I’m not sure that Wesley Yang’s point about why LGBT+ has a plus on the end is correct, that it’s not just a shorthand to include the recent invention of 31 flavors of gender, as opposed to an invitation to add new gender labels. There is a penchant for creating labels, and rules that define them, for the sort of stuff that has always been but didn’t need a label before. Even the New York Post has gotten into the deal, explaining the meaning of “fluid bonding” between “demisexuals,” or as others might call it, unprotected sex with someone you love.
“Fluid bonding” — the act of intentionally sharing bodily juices with a sexual partner — is purportedly becoming a popular practice in bedrooms across the nation.
The article goes on to provide a list of distinctions between “fluid bonding” and unprotected sex based on the motives of its participants. At first, this might seem to be nothing more than the desperate murdering of words in some pseudo-intellectual frenzy to turn it into a positive rather than a negative, but it fails miserably for two very obvious reasons. The first is that it’s no different than what people have always done. The second is that it reflects a need very familiar to parents of toddlers, the need to provide rules of conduct so that a child doesn’t do something foolish and harmful while engaging in otherwise entirely normal human development and behavior.
What appears lost is any tolerance for ambiguity. There have always been women who preferred to wear pants, play sports or hang out with guys. There have always been guys who didn’t care for sports and preferred to be more artistic or fashion conscious. They may have had a sexual attraction for their own sex or they may not. Watching football didn’t mean you were straight or gay. It meant you liked to watch football. You didn’t need a special word to label you, unless you were a Jets fan.
The problem now is that there is a label for everything, and the misnomer of “safe space” to investigate a young person’s questioning which label they should adopt.
Shaping one’s identity is a central part of adolescence. Many parents want to give their kids the freedom to explore and question who they are—including their sexuality and gender. The challenge is knowing when questions come from within a child, and when they arise out of pressure from peers, or from strangers online.
Social media and other platforms can provide resources for kids who are exploring. But some of the people who teens encounter online may push them to feel they have to make a choice about their gender identity, and that the choice represents picking a side.
Kids explore, as they should, but rather than learn that it’s both normal and entirely fine to be whoever they are, or want to be, and that they aren’t constrained by labels and, once labeled, aren’t free to decide that they are, or want to be, something other than what the label tells them they must be, they get pigeonholed. Not by their parents, necessarily, who often lack the influence parents believe they have over their children, but by random strangers on websites to encourage new members of their mini-tribe and to then manipulate them into accepting the orthodoxy of their new label.
“Gender-diverse people have always existed but they didn’t necessarily have a community or a way to find that community,” said Crystal Cole, medical director of the Center for Gender Affirming Medicine at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio. “What we’re seeing now are young people comfortable exploring their gender identity and finding communities of people who will accept them and not judge them. That’s one of the wonderful things about social media.”
There are, no doubt, “gender-diverse” people, even though that label is constricting and unnecessary. These were once just “people,” some of whom liked to play baseball and others who preferred opera. So what? Did you need permission to “break” from whatever stereotype was imposed? I never watched sports until Dr. SJ, a die-hard New York Giants fan, made me watch. Was she more manly than me? Was I less manly? If so, it never occurred to either of us and we just preferred to do different things on Sundays. We didn’t need a name for it and if anyone had told us there were rules we were required to follow, we would have had unkind words for that person.
“Everything your child does is going to be influenced by the internet, whether it’s how they dress, the music they listen to, how they feel about their body or what they consider to be attractive or healthy,” Dr. Cole said. “Exploration of gender identity is normal in adolescents and now it’s socially acceptable to explore that. I don’t think parents need to be worried about that.”
For some kids, it can provide the supportive community they can’t find at home or with their real life friends. But parents do need to be, and should be, “worried,” because their parental rules are being replaced by the rules imposed by the unduly passionate inhabitants of internet safe spaces.
“It got to the point where people told me that if I’m feeling this way, I am gender-fluid. It was very black and white. At that point I was like, ‘Maybe they’re right,’” said Noah. “Was this something that’s always been there and I hadn’t noticed it before?” Some of his childhood friends told him it seemed out of left field, he said, adding, “I ignored them.”
When he began identifying in the group as gender-fluid and pansexual he said he received a lot of positive attention and acceptance from fellow members, which felt good.
But he said discussions in the group were often polarizing. “It was: ‘If you’re part of this community, you’re a great person, and if you’re not, you’re homophobic and racist.’ You can’t just say you support the LGBTQ+ community, you have to be in it. And if you’re part of it, you have to find a very specific label and stick with it,” he said.
The teen in the story brought his new-found gender identify to his parents, who neither accepted nor rejected it, but asked him to give it some independent thought. His mother took a look at the messages he was getting at the website Discord as well to understand how his thinking was influenced.
“It was total strangers pushing him,” she said. Some people encouraged him to run away from home if his parents didn’t accept him. One person said he would come to his house and hurt his parents if they didn’t embrace Noah’s identity.
After breaking out of the internet cult chamber, Noah realized he was neither gender-fluid nor pansexual. But had his parents not successfully given him new “rules” to consider that allowed him to free himself from the rules of his new “supportive” community, would he have had the strength to break from the labels? What compels young people to have to “be” something at all? Just because there’s a plus on the back end of LGBT doesn’t mean you can’t watch football if that’s what you like. Unless it’s the Jets.