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Sex and Gender; two troublesome words

  • Posted on January 24, 2016 at 2:29 pm

I read an academic article about centring gender identity this week, that was interesting, not least because it assumed a clarity about sex and about gender that in most circles doesn’t exist. And then this morning I continued reading about sex and gender in more feminist circles, on serious blogs, not TERF rants. I always try to understand because I also expect a degree of understanding. We are all human, we all deserve respect.

We all relate more easily our bad experiences than our good, and whenever someone has faced abuse, met a very male-acting trans-asserting person, or simply really opened their eyes to this patriarchal society and culture of ours, they will rightly feel defensive, and the incidents will be key to future expectation. I too feel much safer in women’s spaces, I too feel insecure where there is testoserone around. And whilst I may have been brought up and taught as a boy, I do not feel totally socialised in that way, because so much of it went against the grain. I guess I did mimic it a fair deal to get by, but it was always uncomfortable and I was ready to see the impact of it on women, socially and in the workplace.

This world suffers from patriarchal rule. I mean suffers, not just needs greater equality and fairness, but suffers. Our planet groans more because of it, and we tolerate its destructiveness. There are women who play into it, take advantage of it and imitate it. But it is what it is, and it is bad for us all. And none of this is a basis for debating the rights of humans on grounds of self-identity. Not every culture and language even has ideas of sex and gender in the way English-speaking people do. Yet we get tied up in mutually defensive, and sometimes aggressive, dialogue over sex and gender as if they were something as absolute as mass and energy.

Probably most people have never ‘met’ a trans person, because we just don’t all look, sound or behave obviously so. Which means that most antipathy towards us is based on bad experiences of an unrepresentative few people who stand out for their inauthenticity or bad behaviour.

We have several essential problems that we fail frequently to acknowledge.

The first of these is behaviour

What we expect from people sharing our society is certain forms of behaviour. Some make us uncomfortable: a homeless beggar; someone gesticulating unexpectedly through mental disturbance, brain injury or non-development; drunken loudness; crowd-generated fervour. Some behaviour is distanced, such as influential voices, or merely online trolling, down to simply abusive or ignorant comments on a news article. Discomfort easily becomes fear, and we can distance ourselves, fight back, join a group for mutual shared strength, or face it and deal with it in other ways.

Some behaviours are associated with sex and gender. Some are causal: hormones create drives and emotions, for example. Some are correlated but not causal: group behaviours to belong to the in-crowd, or not to stand out. What we cannot say is: ‘women behave like this’, or ‘men behave like this’, or ‘lesbians behave like this’ – or even ‘trans men (or women) behave like this’.

Because they don’t. There are violent women, effeminate men, femme lesbians, aggressive trans women, asexual non-binary people, quiet introverted pansexuals. Everything you can assume as defining any sex, gender and sexuality, is defied by countless atypical people. Some people are kind and nice to know. Some are lazy and otherwise harmless. Some are psychopaths running global organisations, and some are lurking around a corner to do you harm.

And probably none of these behaviours is defined as being entirely due to sex or gender. Being male can derive philanthropy just as it can (though more frequently perhaps) misogyny. But for goodness’ sake, bad behaviour by some individuals describing themselves as transgender does not make being transgender a bad or threatening thing. It is the behaviour that threatens, not the underlying sex, sexuality or gender identity.

The second thing is expectation

Expectations are cultivated socially. We develop them from experience, which means we can nurture bad expectations from bad experiences. We share and cultivate these, because it feels more safe and comfortable when we have shared experiences and expectations. Then we have group thoughts from which it is harder to escape and disagree. Sometimes we must have a bad experience, develop an expectation for safety, then relocate the expectation in reality so that we can be both safe and open to new and more positive experiences.

Sometimes expectations become assertions, rules, dogmas, doctrines, even laws. And sometimes – may be a lot of the time – this is good. We come to have an agreed floorplan for constructive, safe, mutually supportive living together, and we call it culture. And sometimes that floorplan has mistakes, or cracked tiles, and slippery rugs.

