I learnt a lot about mistakes when I was a literacy teacher. Literacy teachers aren’t just role models in terms of reading and writing — they’re also responsible for modeling self-esteem. In fact, back when I was a literacy teacher, I’d intentionally misspell a word on the board, then look at it sideways. “Hmm, did I spell that right?” I’d muse. “Tom, would you check the dictionary?” Not only would Tom leap at that dictionary, but he’d also love telling me how to spell the word correctly. I’d correct my spelling, publicly, without any shame, and the more I did this, the more the kids would check their own spellings and help one another other out, instead of bullying one another. Peace and much learning ensued.
Mistakes are how we learn. It’s the same with sex and gender. And in a culture of perfectionism, it’s hard to remember that.
I was musing about this when I read that sex columnist Dan Savage had been glitterbombed at the University of Oregon while he was giving a talk. The glitterbombers, who called themselves the “Dan Savage Welcoming Committee,” announced that Savage was transphobic, a misogynist and a rape-apologist. But Savage doesn’t dodge such accusations. “I certainly have had a journey in the last 20 years — as have we all — on trans issues,” Savage recently said. “When I started writing Savage Love 20 years ago, and you can yank quotes 15, 18 years ago and flat them up today and say, ‘You know, that’s transphobic,’ I’d probably agree with you. Fifteen years ago I didn’t know as much as I know now — nor did anybody.”
What I like about this is what it models for the rest of us: We all slip up. We all make mistakes. What’s more important is that we try, learn, grow.
A friend of mine got upset recently when we were discussing the “gender binary” (the myth that there are just two genders and nothing in between). We were talking about men’s and women’s restrooms, and whether, today, we needed them to be separate. (My friend, incidentally, had always believed they should be separate). I mentioned how hard it is to be a transgender male (for instance) in that situation. Do you go into the women’s room, when you identify as male but are female in terms of biological sex? Confusing, right? Going to the restroom becomes a stressful experience. People glare if you use the women’s because you are clearly male-identified, but you might have to wait for the stall if you go into the men’s.
In response, my friend felt terrible. She hadn’t intended to leave anyone out. But I reminded her that there was nothing to feel bad about. When society teaches us untruths, it’s society’s fault. And this is why we have to keep airing these issues and making mistakes, so we’re able to learn.
But while kids are attending sex education classes where the teacher is scared to speak, the students are afraid of being mocked, and the lessons themselves keeps to a careful script, how will they ever learn to ask the stupid question, receive a thoughtful answer, and change their minds? They need to see adult role-models slipping up and owning it. Not with condoms, consent and safe sex (those are basic building blocks) but with political correctness, sexual skills, and gender binaries galore. They need to understand that making mistakes is how we grow. Intellectually, they need to be adventurers, thirsty to explore, happy to learn.
So let’s go out there, adult people, and not blush terribly when we muddle up our pronouns, or say “fuck” when we didn’t plan to, or feel confused about the difference between water-based and gel-based lube. Let’s get out there, and in it, and muck ourselves up. Let’s ask the stupid question.
Because if we won’t grow, who will?