On very rare occasions, an unexpected sensory moment will trigger a powerful childhood memory and sometimes even a very early childhood memory. It's always a startling and usually pleasant experience that in some way, sometimes a very small way and very profound way, enriches who you are and your own level of self-awareness.
When it happens it's important to stop, take a moment, and consider it. Most of us tend to shrug it off and quickly move on. I've learned that if you do stop and lend it some time, it's often a portal to richer, deeper, and more complex memories.
These moments can be very simple. When I smell wet concrete I still flash on a bike accident I had at the age of six when I hit a hole in the sidewalk, flew off my bike head first, and landed on my face. Yum. I can still smell and taste the unhappy mixture of blood and concrete.
These moments can also be extremely intense and complex. Such was the case as I read a startling and compelling article in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle on the subject of elementary schools that celebrate and honor gender variation and diversity.
A private elementary school in the San Francisco area has gone gender neutral in an attempt to allow kids to find themselves sexually with as little interference from adults as possible. The school's philosophy on this issue is to allow nature to take its course rather than impose societal guidelines and categorization on gender.
As I worked my way through the story, I was reminded of toys, childhood companions, moments in schoolyards, parental admonitions, and condemnations and humiliations, the details of which had been long forgotten.
The street, television, movies, and the Internet expose kids to a cornucopia of gender options and role models. The school hopes to provide an environment in which kids can explore these options and find themselves without the imposition of judgments and demands from adults.
Children are not lined up according to sex when walking to and from class. Boys are allowed to play girls and girls are allowed to play boys in skits. There's a unisex bathroom. From kindergarten on, there is no boy's room and no girl's room.
Children are allowed to self-identify upon enrollment. As a result, one biological girl is enrolled officially as a boy and several boys and girls attend school on a regular basis dressed as a member of the biologically opposite sex. For those of you pondering the "when did he/she know" question, we're talking about five, six, and seven-year-old children.
According to this fascinating and unusually in-depth article, the school's staff members are among a growing number of educators and parents who are acknowledging gender variance in very young children. Another private school in the area has even hired a clinical psychologist to conduct staff training sessions in working with children who are "gender fluid."
The school notes that in their experience, signs of gender variation usually start appearing between the ages of two and four. For some of these children, it's a passing phase. Some grow up to be heterosexual, some gay, and some transgender. Some children insist they are the opposite sex although they might have a hard time explaining it. One nurse therapist explained that a boy once told her, "I think I swallowed a girl."
"The point is we don't know the outcome and don't need to know," said Catherine Tuerk, who runs the gender variance outreach program at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The Chronicle reporter describes the obvious debate among mainstream mental health professionals. Some believe such feelings can and should be extinguished through therapy, others believe that can destroy children's self-esteem.
"If you are forced to be something you don't want to be as a kid, you are miserable," said one expert. Speaking from a decade of experience counseling lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teens, she describes young adults who she says are scarred by early memories — a daughter forced to dress like a girl or a son whose dad hit him when he refused to play sports.
I suspect that for most queers, a debate on this issue seems borderline ridiculous. Speaking for myself, the stream of memories of being forced to be something that I was not is painful, but, as I said earlier, the memories are also illuminating, enriching, and healing.
How much of my life have I spent battling anxiety, fear, insecurity, and confusion simply because, as a very young child, I was admonished and oftentimes severely punished for my choice of toy, my choice of playmates, or my choice of fantasy.
As a young child, being mocked for perceived feminine behavior, forced to engage in activities that simply did not feel natural, and pushed into relationships that were extremely uncomfortable in no way changed or altered my sexual orientation. All it did was make me depressed, neurotic, anxious, and afraid.
As a result of imposed definitions and punishments for instinctive divergence, I've had to struggle through a life-long battle to build self-confidence and self-esteem, finally kicking open the closet door at the age of 40 in a rage.
I remember being sent away to Cub Scout camp as punishment for organizing costume parties for my girlfriends. I remember my father's rampage as he threw all my toys into the fireplace when he discovered that I had convinced my grandmother to exchange the autographed Yogi Berra catcher's mitt that he had bought me for a set of oil paints and an easel.
The reporter points out that in the worst cases, children pushed by parents and picked on by peers grow depressed, suicidal, or physically ill.
Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker at San Francisco State University who is conducting a long-term survey of gay youths and their families, explains that many adolescents she talked to were picked on from kindergarten age — long before they knew their sexual identity — for looking or acting "too feminine" or "too butch."
We're not supposed to live our lives focused on regrets, but I can't help but to wonder what might have been had my education focused more on my innate talents and creative inclinations than on being less of a lard ass and a sissy — two of my father's favorite insults for his young son's girlish behavior.
And for those folks among us who still insist that sexual orientation is learned or caught like some disease, the lesson of these San Francisco schools is that the gay virus is clearly found in mother's milk and training begins with the color choice of playpens and crib blankets.