We embody these expectations not just in our legal frameworks, but in other socially-cohesive ones. I am still surprised how much of my readership here pulls out the blogs on the role of religion in LGBT phobias. I have been through the experience here, from dragged-to-church, to skeptical, to thorough-going evangelical, to even more thorough university biblical analysis, to reasoned atheist non-materialist. So I know what it means to live as male, as female, as almost fundamentalist, and atheist. I think I know myself and many things from the inside, rather than hearsay. And just as I assert that there is a fundamental role in testosterone creating the world we live in, so I assert that there is a fundamental role in the religions we have created. Both T and R are imprinted on everything we do and the way we do it, and in my view, we need to be much more aware of this, of its impact, and its consequences, as well as be more wise to moving beyond both as defining our contemporary civilisations.

Without these religious-ethical expectations even our laws would be different in many ways, not least in those relating to sex and gender expectations. Countries in the world where being gay, lesbian, trans, or simply a free woman, are proscribed by law, do so on the basis of some ancient religion. The religion lays down expectations, resists reason, and fossilises attitudes. So much so, that secular cultures like this in the UK, carry an unconscious tradition rooted in christianity with attitudes and expectations, and beliefs about unethical behaviour that focus on specific things. We have a greater antipathy towards anything to do with sex and gender, than we do towards anything to do with power and connivance.

The third thing is language

Just as money began as a means and became a commodity in itself, so language did the same. We talk, write, think, using words for a substantial part of every day of our lives. We rely on words meaning something fixed in order to communicate clearly and efficiently. Languages, sadly, are not like that. They do not translate as easily as we would like, one to another. Sometimes five words in one translate as just one in another, losing vital nuance, or becoming ambiguous. Sometimes the culture behind a language does not share the concept. When one language dominates, so a concept can therefore also dominate. It’s never that my language represents an erroneous or superfluous concept, always that your language is impoverished because your culture is ignorant or less refined.

Sex and gender are conceptual, and not the same in every language, even in Europe. We neglect semantics, because we take language for granted, but worst of all, we assume that the word creates the thing, and that one use for a word makes it definitive. Learning how a word came about does not give it its contemporary meaning in use (gay and queer are two obvious relevant examples), and frequently a word becomes more important because its use becomes too burdened by conceptual disagreement. It isn’t just a heliocentric and evolutionary science that shakes society and religion, but contemporary observation of gendered roles. I recently replied to a friend who asked if there was any test for either sex or gender, with some quick thoughts about this.

I think that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are words given to poorly defined concepts. The initial concept of sex derived from observations about the means of reproduction and was simplistic and basic. It divided those who gave birth from those who did not. Thus many creatures tend to carry natural roles (though sometimes opposite like seahorses) where one stays safe with babies while the other gets food. As societies developed in sophistication, so the roles became formal expectations. Put basically, sex ensured survival and required no nuance.

Roles, however, confer different privileges and empowerments. Hunters also defend and acquire territory, and adopt authority as a result. Thus begins patriarchy. Within this, unfairness, coercion and advantage are noted, and as society becomes more complex, equality rears its head. Society and culture develop as philosophies, which in turn are questioned. Ultimately, sex as a division is no longer satisfactory. Female is not necessarily mother, male not defender/aggressor, but husbander, in agriculture for example.

The words and ideas for this alternative layer to sex are different in different cultures and languages. Thus it is a construct centred around sense of place in culture or society. It is regulated by norms which are informed by established notions of what sex currently means. The words don’t help us in any way. They are misused to discriminate and advantage, perpetuating, for example, patriarchy.

Sex as a concept still tries to distinguish biological capabilities, while gender tries to counter this absolutism and explain how people are dislocated from it. Sex tries to maintain traditional rules, gender to create new ones. Both superimpose contemporary ideas on the simple origin of species perpetuation. What we lose in this is that we are all the same species, developed socially sufficiently to live equally rather than divisively such that child-carrying doesn’t define social place, nor physical strength and drive.

There is no scientific test for gender because there can be no simple definition. Feeling trans has two components: being socially mislabelled and misplaced, and feeling that the child-bearing or physically powerful aspect given by the body doesn’t agree with the inner awareness of how the mind feels that should be. There is no scientific test for sex because it can be indeterminate.

What is important is that it should not be so important to find a definition let alone enforce it, for either sex or gender. Both exist only so long as we keep words for them. My argument is that we are dealing in semantics rather than tangible realities.

