New Year calls for self reflection: A Guide to Thinking Critically About Your Sexuality
A comfortable, acceptable queer narrative begins so: “Ever since I was a child, I knew I was different”.
I didn’t. In fact, I was explicitly taught otherwise. I knew I was loved. I knew I had friends, talents, and privilege afforded me a wealth of opportunity. However, amidst dinner table discourse concerning of travel plans, career, and university prospects, one element of my future remained relatively undiscussed: family.
It wasn’t that aspirations for family and relationships weren’t of interest in our house; it was that the assumption had already been made that my siblings and I would grow up, marry someone of a gender deemed opposite, and produce grandchildren in that order. Though I was raised Catholic, there was no anti-gay rhetoric present in our home. Nonetheless we, like countless families in the nineties and naughties, weren’t immune to compulsory heterosexuality (the assumption that everyone is straight).
Myself, my siblings, and everyone we knew growing up had been born, and while still screaming, subjected to a brief, definitive exam, then condemned to “the blue pile” or “the pink pile” for life. As we grew, we pink-pilers were encouraged to demonize the blue pile, and vice versa. Fraternizing with the blues in childhood resulted in ridicule from peers and oftentimes adults, who would accuse us of being “in love” or “boyfriend and girlfriend”. The ensuing shame led us to seek out a gender-specific social group, with whom we were to engage in gender-appropriate play. This was one of the first ways compulsory heterosexuality was employed against us in an attempt to prime us for life in a heteronormative society. A playground classic provides a chillingly adequate summary of the process:
Sarah and Gordon
Sittin’ in a tree
First comes love
Then comes marriage
Then comes the pair with a baby carriage!
The rhyme incited many an argument in my childhood, but they were like arguments with quicksand; the harder you fought, the worse it became. Defensiveness was misconstrued as affection. To this day, it ignites a feeling which, as an adult, can still only be articulated as “icky”.
Beginning between the ages of 11 and 12, somewhat contrarily, too much intimacy with a fellow pink or blue became a subject of scrutiny. Sharing beds at sleepovers was suddenly uncomfortable, and god forbid two blues touch hands for any reason other than a high-five. If something wasn’t to one’s liking, it was “gay”. Gayness was now worse than speculations of romance (gayness was considered perversion; straightness was at least love). Coincidentally, this was the year our rural, Catholic elementary school was required by law to provide us with a one-sided conversation about the birds and the bees. We were shown vague illustrations of two reproductive systems. One was designated as male and the other was designated as female. No one asked questions. Part of one belonged inside part of another, after marriage, with the solitary goal of conception. It was also the year the Civil Marriage Act passed, ensuring marriage equality in Canada. Regardless, when a student brought to school an article concerning homosexuality for analysis in media studies class, our teacher took it from his hands, held it up, and firmly told twenty-eight fragile preteens that this was not something they believed in. Our minds had been made up for us, and the fear of homosexuality began to outweigh the fear of being found out as consorting with those who possessed different genitals.
Segregation efforts remained largely successful until secondary school. It was then considered acceptable for the blues and pinks to intermingle. Both groups, with over a decade of training, were trusted to express interest in the (strictly) opposite gender. At the same time, queers and allies in America were fighting for marriage equality. Attitudes were changing. “Gay” was no longer an acceptable insult. If a friend confided in you that they were gay (never mind bisexual, pansexual, or asexual), you were to support them. It was expected that one was, in fact, born with a determinate sexuality, and that if it should deviate from the norm in the form of homosexuality, that was acceptable. The world was making its first, fumbling attempts at inclusivity by superimposing heteronormativity and genetic essentialism upon queers and their relationships. Once the acronym read “LGBTQQ+”. That second Q stood for questioning and, sometime around 2011, following the release of “Born This Way”, it vanished.
It wasn’t until June of that year that I began to question what I knew. I was fifteen, and it was a Sunday, and therefore I was at church with my mother and siblings. The priest’s homily was usually the only part of the service I found interesting, being riddled with improbable anecdotes and mortifying jokes. This time, things were different. It was the weekend of Toronto Pride. The priest began by telling us what we already knew: today, there was a parade in the city. Naively, I thought he might be headed in a positive direction. He continued, telling us that we shouldn’t be fooled. While sentiments toward the gay community were slackening, we were to remain steadfast in our beliefs. This was not something we believed in.
I whispered that I wasn’t feeling well and that I’d wait in the car. I didn’t look to see whether anyone noticed me leaving. When I got into the minivan, I switched on the radio, and reclined the seat. Staring at a juice stain on the ceiling, my mind filled with a classmate whom I’d grown increasingly close to over the past month. Yet again, someone else was trying to make up my mind for me. What did I truly believe? How many of my beliefs were my own, and how many of them were injections of my environment?
