Friday, 19 April 2013

Teenage Identities

One of the things about working with young people is that their conviction and passion constantly challenges your own beliefs and actions. Far from being the disinterested, apathetic and socially destructive teenagers and young adults that the media perceives them to be, they are (on the whole) perceptive, motivated and creative. These young people are more than aware of the damage that their predecessors are doing, which remove them ever further from their ideal society. They want to speak out, campaign for change, but they don't always understand how to harness that voice so the society that disrespects them so much stops to listen. Anyone spending time with this age group will see this passion in them, and will see the staggering maturity with which they speak - often far outstripping that of their "adult" counterparts. I consider myself privileged to witness this on a weekly basis, and was incredibly proud of last night's discussion. 

Before Easter, one of my members contacted me to say that she would be having a romantic night in with her girlfriend. Last night, she confessed that she had been trying to gauge opinion and adult reaction to it, and was confused by mine. She had expected an offer of support, or perhaps shock, admonishment about it being a phase, but any form of acknowledgment other than the simple "have fun" that she received.

Last night, she also "came out" to the rest of the group, in her own way and on her own terms. Less of a "coming out" than just telling them she had a girlfriend. But that is no easy thing to do for a teenager amongst her peers, however it happens. Her phrasing was, "I'm a girl who has a girlfriend, but it doesn't make me a lesbian. It doesn't even make me bisexual. Sexual identity isn't about labels, it's about individuals, attraction and comfort."

They discussed a girl (their choice of terminology) at their college who always introduces herslelf, "Hi, I'm X and I'm a lesbian". R said it was almost as if the fact she likes women is as important as her name, that it defined her as much as - perhaps more than - what she's called.

The conversation progressed and H commented on the importance of sexual identity to teenagers. At school, in their social groups, at home, they are defined by family, friends and enemies like by their relationships and romantic interactions. If they have a "steady" boyfriend, they are successful, and if they date different people, they are considered "dirty".

And it's not just peer pressure to have a boyfriend, but media too. Magazines are full of quizzes about dream boys, how to attract a boyfriend, what men want and how to please them. Films seem to centre around the old "boy meets girl" story, and princesses always find their true love in the end. Even music revolves around the struggles and celebrations of teen romance.

With this in mind, they told me, can't we say that sexual identity is actually central to the majority of teenagers, regardless of what that sexuality may be? Is the "Hi, I'm a lesbian" approach really that different to the everyday ways in which heterosexual teenagers allow themselves to be defined by their sexuality?

Having identified this need to claim sexuality as identity - already a staggering discussion with fantastic insight from the 14 year old members who really led it - they went a step further.

"To paraphrase Doctor Who," explained 17 year old A, "Sexuality isn't a straight line (pardon the pun), but a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, sexuality.... stuff."

R added, "I don't want to be put in a box according to who I date. Just as I don't feel comfortable with denominational labels. I am a person; wonderful and unique. Surely these sexual identity labels are just an extension of everyday sexism."

"To go around introducing myself as a lesbian," one member continued, "would be disrespectful and negate all the other things I've achieved. I'm an artist, a student, a daughter, a sister and a Guide. How is any of that less important than who I date?"

Eventually, the member who started the conversation with her "revelation" breathed a sigh of relief. 

"I was a bit worried you'd be funny about it," she admitted to them, as they laughed and hugged her.

"Why would we?" asked L. "You're still the same person you always were."

She was more than a little surprised at this. "But you don't think I fancy you all?"

"Why would we?" R asked, shaking her head. "That's like saying I fancy that old bloke over there, just because he's male! It doesn't work like that."

"That's what M keeps saying at school," the girl sighed sadly. "I always wish they understood like you guys. I'm so glad I've got Rangers."

And so am I.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Girlguiding - 103 Years of Relevance!

In case you haven't noticed, I'm proud to be a member of Girlguiding, providing varied and exciting activities to girls and young women and helping them develop as individuals spiritually, emotionally and socially.

As an organisation for girls and young women, I think it's essential that we represent their views on the issues that matter to them. Too often, the voice of youth is dismissed as unimportant or unnecessary. But if we are to engage them in social change and their own futures, then those voices need to be heard now.

