The Second Sexing
Lesbian Alert; How to Create a Change-Maker
The principal asks me to step outside with her to a private spot to talk. “I don’t care what you do outside of work,” she starts, “but someone has contacted HR with a complaint.” There’s a complaint once a year or so. Alongside my stellar teaching record, there is always someone in the school district who takes issue with me being an out lesbian, an outspoken feminist, and a proponent of comprehensive sex education. This time it’s about a TikTok video in which I talk about sex. Which one? She doesn’t know. What did I say? Also unknown. What could happen? “If a parent complains and wants their child removed from your classroom, it becomes a conflict of interest. Then your life coaching job interferes with the education process and HR gets involved.” Heat rises up from my chest. I’m sure my neck and face turn red. I feel dizzy.
At home, embarrassed and ashamed, I scour the TikTok videos that I have created over the last year and a half during a global pandemic. First a creative outlet and form of entertainment; then a means to bond with my long-distance girlfriend; finally, it became an opportunity for me to reach out to other women who are tired of the status quo. We don’t want to live our lives for everyone else anymore; we want to express our desires and sexuality. We deserve to love ourselves, create and set boundaries, and enjoy great sex. Great sex. Someone has a problem with me talking about sex. Of course. Women, especially a lesbian working with children, are not supposed to talk about sex.
People have been concerned with me talking about sex since before I even began talking about sex. In 2004, when I was hired as a fledgling teacher, I accompanied my new principal to a professional development conference. On the long car ride to the airport, I talked openly about my wife and child. She bristled. I wasn’t prepared for the conservative criticism and homophobia that I was destined to experience in the next decade.
Over the next few years, I became increasingly self-conscious talking about my family at work. Co-workers warned me that the surrounding rural community would not accept me. My boss discouraged me from putting up pictures of my family in my classroom. While I bravely attended staff social events with my partner and toddler, my family was on critical display, receiving comments and invasive questions from strangers and co-workers alike. We were an anomaly. “Which one of you is the real mom?”
I heard from various sources about my principal being approached in her local church, “Do you know you have a lesbian teaching sixth graders at your school?” More than once a parent scheduled an appointment with me and a supervisor to discuss how I comport myself in the classroom. One mom was angry that I was forcing her to talk to her child about sex “before she was ready.” This, because I am a lesbian with a child and her own daughter had questions about how that was possible. The outside of my classroom was vandalized with spray paint in 2008: “Dike” (sic). The efficiency with which it was painted over by the custodians was breathtaking! But regrettably, the opportunity to discuss the hostile language with students and turn it into a learning opportunity was overlooked by the administration. The problem boils down to Ms. Davis talking about sex.
When I moved to a more progressive school district, parents still complained about me for confounding reasons. A father opposed my teaching practices, making persistent but vague and disparaging claims about my teaching ability. Eventually I asked the principal to get involved which he thankfully did, providing me support and encouragement. He later confided that the parent had a problem with me because of my sexuality. I’m so grateful my new principal had my back, but this and many other incidents were constant reminders that my sexuality is not accepted. That parent could have continued with his specious claims and complicated things for me. If he had asked to have his child removed from my classroom, would someone from HR decide that being gay interferes with the education process?
In April of 2020, along with teachers all over the world, I was sent home to teach classes from my dining-room table. During this time, I had an opportunity, like many others, to examine my life and reevaluate what matters to me. I began my transition over the summer months from teaching full time to being a life coach, empowering women to build unapologetic confidence. I created content for social media platforms and was interviewed for several podcasts where I encouraged other women to boldly reevaluate their own lives. In each, I talked frankly about childhood trauma, domestic violence, sexual abuse, drug and alcohol use, getting sober, coming out as a lesbian, healing, therapy, introspection, learning to love myself fiercely, and knowing and asking for what I want. My vulnerable and authentic story touched other women and gave them permission to grow and expand, take up the space they deserve. The profound changes that have taken place within me and in my own life have brought me to the new and exciting place I am now.
