third thoughts: conversations about sex + identity

As promised, here are some "third thoughts" about my participation in Holly Donovan's comparative research on social interactions between straight and non-straight folks in urban and rural areas. 

For my first thoughts and second thoughts, if you haven't already seen them, follow the links.

To read more about participating in Holly's research project, check out her call for participants (PDF). If you live in the Boston area and identify as queer in any way -- or know someone who is and does -- do check the project out; she's still actively searching for participants. She mentioned particularly needing to hear from non-academics and people who hail from working class communities.

So. Now that the "signal boost" portion of the post is complete, on to my own further reflections.

we sat down to talk over coffee at Pavement Coffeehouse
Even though Holly indicated that the second-round interview typically lasts about thirty minutes, she and I talked for a good hour and a quarter (are you surprised? if you know me, you aren't surprised). Here are a few things that Holly's response to my project journal (see second thoughts) prompted in my own thinking.

Holly noted several times the way in which my journal observations "emphasized the positive." She was actually pulling that phrase from a section in my journal where I talk about a tricky interaction with someone who was kinda luke-warm about the lesbian relationship thing.  I was describing how I chose to emphasize the positive with them, verbally pointing out the steps this person made toward acceptance and thanking them for being willing to acknowledge my relationship with Hanna. We talked quite a bit about this, both as a conscious strategy for interactions with a potentially hostile environment, and also as something that simply is for me when it comes to my queer identity.

Let me try to explain (warning: it's a work-in-progress). As I've talked about in the previous posts -- and as should be overwhelmingly evident from everything I write about sexuality and relationships on this blog -- I experience my sexuality, sexual orientation, and sexual relationships in a really enthusiastic way. Because my sexuality is fluid in many respects, you could say that I didn't really have a sexual orientation/identity until I was in a relationship of my choosing. A relationship which I entered as an adult who was enthusiastic about being partnered with this particular person (Hanna). Prior to that moment of becoming part of a couple, I was sort of a blank slate, socially, for other people to read whatever the hell orientation they wanted to onto me. It wasn't an active component of my self-presentation until I wanted it to be.

So basically, by the time my sexuality became visible and people could react to it in more public settings (outside of conversation with intimate friends), I had pretty clear convictions about what was and was not out of bounds, and how I wanted to handle any resistance to who I am, who I'm with, and how I choose to enjoy my sexuality. I have two basic ground-rules for myself about handling less-than-optimal social interactions:
1. I won't be dishonest about who I am. This is largely pragmatic, since I'm terrible at dissembling. But it's also a decision rooted in my personal ethics. Since I can remember, the way my family (and later I, as an individual) chose to live has made some people uncomfortable -- even angry. If I had grown up trying to manage other peoples' discomfort about my non-conformity it would have been a losing battle before it began. Aside from the fact that managing other peoples' emotions is a) doomed to fail, and b) the worst energy sink ever.  So I just won't. I am who I am, and if that's a problem for someone then we're probably going to need to figure out how not to be in much contact, or simply put on our grown-up pants and deal with the fact we have differences.
2. Whenever possible ignore the negative crap and give a shit-ton of positive reinforcement for anything constructive. This strategy, too, stems from my childhood ... where I realized somewhere along the line that I could use my time/energy critiquing institutional education or I could focus on the instances of high-quality mentoring and learning where and when I saw them happening. I like this approach because it doesn't allow the opposition to frame the debate, and it allows you the freedom to focus on building the sort of future you want rather than constantly re-hashing how less-than-ideal the present it. 
"Ignoring" the negative crap doesn't mean pretending it isn't there, or letting it go without noting it and pointing out it's not cool. But when it comes to people-to-people interactions, particularly, I'd rather spend my time giving positive feedback for the good and a cool reception to the bad. The less attention unhelpful interactions get, the better.

So "emphasizing the positive" is both a manifestation of the social privilege and aspects of my personality that made growing into my adult sexuality and sexual relationships overwhelmingly positive* and a conscious political choice for how I think I'll best be able to use my limited energies and resources to effect change in less-than-optimal social situations.

Holly was interested in my reflections (which I wrote about at the end of my second thoughts post) on getting something out of living on the cultural margins. In addition to what I'd already written in that earlier post, we discussed how the experience of choice and agency which I describe for myself -- of being drawn toward non-conformity -- is different from the language of being "born this way," and then pushed to the margins by others who reject who you are. I actually don't see myself as choosing marginality (though existing on the margins feels familiar). What I experience myself choosing is the situations that will best allow me to flourish, that will best support my well-being as a person. Given the culture in which we live, I've discovered that these happen to be marginal spaces. It's been an incremental journey in a lot of ways, wherein I made a series of decisions about this and not that which have led me to a place very different from the majority culture. I didn't choose sexual fluidity and desire, didn't choose to fall in love with another woman, but I chose to recognize and honor that sexuality, that love, and make a space in my life for those desires and that relationship. I don't feel shoved unwillingly out of the mainstream -- I feel like I chose (am in the process of choosing) the life that works best for me and my partner, and the mainstream has sort of parted ways around us. It's not really here nor there, to me, whether or not my life path is ever "normal" or acceptable in the eyes of the majority.