I fully support Girlguiding's Advocate! panel and their aims - a group of young women aged 14-25 who reflect on issues that matter to them and their peers, and take action to change and make themselves heard. The discussions that have come from this group are insightful, thought provoking and have led to some truly wonderful campaigns, including the one currently in the media.

As a child, I was lucky enough never to come across The Sun or Page Three. I didn't even know of Page Three's existence until I was in my mid teens. For anyone who is fortunate enough to still be in that position, it's a full page dedicated to a topless "glamour" model, with a small news article that is generally used to poke fun at and belittle their intellect; because a woman is just there to look good, not to have opinions - obviously!

The first time I came across Page Three was when I worked at McDonald's as a 17 year old. The manager bought in a "selection" of newspapers for customers to read over their breakfast. If they lasted the morning, then maybe lunch as well. I was absolutely horrified to see Page Three wide open on the table with a family around it, the boy (about twelve or thirteen) telling his dad that he didn't "think much of her, her tits ain't big enough." He went on to make a comment about her face and how she looked like a dog, and the dad just laughed and told him, "it's not the face you're looking at, kid." The girl, who was younger, was just watching and listening to this conversation.

I asked the manager why we were handing out newspapers with topless women in a family restaurant. It seemed wrong that children were eating their happy meals with these overtly sexual images in front of them. I asked if they could maybe get the Guardian, the Independent, even the local papers. But I was told no. Because they're not family papers, and The Sun is.

The Sun is a family paper. And yet it contains those images. 

I couldn't quite get my head around it. But as you get older, you often lose a lot of that ideology and self-righteousness. You think there are bigger battles to fight, or just shrug and say, "it's the parents' choice, and it's the girls' choice to model". Some people call it maturity, others call it perspective. Sometimes, I think that it's unintentional ignorance, the forgetfulness of age. The more removed we become from youth, the more we forget the impact that these sorts of images have.

Every day, we have these images - this message of women being undervalued, being stupid, being nothing more than attractive commodities - thrown at us from the media. We swallow them all. We don't think we do, but we absorb them, we take them in and we become conflicted. Those messages are telling us that we're worthless if we're not beautiful, that we can be bought and sold, that we are nothing more than sex objects. And in our minds, we know that it's not true, but we have that voice that has been fed by years of indoctrination, telling us that we're unworthy. Many of us turn this voice into an inner critic - or self-deprecating humour - but the legacy of Page Three is there, embedded in our minds.

It seems the public is split on Girlguiding's decision to support the No More Page Three campaign. We have been congratulated, but also told to "get back in the kitchen". We have been told that we're little girls who don't know what we're talking about, we've been told that women can choose if they want to model and the public can choose if they want to buy. We've also been told that this is a last ditch attempt by a group of old, middle-class women to radicalise Girlguiding and make it relevant.


Girlguiding has been relevant for the last 103 years. The difference is that the good practice and social change that has been happening at local level, or by individuals, now has a national platform. The difference is that instead of having several individuals campaigning alone, Girlguiding has brought these people together and harnessed their collective power. We are the largest voice for girls and young women in the UK. We need to USE that voice.

People have cited all sorts of "more important issues" that need tackling, particularly focusing on violence and gender inequality. But this violence and mentality doesn't come from nowhere, it comes from ingrained "tradition" and "institutions", words both used to describe Page Three by its supporters. To end gender-based violence, you need to go right back to square one and tackle the mindsets and cultures that promote it, from stereotypes to media representation. And that is what Girlguiding is doing.

Others have criticised the sample taken. From over half a million members, only one section was consulted, and there were only 2000 respondents. Whilst I believe it right to only consult the young members whose voice we represent, and not the adult volunteers who just facilitate that voice, I was rather dubious about that consultation. Until I looked at the wider picture.

In the Girls' Attitudes Survey, 68% of respondents felt that women are judged more on their appearance than on their ability and only 14% believed that women are equal to men in today's society. And if you need an even bigger sample of the feelings of young people, look at the 25,000 signatures on Girlguiding's airbrushing petition.

Body image matters to them. What they are seeing in the media, the lies that they are fed about their self-worth and the impact it has, matters to these young people. And you can't just separate the idea of Page Three from body image and self-worth, because it's showing girls from a young age that their opinions only matter to men if their "tits are big enough".

