I was sure were going to be my downfall. They were not, but it was close.

There was so much clapping, but what I heard most were the cheers of my children. And when I won the English award a few minutes later, they cheered even louder. 

They're usually telling me they hate what I'm making for dinner, so I soaked that shit in. 

I could have done it quietly, but I graduated this transparently for them. I never want my kids to live in shame for being different or making mistakes. I want them to know it's never too late to do what's important to you. I want them to understand that you don't have to walk the same path as everyone else to live a wonderful life. My life is incredible, in large part because I took the road less travelled. 

It was never my plan, but it's been a great journey so far. 

***

#42 and I got up and danced on stage at the end of the ceremony. It was her idea, and I'm nothing if not an excellent accomplice. I figured if I didn't go up there that night of all nights, I would regret it - and I'm tired of living with regrets. 

You only get one life - unless you believe in reincarnation. And then you might just come back as a deer who has to listen to emotionally conflicted hikers. That's so shitty.

So here's to accomplishments, both big and small. And to last Thursday, when I wore heels on stage and didn't even fall on my face. 

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to dust my English award. Again.





Tuesday, June 09, 2015

"Don't Read the Comments"

Photo credit: "Soap Box" by MonsieurLui
Flickr.com 

Internet, can we talk?

Things got a lil' cray after Caitlyn Jenner revealed some stunning photographs of her fine self in Vanity Fair. Everyone had an opinion, and yours truly read a whole bunch of them in the comment sections of, well, everything everywhere.

There was talk of bravery and fakery and passion and privilege. People had a lot to say about this woman's big reveal - including, in some cases, about how they don't think she's a woman at all.

Thankfully, most of what I saw was surprisingly positive. If Caitlyn had been on the cover of a fashion magazine two or three years ago, I think we would have seen a lot more nasty.

But negativity did rear its ugly head. We knew that would happen, right?  It even found my own family.  One person insisted on telling me my daughter is a confused boy who is running the household, and another said I was a child abuser for allowing her to transition at such a young age.

So, you know, just another typical week.

That's what happens. The minute you put it yourself out there, even if it's for a good cause (like education or a fight for human rights), you open your life up for dissection by people who think they know you or your family better than you do.

So while I write articles for a living, I am regularly encouraged by friends and family not to read the comments below anyone's article or news item, EVER

But sometimes I do anyway. And while I'm not the most sensible person I know, I feel I have good reason to.

It's always been interesting to me that people who have no experience with something are so quick to pass judgment. I see it when African Americans protest, when obese people speak out against stereotypes, or whenever there's an article about homelessness.

People get a little snapshot of someone's life and BOOM! they've got them all figured out. They're suddenly experts on the big issues that person deals with, and are quick to point out what they would do differently if it were them.

It's not that everyone is an asshole. It's just human nature. We operate from our own experiences. We think we know better, perched atop our privilege.

And yes, it is privilege, a word that makes privileged people cringe. We don't like to think about ourselves that way. To us, privilege means someone doing better than we are. We think of the Paris Hiltons of the world. But she's an extreme example. Most people have some kind of privilege, even if we'll deny it to the bitter end.

In our privilege, where these problems aren't a reality, where we haven't walked in someone else's well-worn shoes, it all seems so simple:

African Americans should just change their circumstances ("I did. I went to college and look at how well I'm doing! Everyone can do it!").

Obese people should just lose weight ("It's not hard for me to eat well, so it shouldn't be hard for you.")

Homeless people should just get jobs ("If they worked as hard as I do, they wouldn't be homeless.")

But if we haven't lived in the inner city, have never struggled with a great deal of weight, and have never had to sleep in a shelter or stairwell, what life experience do we have to construct a soapbox from? None. We'd be constructing it from privilege, and that's a rickety soapbox, at best.

And if you've never been transgender or loved a transgender person with all your heart, how can you possibly begin to make judgments about someone who lives that every day? You can't.

I mean, you can, but you'll look pretty dumb doing it.

That's like me trying to tell a doctor how to operate better because sometimes I read WebMD. No matter how much I think I know, the truth is I've never operated on anyone (you're welcome, by the way.)

"But Amanda, calm down. Like just seriously relax. Everyone's entitled to their opinion! It's not a big deal."

You're right. Everyone is entitled to have their own views. And if I had a dollar for every time someone said that to me, I would have so many dollars that I might focus on how rich I am rather than how annoyed I get when people think opinions are no big deal.

I may not agree with everyone's opinions, but I wholeheartedly support their right to have them. However, I draw the line when:

1. those opinions are spoken for the sole reason of hurting others (the infamous troll posts of the internet, for example) and/or, 

2. those opinions are actually discrimination in disguise

An opinion would be "I like strawberries and you like raspberries. I think liking raspberries is wrong. That being said, I may not understand why you eat them, but I will support your right to do so."

Discrimination is, "I like strawberries and you like raspberries. I think liking raspberries is wrong. I don't understand why you eat them, and I don't think you should have the right to do so because it's different than what I do."

I see a lot of strawberry eaters online masquerading as people with "a simple difference of opinion."

That's why I read the comments (when I feel mentally strong enough to do so) and do my best to educate all the strawberry eaters on why eating raspberries is perfectly ok, too. Maybe they just don't know. Maybe they've only ever known people who eat strawberries, and the idea of a life outside of that is really foreign to them.

Look, I'm no dummy. I know I won't change that commenter's view. They feel so strongly about their love of strawberries and only strawberries that they just had to say something for the whole world to see. Often it's something hateful, to boot. That's pretty hardcore.

But for every commenter, there are about nine lurkers who have similar views. They just didn't feel strongly enough about it to say something.

