Okay. I know I’ve been over and over this, but I still feel like I haven’t said it right yet. So I’m going to give it one more try.
It was while reading The Fatal Feminist the other day that I think I truly understood what was at the heart of the letter I wrote to my parents. I have gotten several comments on that post claiming that I was being just as intolerant as my parents by asking them to reconsider their religious beliefs. I’ve been called immature and selfish. I’ve read dozens of comments playing the Devil’s Advocate, asking why it’s fair for me to ask them to reconsider their views on homosexuality but not fair for them to ask me to reconsider my lifestyle. Thanks to this post, I think I can finally articulate an answer.
In her post, Nahida points out that the basis of morality in Islam comes from the concept of inalienable rights vs. civil rights. As she explains it:
The way the two spheres are distinguished is that the first does not require consent, and the second does. In other words, if you need consent to carry out an action, then that action is not an inalienable right. Whether or not you require the consent of another person is determined by whether you must involve them at all. If you wish to believe or not believe in a particular religion, that is an inalienable right, because it involves no one else. If you wish to practice a particular religion, that is not (always) an inalienable right. It often requires the consent of others whom you may affect with your practices.
Those who insist that they are practicing an inalienable right to religion when they refuse a woman contraceptives, for example, are by definition incorrect. They have the inalienable right to belief, not to practice, which is a civil right.
To me, this is at the heart of my conflict with my parents. And I think this is the part of the concept that is getting missed by commenters on my letter.
My parents have commanded me not to act upon my attraction to women. They do so because it is against their religion. Using the model quoted above, they (and several of my commenters) believe they are practicing their inalienable right to religion by policing my sexuality and the resulting expression of that sexuality. They cannot police my sexuality without my consent – meaning that, while they retain their inalienable right to religious belief (which, for the most part, does not affect me), they merely have a civil right to religious practice – one which they cannot enforce upon me without my consent.
Similarly, I have an inalienable right to be queer. My queerness does not affect anyone else. I have a civil right to date in a queer manner – provided those I date consent to being in a queer relationship. I do not require my parents’ consent to date in this way – therefore I am not infringing on their inalienable right to religious belief. Who I date does not directly affect what they believe. Again, they have a civil right to religious practice; that right does not override my inalienable right to be in a consensual queer relationship. In essence, they do not have the right to tell me who I can and cannot date.
By writing my letter, I am exercising a civil right: I am asking for my parents to consent to reconsidering their beliefs. I am asking my parents to consent to opening a dialogue on queerness and homosexuality. They are free to give or not give that consent as they see fit. I have a right to ask; they have a right to refuse. I cannot and will not control what they think about my lifestyle. I can only ask in the hopes that we might come to an understanding.
If my parents do not consent to reconsidering their beliefs – as is their right to do – then I have a right to exclude them from my life in order to protect myself. I am under no obligation to associate with anyone. My parents are a part of my life by my consent, and I have a right to withdraw that consent at any time and for any reason. There is nothing wrong with setting boundaries around my interactions with anyone, including my parents; if a person cannot be accepting toward my sexuality, then that person does not need to be included in my life.
This is not coercion, as some have suggested. This is merely cause and effect. If my parents decide that their religious beliefs are more important to them than sharing in the life of their daughter, then I will accept that decision. They are under no obligation to accept me, much as I may wish they would; I am under no obligation to remain closeted around them, much as they may wish I would. Cutting ties with my family is not a threat to get them to do what I want; it is a boundary they must accept as a response to their continued homophobia.
Ultimately, my reasons for asking my parents to open a dialogue about their beliefs on homosexuality are my own. If it is something I feel a need to do, then I am going to do it – regardless of what strangers on the internet may say. My parents’ opinion of me matters, whether it should or not. I have a rosy dream, in my head, of a world where my parents and I talk, and I get to have a voice and be heard and explain to them the life I live. In this dream they realize that the hateful and judgemental things they’ve said about LGBTQIA people over the years were not only hurtful to me personally, but also not actually in keeping with their religion’s teachings of love and acceptance for all walks of life. We come to an understanding, we start to build a trust between us… and when we talk, I no longer have to hide everything I think they won’t approve of. Our conversations will be about more than the weather, my pets, and my husband. We’ll have the kind of friendship I have yearned for ever since I was a child. We’ll have honesty, trust, understanding, and mutual love between us.