And to critics within the organisation, who feel the focus is being taken away from having fun and put too heavily on activism, remember that Girlguiding has always been about putting the girls' wishes first. It's why Guiding started in 1910 - because they wanted something for the girls. We have always been committed to a balanced programme, and discussing the issues that they have identified as important is a vital part of that balance and self government. 

Monday, 8 April 2013

A Woman's Job...

We all sat in the school library. I say library, but it was an empty room in the eaves of a Victorian school building, with a couple of bookshelves, white walls and beige carpets. It wasn't used so much as a library, as a music room, performance space and general shepherding area.

I can't quite remember why we were herded in there; perhaps it was an assembly, perhaps singing practice, perhaps it was recorder group. But I remember sitting with my friend Kate, who I had known since we were babies, and telling her the worst joke ever (What did the big chimney say to the little chimney? You're too young to smoke).

And then we heard the teachers talking. Margaret Thatcher was no longer Prime Minister, she had been succeeded by John Major. We had a new PM and the dark days were over.

As a six year old girl, I had no idea what they meant by dark days. I had seen pictures of war ships on the news and documentaries, and had heard things, but you really don't understand at age six. My concern was bigger than that.

"Are you sure?" I asked Miss H. Miss H was a lovely, kind teacher who we all thought looked like a magic fairy. "It doesn't sound right."

She assured me it was the case, and I remember being thoroughly confused.

"But John is a man's name, isn't it?" I had been certain, but if he was a man then something was wrong. "And that can't be right. Because the Prime Minister is a woman's job, just like the Queen. Only women can have the most important jobs."

That was the world I grew up in. The two most important offices in the country were held by women. I never for a moment doubted that women could achieve and reach the top of their careers. In fact, I was dubious that men could hold these jobs. I grew up in a world where we wanted to be politicians, dentists, geologists, doctors, mechanics and plumbers, and I grew up in a world where we were skeptical of the Disney princesses and the need for a Prince Charming - girls could save themselves!

Love or loathe the policies, this was the true legacy that Margaret Thatcher left behind for a generation of young girls. A legacy of power. It would be naive to say she removed the ceiling for women entirely, but she changed an impenetrable concrete one into a more fragile glass ceiling, one that we have a chance at shattering.

 Many around the country speak of celebration, that they will hold parties in honour of her death. It saddens me that anyone would do so, particularly women. No joy comes from a story such as this; the joy of death is indirect, it comes from change and not the death itself. If people are freed by a leader's death, that is the origin of the celebration. But no change, no joy comes from this. Only, perhaps, a sense of peace for those that were irrevocably hurt by her policies.

For me, though, she will always be the first Prime Minister that I knew; the lady that meant - from a young age - that I was aware of my potential as a human being, not just as a woman. And though I may disagree with her politically, I respect the legacy of power she's left behind for a generation, and for generations to come.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Youth Voice

If you had asked me three years ago if I thought a teenager was capable of taking on a role like Youth PCC, I would instantly have said no. Like many adults in the UK, I thought that young people were too naive and too inward-looking to thoughtfully carry out such a role.

But then I got involved in Girlguiding and had the privilege to work with some remarkable and inspirational young women, who have changed lives, spoken out on difficult issues, educated others and made more of a mark on their society than many of their "adult" counterparts.

We are so quick as a society to judge people on their years. If people are over a certain age, they are deemed as surplus to requirements, yet under another and they suddenly get blanketed as naive, trouble making idiots. We need to start basing our assessments on individuals, not whole age groups.

As a teacher, I have worked with colleagues who have been doing lines in the toilets, who have rolled into work still drunk from the night before, who pick fights and sulk with other staff because of petty playground issues and who make catty, immature remarks about how others are dressed. 

And in these same schools, I have taught young people who have done extraordinary fundraising for charity, who have volunteered at women's centres and organisations, who have lobbied their local MPs and MEPs, who have sat on youth parliaments and local youth engagement committees. Each of whom has taken their roles and responsibilities seriously and made real impact.

