Curioser and Curioser

The toddler was staring at R, mouth open and eyes wide. When his mother wheeled the shopping trolley round, his head swivelled round like an owl’s. R smiled at him and said hello. The child hid his face in his mother’s coat.

“Uh, uh,” she said, moving the coat. “You got caught being nosy and now you’ll have to be nice. Say hello to the lady.”

It was a perfect response. Children, especially white ones, are fascinated by R. Our niece even got caught licking her arm (we think she thought R might really be made of chocolate). They stare and stare. She always responds to them and waves and says hello.

Quite often, though, the white parents are horrified that their children have been staring. They tell their babies off, some give R an apologetic smile, but some don’t even engage with R as they hustle their family away. I know it is because they are embarrassed, but it isn’t helpful.

Difference is strange and interesting; it excites curiosity, even investigation. I never mind answering questions about being a lesbian, R never minds curious regard. But when parents are embarrassed by their kids’ curiosity, it teaches them that there is something wrong or shameful about R, and that is a problem.

The other issue is that people often think that R can’t tell the difference between curiosity and hostility. The facial expressions involved are quite different; try it in a mirror and you’ll see what I mean. If you can tell the difference, so can she.

That white mother in the supermarket had the right response to her child’s nosiness. She acknowledged the curiosity, but she also made it clear that R was a person and needed to be treated with courtesy. I am really glad that at least one little boy will be able to embrace difference and recognise shared humanity at the same time.

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Curioser and Curioser

Marriage Rites

Weddings, like births and deaths, are one of the key times that LGBT people are made aware that we aren’t equal yet. Even if the Supreme Court of the United Sates rules in favour of same sex marriage, weddings will still be a point where families and societies have the most power to make their disapproval clear, to wound, shame and exclude.

When equal marriage was introduced in the UK, a survey suggested that 1 in 5 people would refuse to come to a same sex wedding. A guy on BBC news asked me about it, I laughed it off and said that we aren’t that scary, people don’t have to be afraid of us.

I was deliberately misunderstanding the point, there was no way I was going to go on national TV and add to the sense of power that straight people have. Refusing to come to our weddings is one of the many ways that families can punish their LGBT relatives and it turns what should be a joyous event into an emotional Russian roulette.

Of course, LGBT couples are not the only ones whose families refuse to attend their weddings. Couples who cross lines of colour, religion or nationality are also punished.

My sister’s wedding remains one of the best examples of what a wedding should be in my mind. Her friends travelled from all over the country (one couple cycled down from Scotland) and all of them contributed to the day; they gathered boughs and made garlands for the marquee, they helped to cook, they mowed fields and laid paths. Throughout the preceding days and on the day itself there was a strong sense that this union was much more than just two people, that it was a union of two families and the communities which surround them.

I wish R and I had had that.

Marriage Rites

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians

Just as DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act – the one which prevented any US federal body from recognising same sex unions and the legislation that meant that R and I couldn’t stay in the US) was in the process of being repealed, the New York Times published a lifestyle piece about a lesbian couple. For the life of me, I can’t find it – if you have any better luck can you pass it on as I would love to link to it! Anyway, this article was a well meaning attempt to ‘humanise’ same sex partnerships by showing that gays and lesbians are just regular folks. Obviously at the time (2012), the notion that queers have to put out the garbage was considered newsworthy.

As I’ve said, the article was well intentioned, but in its attempt to normalise us, it called on a whole slew of gender stereotypes. It really did talk about having to put out the rubbish and arguing over who got rid of the spiders. I suppose the point was to highlight that lesbians are just ordinary women. I’m sure that the writer didn’t mean to suggest that ordinary women needed a man to deal with their spiders.

There is a joke that is really old now; ‘Asking a lesbian couple which one is the man is like asking chopsticks which one is the fork’. It’s true. We can deal with our own spiders (R gently ushers them outside, I squash them). We know enough about ‘man stuff’ to have renovated our own house and have bought a used car without consulting either of our fathers. We are both strong enough to lift anything that needs shifting. This isn’t because we have special lesbian powers, it’s because gender stereotypes are rubbish.

