Friday, May 29, 2015

The Long Silence, Part 4: Needing Affirmation from my parents

I've always said that I probably would have had a much easier time handling the bullying I experienced in middle school as well as the other setbacks I experienced throughout my life had my parents affirmed me instead of telling me I needed to change.

I started to get affirmation at Camp Negev, the only place I had ever felt comfortable when I was a teenager. I remember that throughout the years I was there the kids in my age group told me that I was "refreshing" and that I was "strong". One of my fondest memories was in the summer of 1996 (age 15), when my friend and mentor, Jonas, and his girlfriend (now his wife), Netya were putting my bunk to bed. We were all talking, and somehow I started talking about the one day, just a few months prior, when I had reached an epiphany and summoned the strength to stand up to the kids who were bullying me. I remember saying things like, "I finally realized that it wasn't my fault." Everybody in the room listened, really listened. When I had tried to tell my parents about it when we were in yet another fight about the clothing issue, they didn't want to hear it. But everybody in the bunk at camp that night was impressed.

Netya was one of those who was impressed, so impressed that she Tributed me a couple days later. "Tributing" was a camp tradition where one person writes a Tribute to another person-- often in the form of a poem-- and reads it in front of the entire camp. Nobody knows who that person is until the very end of the Tribute. Then the person who receives the Tribute has to Tribute someone else. In the Tribute Netya commented on my independence-- my creativity, my weird sense of humor, and even dressing tomboyish-- in a positive way. I thought to myself, "Jonas and Netya appreciate me for who I am. So do the other kids in the group. Why not my own parents?" Well, imagine how hard it was for me to go home at the end of every summer. And by the way, I still have the Tribute. Fond memories, that.

And of course the following school year was a lot of the same old, same old. I wasn't being bullied (I was now in high school, and most of the kids who had been in my middle school were zoned for another high school), but my parents-- Mom especially (how many times can I say that?)-- were still hovering over me and trying to tweak me in terms of my gender identity and expression. They didn't seem to see the growth I'd experienced by being able to stand up to the bullies-- how could they? They had never let me tell the story. They had just kept cutting me off. Another problem was that they didn't seem to believe me when I told them that people at camp appreciated the fact that I was different, and admired me for not succumbing to peer pressure in terms of gender expression. They seemed to think that people were just telling me what I wanted to hear in order to avoid conflict.

And whenever I had an opinion about anything if my parents disagreed with it, they didn't treat it like a difference of opinion. They treated it like the opinion of someone who just didn't understand how the world works. This was especially true with gender roles, and Mom's statements on this issue were always punctuated with, "You will change your mind when you get older." In other words, what you're feeling isn't real, but rather just a phase that you should have outgrown long ago. When you'll older, you're realize that you need to conform or else there's something wrong with you." Well, that's what it felt like I was hearing.

It was horrible not to get this affirmation from my parents. It is cliché for an adult to say, "As a teenager I thought I knew everything and that my parents were wrong. Well, I realize now that they're right." But I knew that there were certain things I would never change my mind on-- ever. So what did it mean? Was I destined to change my mind and "grow up", falling into the trap that many people do when they conflate conformity-- particularly gender conformity-- with maturity? And what about the fact that I rarely felt like I could tell my parents anything? Well, my parents insisted they were "always there for me" and yet I couldn't tell them much, so did that mean I was the problem?

In the spring of 1998, Dad finally said something me that I had desperately needed to hear. It started with yet another day where I was in a battle with my parents over clothes. I blew up and screamed, "You won't let me be a tomboy! You just want me to fit into this narrow-minded mold you have set for me!" Later, Mom lectured me that "tomboy" was an inappropriate word to describe myself at age 17, that tomboys were "little girls who act like boys." I said something to the effect of, "I'm proud of who I am, and you just keep telling me I'm wrong!" The next day, Dad and I had a long talk about the whole tomboy issue. Loosely quoting Inherit the Wind (and confusing "gene" with "chromosome"), I said, "Yes, I have a second X gene. It's a gene. It's a determining gene, but it's not the only gene!" Dad listened, and said that I had made a valid point. He said, "You're right. We have been too restrictive on you." At the end of the conversation, I asked, "Mom says I'll change my mind about these things. Will I?" Dad said, "No, because it goes against everything you believe in." I don't think he knew how badly I needed to hear that.

It got better, but I had to wait another eleven years for that to happen. And that will be discussed in the next and final blog post.

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