I have been asked several times today if I think Paris Brown should have been given the PCC role. You know what? I have no idea. I have never taught her, never worked with her, never met her. So I really could not comment on her suitability as an individual.

But what I can say is that the system has failed her.

It's vitally important that we engage young people in the decision making process. Not just for our democratic future and encouraging them to vote, or even because they are the age group most likely to be involved in crime (both as victims and perpetrators), but because young people are just as big a part of our society as adults and we need to recognise that.

However, whenever an adult is put in a public role, they receive (or will have previously had) media training, social media policies and other mentoring. This is to protect the public image of the company and role as much as the individual in it. Sometimes young people, having grown up with social media, can be less inclined to take this sort of advice, but this is why it is even more important that good and comprehensive mentoring is provided.

A workshop on social media would have highlighted the potential issues of Paris' previous tweets, and it would have given her the opportunity to review her public profile before she undertook the role or was announced. She needed to be prepared for the unrelenting pressure and digging of the media. Even when using a generic and role-specific account, media will trawl through personal ones for the dirt.

Too often, young people are thrown into roles of responsibility without the support they need for growth and development. I am not in any way saying that they are incapable, but stressing that as adults we receive professional development courses and training and recognise the importance of that. People do not seem to be aware that the same needs to be afforded to young people in these roles.

It has been queried if any young person should be in the sort of role offered to Paris Brown, especially ones that aren't considered adults in the eyes of the law. If you want to see how mature and insightful these people can be, then please visit the PCC Youth Charter website, written by young people in 2012.

I don't condone the tweets in any way, but we all show off and behave differently on our personal social media pages. The difference between us is experience and training. I just hope that Paris Brown's experience (and subsequent apology - which was wonderfully done!) doesn't deter organisations from recognising the voice of youth in this country, but rather inspires them to offer the same support as they afford their adult counterparts. After all, we are investing in the future.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

A Day In The Life...

Sometimes, I really wish that society understood a teacher's workload. I'm not saying that we work harder than other professionals at all, but I do think that we are dismissed by too many as a group of lazy, whining slackers who are undeserving of the professional status we have.

The latest point of contention seems to be a "four hour day", as it is being termed. However, this is not an accurate description of what has been suggested.

In fact, what has been requested is twenty hours of contact time a week, which equates to four hours a day. This is not a four hour day, but four hours of teaching time. Perhaps, to understand the real impact of this, I ought to explain how a day works for me.

At a primary school, like any school, my first day is planned for me. I arrive at 8.15, familiarise myself with the day's planning, and then double check any information about key pupils. Children begin to arrive at 8.45/8.50 and I then teach straight through until about 10.30, at which point I'm usually on break duty. Not actual break for me, because I'm supervising children. I teach again until lunchtime, at which point I need to set up the classroom for the afternoon session, gather resources, resolve issues from the morning session, supervise colouring club / reading club. This means I eat my lunch whilst working, as I don't actually get a break. Again. I teach the afternoon session until 3.15/3.30 (depending on the school) and then can't get on until the last child has been collected and gone.

So what? It's only 3.45.

Well, at 3.45, I sit down to do the marking. Generally, numeracy / maths is the easiest marking, which takes about an hour and a bit to mark a class of 25 pupils. Why so long? Because as well as "ticking" and correcting, I need to write an individual comment on each pupil's work. This isn't simply "very good, Johnny", but related to the learning objective for that lesson.

First, I have to say what they have done well and what progress they have made to achieving the learning objective. It could be that they are starting to understand the relationship between fractions, decimals and percentages, it could be that they are converting fractions, decimals and percentages with ease, it might just be that they understand that a percentage is always less than a whole unit. Sometimes, you have to be very creative.

Next, I comment on how they can improve their work. This isn't just "better handwriting, please", but it's related to that learning objective again. So if that pupil is beginning to understand simple lines of symmetry, it might be a challenge about multiple lines of symmetry. If the work has been about co-ordinates, it might be a translation challenge. Always something that will stretch and challenge the individual pupil and help them attain that learning objective more fully.

Which is damned hard when you don't know the kids.

On most pieces, as well, I then need to assess which national curriculum level they are working at and write a comment about why they are there and how to build on it. If I'm really clever, I can combine that with the stuff above.