I think sex and gender aren’t just ‘physiology versus social construct’, but are two troublesome words in need of care. Talking spectrums isn’t necessarily the let-out we need either. I still find tomatoes in the vegetables section of my supermarket. Fruit and veg aren’t a spectrum, but some are badly misrepresented by what we have become accustomed to. But we like them all the same.

Summary

Behaviour, expectation and language all bias us in all manner of ways towards and away from others. Much of the time it is unconscious bias, but we too easily define our ideas about other people in our own terms, reinforce each other’s biases, and end up disrespecting individuals and thrusting them into unsafe places. It may be a trans woman with no refuge, a trans boy being bullied, a feminine feminist being excluded, or a butch dyke being shoved out of a public women’s lavatory. Or all too often, a trans person being pushed by expectations, to suicide.

We must be careful what we assume from our experiences, or what we have read, or been taught or cultivated into. In protecting our own ideas, however precious they are to us, and however many others share them, we may be making the world a less safe place for someone else. Whether you are a trans blogger, a feminist essayist, a frequent article-commenter, or just sharing on Facebook and tweeting, we must recognise that we are all just using language as a proxy to relate our beliefs and best understanding, biased by our experiences.

Minority report

  • Posted on January 17, 2016 at 9:28 pm

2016 turned around with reviews of what a good year it had been for trans awareness. Films, soaps, celebrities, parliamentary inquiries, public debates all made it seem like a breakthrough in awareness. Most of us would say that hatred and exclusion are the result of ignorance, sometimes wilful. As more is said and seen about what it means to have (what is currently termed) gender dysphoria, surely ignorance will decline?

One can understand that when someone prominent transitions, they are snapped up by the media and made a spokesperson. That gives rise to backlash from more ordinary and struggling trans people, who don’t feel represented by someone more privileged and earlier on in the issues to be faced. So we accept that the celebrities make very public mistakes, which can damage as much as help the rest of us. But when the UK parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee presented its formal report on transgender services and equality to the UK Parliament, informed by 260 witnesses, it was criticised in just the same way as being a waste of resources for responding to such a minority interest.

It seems most people still prefer to regard being transgender as a curable psychological disorder, and that because only one per cent of the population experience it, it should be ignored rather than understood. Certainly, treatment on the NHS should be excluded, because it’s just pandering to a lifestyle choice. Fix my leg, broken by skiiing, but don’t fix this person’s hormones or body. Well, to that I say: you too are in a minority because you can afford to have ski holidays, whereas we are called a ‘lobby group’ with an agenda, though we cannot choose. You are free to join a minority, we just happen to share a minority condition, however non-minority the rest of our lives are. And we can choose to go skiing too, so we can be in the same minority together … so long as only our legs get fixed.

Where ignorance and closed minds lead

I don’t think we are a lot nearer social acceptance just because there is greater awareness. It isn’t about minorities really, it’s about a particular kind of minority. In all this growing awareness, there remains a lot of fear and intolerance. This week, I am as equally sickened by Richard Littlejohn writing in the Daily Mail (whose 2013 writing contributed to the suicide of Lucy Meadows), as by The Archbishop of Canturbury’s crocodile tears over LGBT attitudes among his African prelates. It was Christian missionary colonialism that imported homophobia into Africa in the first place, and protecting those who support or condone imprisonment or execution of people on grounds of sexuality, on the self-defined assertion that it is a sinful lifestyle choice, diminishes this powerful presence in the world to a weak and self-serving institution. I am as sickened by The Channel 4 interview (hardly a debate) between Jack Monroe and Dr Julia Long. It was like placing one scientist representing consensus over anthropogenic climate change against a single prominent denialist, as if the argument were balanced. The view by Dr Julia Long, that every transgender person represents a rape threat to ‘real’ women wherever they go, espoused and promoted repeatedly by Germaine Greer, is also rehearsed in The Conservative Woman (TCW) by Emily Watson, who writes: ‘it opens the door to potential sex offences. By opening single sex facilities up to the opposite sex, women are put at risk. Women have a real fear of being sexually assaulted or raped by men, and the sensible ones avoid places or occasions where they could be in danger. Women feel able to let their guard down with other women.’ She supports her case by a single criminal case of a rapist and an incident in a novel. (TCW is a right-wing conservative, Christian fundamentalist ‘family’ group.)

