Very little angers me as much as the attitude that “Interest X is not for Gender Y”. It may be “girls aren’t interested in birds”, or “boys aren’t interested in flowers”, or any of one million other variants. But it’s all the same basic thing, it’s telling us we belong in neat boxes. It’s rubbish.
This all came back to mind over the weekend when I read an excellent open letter by Birdgirl Mya-Rose Craig following a piece by Lucy McRobert. Please do read the letter, and look at her own blog too.
By the measure of any reasonable human being, Mya-Rose Craig is pretty inspirational. I hadn’t done anything like the things she has done at 13, probably still haven’t if I’m honest. Yet from the age of 7 she has been the victim of abuse, of stereotyping, and this then knocks on to make her feel nervous about what she can and cannot do. Which, sadly, is exactly the point of the bullying in the first place.
Bullies (because that’s what these people are) act the way they do because they are afraid. In this case, their very narrowly defined world is challenged, so they act aggressively to try restore balance. It’s actually incredibly sad, because it says so much about their own lives and how empty they are.
But at root, it’s not about the individuals that carry out the bullying. It’s about cultural attitudes that pervade society. Shops divide toys and clothing into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. Companies spend billions ensuring we all buy into this. Parents tell their sons that certain activities are for girls, and that to take part in it means you are ‘gay’. They tell their daughters that boys don’t like smart girls. Kids inherit and repeat their parents prejudices, and the cycle repeats (your parents are wrong about lots of stuff, intentionally or otherwise, even if only because knowledge advances so damn quickly).
I’d be fascinated to know how many of those parents where themselves bullied into this conformity. I bet it’s more than would be willing to admit it. You can go two ways from that. You can be determined that your children will get opportunities you didn’t have (and I put my parents in that bracket), or you can retrench and say “Well, I didn’t get these opportunities, why should he/she?”. It’s that same psychology of the bully again, their own shame and fear causes them to act out in exactly the way their own aggressors once did.
So, for what it’s worth, let me say this to Mya-Rose and all the other girls and boys being bullied for what they like, or what they are like; it will get better. There are always other people like you out there, and you will get stronger, and you will find them, and you will be happier. You should be interested in stuff, and engaged in the world around you. The people that don’t are the ones that are wrong. You are right.
It’s not just about the individuals on the receiving end though. If you are aware of this stuff, if you do not stand up and be counted, you carry a share of the guilt of both sides. People like Mya-Rose shouldn’t feel they cannot speak in certain circumstances, and we all must ensure that it’s the bullies that are silenced, that conferences are safe spaces.
In some ways, I think young people today are a bit luckier than my generation in this regard. The internet is a double-edged sword. Yes, it opens you up to more abuse. But it also makes it easier to find networks of like-minded peers. That’s no small thing.
If someone suggests you shouldn’t hold an interest, they are wrong. Unless what you are interested in happens to be robbing a bank or murdering someone.
If they tell you you should be quiet, they are wrong (most of the time). I was fortunate enough to have a very tough and smart grandmother who, even when I was 9 or 10, would encourage me to question things academics said in lectures. It’s a trait that has largely served me well.
If someone tells you boys don’t like smart girls, question it. Because no boy worth your attention will actually think like that. Any that do are petty, and small-minded, and will have unremarkable lives ahead. Smart boys like smart girls. If someone tells you that liking flowers makes you gay, two responses. Firstly, NO IT DOES NOT. Secondly, there’s nothing wrong with being gay anyway.
Society’s attitudes to sexuality and gender are changing for the better. It’s painfully, glacially, slow. But it is getting better. This will continue. I wish I could believe we will one day live in free and open tolerance of all, but that’s an unrealistic goal. But, increasingly, archaic attitudes will fade into the minority. So whoever you are, whatever the intolerance you face, just hang on. It can get better, it must get better, and it will get better.