I assert that at the root of our pain and self-hatred is shame. We have been shamed for existing in our bodies. We are taught to be modest and self-sacrificing. We are told that we are too loud, too much, too sexy, too demanding. As for me, I am too lesbian and I talk about sex.
I scour my TikTok. Which of these videos has offended another teacher or administrator in the district? What exactly is my accuser saying about me? Could it be this one in which I tell women to touch their own bodies, take the time to find out what they like, what feels good? “Know what brings you pleasure so you can ask for it.” Or this one in which I say knowing your body will make you more powerful outside of the bedroom as well? We start on the inside and work our way out. Maybe this video which someone might call a “thirst trap,” wherein I show off my tattoos while GRiZ sings, “Hold up it’s the anthem, put your f^ckin’ hands up. Smilin’ cuz I’m young, rich, gay, and I’m handsome.” In a hasty moment, I delete the entire TikTok account. Hundreds of videos and hours of creative energy, gone forever. Except for what has been saved and shared by others. Perhaps maybe that one offending video still exists on someone’s hard drive to use against me later. I am devastated to lose this artistic expression and creativity, a bold social media persona I have developed as an outlet for sheltering in place. A way of coping with the oppression of Covid 19. But these videos were also a refreshing push back against the closet that I feel forced into as a middle-school teacher.
As a confidence and life coach, I encourage women now to be brazen and outspoken, to resist gender norms and conventional societal standards, to determine what they want and ask for it inside and outside of their bedrooms. The work I do with clients is transformational! But it is incompatible with being an adolescent educator. The gender policing and shaming are pervasive, and my ability and desire to express myself is constantly at odds with my profession. This is especially acute for those of us teaching children, particularly if parents think I give their children license to question the status quo.
All these years teaching preteens in a rural school district, I have felt the pressure to be hyper vigilant. I have been careful to present the life that is acceptable to the culture around me. While it seems daring to be an out lesbian, sharing that I have a partner and a child are still within acceptable norms if I don’t have any other damning characteristics. In “Public Silence, Private Terror,” Dorothy Allison reflects on the pressures of what we are “allowed to be: …an acceptable lesbian, not too forward about the details of her sexual practice” (Allison, 117). Outside of work, I am careful about what I post to the Internet, what I wear to the grocery store, where I socialize with my friends, what kinds of organizations I follow on my Facebook page. According to the Pew Research Center, people who are more religious, less educated, and politically right-leaning are more inclined to disapprove of homosexuality, so I believe that I am more carefully scrutinized in this area than my straight peers. A marriage is celebrated; a divorce is scandalous. Dating? Slanderous.
Thinking back to the afternoon where my principal told me she didn’t care what I do with my personal life, I recognize that the application of “interferes with the education process” is subjective. I am gay, I want to talk to women about their sexuality, and I work with children. Even though I don’t talk to children about sexuality, I am breaking the societal rules that attempt to silence women and punish them for being sexual beings. Furthermore, my sexual ideal (which mirrors that of Allison) is distasteful even to queers and feminists who also practice gender-policing. “My sexual ideal is butch, exhibitionistic, physically agressive, smarter than she wants you to know, and proud of being called a pervert. Most often she is working class, with an aura of danger and an ironic sense of humor. There is a lot of contemporary lip service paid to sexual tolerance, but the fact that my sexuality is constructed within and by a butch/femme and leather fetishism is widely viewed with distaste or outright hatred” (Allison, 24).
Gendering (and Unsexing) Women
Patriarchal processes are configured to make women and girls feel dependent, unworthy, and in constant struggle to maintain even this unenviable position in an entrenched societal hierarchy. We endure sexualization and objectification, are overpowered physically and emotionally, shrink, submit, serve, feel like commodities, get passed over and passed around. Centuries of oppression have convinced us that we must take on more, care deeper, work harder, and sacrifice further in order to feel valuable. The copious and unending responsibilities and emotional labor layered upon us at home and in our various workplaces, alongside disparaging messages from the media, push us to continuously feel inadequate, uncertain, and overwhelmed. Black women, Indigenous women, and other Women of Color experience the intersecting systems of misogyny, racism, and ethnocentrism. We all learn to think and talk badly about ourselves, silence our desires and dissatisfaction, put others’ needs before our own, and hold ourselves and each other to societally-established unreasonable standards, thereby perpetuating our suffocating smallness.
