what the heck is a pronoun?

Today I had my training for volunteer work with sexual minority youth. It’s the second such training I’ve had – the first being in 2009. No matter how basic the information we learn is, I feel like there is always some new information to take in, or some new perspective to look at something from. I was glad to be there and to have the opportunity to learn more or to refresh information that I’d already known.

The age ranges that I’ll be interacting with are around the ages of 12-24ish and often times are youth at risk. The training lasted for four hours and was, for the most part, gut-wrenching. We first learned what at-risk youth were. Examples could be at risk for: poverty, isolation, stds, self-harm, pregnancy, and homelessness. For all of the categories we listed, GLBTQ youth were more likely to be at risk. The woman leading the training noted that we don’t know a single area in which GLBTQ aren’t more at risk.

There was so much to take in, but one really special thing about GSA (gay straight alliance) or QRC (queer resource centers) is being able to be in a space where you can begin to feel comfortable expressing your identity safely. For some people they may not be able to come out, express their gender, or be open and honest about their fears or sense-of-self anywhere else. Places like this haven’t always existed. Kids are coming out and talking about these things much younger now than they used to.

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At the beginning of this (and my last) training session we talked about gender specific pronouns. In my college courses we’ve started introducing ourselves with our pronoun preferences. For instance, during roll, I would say “My name is Lorelei and I go by female pronouns” or “My name is Lorelei and I go by she and her.”

Pronouns are something really important to know because you can really alienate someone if you call them “he” when they identify as “she.” It’s also hard because we do have those snap judgements and want to quickly categorize someone in our minds. We may be curious to ask how someone identifies if we can’t quickly snap judge them into a category. Someone who is trans* or gender queer or androgynous, for instance, may not be as easy to “read” in a traditional sense. We talked about what that means and how people may use gender to identify themselves. We talked about how you can ask someone how they identify, if you are unsure of how to refer to them in conversation.

Preference varies – so we were told that generally it’s safe to call people by their name or go the gender neutral route by using “they.” This is an intentional act of being respectful of someone. Of course you don’t know what someone has gone through or how sensitive they are going to be. We came to the conclusion that it is okay to ask someone what gender pronoun they prefer, if it’s appropriate for the conversation. Instead of saying “are you a guy or a girl?” you could introduce yourself first “My name is Lorelei and I go by female pronouns, what’s your name?” This allows you to say “This is who I am so you don’t misread me, who are you so I don’t misread you?” Some people may prefer to be pulled aside. You also have to keep in mind that not everyone is “out” and so a gender pronoun that they prefer in a safe space might not be what they use at home or around family. There is a lot of variance and everyone is different.

Being respectful and listening to people talk and trying not to make too many assumptions is a great way to go.

If anyone has anything to add – please do.

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How is Sexuality Controlled?

I was asked to elaborate on a couple of subjects from my post about What I learn in Sex Classes. The first was: how is pleasure controlled and enjoyed? This question is in reference to the politics of sexuality, and is a subject of incredible depth. Let’s started with control.

How can pleasure be controlled? Can’t anyone have sex?

There are two notable cases within Portland History – the 1912 Greek Scandal and Vice Scandals. The Greek Scandal refers to Greek men who had come into the city for work, who lived in what is now Old Town/China Town. Because of the work that was available at this time many men were living alone or with other men in specific parts of town. Police at the time were anxious over what they considered to be dangerous racial minorities. At this time there was a fear that the white middle class could be broken down if tainted with lesser, perhaps “less moral” races. There was a fear spreading. While these men didn’t exceed 1% of the population, they accounted for more than 11% of same-sex transgression arrests. Simply put: they were controlling the sexuality of these men as a way to prevent race mixing. The YMCA scandal, though different, is similar in the fact that they used sex (in this case, sodomy) to target a male homosexual community. Both of these stories are incredibly interesting and can be expanded on in this book by Peter Boag.

What about outside of homosexuality? Women’s sexuality has been controlled in times throughout history. It is common to look back at the 1950s as the “golden age” when, perhaps, we forget just how far we’ve come. Women’s responsibility was often to be housekeeper, child raiser, caretaker for her husband. If for some reason the marriage failed or she wanted to leave the marriage, it would be incredibly difficult for her to do so without a job of her own or any work experience. This allowed men to experience affairs more easily within the bounds of the marriage without much worry that their wives would leave them. They couldn’t. Women had much less time for affairs if they were going to be the only care provider of their children as well as having to tend to the house, chores, errands, and so forth. Not to mention there was marital rape to do deal with – where it wasn’t considered rape if you were married. Not much control there.

Information about white sexuality during times of slavery is also interesting, and speaks to how sexuality can be used as a piece of control. White women (for instance) were seen as the keepers of virtue. If they were protected and did not sleep with white men, they would not produce any children with black men. How women’s sexuality is controlled is often much more interesting – to me at least – than how mens sexuality is controlled, because of how the double standard persists. Though white women were given this command, many white men fathered children of the slaves that they raped or sexually assaulted during this time.

How is pleasure controlled today? This goes back to my first point. Anyone can have sex, surely. But not everyone has access to the same benefits. Many people desire to have sex, but understand the likelihood of pregnancy if they do not use birth control of some kind. Some people don’t understand the likelihood of pregnancy because they are not afforded information. The limitations of birth control and abortion absolutely control sexuality. Many women may not have access to Planned Parenthood to receive STD testing, lowered birth control costs, breast cancer screenings, free condoms, or abortions. The availability of these services allows women to have control over their sexuality. Removing these services restricts the freedom of a woman’s sexuality. Can they still have sex? Physically? Yes. But they are risking their sexual health, they’re risking pregnancies they can’t afford to have or don’t want to have. Low income families are especially at risk. This is a type of control and it’s being enacted by upper/middle class, white, men – people who are never going to experience what these women are experiencing.

Sexuality is controlled in a myriad of ways throughout history and even today. Whether it be by gender, sexuality, the class you’re in, the state you’re in, or the relationship you’re in. You can see here, it’s controlled by the laws that we have. But it’s also controlled by the language we use.

Picture a man. He has a penis. He is interested in having a physical experience with another man. For men in our culture that both threatens his identity and his masculinity. The possibility of him touching another man in an intimate or exploratory way threatens the very being of who he is and how he will be treated within society. If you think that’s an exaggeration, you’re not paying attention. People are getting shot, murdered, abused, bullied, and people are killing themselves all over the world. Many people will withhold their identities, or even the simplest curiosities, because of how sex and sexuality is represented within our culture. They become depressed. They say no when they’d rather say yes. They lie. They hide. They have to. We box people up and we don’t let them cross those lines easily. We put shame on sex. We put shame on same-sex. And that shame – while not always – definitely controls the sexuality of people who either can’t or don’t want to be judged and labeled for the decisions they’ve made.

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