Those are the people I might be able to reach. Those are the ones who, with a little education, might become allies one day because of something I or someone else said.  They may vote differently, which could change things on a large scale. They might speak up when they see or hear discrimination, which would change things on a smaller but equally important scale. 

And seeing me and others speak out against discrimination might be just what someone who is feeling hopeless and misunderstood needs to see that day. It could help someone face the day. It could save a life.

The internet isn't going to change overnight. People will continue to think they have all the answers to things they know little about, and I expect the love and support I show for my child will be seen as weirdly abusive by some for a long time to come.

But if we don't speak out, if we all just silently shrug and think, "Oh well. Everyone has an opinion. It's no big deal," we'll never reach those other nine people or the silently hurting one who needs a kind voice.

I don't know about you, but I want to be that light in the darkness. 




Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why Gender Reveal Parties are All Kinds of Wrong

Image credit: punctuated, via Flickr.com



 I hate gender reveal parties.

Yep, hate them.

And I know "hate" is a very strong word, but in this case it's entirely appropriate. I think they can be damaging by sending all the wrong messages.

Now before you get your hackles up, I don't have a problem with the people who throw gender reveal parties or the people who attend them. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and free choice. I still like you. But I just don't get this trend at all.

If you don't know what a gender reveal party is, let me set it up for you: The couple finds out what's between their baking baby's legs via ultrasound. They get a cake and have a bunch of people over. Then they cut the cake, and the inside is either blue or pink in celebration of what was discovered in those blurry ultrasound images of their unborn child. People get super excited and eat cake.

There's a lot of cake.

There are many different versions of a gender reveal party, some more elaborate than others. But what it comes down to is that the baby's "gender" is the central theme of this party. It's not a shower with pink or blue balloons and a few dresses thrown in with the baby bibs and lotion and receiving blankets. No, it's a full-on gender-centered hoedown.

I don't get it at all.

First of all, we're not finding out a baby's gender via ultrasound. We're finding out a baby's sex.

Sex is biology. Sex is what's between the legs and gender is what's between the ears.

So if we're going to get technical, it's actually a baby sex reveal party.

Yeah. That's right.

I guess that's why people don't put the proper name on the evite and instead call it "gender reveal."  But don't get the two confused; studies are clearly demonstrating that gender is in the brain. Most of the time, sex and gender line up. But they don't always and there's no way of knowing that when baby's in the womb. Therein lies the rub.

We live in a society that is quickly chipping away at the gender binary. We're starting to realize that not everyone fits neatly into a little gender box of boy or girl, blue or pink. We live in a world of Bruce Jenners and Chaz Bonos and Laverne Coxes - and my very own Alexis.

We're learning that people might be born one way on the outside but feel entirely different on the inside. We hear heartbreaking struggles of how they were forced into gender stereotypes for years, feeling like they couldn't be themselves because of the expectations society - their family, friends, neighbours, teachers, employers and the media - placed upon them their entire lives.

Hiding is an incredibly painful way to live. Trans and non-binary folk have the highest attempted suicide rate of any marginalized community. 

So why are we suddenly throwing these parties that have everything to do with boy or girl, blue or pink? We're setting the stage for gender expectations before the child is even born. We've come a long way in many respects, but this is like taking a giant step backwards.

From where I sit with everything I now know, having a gender reveal party is about as ludicrous as having a party to tell everyone your fetus is straight. We don't know a child's sexual orientation before they're born; we also don't know their gender identity. We only know what's between their legs. That's it.

According to Google, gender is defined as: "The state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)."

Read that last part again. Gender is about social and cultural differences. It's about who someone is and how they function in society based on their gender identity. 

So why are we declaring what a child is before we even meet them? Before they even have a chance to tell us who they are?

Look, I'm not trying to be a radical. I'm cool with people shopping for dresses or baseball hats, blue or pink sleepers, saying "I'm having a boy" or "I'm having a girl." I get that most kids won't struggle with their gender identity.

I have a trans child, so I think about this stuff more than most people do. But it's because I have a trans child that I can see how painful being shoved into that gender box was for her.  While we didn't have a gender reveal party, we did have a shower that was awash in blue everything. Society - including her family - treated her as male before she was even born, from clothing to toys to sayings like "little man" and "big guy."

Pushing against that wall of expectation to be who she really is took every ounce of her strength. It nearly killed her.

Every month at our parent support group there are more and more families coming in for the first time. Our children's hospital's Gender Diversity Clinic is growing at a ridiculous pace, as more and kids step out of society's perceived gender binary and tell us all who they really are. Many waited a long time to say anything and are well into puberty by the time they come out. They just couldn't hold it in any longer.

The kids' parents are shocked, their idea of who their child is completely upended. I know that feeling. I had "boy" and "son" in my head for 11 years. Wrapping my mind around having a daughter took months. There was a lot of unlearning to do, in part because I, along with society, put too much emphasis on my child's gender.

As parents, we need to set the stage for conversations about gender identity early on.

We need to make it easier for our kids to talk to us.

We need to make gender less of a big deal, not more. 

That's why I hate gender reveal parties. They can set the stage for a lifetime of stereotypes and expectations. They send the message to family and friends that the child's gender is very important to the parents.

And even worse? They can eventually send that same message to the child.

That little baby might grow into a kid with gender identity issues, and see those pictures and the adorable blue cake and all the happy faces and think, "Wow. My parents threw an entire party to celebrate that I'm a boy. How can I tell them I'm a girl? I can't."

So please, expectant and new parents, be mindful of the expectations you're setting for your child now and throughout their lives. Make it easier for your child to tell you who they are than it was for ours to tell us.