My life could, however, be split into different epochs, much like the Jurassic, Devonian or Cambrian (and if they’re in the wrong chronological order, I shall huffily claim that such was my original intent).
In my case, first came the racist epoch. I was raised in a very white household in a very white part of England. I can still remember the first time I saw a black person in my home town, because as a child of eight, I stopped and stared. My parents (and therefore the rest of us) regularly used racial slurs in conversation, told one another racist jokes and laughed at overtly racist comedy on TV (there was a lot of it on TV in England in the 60s and 70s). And then, one day, I met a person of colour. Finished.
Then there was the homophobic epoch, which also began in childhood (once again in the parental home) and was nurtured in the poisonous atmosphere of single-sex education. It persisted into my late 20s, when the universe gave me a good shake to show me some sense. That shake came in the form of two gay neighbours (whom I had immediately regarded with a mix of suspicion and dismissive contempt), who, to my surprise, turned out to be two of the kindest and warm-hearted people I had ever met. Prejudice finished.
The sexism epoch arose from fear. Having been utterly comfortable in the company of girls as an elementary school kid (apart from that time, aged seven, when Mandy Thompson told everyone who could hear that she would be sick on me if I kissed her), during my adolescent years and that single-sex schooling, things changed. I became terrified of girls, and the potential for rejection by them. As I grew older, I avoided contact with females (especially the ones I found attractive), and regarded them as unreachable and beyond understanding. When I fell in love for the first time, those blinkers began to shrink away from my eyes. Prejudice finished.
Now, in my mid-fifties, I face another opportunity to learn. I speak of my mild confusion – if that’s the right word – around current attitudes towards gender; I’ve always been slow off the mark. The issue isn’t my understanding that gender is a far more fluid and dynamic concept than I was ever taught; I have learned that my map of the world was not the world. The difficulty I experience – and I get it that many, many people are way ahead of me on this – is that my instincts are still programmed for a two-gender world.
I see someone dressed in traditionally male garb, and my instincts say: “That’s a man.” Likewise for someone wearing what I identify as traditionally female clothing: “That’s a woman.” It has nothing to do with my respect for a person’s gender identity, and everything to do with fifty-plus years of social conditioning. I’m not sure that this can be judged; it simply is. My instinctive responses - which happen before thought - are beyond my control, although with time, and my immersion in a new, more inclusive society, I’m optimistic that things – like my racism, sexism and homophobia – will change. But from time to time, as I make progress with this, I know I’m going to screw up.
My hope is that my relatively minor difficulty will not be misinterpreted as some kind of ‘anti’ prejudice. This is still a new concept for me. It’s a new thing for my reptile brain (I told you I’m a dinosaur) to learn about and – here’s the crux of it: to become accustomed to.
Most changes in my life have dawned upon me retrospectively – that is; the realisation that I have changed tends to come into my awareness some time after it takes place. This helps me be optimistic about adapting to change now and in the future, and I’m resigned to living the idea of: ‘I’ll know it’s real when it’s been happening for some time without me noticing.’. I’m sure that my old ideas about gender will evolve to meet the reality of our world; they have to. While I’m waiting for the process to complete, I need to be aware of the possibility of unintentionally offending some people through my momentary lapses of awareness.
I’m considering wearing a badge…