Katie Green, Contributor
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Humans have been debating the definition of “normal” as regards sexuality ever since we climbed dripping wet out of the swamps and looked around in search of intimacy. In between conducting sieges, banging vengefully on each other, and finding other fun ways to be hurtful, our ancestors have loved and lived in a bewildering variety of ways. Look at the ancient Greeks, who practiced homoeroticism openly and with impunity, as their decorated pottery attests. The Romans looked askance at intimate relations between men but it was okay for women to engage in it, I’ve read. They had another hang-up: if women were raped, it humiliated the entire family, especially the male members, and was considered the women’s own fault. (Punish the victim is still a favorite playbook in many Middle Eastern quarters, not to mention closer to home. Sometimes the raped woman is disowned or even killed.) The Egyptian pharaohs reputedly practiced incest, marrying brothers to sisters, or fathers to daughters, to perpetuate the throne within the clan, although some scholars now dispute this in part because incest was frowned on for ordinary folk. The point may be, what was conventional or “normal” depended on where you lived, when you lived, and what your status was on the social ladder.
When I was a naïve, know-nothing kid, I assumed every family was constructed pretty much like mine, a harmonious nuclear family with heterosexual parents and children, a straight arrow father who was the Captain of the Ship (a phrase he actually uttered from time to time, silly man, ‘tho we all knew his ever capable, virtuous First Mate steered the course.) When I had a few more years on me and looked around with open eyes, I discovered a larger truth that contradicted my basic simplistic premise. Time passed, the full range of humanity was revealed, even in my tiny hometown. There were parents who beat each other and their children, there was incest, addiction, cheating and lying at the highest levels of county government. And there was one boy my age who was “different” from the other boys in his interests.
He was klutzy at most sports but wizard at the music keyboard, witty, debonaire, even then practicing up for a career in interior design. He was just Mike. Nobody snickered about him, certainly my parents didn’t, or if anyone did it wasn’t in my presence. Mike went on to have a star-studded career as a designer in Sacramento, being retained twice to decorate the White House at Christmas. He learned to ice skate well enough to be in professional ice reviews and was a paid organist at a church. Even when he was an adolescent there was far more good will toward him in the community than the inevitable unhappy moments when peevish peers clearly didn’t want him on their baseball or basketball team, and the more general acceptance set the standard for me from a young age. And when Mike made an undisputed success of himself, we all bragged on him, bathing in refl ected glory. Local boy makes good.
As it happens, there are scholarly studies that suggest a considerable rate of homoeroticism among the bachelor miners who populated the Gold Rush in this same territory of my youth in the Sierra. There simply weren’t enough women to marry, even if the men had wanted to, and so they constructed living arrangements that were a reasonable facsimile of family. These relationships may have been forged out of loneliness and shared interests and not even sexual. Who knows? Who cares? If it worked for them, it was always acceptable in our town from the 1850s onward and that could have influenced the acceptance of my “different” classmate into the fold.
As an adult I went to see a stunning exhibit of paintings of 19th Century Native Americans at a gallery in Southern California. One painting of a medicine man depicted him riding backward: the exhibit notes claimed both his career and the way he rode his horse were dictated by tribal custom as a result of his being gay. He also had to live at the edge of the village, apart from the rest of the tribe. This would seem to express a dual mixture of acceptance, even honor, as a medicine man on the one hand–and on the other hand of shunning, forcing him to live alone, a source of uneasiness in the minds of the others.
Animal biologists enjoy pondering idiosyncrasies of sexuality among the different wild species. It varies extremely widely and delightfully, according to what I read on line. I know we had a border collie who was what dog experts call “a shy breeder.” He wasn’t interested in the opposite sex, only in chasing frisbees or cars, ripping cornstalks apart on our walks through the fields around our property, or savaging the bark on the trunks of shagbark hickory trees in a sort of frenzy. His bark was worse than his bite, you might say, since he was an affectionate creature. Anyway you cut it, Dundee was peculiar, one of a kind, and perfectly adorable.
Might as well be blunt, the churches’ role in teaching hostile attitudes toward gender differences continues to foster conflict and heartbreak. Not all churches, (I don’t know as much about practices in synagogues, temples, mosques and what have you), only some. Because they are “Christian” churches, this is astounding, since Jesus constantly harped on inclusion and love, of never shoving anyone to the margins. At first his followers found his habit of hanging out with outcasts bizarre, and no doubt were weary of hearing about the Love Thing. It’s hard to rid yourself of old shibboleths just because some guru tells you they are outmoded. Tell me about it. How to break the cycle and think and act anew? I am still trying to love my neighbor as myself at all times and I’ve been at it (and failing) all my life.
A PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter was formed here in Plain a few years ago by the mother of a young man who, when he ‘fessed up to being gay, wasn’t allowed to take communion or be a member in good standing any longer in the church he grew up in. Having heard about PFLAG years before (it organized in 1973), when I saw a notice in the paper about the new chapter, I attended meetings and learned a lot. The woman who founded the chapter and her husband are completely supportive of their son, but many parents aren’t. Hundreds of kids in their teens and even younger, from all classes and castes, are literally thrown out on the streets to fend for themselves each year, guilty only of being themselves. A person in late middle age who grew up in Plain gave me a sheet with a list of LGBTQ+ kids from here she knew of, one of which was her brother. Most distinguished themselves as adults in various careers, some publicly owning their gender inheritance, some still afraid to do so to this day. However, one killed himself. None of this was openly discussed, apparently, save by the woman who started a PFLAG chapter, in effect saying, “Attitudes and policies have to change. Enough already.”
Are gender variations inborn or a matter of choice? As one gay friend says in disbelief, “If I’d had a choice, do you think I’d have chosen to be gay? The object of derision and scorn, disapproved of by society?” He, like many other of my homosexual friends is in a longterm committed relationship with his partner and such partnerships compare favorably in longevity with that of “straight” folk. Ironically, psychologists often say that a person without a healthy mix of both male and female characteristics lacks an ingredient necessary for being fully human. It’s tiresome to be around someone who is “all boy” or “all girl”, in my opinion.
Homophobes here in WI and in some other states have proposed a new law, banning transgender girls from competing in sports. Honestly. How many cases of unfair advantage on the part of transgender girls have been documented in our grammar and high schools? It sounds to me like a hot button, non- issue capitalized on to garner publicity for certain politicians and cater to sore losers, and has nothing legitimately to do with sports. It has everything to do with adding to the injustice and rejection felt by individuals who are gendered differently from “normal”.
From the pen of psychiatrist J.D. Laing comes something to ponder over your next glass of brew: “What we think is less than what we know. What we know is less than what we love. What we love is less than what there is. And to that precise extent we are so much less than what we are.” Them and Us 2.