Cartographers of Happiness
A few weeks ago, I was one of a half dozen guests invited to speak to a class of teenagers working through a Unitarian Universalist curriculum called “Our Whole Lives.” The cute acronym for this program is OWL and it’s a multi-staged, holistic sexuality course that invites young people to think about their development and relationships in rich and nuanced ways. Don’t worry; nothing I’m about to say is more than G-rated. Our discussion was about the ways people creatively map out their lives in a culture that often seems to offer few alternative pathways.
The guests for the day had been invited to speak not so much as experts as … experts on our own experiences. We were a wide-ranging crew: people who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, pan-romantic, transgender, unaffiliated, and then me … the cis-gendered heterosexual person. (Cis-gendered, meaning that I have always felt comfortable with my biologically female body and hetero, meaning that I am attracted to men in a way that lines up with traditional expectations.) If the purpose of the session was to allow these high-schoolers to see that there are many ways to forge a meaningful life, my own story promised to be the least compelling. I mean, what interesting story can you tell about a norm?
Except that as I anticipated questions from these smart teens, my so-called normative mind raced. I thought about how much people who align with hetero expectations don’t have to worry about “coming out” to family and friends, or think about whether or not to put photos of their family on their desks at work, or whom to bring to a family reunion. I thought about how much emotional energy I didn’t use when deciding hold hands with a beloved or offer a good-bye kiss, or … well, a hundred small acts that are invisibly accepted if you stick to the road most traveled by. When a person walks a different path, every one of those small actions can be loaded with anxiety, can be fuel for negative responses from families, friends, and strangers. Like the open-minded teens in that OWL class, I want to clear those roadblocks to happiness.
But even as someone who supposedly fits the cultural norm, I have found the norm an uncomfortable fit my whole life. I suspect a lot of us do. As a child, I hated the “happily ever after” marriage ending of so many stories. The independent girls I read about in my chapter books– the Little House series, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables –all those girls ran amok with their sisters and girlfriends through most of the story, and it was depressing to see their adventures collapse into boring marriages. I could not imagine my life story in those terms. I had watched my own mother reclaim her birth name in the early 70s, still happily married to my father but never feeling good about his name erasing hers, just because they’d gotten married. I spent so much time in my college days around people who identified as gay that heterosexual couples began to seem weird to me. I learned, in short, that what we think is normal is an invention, and we can re-invent it.
I did end up falling in love with and marrying a man, but I have always avoided the word “husband,” which sounds to me like a kind of itchy underwear. And I sure as heck have never felt like a “wife.” We carefully planned a wedding that didn’t mention heterosexuality, but to my gay friends who were not able to marry in 1989, it didn’t matter if I eschewed parts of the dominant culture; I still benefitted from policies that shut others out. I learned then that our most personal feelings have political dimensions; ask any same sex couple who married this year in Indiana, had that right snatched away, and then precariously returned.
Listening to the colorful personal stories in that OWL classroom reminded me how much is at stake in embracing our human variety. This week, Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote in the New York Times about the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, the transgender teen from Ohio who could not envision a world that would accept her. Boylan reminds us: “The world abounds with all sorts of ways of being human, one of which is being trans. It is a tragedy that Leelah was never given the chance to be proud of who she was ….”
As I listened to the teens in the OWL class ask unembarrassed questions, I felt so hopeful – so uplifted by their ability to envision a map of humanity criss-crossed with many roads to happiness. Those are students I want to learn from, those budding cartographers of the heart, of the self, of the diverse and shifting world.