I know that dream is, in all probability, just a dream. I know that, in reality, it is likely that I will ask my parents to open a dialogue on this matter and they will either outright refuse, or I will say my piece and they will reject me, or we’ll get into a fight and leave each other worse for wear. I know it’s likely that I will come away from that conversation feeling like I haven’t explained myself well enough – feeling powerless, helpless, unloved by my family and unwanted. But if that were the case… I would be empowered to make sure it was the last time I felt that way at the hands of my family, a group that society tells me is supposed to love me no matter what. At the end of that conversation, painful and heart-rending as it may be, I could at least tell myself that I’d done all I could do. I could give myself permission to let go of that dream. I could create some much-needed distance between my broken heart and the people who don’t even understand how they’ve broken it.
None of this is up for anyone’s review. I deeply appreciate the support my original post has garnered, and I thank each and every one of you for your positive comments. And looking at it objectively, I have received far more support for my letter than criticism. However, the handful of negative comments I have received – some of which were hateful enough that I chose not to allow them to be published – have hit me hard and left me feeling powerless and inadequate. This is a difficult crossroads to face, and the last thing I need right now is to doubt and second-guess myself. As of today, I am closing comments on my letter and moving on in my writing. I ask that you, as my community, move on with me.
First of all, if you’re wandering in from Freshly Pressed, welcome and thanks for stopping by! Come in, have a cup of tea, and try not to pee on the carpet. No, really.
This is post is in response to a few commenters on last week’s post, who seemed to think that my disagreement with my parents’ beliefs – and subsequent plea for acceptance – was equally as intolerant as their rejection of my sexuality. Some of those comments were mean and hurtful, and got deleted. It’s my blog. I don’t have to read angry stuff on my blog. (Plus, I looked, and firstname.lastname@example.org is not a real email address. You get a cookie for using the correct form of “you’re,” though.)
Some others I responded to, but not as in-depth as I would have liked. So here is the whole enchilada, as it were.
I appreciate your honesty. I guess I’m wondering what tolerance looks like to you in the broader sense? Does it mean that people can no longer disagree without being ‘hateful?’ You say, “I will not accept mere tolerance” and I realize you are writing to a family member…but what about the bigger picture. Where is the line? By this logic, you are being intolerant of your Dad’s opinions. I do not mean to be offensive- its an issue I’ve been giving a lot of thought.
This is something that hits a personal spot for me. And I can totally see your point. If I had to boil my moral code down to a single sentence, it would probably be something along the lines of “No one should ever be forced to live according to beliefs they don’t agree with.”
Obviously, speaking in absolutes can get you into trouble – there’s always the devil’s advocate out there with the “Well, what if someone disagrees with the belief that bombing an orphanage full of handicapped children is wrong? According to your logic, that means they should be allowed to do it.” (No. Wrong. According to my logic, they are allowed to believe whatever they want to believe, but their right to bomb the orphanage does not overrule the children’s right live out the rest of their lives as in-one-piece and bombing-free as possible. Your rights end where another person’s begins.)
So I want to clarify something that seemed to cause confusion for a handful of folks, not all of whom were as polite and respectful as Lacey was: Never did I say I wanted my parents to stop being religious. Never did I say I would not love and accept my parents if they continued to live a religious lifestyle. In fact, I know full well that my parents will continue to live their lives they way they have for the past half a century or so. That is not the issue here.
It’s not the disagreement that is hateful. If my parents were to say, “We don’t understand what it’s like to be queer, we’re straight and that’s what makes us happy,” then that is a conflicting worldview with my own, which is roughly: “Living as a queer person makes me happy and brings me more fulfillment than living as a straight person does.” Those two ideas are in disagreement; however, neither one is hateful toward the other.
If my parents were to say, “We don’t understand what it’s like to be queer, because being queer is wrong and those feelings are sent from Satan, and everyone who is queer is disgusting and a bad person,” then not only is that a worldview that conflicts with my own, but is also actively hateful and discriminatory toward me.
Conversely, if I say, “I don’t get any enjoyment or fulfillment out of being religious, I’m atheist and that’s what makes me happy,” that may be in disagreement with my parents’ religious lifestyle, but it isn’t hateful. If I say, “I don’t get any enjoyment or fulfillment out of being religious, and people who do are crazy zealots and bad people,” then that is hateful and discriminatory toward them.