What happens when women pause to reevaluate their lives and ask themselves what they really want? If they could stop the cycle of shame, hopelessness, self-deprecation, and isolation, what would they choose for themselves? I propose that women who place themselves at the center of their own lives, who practice self care and have clear boundaries, who trust themselves, know what they want, and ask for it… strive for it… obtain what they desire and so much more. Women who redefine and reclaim their internal and external experiences grow more confident and powerful, expand and savor themselves, thereby improving the quality of life for themselves and everyone with whom they come into contact. Those women model for the people around them (children, spouses, lovers, employers, religious leaders) how to treat them. Women must begin with the sometimes terrifying internal work of identifying what they want, rather than accepting a life that has been proscribed for them. This is the work that I choose to do now, with others and for myself.
I am particularly inspired by the bold writing of Dorothy Allison — lesbian, feminist, and sexual deviant. She understands young girls like me, who grew up in poverty experiencing domestic violence and sexual abuse, feeling a special kind of self-hatred and hopelessness. Like Allison, I learned early that girls are for looking at and groping. We exist to be sexualized and not to satiate our own sexual desires. “Being smart, stubborn, and a lesbian would have made no difference” (Allison, 10). Indeed, it did not.
My grandmother was pregnant at 14. She ran away from an abusive home after her mother died with a coat hanger between her legs. Grandma was wild and untamable; she didn’t want to stay within the defined social structures. Nevertheless, throughout her life she used her body and sexuality in exchange for money and security. When she talked to me, she echoed the women in Dorothy Allison’s family: “I can get me a little extra with a smile” (Allison, 26). Grandma’s goal was always to find a rich man to take care of her. “You can fall in love anywhere; it may as well be at the country club,” she told me. I knew my grandmother to be a strong and powerful woman, authentic, resilient, honest, and raw. She got clean and sober late in life and used her story to impact other women. I am emboldened to emulate her bravery as a beacon for others.
My own mom didn’t think she deserved better than the subjugation she experienced by the men in her life. She endured horrendous circumstances. She worked two and three low-paying jobs to support the household; she was beaten and abused; her only child was molested while she was away at work. She couldn’t afford to leave, and once she left, she didn’t have the resources to survive and had to return. Like Allison‘s mom, she believed we couldn’t survive without him. My poor mother didn’t know there was another way for women to be. Sexualization runs deep in my family. She even told me that boys would love me because I knew how to eat ice cream well with my lips and tongue. The worth of a woman was dependent on making the men and boys happy.
What does it even mean to be a woman? There is no clear-cut delineation. Some would say biology, others look to gender performance, but in both cases the lines are blurry. Gender is a set of rules that fluctuate historically and among different cultures. Simone de Beauvoir says, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” (de Beauvoir, 301). Judith Butler says gender is a fiction; we are born into bodies without gender. “The authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby the construction compels one’s belief in its necessity and naturalness” (Butler, 522). I have seen evidence of it myself. My friend’s daughter, Star, was allowed to climb trees and yell and jump. Short-haired and flat-chested, Star was misgendered as a boy all the time. When people learned she was a girl, they worried and fretted, chastised her mother. The rules only applied to make her small when she was a her because “those who fail to do their gender right are regularly punished” (Butler, 522). Neither Star nor her mother were performing their gender appropriately.
If someone is perceived to be a woman, she is traditionally expected to fulfill certain roles as mother, caretaker, homemaker, spouse. She has a job to do in order to maintain the social structure. The behavior that is required of her keeps her subservient to men; she is oppressed by her father, husband, son, employer, religious leader, deity. Judith Butler explains the consequences of the perpetuation of gender norms in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution” (1988). She states, “There are temporal and collective dimensions to these actions, and their public nature is not inconsequential; indeed, the performance is effected with the strategic aim of maintaining gender within its binary frame. Understood in pedagogical terms, the performance renders social laws explicit” (Butler, 526). To pause and question these social laws is a revolutionary act.