What neither of us can do, however, is occupy a man’s status in society. The other weekend, there was a huge row at a house party we had been invited to. One of the other guests, a large white male, was angry that R (who is Black) had said that English people could be racist (see Racism in the UK on this blog). Then he went off on one about immigration. R refused to say what he wanted her to – why would she? What she was saying was true and what he was saying was racist. He kept arguing and arguing. I took him outside to try to talk to him. He wouldn’t listen and he still wouldn’t stop. Finally another guest, a white male, the same age, but shorter and less physically intimidating, said to him “Enough now, time to stop”. The man shut up instantly.

R and I can defend ourselves physically, but in situations like this, where the aggression is verbal, neither of us have the power to shut down an angry white male. We just don’t have the status. That is one of the few times when I really wish one of us had the power of a fork.

Killing spiders – Gender roles and lesbians

Learning to see

When I was at school, I had a friend who was extremely beautiful. She had big grey eyes and long auburn hair. I would watch people do anything to please her; bus drivers would make unscheduled stops, shop keepers would knock money off products if she didn’t have the right change and so on. It skewed her idea of humanity. She thought that all people were basically kind and generous. It never occured to her that she was getting special treatment because she was beautiful.

Being white skews my perception in much the same way. I assume that the treatment I receive is extended to everyone around me. I have blonde hair and a middle class accent. In most cases, I am treated with courtesy, even with respect. I have come to expect this level of treatment. It rarely occurs to me to check for dangerous negative reactions from the people around me because I have experienced very little real danger. In fact, I know that I can safely ignore the people around me.

It took a long time to realise that being able to ignore the people around me is an enourmous privilege of colour and class, one which R does not enjoy. Her experience has been one of unexpected, unprovoked physical and verbal agression. She wasn’t even six when an adult called her the ‘N’ word for the first time. The attacks are not constant, but they are persistent and they are incredibly difficult to predict; a few weeks ago she was called a “black bitch” by a suited commuter travelling from London’s financial centre. She never knows when these verbal assaults will spill over into violence, so she must be on her guard constantly. She never has the luxury of being as oblivious as I am.

Kyle Killian speaks about the tendency of white partners to ignore and belittle the negative experiences of their Black spouses in his book Interracial Couples, Intimacy and Therapy (which I recommend to anyone in a mixed relationship). I know I have been guilty of this behaviour. I have said to R “Why do you have to be so sensitive all the time? These people don’t matter”. It ranks up there with the most stupid and insensitive things I have ever said in my whole life because it blames her for not having my level of privilege.

If I am to be the loving and supportive wife I want to be, I have to learn to see the world as R sees it, to make myself aware of my surroundings in the same way she has to. It is not easy, but it is necessary.

Learning to see

Being sufficient

This is the blog post I don’t want to write and you don’t want to read. After you have read it, don’t respond. Don’t offer me sympathy, I won’t like it. You’ll know about this, that’s enough. If I don’t talk about this, nothing else I say will make sense. That’s the only reason I’m doing it. So.

I had a missed miscarriage. Neither of the two fetuses developed a heartbeat. We found out last Tuesday. Yesterday the miscarriage happened. It was my birthday, which was a bit poor. On the other hand, it was the only day this week that R could have been home. Swings and roundabouts I guess.

This is one of those times that defines a marriage. R fell and aggravated an old injury last week resulting in crippling pain. She is being messed around at work while trying to meet an impossible deadline. We are both at our limits, physically, mentally and emotionally. And yet what few reserves we have, we are giving to each other. At times it feels like trying to prop each other up with thin air.

What I do not doubt is that we will be sufficient. We will be kind with each other. We will step back and forgive. We will praise and reassure each other. The house will be messy, we will cry and get angry, we will misunderstand and hurt each other’s feelings, but beyond all this, we will keep on breathing and keep on loving. We will come through this.

Post script

If you have experienced a miscarriage or are looking for ways to support someone who has gone through one, The Miscarriage Association has some good advice:

http://www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk/

Being sufficient