Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Straight? Gay? Bi? Or Complicated?

Growing up in middle America, a lot of my contemporaries didn't know any gay people until they were adults. (Well, realistically, they almost certainly did know some but, in the 1960s and 70s, people were a lot more careful about who they shared their secrets with.) I'm from New York City, Manhattan specifically, so I was exposed to more diversity in general. My parents were both in the theatre, and I followed in their footsteps for a few years. Suffice it to say, I had a lot of gay friends.

Still, there were shocking moments for even the most enlightened of us. I remember when my preteen idol Elton John came out — I didn't really care that he loved boys; I was just disappointed that he wasn't going to love one particular girl ... me. A few years later, the AIDS epidemic and its celebrity victims cast a spotlight on how many of our heroes were leading double lives. After all, if Father of the Year Mike Brady was a pansy, was anyone really safe?

Times have definitely changed. But, I have to remind myself that I've lived in a fairly rarefied set of circumstances all along. From show business to publishing, advertising and graphic design, and always on the more liberal east coast. By and large, my gay friends have been creative and confident. If they felt misunderstood or victimized at home, they left that behind when they moved to Greenwich Village or the South End. Or so it seemed to me. I'm still caught off guard sometimes when I hear a friend tell me about family members who won't see her anymore or another one getting beat up with his boyfriend on a weekend away.

I have to remind myself that no matter how nice their shoes are, I can't really relate until I've walked in them.

My daughter spent the early years of her childhood with all our friends — never distinguishing between the straight couples and the gay couples. In fact, one of our favorite stories is from 2004, shortly after Massachusetts became the first state to legally recognize gay marriage. She was asked to serve as a junior usher in the seaside wedding of two dear old friends of ours. She was thrilled and the day was absolutely glorious. When her daycare provider saw her again on Monday, she asked "Was the bride beautiful?" Our daughter stopped and thought for a minute, then said, "I don't think there was a bride."

Clearly, we made it a point to instill an open mind in our little daughter. But now, as she heads into her senior year of high school, I'm happy to report that her entire class seems to feel the same way. There are several "out" gay couples, who didn't seem intimidated at all about bringing the date of their choice (and of their sex) to prom.

It's great to see so much less "to do" being made. I don't feel compelled to discuss it with my daughter because she takes it all completely in stride. In fact, she recently educated me on some of the nuances — and vocabulary — that surround the LGBT community. We were in the car (what else is new?) and she mentioned a girl who was in the year ahead of hers.

"She's gender queer," she told me.

Say what?

She tried to explain and I found myself trying to relate it to the definitions I already felt so comfortable with. 

"So she's bi?" I asked. 


"So she's asexual?" I asked.


After a few fruitless minutes, she did what any self-respecting teenager would do. She pulled out her iPhone and quickly found an infograhic to help me understand. 'Turns out it isn't simply "straight," "gay," and "bi." There are actually four different elements of a person's sexuality. These usually work together in a fairly traditional way (a woman who sees herself as feminine, has a female body, and is attracted to men), but — in reality — they can also present discretely from each other. So, with three defined positions for each element, there can be 81 different combinations. And, to make the whole concept a little more complicated (because it isn't complicated enough already, right?), each element is a continuum.


My daughter patiently described the diagram to me. The different elements or attributes are:

Gender Identity
This is how you think of yourself, how you interpret who you are — regardless of hardware or sexual desire. (Watch "I Am Cait" on E! or the even better "I Am Jazz" on TLC if you need help understanding this.) You can identify as a Woman, a Man or Genderqueer. (Ah ha!)

Gender Expression
This is how you choose to gift wrap the package that is you. How do you act, behave, dress and groom? You can express yourself as Feminine, Masculine or Androgynous. (Just think of all those glam rock stars we grew up and it'll be more clear.)

Biological Sex
These are the parts you were born with: your organs, hormones and chromosomes themselves. As we used to say at work sometimes, "It is what it is." You were born Female, Male or Intersex.You have no say over this piece of the puzzle. Unless you turn to surgery and hormone therapy.

Sexual Orientation
This is the simplest part of all of this because it's the part most of our society adjusted to a couple of decades ago. What turns you on? You can be Homosexual (same sex arousal), Heterosexual (opposite sex arousal) or Bisexual (either/or is fine by you).

But, as I explained before, there are myriad shades of grey in these characteristics. The possibilities may not be endless, but clearly this isn't a situation of one size fits all. And what impressed me most was how my daughter and many of her cohorts take it all in stride.

I was also struck (and not for the first time) by how the tables have turned. I had my chance to teach my daughter about the world.

Now, she's teaching me.

If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to order a copy of my book  Lovin' the Alien at www.lovinthealien.com.

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