My parents’ faith brings them happiness. It brings them joy and fulfillment. It gives them a steady rock, a foundation on which to build their marriage. Why would I want to take that away from them? To say that, by asking them to reconsider their views on homosexuality, I am somehow forcing them to give up their entire faith life and religious identity… well, the term “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” comes to mind. If it makes them happy, then I am happy that they have it. I would never tell my parents – or anyone, for that matter – that it’s wrong to have religious views and they have to stop being religious.
But their rights end where mine begin, too. I have a right to live my life in the open. I have a right to make the decisions that are best for me, that make me happiest and bring me fulfillment. I have a right to protect myself from those that do me harm.
Even if it’s my parents.
At the heart of the matter is this: my parents and I, we don’t talk. I mean, we chat, but we don’t have meaningful conversations about the important stuff. And this journey I’m on, this path of self-discovery I’m walking down, is incredibly important to me. The fact that they don’t even want to talk about it – that they’d rather just pretend it didn’t exist so they can say they love me anyway – is fucking painful. I honestly think it’d be easier to deal with it if they hated me. Then, at least, I could convince myself that it wasn’t worth the effort. But I wrote last week’s letter because a part of me yearns to open up that dialogue, to state my case and make them see that it isn’t what they thought it was. To ask if they could ever love a daughter that was openly queer. To see if they’d come around.
And, if not, to walk away. Not because I immediately shut out everyone who disagrees with me, but because there comes a point where a relationship causes more pain than you can bear. Because loving myself means being strong enough to sever ties in order to stop hurting.
So there’s the heart of the matter. I can’t accept tolerance, because tolerance means We Don’t Talk About It. Tolerance means “Penny has a dirty little secret the family doesn’t talk about.” Tolerance means “Poor Penny is so misguided and such a sinner, too bad she’s going to hell, it makes me so sad because I love her so much.” Tolerance is “Penny posted on Facebook today about how much she loves her lady friend, and I felt it was my duty to tell her how wrong she is to be living like that and how I disapprove of it.*”
Meanwhile… acceptance means We’ve Talked About It, And We Don’t Agree, But We Respect Each Other. Acceptance means “I don’t understand why Penny lives the way she does, but we’re talking about it so I can try to see her side of it.” Acceptance means “This life makes Penny happy, and I trust that she is smart enough to make the choices that are right for her, and I will love her and be there for her in whatever way she needs me to be.” Acceptance would be “Penny posted on Facebook today about how much she loves her lady friend, and it’s kind of weird for me to read that but she’s an adult and I respect her.”
I don’t think that’s asking too much from a parent. I don’t think that’s asking too much from anyone who claims to love me. I am the only one who can decide what I need from the people in my life in order to feel loved – and I have the right to ask for that.
Whether or not I get it is an entirely different question.
*Expected results; mileage may vary
I am a bisexual woman. And that’s okay.
I look like a straight woman. I wear my hair long and conventional, in a natural color. I wear feminine clothes, high heels, makeup, lingerie. I’m femme. I have a husband (who fully supports this journey I’m on). And that’s okay.
I want to meet a girl. I want to look up and see her across the room, and feel like maybe I’ve been struck by lightning because suddenly my limbs don’t work properly and I’m all shaky and oh jeez am I making a weird face? I want that nervous crush, the excitement of awkwardly flirting, of testing the waters and navigating slowly from the safe bay of mutual acquaintance out into the open waters of friendship and the possibility of more. And that’s okay.
I want to have a girlfriend. I want to go on dates, go see movies together, go out to cafes and restaurants and bars and karaoke maybe. I want to snuggle and watch tv on the couch. I want to play games together, and take her on creative dates, and surprise her on anniversaries and birthdays. I want to introduce her to my husband and hope they get along. I want to introduce her to my friends and integrate her into my social circle. I want to be the shy new girlfriend at the parties she brings me to; I want to meet the people that are important in her life and gain their approval. I want to walk down the streets holding hands and not care if people are staring or not. I want to open my heart to her, and invite her in to snuggle up and get comfortable. I want to be steady and dependable for her, and know that she can be there for me, too. And that’s okay.
I want to explore a sexual relationship with a girl. I want that first kiss, the first time we get frisky, the nervousness and excitement of new lovemaking. I want to break all the rules and make our own. I want to create a relationship from scratch, one that fits the two of us perfectly because it’s custom-made. I want to try new things, new toys, new positions. I want to take my time discovering what she likes. I want to watch her lovely face as she responds to my touch, my body, my words, my kiss. I want to surrender myself to her, too, and know she’s watching. And that’s okay.