So now it's 4.50 and I've done maths. Cool.

Next up, it's literacy. Now, this is a longer one, marking wise. I need to check everything from spelling, punctuation and grammar, through to content and structure. I can easily spend ten minutes on each child's piece of work here, especially if it's a longer piece of writing. Again, I have to do my "bubble and block" (the positive and the target), as well as levelling and corrections. And as writing is often so subjective, it usually needs another more personal interaction there.

At 6.10pm (on a good day), I've marked my work up until lunchtime. By this point, the site manager is starting to get concerned that the supply teacher is STILL here.

If I'm lucky, then I've had either ICT, music, dance, PE or a practical science afternoon. Even art and PSHE are easy enough to mark or level. I can usually get through that in half an hour to forty five minutes. If it's history, geography, written science or similar, then I'm back to bubbles, blocks, levels and all the rest of it.

Normally, I leave a primary school between 6.45 and 7.30pm, depending on the afternoon lessons. It's not much longer than a "normal person's" working day, at this point.

I get in about half an hour later and grab some food, then sit on my computer. This is where I start planning for the following day. I need to plan literacy, maths and two afternoon sessions. Once I've decided what I'm teaching (this will depend on the learning objective and learning outcomes), I need to create the "input" resource (usually a PowerPoint), as well as resources for the learning and exploration. Everything needs to be delicately chosen so that it is using the right buzzword of the moment (higher cognitive learning objectives seem to be favourable at the moment - create, explore, analyse etc) whilst remaining accessible to the pupils.

And one worksheet just isn't enough. Because one worksheet won't stretch your high ability pupils, or be accessible to your low ability ones. So you need to create three or four different worksheets, each designed specifically for the group in mind.

Yes, there are websites like TES, which are a God-send. But these are, usually, just a rough idea. Each teacher has their own style and it doesn't work to just teach using borrowed resources. It's like wearing someone else's reading glasses. They might help a bit, but they will never be as good as ones designed for you. So once you've found something there, you still need to tweak it and play with it, adapt it for your group.

Generally speaking, with the time you spend searching on TES, as well as adapting, you will probably spend more time doing it that way. But the base inspiration will result in better quality resources and better learning for your class, so you do it.

Bearing in mind that you need to plan the lesson (20mins per lesson if inspired! An hour to plan the day), then create resources (an hour for first worksheet, 15mins for each differentiation, 30 mins for PowerPoint), you're looking at about two hours per lesson for maths and literacy, then whatever your afternoon lessons are. Possibly up to 10 hours prep time needed!

But I don't have that when preparing for the following day, because that would take me to something like 5am. Instead, I cut corners and do what I can, setting myself a time limit. I fall into bed at about 1 or 2am, grateful that I'm not a primary teacher full time!

Most people believe the myth that secondary teaching is harder. Certainly, the pupils are more problematic if you don't have the relationship with them, and there is more pressure with GCSE results. But the workload is marginally less.

Because we have specialist subjects, we can roughly "parallel plan". This means that my Y9 first language German class might be learning the same thing as my two Y8 second language German classes and I can adapt the lesson accordingly. It can cut planning for 25 lessons down considerably, especially if you have several classes in the same year group. And, which French and German, you can adapt some resources so that you have the same stuff in both languages. Score.

Marking's still a bitch, but every job has its downfall. And without marking, we couldn't see the impact of our teaching or adjust our lesson planning accordingly.

What people don't see with teaching is that our time in the classroom is but the tip of the iceberg. We have to plan the lessons, create the resources that we are using (it's not enough to photocopy from a book!), we need to mark and assess, we need to input data, attend meetings, monitor behaviour, reflect on individual education plans for pupils with special needs. There is so much more to teaching than standing in a classroom.

Don't get me wrong, I love my job. I wouldn't change it for the world, because I get to help and inspire young people every day of my life. And I do find time to volunteer too, though it does sometimes mean cutting corners with work.

But realistically, if I'm doing my job properly, and not letting these young people down, then I am never going to have time for a relationship. I am never going to have time for a family. I am never going to have time to see my friends, other than in those holidays.