Holly observed that I wrote comparatively about my experiences in Boston and in Holland, and asked how things would be different (in relation to sexual orientation) if I were living in Holland rather than Boston right now. I wrote comparatively about Holland and Boston in my journal in part because I know Holly's study is looking at regional differences and queer-straight social interactions in urban vs. "rural" locations. So it's not like I spend a lot of time comparing the two places specifically in relation to queer issues. But when she asked about what would be different, my first thought was It's less tiring to be myself here. Less tiring, because less oppositional. When I lived in Holland until 2007 I wasn't visibly queer, but I was more or less myself in politics, interests, and values. And living out those values, expressing those interests and politics, just took a lot of work. 

Or, at least, I learned to expect that when I opened my mouth (or when people with similar values opened their mouths) it would trigger the angst and the anger and the defensiveness and the soul-searching re-evaluation of values and yadda yadda yadda ad nauseum. Who I was and what I believed caused people existential angst and precipitated crises. It got really tiring. And boring.

So when I picture being in Holland now, on the one hand it would be awesome to be closer to the friends and family I know and love there. But it also just sounds like a lot of work: work to find a queer-friendly therapist, work to find a doctor who's cool with lesbian sexuality, work to advocate for same-sex spousal benefits (which, you know, currently illegal in my home state). All of which are just givens most of the time here. And that's on top of swimming up stream against the gender essentialism and anti-feminism and opposition to social welfare and any number of other issues that aren't directly tied to sexuality but are nonetheless about who I am and how I want to live.

I know plenty of friends and relations who manage to live and even thrive in that environment -- and part of me is envious that they've managed to build lives in a hostile climate. But I did that for 26 years and it's really nice not to have to right now.

As I myself observed in second thoughts, Holly noticed how many of my intellectual and social interactions concerning sexuality center around reading and writing (on- and offline). She asked what I look for in my reading and interactions in these areas. I didn't have any ready answer for her, other than that I've found the resources I do consult mostly by link-hopping and footnote following ... I identify a resource I do like, and mine it for further reading in whatever way it appropriate to the medium. I follow the network, whether it's a blogroll or a bibliography. At this point, I have enough sources of information that I can sit back fairly passively -- skimming my feeds, reading book reviews, taking note of workshops and presentations -- and monitor the flow of sexuality information that's being generated and analyzed by the people whose ideas and opinions I care about.

What sort of people are these? Well, I actually think a good list of criteria can be found in a post I wrote over at Harpyness about sexuality education and things I wish I'd known when I was younger about human sexuality. Those five things are a pretty good outline of what I'm currently interested in exploring, and the sort of attitudes about human sexuality I gravitate towards. I generally look for writing on human sexuality that's descriptive rather than prescriptive -- I like reading about how humans behave and why, and what they do that fosters well-being, rather than about how we "ought" or "should" behave according to some external set of rules (religious or otherwise). I prefer research and writing on human sexuality that doesn't presume human sex and  gender are oppositional and binary, and it's probably redundant for someone who's titled their blog "the feminist librarian" to say she wants her resources to demonstrate feminist awareness and to critique systems of oppression that constrain our ability as individuals to experience pleasure and wellness.

I don't really care how the individuals behind these sources of information identify sexually. I follow blogs and read books by people whose own experience of human sexuality ranges across the queer spectrum as well as falling squarely within heteronormative boundaries. I'll talk and think sex with people who are asexual, poly, abstinent until marriage, gay men, trans* folk, hetero married, celibate due to religious vocation, etc. At rock bottom, my only criteria are that a) you acknowledge and embrace human sexual diversity, b) believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sexual ethics, c) but take sexual ethics seriously as a topic of conversation; d) that human sexuality, to you, is seen as a potential source of human pleasure and connection; and obviously e) you enjoy exploring both your own experience of sexuality and the cultural narratives we've constructed around those personal experiences.

*I've been thinking since we talked about how my cisgender presentation made my smooth (sexuality/sexual identity-speaking) adolescence possible. In part because I'm reading a book right now about the lives of transgender people and the gender policing they experienced as teenagers. As a girlchild with parents who worked not to gender stereotype, I was given wide, wide latitude to be a person first and a girl/woman second. Feminism also granted me license to be myself, however I wanted that to manifest. This, in conjunction with simply taking myself out of the active dating/partnered pool, made a buffer for my sexuality to develop and space for me to discern what I wanted on my own terms. This deserves its own post ... so I'll see what I can do in the near future.

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