I want the fights, too. I want the disagreements, the days when we seem to be at odds, the nights when we’re just not feeling it and we end up talking for hours about what’s not working instead of sleeping. I want to work through problems, to step carefully through the landmines and pitfalls, to draw back the veil and see the parts of our hearts that are ugly, bruised, hurt, and tender. I want to put my trust in her, tell her about the pain in my past, hear about the pain in hers and hold each other through the darkness that comes with it. I want the deepening connection that can only come when we’re fully honest with each other – even if it risks hurting or disappointing our partner. And that’s okay.
I know that it doesn’t come that easy. I know that attraction is unfair, and finding someone is hard, and takes time, and that this perfect girl I have in my head may not actually exist at all. I know that I will have to date, and be heartbroken, and love and lose, and take risks that don’t pan out. I know that the more pressure I put on myself to find someone, the harder it is and the less likely it’ll happen. I know that I need to make friends and let it develop naturally, the way any other relationship does. And that’s okay.
I want to tell the world, to put my intentions out in the universe: I may not be fully prepared, but I’m ready to make a start. I’m open and looking. I’ve been longing for this for some time, and I’m doing my best to put myself in a position where it’s possible and simultaneously stay out of my own way. There is a guilt, a voice inside me that says it’s selfish, it won’t work, it’s not right, no one will want you anyway, what you’re looking for can’t be found.
But I want it anyway. And that’s okay.
I’ve felt for a long time that the name I was assigned at birth (let’s say it was… Jenny) doesn’t fit me. Jenny wasn’t a word that described me; it was just a label tacked on so people would know what to call me. It was a name that carried with it all the associations of my childhood, all the expectations of parents and relatives long before I came into this world.
Jenny is the name attached to the person my parents want me to be.
Almost exactly a month ago, I posted this brilliant post by Cliff Pervocracy to my Facebook feed along with a comment that simply said “Hey, internet, I think I wanna be called Penny* now. Is that cool?” The three folks who responded (none related to me by blood) all said that yes, that was in fact cool. Since then, my husband and the friends I see in person have been doing their best to call me by my chosen name. I’ve been doing my best to introduce myself under my chosen name. (Not making the change legal, however, makes for some awkwardness around the employment area. Still working on that.)
A couple days ago, in accordance with the New Year and fresh beginnings and all that, I changed my Facebook name. (It also forced me to put in my full last name, instead of just the initial I had in there when I started the damn account.) By the time I got up the next morning, I already had a message from my mother asking “Who are you and what have you done with my daughter?”
I replied that I was still here, thank you, just making some changes. The response to that was, “Don’t change too much, we like you the way you are.”
Maybe I’m snatching an insult out of the jaws of a compliment, here. I’m willing to admit that’s possible. But if I don’t like me the way I am, shouldn’t I be allowed to change as much as I deem appropriate? I don’t even want to ask how much is too much, because that implies that I care if I change “too much” for my parents’ tastes. Truth is, I don’t. They’re going to love me or not love me however much and in whatever way they decide. It’s taken me decades to realize that I don’t have control over whether or not they love and understand me. It’s not my responsibility.
I have a problem with “we like you the way you are.” The way I am is not the way I am – it’s the way they think I am. And that is a lie; that is a trap. The way they think I am is a prison cell, and I have been confined my whole life. It wasn’t until I moved away that I first breathed free air.
It’s for reasons like this that I sometimes resent our technological age. A hundred years ago, I could have conceivably cut all ties when I moved away. I could have run off to join the circus, literally or figuratively. I could make all the changes I want and never worry about whether or not certain people find out. But in this day and age, everyone leaves a trail. Everything leaves a string attached. There are no more ways to simply disappear – not without severely disadvantaging yourself. There will always be the expectations of others, hovering like a cloud around my head.
If I am choosing a life free of the expectations of others, then I must enable myself to choose a name that is free of those expectations, too. And simply the act of choosing is an act of power, an act of agency.
As Cliff puts it:
I like the idea of a chosen name. In my despotic utopian fantasies, everyone would have to change their name (or consciously and explicitly choose to keep their birth name) upon reaching adulthood. (Or better yet, every ten years. This would result in a lot of middle-schoolers named Rocketship Dinosaur McExplosion and that’s awesome.) It’s such a big and important part of your identity, it seems odd to just go with whatever you were handed.