It is the classic statement: being transgender does not exist; some men like to dress up and pretend, and all of them are predatory. Trans women aren’t women; they are men, because god makes only men and women. We are dangerous. I am dangerous. We threaten civilisation and its norms. We challenge ideas of gender, but by identifying as male or as female, we support the patriarchy. And even acceptance of gender dysphoria is dangerous to children, so stop it!

Are we a million miles from anti-gay laws and condoned homophobia? I sometimes don’t think we’ve moved anywhere at all except in circles, the central anchor-point of which is Judeo-Christian religious.

It’s all about sex

Those of us disadvantaged by a birth condition have become regarded as a dangerous lobby of rapists. It’s all about sex. Innit? Just because a man could, if he wished, put women’s clothes and make-up on, with the sole intent of invading ‘women’s spaces in order to molest or rape, transgender women are all placed under suspicion of being sexual predators. So every woman in a burkha or niqab could similarly be a male rapist in disguise. This all echoes the idiocy in the USA of all those who would almost insist on examining the genitals of anyone ambiguous (child or adult) before entering gendered lavatory facilities. Cis women have been thrown out of female facilities for looking too male, and it escapes attention that bearded and testosterone-fuelled trans men having to enter female facilities would be absurd. (Testosterone-fuelled does not mean potential rapist any more than oestrogen-fuelled trans women, but it does highlight the absurdity.) Especially when everyone goes home to share a common toilet with all genders of their family and friends. And because more sexual violence occurs in familiar domestic circumstances than in public faciltities and venues. And because rape by transgender women is almost unknown.

Being transgender has nothing to do with sex, let alone coercive sex.

Becoming undangerous

There are many things about me that are minority. I play the trumpet. I write poetry. I own a flat. I have three university degrees. None of these places me in the category of lobby group or having an agenda, though each confers certain rights and marks me out as different. But these things are safe. (Well, the decibel rating of a trumpet may not be, and should I be writing politically sensitive poetry in China, that would not be.) They are also personal choices based on innate abilities. None causes me distress, and I am sensitive about the trumpet in the flat. Life is peaceful, you are safe, I am safe.

But any day I can read people online who go out of their way to make untrue assertions against my condition, that may lead others to fear me, disadvantage me or attack me. Living in Brighton, I am lucky. I can choose not to read hate, and I know it will always exist, and I live inconspicuously in a tolerant place. But many others are not so safe. How do we become undangerous, when we are treated as we are, so obviously, in social and broadcast media? When we transition and return from that traumatic passage in life back to ordinariness, we don’t all want to be labelled forever as trans. Only this week one person I know through social media said ‘Now that I am a year post-surgery, I am no longer trans’. Another said ‘I’m fed up with this; I don’t want any labels.’ A government minister came out as gay this week, and the point was raised: ’why does anyone need to come out any more?’ Being trans makes coming out unavoidable, but after that, many of us are done with it. We become able simply to live as we feel right. I have struggled with ‘being out’ in order to be an encouragement, when I feel I’ve said all there is to say, and just want to live inconspicuously. But then I feel hurt to read another person deny my experience, and add a reply to another Guardian comment trail …

One per cent of the population is quite a lot of people, and if we were all completely visible and getting on with our lives, perhaps we would seem less dangerous. But why should we be visible? It isn’t our lives’ mission to educate the world. Against us, is the propensity to cite the extreme, the singular. Whether quoting a celebrity transitioner, or a long-discredited piece of research, a criminal case, or a prominent ‘detransitioner’, the negative (like consumer dissatisfaction) is re-quoted many times more than the positive. I would like to see a headline like this instead:

NHS spends £17m per annum on gender care, including £4.5m on surgery, and saves £80m in social costs of mental health, impact on emergency services, loss of employment productivity and welfare benefits!

(I’m not sure about the £80m, because no-one has measured it, but if half of young people and a third of older trans people are suicidal, the on-costs for all of us must be surely in this order.) But I don’t think one is coming any time soon.

What really will make a difference, is when everyone who knows someone like me actively stands up for us, and refuses to accept the misguided hatred, the subtle discrimination, the careful sidelining, the nudge and the ‘understanding’ wink. If there really are about 650,000 of us in the UK, and we each have fifteen people willing to actively diffuse ignorant comments and jokes, that’s nearly ten million people making our lives safer.