I decided It was time to put a stop to things. It was time to question everything.
In forcing myself to examine my thoughts and feelings in the context of what I was taught and how it was taught to me, I allowed myself to identify the beliefs imposed upon me by the patriarchy. Once identified, I could begin to erase them. As I did, I found I had the room to understand myself a little better. My closening relationship with the aforementioned classmate blossomed into a summer romance. I allowed myself for the first time to fantasize about a family for myself that included children with a woman. I loved myself more and more as I grew.
Therefore, I maintain that questioning is a crucial part of queer discovery, and one that shouldn’t come to a finite end. Having found such solace through questioning, I’m committed to self-examination as a lifelong process. The opportunity to do so cannot be taken for granted. Presently, we are born cocooned in compulsory heterosexuality, a mould we are beginning to break.
When my life arrived at a pivotal point in a church parking lot, I could finally begin getting to know myself. I wish to facilitate the same effect in others (without the employment of homophobic preaching, thank you, but no, thank you). To do so, I’ve devised a two-part questionnaire intended as a guide for those who are beginning their journey in a timely fashion, those who until now, never had a chance to, and those who wish to resist stagnation along their way.
To participate, you will need:
-Your wealth of experience
-A pen, journal, or recording device if you wish
Take the time you need to think about each question in multiple dimensions and expand as much as possible. Write or illustrate your answers if you’d like. There’s no rush. Some people will find some questions more difficult than others. Everyone moves at their own pace. With that in mind, you’re ready to begin.
Part 1: Early Experience and Beliefs:
This section is intended to help you reflect on the ways in which you may have been influenced by a heteronormative environment.
Consider your upbringing.
–What kind of romantic relationships were you exposed to as a child?
-What opportunities do you feel were lacking?
-Who did you admire? Who were your role models?
As a child, were you ever discouraged from socialising with certain children because of their gender, or from playing with certain toys?
-What was said? How did you feel?
-Who was providing the discouragement? Put yourself in their shoes. What do you think their motivation was?
-What kinds of play and playmates were encouraged?
-Who did you prefer to socialise with?
Think of a time when you would have liked to join an activity led by children who weren’t your usual playmates but didn’t.
-Describe the event.
-What deterred you?
Make a list of your favourite childhood books and/or movies.
-Try to recall as many details as possible. What kind of families were modelled in these books? What kind of relationships?
Do the same for the your youth/teenage years.
-How did your taste change?
-Did you see different relationships modelled then?
-How do you think these early examples may have impacted your own desires?
-How do you think more diverse examples of romance and sexuality in media could have benefitted you?
Think of yourself as the parent or caregiver of a young person. They confide in you about their first crush.
-How, as an intersectional feminist, would you handle the situation?
-What would you say to let them know that they’re loved and supported?*
-What questions would you ask them about their crush?
*Keep these words in mind. They can be a powerful weapon against internalised homophobia.
What does a heteronormative society have to gain from monogamous heterosexuality?
–Who tends to hold the most power in such relationships? Consider systems of oppression, especially capitalism, when thinking about your answer.
-How does monogamous heterosexuality, when applied as a standard, uphold the patriarchy?
Part 2: Relationships and Attraction: Have as much fun as you can with this section. Draw, write, and daydream your responses.
Think of the last five people you met and immediately felt attracted or connected to.
-What was the first thing you noticed about them?
-How did their gender (if known) have an impact on your interest in them? Did you notice their masculinity, femininity, ambiguity, other gendered traits, or lack thereof?
Imagine yourself at a bar and suddenly find yourself attracted to someone you wouldn’t normally be attracted to.
-How would you react? How would you feel?
-What would get in the way of you engaging with them?
Finish the sentence, “My ideal partner/partners is/are…”
-Consider personality, gender presentation, and role in the relationship. If you don’t see yourself as being interested in romantic or sexual relationships, that’s great too. If you feel like anything could fly with you, that’s awesome. You are awesome.
Finish the sentence, “My Ideal relationship is…”
-How do you relate to each other?
Imagine as many different relationship structures as possible.
–What appeals to you most? What would make you happy, happier, and happiest?
What do you need from friendships vs. romantic relationships?
–What makes a friendship fulfilling to you? A romantic relationship? Compare your two answers.
-What kind of people can best meet your needs in a romantic relationship?
As our awareness of compulsory heterosexuality as a tool of the patriarchy grows, so does our strength against it. In first questioning ourselves, we are preparing to mobilize against the harmful expectations imposed upon us from birth. There’s still time to heal, and by setting a standard for ourselves which opposes compulsory heterosexuality, we may live to see heteronormativity dismantled.
Words: Siobhan McKay
Illustration: Bàrbara Alca