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Apr. 22nd, 2017

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Last week I made another presentation to gender studies students, this time at Castleton University in Vermont. The hosting professor booked a lecture room -- one of those rooms with bleacher seating and a stage-like area up front for the lecturer -- and brought students from several classes to hear me speak. It was my largest single audience to date, about 65 people.

Before the presentation, he took me to dinner and got me checked in at the bed & breakfast, and we chatted about identity and growing up and coming out.

He warned me, "Now, this is a very non-diverse community. We're talking white rural people and small-town families, folks whose families have lived here for generations. They tend to be very stoic. They don't express surprise or amusement or agreement or disapproval, they keep their reactions inside. It's something that's an element of cultural pride in these parts". He took some more of his steak and potato and a sip of wine and continued, "Mark Twain came here once. People traveled from all around the area to hear him speak. And the whole time he spoke, they just sat very politely in their seats with their hands in their lap and didn't crack a smile the whole time".

I ended up being very glad that he had warned me about this. My audience was attentive enough, some people were even taking notes. No one was slouching and staring off in other directions or texting on their phones. But yeah, it felt like I was addressing a roomful of carved granite faces. I could not tell how I was doing other than by comparing my own rhythms and the pace at which I was going through my topic points to what I could recall of how I'd done those things in the past.

I was only able to elicit one question at the end, although it was a good one: "Do you find that people with a background in the hard biological sciences who focus on genetics and neurology to be resistant to these kinds of ideas?" (I replied with examples pro and con -- the "con" being researchers who were involved in trying to make a case for medical insurance companies being bound to covering medical transitioning for transgender people who seek it, and the "pro" example being neurologist Debra Soh and her column criticizing gender-neutral parenting).


Although it felt good overall to address yet another audience, the stone-faced audience left me feeling unsettled for several days, and eventually I realized it had evoked some associated emotional content for me, that it connected in my mind with a pattern I have some reason to worry about.

You see, back in 1980, when I was first coming out on University of New Mexico campus, I kept having the experience of handing out my writings and then going back to those same people to discuss the material, and people more often than not were cautious, saying very little about my core ideas and instead taking some small lateral idea and talking some about that. For instance, an older woman student from my Sex and Sexuality biology course talked about countercultural guys in the 1970s and how they had horrified their parents by growing their hair long and that their talk of peace and rejection of militarism had hit a button for the older generation who perceived them as very unmanly. It certainly wasn't irrelevant but it left me in the dark about what she thought about feminine guys upending the conventional notion of heterosexuality and what it could mean for feminism and for the rest of society and so on.

By the time my dormitory resident advisor was aking me to please go across the street and talk with the mental health folks at the university's medical center, I had spent an intense month trying to talk to people, trying to write my thoughts down and get students and professors and other people to read them and give me a reaction, and that had been the general pattern: people not directly addressing what I had brought up, and being very vague about what they thought of it, neither hostile and argumentative nor excitedly enthusiastic, just...cautious.

And because it was so important to me, this set of new ideas and their power to explain things, I began to imagine and guess a lot about what was really going on behind people's closed faces. I was expecting my ideas to be very polarizing: threatening to some people, exciting and revolutionary to others. Confronted with all these noncommittal reactions, I imagined that they were feeling highly ambivalent and needed more time to process these ideas. I imagined that they saw the potential impact but that some parts of that potential impact did not look like an unalloyed good thing, so they were holding back. I imagined that people who were gay or lesbian or were supportive of gay and lesbian rights and concerns were wondering and worrying that promoting the notion of a "heterosexual sissy" could have homophobic or hetero-normative social impact. I imagined that people who were feminist or feminist supporters were worrying about the impact of a male person pushing a new feminist-type agenda from so much of a "for his own personal reasons" standpoint, a very different thing than males being political participants in order to support women. I worried that conservative-minded people were hearing this as yet another assault on conventional sexuality and gender and were formulating negative and judgmental attitudes towards what I was describing, that their first reaction to "heterosexual sissy" was a disapproving and biased one. I imagined that people thought I actually had a different agenda of some sort, whether pro-male or pro-feminist or pro-homophobic or anti-christian or anti-transsexual or whatever. Or that what I was saying was going to play into one of those agendas.

I was really overthinking it all. The truth of the matter -- easier to look back on it and see it in retrospect -- is that most of them were not understanding more than a small spatter of what I was trying to communicate. And that a double-handful of the rest understood my main points but disagreed with me that they were important points and didn't see that they added any new understandings or new possibilities, that they didn't see why I was making a big deal out of this.

I have never believed that my mental state in spring of 1980 remotely justified placing me in a locked-ward setting and treating me as if I was incoherent. When I realized the extent to which I had been failing to make sense to people, and had disturbed them with all the intensity with which I was making the attempt, I laughed at myself and I reset my expectations immediately. I at no point in my life rejected the thoughts that had obsessed me then as nonsensical or as unworthy of the obsession. And I've gotten way better at expressing them, I think!

But I haven't forgotten the grandiose thought patterns. The tendency to assume I am affecting people whether they express their reactions or not, and, with that, the tendency to assume other thoughts in their heads -- their reaction-thoughts -- include reasons for them being so noncommunicative. Because I still do that. When faced with lukewarm or off-topic reactions to my material I tend more often to believe that what I've said or written has pushed some of their buttons, instead of jumping to believe that I didn't make sense to them or that they don't attribute any sense of value and importance to what I said.

Some of that is unavoidable. Any person attempting social change that involves putting forth new ideas has to rely on a degree of optimistic projection, of anticipating that their ideas will indeed affect people strongly. And you can't let indifferent reactions shut you down, because new ideas are, by definition, alien and will not be immediately and wholeheartedly embraced.

But it's unsettling. Grandiose extrapolation of this sort IS a form of not being fully in contact with what is real. It has gotten me into trouble in the past. And it is a way of thinking that does not come with its own built-in lid. It can self-perpetuate to the point of thinking that the outcome is preordained, the participants' roles already written in advance, and all people involved representatives of Huge Social Forces that they represent in this little theatrical play, very dramatic and with grave portent and Massively Important Things always hanging in the balance. It's addictive to anyone who is trying to have a genuine impact on the world in which they live. Don Quixote never wants to see himself as a silly fool trying to joust with a windmill that is neither a real opponent, nor the joust a purposeless endeavor with no possible meaningful outcome.

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