So, dear Anglican Church, dear Pope, dear politicians, academics and experts. Dear journalists, panellists, and public debaters. Dear comedians, writers and critics. Dear family, friends and colleagues. When you hear or read someone declaiming people like me as potential sexual predator, rapist, subversive and moral disaster, speak up, speak out – not to me in my safe spaces, but where it may also cost you that cocked eyebrow, mild shock and surprise. Because every time you play safe and self-protective, you make it harder for us to lively safely and normally.

Rainbow dawn: love wins?

  • Posted on June 28, 2015 at 8:20 pm
#lovewins

#lovewins Friday exploded in an Internet rainbow. Every mainstream media title had its report, and the world cheer that came with it drowned for a while the dissenting voices. Rainbow backgrounds flooded Facebook faces, flags waved and people celebrated. I celebrated, and shared my feelings because after many months of debate, the US Supreme Court by a fairly narrow margin, voted to ensure equal marriage rights to all couples, regardless of gender, in all states. It really did feel like a moment in history, when rainbow fireworks shot into a dark sky to be seen unavoidably worldwide. The message wasn’t…

Watch words: self hate, self harm, self destruct

  • Posted on September 6, 2014 at 3:32 pm

Now that the gender dysphoria bit is over, I am walking over some old ground, just picking up stones, those things that hurt the feet of people following after me. You see, I remember walking down Fulham Palace Road to the gender identity clinic the first time, knowing every step of the way had been trodden by so many like me, and quite a few with familiar names …

Well, in recent months, maybe this past year, there have been more and more sensible and informative media events about trans people. Some more competent than others, some quite personal and individual, others more documentary style and explanatory. But overall, quite a lot is being said that reveals us as pretty ordinary folk, living ordinary lives. The trans celebs who are noticed more are just saying the same as us as well, which brings us all down to a level, a commonality.

Suddenly if feels just OK to be trans, and here am I fussing over my privacy being broken at work! I transitioned before I got my current job, and it still felt like I was the peculiar one, so much so that I welcomed my work colleagues being warned in advance that a transsexual employee was on her way – so behave! And now I don’t want anyone to be told, whilst at the same time posting my photo on Twitter under #WhatTransLooksLike, which turns out to be terribly (confusingly) ordinary.

And yet.

And yet all of this ordinariness and growing acceptance (at least in general, and from a very poor start) underlines something extremely sad and tragic. And it is that for the majority of us it has been a mixture of terrifying struggle, self harm, self hatred, self doubt, despair, loss, depression and suicidal intent.

I want you to think: how much do you talk (or hear) about how society ‘tolerates’ trans people? Or about an increasing ‘acceptance’? At work, it seems people have been ‘accommodating’ of my being trans among them. Are these feelings you have, as a way of saying things are getting better? How do you think it would make you feel, if something about you meant that you as a person needed tolerance, acceptance or accommodation? Or knowing this, would you willingly place yourself in a position where this would even need to be so?

Imagine

In a world that really accepted that some people are born trans, things would be completely different. Imagine, if you will, for a moment, that every child growing up was free to express their male-female-both-neither selves freely and without criticism. Imagine every adult simply knew this was the way things are. Imagine no penis-adult minded a penis-child wearing vagina-child clothes, and no vagina-adult minded a vagina-child avoiding vagina-child toys. How comfortable those children would be that the other children knew this from their parents too. Each could find their sexuality as they developed, and learn the differences between love for reproduction and love for friendship and love for life. It isn’t that families would cease to exist, or that adults settled in their gender would not pair up to have children. But just maybe, everyone would be a bit more comfortable doing what comes naturally. Fewer spouses would turn away from their beloved partners because it was all a mistake, had they known before. Maybe it would help break the sexism that pervades society, if it were not odd to find a woman with oily hands, power tools and an executive job, paired with a man in feminine clothes working as a childminder and organising dance events.

People on the trans spectrum may be one in a hundred, but that doesn’t make us rare, it just means most are invisible because they are suppressed.

I do wonder what proportion of trans people would be happy to be the woman with a penis or a man with a vagina, if nobody else minded either. Not all of us, because gender dysphoria runs much more deeply than this, and there is a level of inateness that predates any social expectation. But for some whose gender identity sits uncomfortably in the gender binary based on genital expectation, maybe, just maybe, there would be peace in growing up and living a normal life freely as they feel themselves to be.

