Sometimes an unravelling must take place before growth can begin...
Here’s a little reflection on my "embedded prejudices" so I can remind myself to be vigilant. To remember that these prejudices might poison my outlook, behaviour and language. (It is also an invitation for you to undertake a similar audit of your past, with an open heart and an open mind).
I was brought up in the 1980s, the first child of a white, heterosexual, middle-class couple in a small market town in Fife. For roughly my first dozen years, I experienced very little diversity in my day-to-day life. I knew only one person who had a disability (a fellow member of our local CND group), one family of multiple heritage and was never aware of having met a person who was anything other than straight, binary, and cis-gendered. (We can assume that I did know people who were LGBTQ+, but I was unaware that I did.)
My parents were open-minded, left-wing activists and together we attended anti-apartheid marches and anti-nuclear demos. They were totally supportive when I decided to create my own protest at school about Margaret Thatcher (“milk snatcher” - it was a personal affront!) and again when I became a vegetarian at age 8. I was taught to be welcoming of others, to speak up for the oppressed, to respect people regardless of our differences. I was taught to stand up for what I believed in, even if that meant challenging the “norm”.
However, even within this open-minded upbringing, I was taught that there were only two genders. I was taught to believe that babies are born either male or female, that boys become men and girls, women.
I don’t blame my parents for this. For one, they were by no means the most active in delivering this message. And at that time very few people were well educated in the fact that there is, in fact, a spectrum of gender, as well as people who consider themselves to be genderless or gender-fluid. At least my parents were non-prescriptive about what boys and girls should wear, play with, behave like, and say. But society made sure I knew those things. Toy shops, TV programmes, comics and magazines, books, friends, teachers, advertisers… they all had a stake in my education about gender.
It went beyond this simplification of a spectrum, too. It may have been as late as my early teens that I really began to understand different expressions of gender. But even then, in my understanding, it was always tied to sexuality. Those two things were inextricably linked for quite some time. Around the same time, I became aware that men sometimes “dressed as women” (as we thought of it). I reached early adulthood before I broke any further through these myths about the binary.
Gradually, over my adult years, I pieced together an understanding that gender can be fluid, can be non-binary, can be a totally alien concept for some. I learned that gender and sexuality are not connected. That gender expression (including the “gender” of the clothes we choose to wear) has nothing, necessarily, to do with whom we wish to attract, or the gender identity we know in our hearts
But it is important to remember what must remain - and that is the shadow of my learned assumptions about gender. The journey I have come on is something to celebrate. I feel so grateful to all those people who educated me (and continue to educate me). But I must stay mindful of these early-formed misconceptions. Because this will keep me alert to the possibility of some of those assumptions rearing their heads. I might hear a deep voice on the phone and assume it’s a man. I might see someone presenting as femme, and assume their pronouns are she/her. I am committed to staying vigilant because this is the only way to be sure I create spaces that are safe for all gender identities.
We all have some areas where we make assumptions or hold prejudice. We need to acknowledge these, with grace, before we can evolve.
Thanks to Stella Hervey Birrell for providing a sensitivity read of this post.