Women and men who stray from the culturally-accepted gender rules are punished. Kids watch the adults in their lives and learn from them. I have seen firsthand, as a middle-school teacher for 15 years, that the acceptable gender boxes are inflexible and narrow among pre-teens, who are working out their places in the world. They diligently impose what is taught to them at home, enforcing the understood gender norms through micro aggressions, jokes and teasing, and outright bullying. Boys who are sensitive are called pussies; girls who play sports (limited to only certain kinds) are called tomboys. Teachers are equally guilty of perpetuating ridiculous gender restrictions, first of all, by dividing students up into binary categories and assuming who fits into each. They continue to allow boys to be more rambunctious (boys will be boys) and vilify girls for “talking too much.” Black girls in schools experience much more severe discipline for being loud or talkative. They are presumed to be defiant and disrespectful and experience higher rates of suspension and expulsion. “Outside of NYC, schools were 6.1 times more likely to suspend Black female students than their White peers, and in NYC the school district was 8.6 times more likely to suspend Black female students than their White female peers” (Education Trust-NY).
Messages from the media, and in particular the health and beauty industry, underline the gender division. Selective body positioning, lighting, photoshopping, and airbrushing present unrealistic images for women to strive toward. Until very recently, women of color only appeared in glamor magazines and as fashion icons when their features mimicked Anglo beauty standards. Marketing is designed to make all people feel bad about their appearances in order to make money, but without a doubt the industry bolsters women’s sense of despair in their Sisyphean struggle toward acceptability.
The media also promotes women’s subservience. Advertisements show women behind or below men, caressing themselves or objects, and gazing blankly or distractedly. Furthermore, women and girls are sexualized at a higher rate in the media, perpetuating the gender bias that women are objects for consuming. Butler argues that this perpetuation comes from relinquishing power; “Gender is what is put on, invariably, under constraint, daily and incessantly, with anxiety and pleasure, but if this continuous act is mistaken for a natural or linguistic given, power is relinquished to expand the cultural field bodily through subversive performances of various kinds” (Butler, 531).
As a direct result, women battle to meet unrealistic expectations of their gender. They struggle to look young and keep their bodies fit. They labor to keep their makeup impeccable, clothing fashionable, children well-maintained, homes clean, orgasms well-timed, and to keep their husbands happy. They fight to be accomplished employees or CEOs, working harder and receiving less pay than their male counterparts. Often, the care of elderly parents falls to women as well. They say yes, take on more, and hustle because if they do not, they feel inadequate. Women must sacrifice and put everyone else’s needs ahead of their own; those who do not are admonished. They think doing and giving make them better people. They are ashamed to ask for what they want.
In the public-school system, teachers (primarily women) are regularly expected to work outside of contract hours, create and teach curriculum, grade papers, modify instruction, develop relationships with all their students, be conscious of every student’s reading level and learning style, accommodate students above and below grade level, collect and analyze data, participate in committees, create behavior plans, organize (and often buy their own) materials, and practice disruptive but necessary emergency drills. They invest time, energy, money, and emotional labor at exhausting levels, and may also be responsible for a significant portion of maintaining the household responsibilities outside of (or during) her work hours. And among teachers, they police one another and hold each other to these onerous standards.
When women deviate from these expected gender specifications, they face resistance and backlash. Historically, they have been burned as witches, committed to institutions, shunned by families, blacklisted, excommunicated, denounced, censured, attacked, fired, beaten, or murdered. Men use sexual assault and rape to assert their power and maintain control. We are supposed to stay in our boxes. Kamala Harris’s statement, that people who warn us to stay in our own lane “only have the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be,” is overly hopeful (Wright). It implies that “what can be” is the ideal; if people knew better, they would do better. Instead, I am certain that keeping women subservient is intentional. Systems are in place for a reason; they want to maintain power; they do not want what can be.