Contrast

Where are we with acceptance now? This is how it has largely been for people like me: if you feel you don’t belong with other penis-children-called-boys, you belong nowhere. You do not fit and you cannot explain it. Somehow people, especially parents and teachers, don’t want to know, because you screw up the way things are, and you make things awkward. You add something that has to be catered for and coped with. You are a nuisance to them and to yourself. If you are a vagina-child who doesn’t belong with other vagina-children-called-girls, people don’t notice quite so much at first. But underneath the tomboy is a place grown-ups don’t want to go.

Somehow there is an undercurrent to this view of you that is linked with a moral or ethical dimension. These are the rules that seem to come from nowhere, and just ‘are’ because they get repeated. What you feel is not quite right about you, in terms of likeness with others, becomes something wrong. People don’t like it because they think you are being deliberately different, that you have a choice. Some will say that it (the way you feel about yourself) isn’t natural. Others will say that their god says it’s bad, and bad that you should dare to even think it might be OK. That you must therefore change, and put all these feelings about yourself away forever. Hence the prevalent self hate, self harm and self destruct, mental and physical that trans people experience.

Worst of all, gender and sex have long been so confused a distinction that being trans has been viewed a sexual perversion, a bizarre psychological pathology. And if sex is naughty or dirty or bad (my upbringing taught me this), then being trans is doubly so.

Because the adults think this, their children, your friends and classmates think this too. You get bullied, or at best left out and seen by some as not to be included. This combines with your sense of not belonging. There is no way out, because no-one is talking about it, leastways not so as to allow that it’s natural or normal or permissible.

This, as I grew up (and is widely still the case), was an inescapable truth about myself: there was something bad and wrong about me, deep inside. Trans people simply knew there was nothing they could do to get rid of the disconnect between being a penis-child and a vagina-brain. Cis people, generally speaking, thought they could and should. And now this is changing, bit by bit.

What will it take?

If you are not sure whether this move or drift towards trans-as-normal is comfortable for you, think what it does to trans people growing up, and the legacy it has left to those of us rather older. I’m not seeking pity – far from it, only saying please understand, when you think you are being kind for letting us live and look differently, that your attitudes and reactions, if anything short of full acceptance as equal and normal, are creating inner traumas still.

I fully recognise that I did not grow up recognising diversity, that I too felt uncomfortable with everything LGBT because it is what I was taught to think and feel. What this means is that the denial I lived with, and above all the guilt, must have been there as I brought up my own children. My son thankfully was trans-aware probably before I was. And my daughter’s current inability to be associated with me in any way must in part be down to what I brought her up to think. I wonder what she will teach her children one day when they ask about their missing grandfather …

The words you choose shape the way we all think

  • Society is very tolerant these days of people with red hair.
  • I think we are becoming much more accepting of left-handed people.
  • I’m glad to say that nowadays we accommodate lesbians in the workplace a lot better.

Does anything strike you about these statements? If this is how we bring up our children, and how we speak to each other about red-haired people, left-handed people and lesbian people, they will intuitively understand that these three ‘conditions’ are suspect and not quite right, that these are people to be wary of, who are not quite what they seem (Wait until she takes her hat off! Did you see when he started writing? I went to her mum’s house once and she lives with a woman!).

This is exactly the inference we exchange amongst ourselves about transgender people. This is why it took me 55 years to realise that my self-hatred, my sense of guilt and shame, my constant self-destruction inside was completely unfounded and unnecessary.

Can you begin to understand this stone in the grass that I’ve picked up? Don’t leave it for someone else, above all someone else’s child, to cripple themselves on.

I can at last love myself, and indeed, I love my ‘new’ body for the first time. Shame about the five decades.

Never tolerate me. Never accept me. Never accommodate me.

I am. We are.

Just like you.

Pride

  • Posted on August 3, 2014 at 10:45 am
Pride flags

I have only actually fully participated in one Pride event. I never knew in advance when it was. My mother always knew: ‘Pride comes before the fall’, she used to say. Maybe that’s it. Pride was a bad thing, signifying arrogance. It meant putting yourself above others. And to be honest, being brought up like that, where even to say you loved yourself was a sin, I could hardly look at gay men in weird strappings and think I belonged in any way. That was before I knew what a lesbian was. That was before I knew why I didn’t…