I have a theory that everyone deserves more choices. Imagine being that middle schooler, being given the opportunity to choose your own name for the first time ever. For some kids, it may be the first choice they’re ever given concerning their identity. This is actually brilliant, because in this despotic utopian fantasy, a person’s right to choose is recognized and celebrated. In this dreamworld, every ten-year-old child has their personhood and right to self-identify affirmed and uplifted. What a powerful feeling that would be – to make a choice about your identity and have it respected. How many more of us would have chased how many more dreams, if only we’d known our choice to follow those dreams would have been respected?
This touches on another point, also eloquently stated by Cliff:
Honoring our own desires is not something we’re taught to do. It’s assumed that kids are balls of cheerfully self-indulgent id already, that all you have to be taught is how not to eat everything and hump everything and name yourself Rocketship. The lesson on “actually, indulging yourself in safe and considerate ways is not just okay but necessary” never really comes.
I’m changing because I want to change. Part of that desired change is my name. Part of it is how I honor my sexuality. Part of it is how I treat my body. Part of it is how I adorn my body. Part of it is the type of work I do, part of it is how much or how little I share of myself, part of it is the boundaries I set and the ways I deal with the things that have happened in the past.
All of it is about being allowed to want. All of it is about letting go of the shame I feel at wanting things. All of it is about gaining the confidence to be really, truly, 100% myself.
And that starts with a new name.
*Penny is not actually my new chosen name. It is, however, my Superwoman-esqe alter ago. And I will answer to it just as happily, because I chose it, too.
Last week, I finally summoned up the courage to tell my father that I’m bisexual.
For a lifelong Catholic, he took it pretty well. He made sure to tell me that he still loved me, and that having feelings for someone of the same sex wasn’t wrong.
It was my actions, he said, that mattered.
Sure, it’s okay to have these feelings – you can’t control feelings – but to act on them would be what constituted a sin. He asked if I’d had sexual partners other than my husband – to which my response was “No,” but honestly should have been “That’s none of your damn business.” He said that he was only worried because if I went outside the bonds of my marriage, that would be a violation of my vows to my husband. I told him that was for me and my husband to decide, and I’d thank him to stay out of my marriage. He said that he would always love me, and that I just needed to be myself… and I knew, in the back of my heart, that the version of me he loved was not the real me. The version of me he loves is the one that would never act on such sinful urges, the suffering saint who lives a moral life while plagued with demons.
In a way, I suppose that’s not too far off. I am plagued with demons. Accepting my sexuality, discussing it with my husband and being given the freedom and opportunity to understand it and explore it, has helped quiet those demons. My demons are not created by temptations of the flesh; they were created by long imprisonment and starvation of the soul. I am happier now, exploring the possibilities that come with embracing my sexuality and asserting my true nature, than I have ever been.
This is the problem that I have with preaching tolerance. Don’t get me wrong – it’s in the right vein, and it’s a damn sight better than intolerance and prejudice. But tolerance isn’t the whole picture. What we need is acceptance.
Tolerance says, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Acceptance says, “There’s nothing sinful about living in the way that makes you happiest.”
Tolerance is the hands-off, “That’s not what I would choose, but it’s your life to ruin” attitude. Acceptance sits down, has a conversation, asks questions, tries to understand.
Tolerance states opinion as fact and, in an expansive and generous gesture, agrees to disagree. Acceptance shares viewpoints and is open-minded enough to accept that faith is personal and truth is not universal, but highly subjective.
My father tolerates my sexuality, but he will never accept it. He will love the sinner but continue to hate the sin, even if it is a sin that brings fulfillment, confidence, satisfaction, and joy to me and my husband. He will magnanimously continue to let me skip merrily down the path I’ve chosen, even if he believes it leads off a precipice into a lake of fire. He will pat himself on the back for being such a loving and caring parent in the face of such adversity as having a sexually deviant daughter, and continue to worry for my poor everlasting soul.
I’ve tolerated my sexuality for some fifteen to twenty years now. In that time my heart has been beaten to tattered shreds as it searched for love, acceptance, and fulfillment in every corner of the empty cell my father’s religion confined me to. His tolerance will always be a cold and impassible wall, and my heart knows not to seek refuge there.
Now I have accepted myself as I am, and had the good fortune to find a lifetime partner who does as well. Now my heart steps, blinking, out of the cell and into the sunlight of a wide and wonderful world. There is pain in this world, too, and dark places to beware of… but I have a measure of acceptance, and with that my heart is free.