Which is another point. Yes, we do get long periods of non-contact time. I do, however, call it non-contact time. Because, during that time, we have budgets to catch up with, curriculum area development plans to review, marking to catch up with, training and professional development to look at, planning to do, resources to create, classrooms and displays to update and redecorate. As a supply teacher I end up at work in those holidays, so goodness knows how full-time members of staff feel.

I see teachers with families and wonder how they do it. How do they juggle this professional life with having a husband / wife / partner / children? The answer, in many cases, is that they are not managing it, really. They are either not spending time with their little ones, or they're not spending the time they ought to be doing work. Or they're managing everything, but constantly stressed, tired and miserable,

By asking for four hour days, unions aren't being lazy or unrealistic, they are actually being more realistic than they've ever been. They're saying that you need to reduce the workload somehow. That's either going to be in terms of hours, or in terms of the expectations (marking etc). Because whilst teaching stays the way it is, it is going to become increasingly difficult to recruit or retain good teachers. People won't do a job that they see as thankless and soul-destroying. And it is a perception, because teaching is a wonderful profession. We just need to find the balance again.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Orientation & Community

As a young person beginning to come out, I loved the sense of community and identity that labels provided. It was safety in numbers and, more importantly, the knowledge that I wasn't alone or abnormal.

I spent a couple of years experimenting to see where I fitted in. First, I tried cutting my hair short, wearing baggy jeans and tight vest tops, dog tags and big boots. But my boobs were always too big to really go in for the masculine approach, and it didn't really feel like me. I was a girl, why shouldn't I look like one?

I then went to the other extreme, wearing floaty skirts, lots of jewellery and make up, growing my hair back out. But somehow, that didn't feel true to myself either.

My first two years at university, I went out clubbing and was part of the scene, but didn't fit comfortably into any of the tribes. I was too feminine to be classed as "butch", but too masculine to be classed as "femme". And I certainly didn't come under the "androgynous" banner. Other women didn't know what to make of me,and I didn't know what to make of myself. 

Events of my third year shattered any sense of identity that I had, and I am (perhaps surprisingly) grateful for that change. 

In the years following my year abroad, I've found community identity fascinating but not essential. I no longer see myself as a member of the LGBT "community" and, generally, will describe my sexual orientation as "someone who likes women" rather than "lesbian" (lesbian is generally used when I need shorthand or when I'm trying to convey a message to certain people who might not understand or accept other phrasings).

Similarly, in the sci-fi and fantasy community, where a whole range of subcultures and hierarchies exist (Twilight at the bottom, Doctor Who being dominant but not necessarily "top"), I constantly surprise people by not adhering to a certain stereotype or staying within a certain group, but by enjoying different areas of fandom, such as steampunk, comics and Misfits.

The thing is, I'm not a label. I'm not a stereotype, I'm not that simple. I'm me.

The main difference between my sci-fi community and the LGBT one is that I do view my love of science-fiction and involvement in their events as part of me and my identity, whereas my sexual orientation is no more than who I am attracted to. It has formed part of me, because I have allowed it to (as you can see from reading this), but I don't think whether I am romantically involved with men or women defines me as a person.

So when on a date and told, "I don't usually date femmes", I bristled. A lot. Because I don't identify as a "femme" at all; the term carries weight and assumption. 

In the current, widespread definition of "femme", I suppose I am one. I can be mistaken as a heterosexual woman. But this definition is the antithesis of everything I believe in; that sexual orientation itself doesn't create identity or vice versa, that it is a separate part that doesn't affect one's personality or lifestyle (don't get me started on "LGBT lifestyle").

But the most important part of my indignation was not the assumption that I identified with this subculture, but the insistence that I did. I had already said to this woman that I don't identify as "femme", that I am probably found in activity trousers and hoodies far more often than dresses, and that my hair is long so that it can be tied back out of the way - easier than styling! And yet she continued to address me as "femme".

She made it seem like a dirty word, like a thinly veiled insult. And in the same breath, she called me beautiful, intriguing and fascinating. She said I wasn't like "other femmes". Perhaps because I'm not one?

Some people cannot get past the idea that you have to adhere to one of these "tribes". Even my mother feels uncomfortable that I don't fit into either of her ideas of a lesbian. And yet, until we can get past this fixation that orientation makes a person, how do we expect equality and to be treated "like anyone else".