Building an Army of Badass Women
I have created new Instagram and TikTok pages for my coaching, reaching out to women on the internet who are also dissatisfied and wanting more. I am balancing between two conflicting worlds. One is the world where I am a cooperative school teacher, sticking to the standardized and approved curriculum. We celebrate Women’s History Month neatly in March and Black History Month from February 1st through 28th. Sex education is “pseudo” taught for a week in Science class — only when the student has permission from home. I cannot discuss politics or social justice without presenting “both sides” equally. Any deviation from the heteronormative ethnocentric white-supremacist standard draws scrutiny from parents, administration, and other teachers. The other world is the one in which I help women build unapologetic confidence in their bodies, their bedrooms, and everywhere else. I am dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. I want to subvert the myriad systems of oppression. I talk back and stand up for myself and others. I model disruption for my daughter, my peers, and my clients. I have a website where I encourage rebellion: “It’s The Revolution! I’m Amassing An Army of Badass Women To Take Over The World.”
I help my clients take a close look at the way in which they speak to themselves. Whose voice is that? We identify the origins of their critical self talk and limiting beliefs. I use Positive Psychology, the science of brain plasticity, and comprehensive sex education to build new neural pathways and retrain these women’s brains to focus on their strengths, desires, boundaries, and passions. I help them determine what they want and boldly ask for it. The results are profound. One client tells me our work together has helped her have the best sex she has ever had. Another client claims working with me is the most important investment she has ever made; she is setting audacious goals and following her life’s passion. A third extraordinary woman conquered several debilitating fears which culminated in parachuting out of an airplane. Twice!
I am certain that the work I do with women can only improve the quality of their lives by helping them overcome self-hatred and shame. My clients inspire me with the confidence and personal power we access together. They choose to put themselves at the center of their lives and take up as much space as they want. It is magnificent to be a part of. For that matter, my daughter is the most impressive teenager I know. Her emotional intelligence and ability to identify and discuss her feelings is remarkable. Because of my own growth and introspection, I model for her how to identify her wants and communicate those clearly. She is refreshingly unafraid and unashamed of who she is; she moves through the world boldly. I have no doubt that I can continue to help hundreds of women achieve this level of self-awareness and fearlessness.
My principal “doesn’t care what I do outside of work.” What she doesn’t understand is this is my work: the women, the bringing sex back to the table, the subverting of gender and sexuality norms. The tasks I perform for my students, as weak and pale as they must be within the given constraints, have been cheapened. This hasn’t yet grown into a new mountain of shame, but I hate that I censor my content now, wondering who will report me to the school district. I realize that in order to build an army of badass women, I’m going to need a larger set of badass tools.
Seeing my work through the lens of feminists like Judith Butler, Simone de Beauvour, and Dorothy Allison makes me think harder and deeper. Such women, as they challenge the concepts of gender and women’s subjugation, inspire me to take the big risks, to continue my education and leave behind the structures born of fear and incipient shame. I want more! Like Allison, “I have promised myself to break the habit of lying, to try to make truth everyday in my life” (Allson, 55). The truth transforms. Women need a voice for awakening and change. By claiming our sexual and personal power, and our voice, we transcend societal limitations and thrive.
Allison, Dorothy. Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature. Firebrand Books, 1994.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, vol. 40, no. 4, 1988, p. 519., https://doi.org/10.2307/3207893.
de Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.
Lankes, Tiffany. “New York Schools Disproportionately Impose out-of-School Suspensions on Black Students.” The Education Trust — New York, 24 Aug. 2020, https://newyork.edtrust.org/resource/new-york-schools-disproportionately-impose-out-of-school-suspensions-on-black-students/.
Poushter, Jacob, and Nicholas Kent. “Views of Homosexuality around the World.” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project, Pew Research Center, 27 Oct. 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/06/25/global-divide-on-homosexuality-persists/.
Wright, Jasmine. “Harris Talks Ambition in Women of Color after Personal Attacks during Biden’s VP Search.” CNN, Cable News Network, 3 Aug. 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/31/politics/kamala-harris-ambition-remarks/index.html.