How many people go round saying, "Hi, I'm Katie and I'm a heterosexual woman"? And yet, you'll often find women who say, "Hi, I'm Katie and I'm a lesbian". You may be chortling and thinking it doesn't happen, but it does. And scarily often.

Because heterosexuality doesn't define someone's identity. Who can describe what a heterosexual woman looks like? And yet people assume that homosexuality does, and they think they can describe the key features of homosexual individuals just by that one person.

This fixation on LGBT community and identity frustrates me as well as intrigues me. I can see where it's come from, how it developed, how important a sense of belonging felt - and still feels to many. But by segregating themselves from the rest of society, by having their own bars and restaurants, by insisting on this adherence to stereotypes, there is a very real danger that they will alienate themselves from the very same society by which they strive to be accepted.

Fundamentally, however, these communities are an important part of self-discovery and acceptance in a society where minority sexual orientation and identity is still deemed abnormal and, by some, abhorrent. What they need to do, and what individuals need to do, is to accept that their parameters aren't finite, and that identity is personal and undefinable, and support each other in their chosen paths rather than undermine those that do not "fit".

Monday, 1 April 2013

Find a Husband? No Thanks!

I will always remember my very first French class at university, though for entirely the wrong reasons. There was a mature woman in our group, who spent almost the entire hour ranting about how young people shouldn't go to university, that we didn't have the capacity to understand or appreciate it. She told the lecturer that I (yes, she singled me out for her tirade) ought to go and find myself a husband, have some children and go back to university when I had the life experience and dignity to accept the great privilege of education.The lecturer nodded, smiled and made affirmative noises, which got me even more irate.

My anger at this wasn't at any single point, rather the message as a whole. It was the assumption that age equals maturity, the idea that young people aren't capable of appreciating education, the assumption that I was heterosexual, the idea that I wanted a husband and children.

And I haven't entirely lost that sense of outrage and indignation, as the Susan Patton case (and Joanna Moorehead's article) shows.

I have absolutely no qualms in a woman telling students that academia isn't everything, that there is more to life than a career. One of the best pieces of advice in my life (so far) came from a wonderful man who told me, "You work to live, not live to work". In fact, I encourage that perspective, as over-competitiveness between women in industry is rife and I see it encouraged by some as a way of undermining any sort of solidarity.

What I cannot condone, however, is the societal attitude that we need to be married to be "complete". Whilst, as humans, we do crave interaction and relationships, that can be fulfilled by friendship as well as in physically intimate and romantic relationships. And, for some, the friendship is enough.

Our culture already places a disproportionate amount of pressure on women to settle down, find their "prince" and live "happily ever after". Just look at the social conditioning girls receive from an early age; fairytales, pantomimes, films, musicals, even pop songs. Every step of the way, they are shown that successful women get a man in the end, that only evil women end up single, that to be alone is failure. But it's not.

Yesterday, my grandparents were beside themselves because my younger sister has a boyfriend and I'm still single (I've had three fianc├ęs, it's not really worked out). They lamented that I have no hope now, because I'm too old, because I'm too independent, because I think too much. They were so upset that a relationship and children are not a priority for me.

But I have different dreams for my life. I want to make a difference to others, whether that's practically in education, or by inspiring others to take a step in things that I say or write. I want to do well in my career and make sure that future generations get the support they deserve whilst at school. I want friendship and fun. If I find someone who can accept that, and who can accept me, and we do click, then a relationship isn't off the table. Children are not off the table. But is it really so selfish and wrong for that not to be my number one aim in life?

Fundamentally, I agree with both Moorehead and Patton in their assertion that feminism is about equality and happiness in all areas of life, not just about career and money. But there is a huge difference between promoting that balance and urging women to find husbands, perpetuating a ridiculous societal pressure.

The thing is, we as women, we as feminists, we need to be challenging these perceptions, not encouraging them. We don't need to tell students to hurry up and find their husbands, we need to tell them that their career isn't everything and they need to think about friendships, networks, their support. We don't need to tell girls that they are failures if they don't find a man, we need to tell them that they are successes if they are happy. And we need to show them that happiness can exist outside the parameters of a traditional marriage.