The ice cubes in my mojito clinked slowly as I swirled the glass in my hand. In my mind, it was officially summer and I had reverted to a cooling drink to cap off a long weekend. While there was a lot of e-mail to catch up on, I decided to take care of the easy stuff first and so I opened an item from Ross to discover a link to YouTube. Now, I’m not usually one for watching viral videos but I trusted that this friend had a modicum of taste so I settled in and clicked on the address. After a second or two, Ellen DeGeneres appeared on my screen and proceeded to deliver her Commencement speech for Tulane. I closed the video and started to compose a reply back to Ross—despite being an occasionally amusing fellow, Ross thinks differently than I do and I was not entirely sure why he sent me the link.
As I continued to filter through other e-mails, bits of Ellen’s speech continued to reverberate through my head. While a large part of her talk consisted of her usual jokes, one section struck me in particular; Ellen mentioned that while a number of negative things occurred as a result of coming out, she also received letters from children who might have otherwise committed suicide. While I’ve never felt the urge to kill myself, I understand the thought process of the people who wrote the letters to Ellen—as an Asian male, I can appreciate the joy of finally seeing someone else like you in mainstream media. When you find someone relatable in popular culture, all of a sudden you become a little less weird, a little less outcast, and maybe a little more accepted. As I’ve stated before, to me, exposure to the unfamiliar can only be a good thing. Well, unless you come across an old man in a trench coat. In that case, be prepared to run.
So maybe exposure isn’t always a good thing.
This past month a new attraction, whose goal was to foster awareness about sex, garnered a lot of attention in China. The theme park, called “Love Land” featured large models of male and female genitalia along with exhibits regarding sex. According to the park’s manager, the goal of Love Land was to provide people with more information about sex.
When I first heard about the project I found myself ecstatic for here was an attempt to normalize sexuality in a country that I had always thought of as rather conservative. I hoped that this park would make discussions about sex a routine part of life and provide people with easy access to reliable information. Love Land seemed to be a natural, if rather eccentric, extension of the Chinese government’s effort to launch a national sex education campaign.
Shortly after it had made headlines, however, the attraction was demolished without much explanation.
In retrospect, however, maybe the majority of the Chinese population was not ready for this particular effort. Love Land would definitely have been an interesting place for me to visit, but I’m sure that’s partially because I’m interested in sex. I’m interested in learning more about the subject, I’m interested in talking about it, and, sure, I’m interested in having it.
Despite the demise of Love Land, I am hopeful that progress has been made. For a couple of weeks, a large number of Chinese were debating the pros and cons of sexual education (in some form) and surely that’s worth something.
I’m not quite sure who created the breakup routine, but the post-relationship dance inevitably includes a number called “Show Your Ex How Much Better You Are without Him or Her.” Often, there are no choreographers, flashy lights, or even costumes, but a careful audience will spy both parties concentrating intently on their next steps. Even before the dust settles, we feel the urge to go out of our way to show the one we once loved how we’ve moved on, how he or she meant nothing to us, and how hot we (and our current fling) are. We tell ourselves that we are fortunate for having gotten out of the relationship when we did.
But what happens when you’re not better off after all is said and done?
Recently, I had the chance to visit an ex and I went into the situation not expecting much—this would be the first time that we would have seen each other in three years—but a little part of me couldn’t help but be curious to see how my ex’s life had turned out.
So I sat there, in a place that was at once familiar and distant, thinking about how far we both had come. In the dim light of the room, I could close my eyes and feel things that were once mine; now, I couldn’t even bring myself to reach out to touch them. As a sigh escaped from my lips, punctuating the silence and filling the void, I suddenly realized that if we were competing I would have lost.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly satisfied where my life is right now, but I can admit when I’ve been bested. Looking around, I felt something that I never expected to; I felt incredibly proud. Later, as I drove away from the house and back toward my life, I struggled to define my emotions but I couldn’t describe what I was feeling in any other way. In many senses, the things that I had seen demonstrated that my ex was happy, successful, and achieving what I had always secretly hoped for.
Cracks in the pavement created a steady hum beneath my car and I found clarity in the cold night air. I began to realize that, for us, the dust had indeed settled for we were both going about our own lives and all that was left was all that there ever was—not anger, jealousy, or unease—but simply love.
This past weekend made me realize that a large portion of my knowledge in the area of sexual health comes from my experiences. For many, information is helpful, but isn’t enough on its own—at some point you have to try things for yourself. Learning to negotiate situations, to feel empowered, to ask for what I want, and to plan ahead are all things that have been forged in heated and pressured situations. How do you react to a partner who wants you to have unsafe sex? What if you’re really into him or her? What if drugs get thrown into the mix? How do you learn to identify the indicators of rape so that you don’t become trapped? These are tests that you study for, hoping you’ll never have to find out if you pass or fail.
And, for the record, faltering every now and then isn’t the end of the world; making mistakes is also a valuable part of the learning process. The trick is to minimize the consequences and make sure that you learn from what you did wrong the first time.
So I guess it turns out that I am better off now, but not for the reasons that I originally thought. I wasn’t fortunate to have the relationship end, but to have been in the relationship in the first place. The relationship provided a safe space for me to grow into my own and I really couldn’t have asked for more.
When I was younger, I often saw Public Service Announcements alerting me to the idea that “Knowledge is Power.” At the time, I believed that the goal of these messages was to keep me in school, but, on some level, I must have internalized the point, for I still believe in the value of education to this day. My belief in edification has led me to pursue higher education, to work for a University, and to write for a sexual health education website. And, as I grew up, I became firmer in my belief that education carved a path for empowerment—learning was essential to betterment. Thus, it only made sense to me when I heard about the United States’ plan to combat HIV and AIDS in Africa.
Ever since I can remember, the United Sates has been pouring money into Africa with the goal of eradicating poverty, famine, and AIDS, with a portion of the funding going toward education measures. For most of my life, I didn’t pay much attention to the whole situation—I knew that AIDS was bad and that we were fighting it. That had to be a good thing, right?
But what happens when education doesn’t work?
In 2007, an economist named Emily Oster published a paper that suggested the poorest Africans had adopted fewer safer sex habits as they had less incentive to. It turned out, according to Oster, that remaining free from AIDS or other STI’s was not so important when your life expectancy was not very high.
Whether you agree with Oster’s findings or not (there are plenty of people who don’t), one conclusion that you can draw from all of this is that educational/prevention programs must provide relevant information for the populations that they are attempting to serve.
As I mulled over the importance of Oster’s paper, I began to think back to a number of Latino students from Santa Ana mentioning how they grew up in an environment that expected them to drop out of school or become pregnant and, all of a sudden, the problems of Africa didn’t seem so far away. What if I was running into the same problem? What if I was going about all of this in the wrong way? What if I wasn’t providing pertinent advice?
I took a breath.
I’ve managed to get to a point in my life where I know enough about sex to keep myself safe; I know what I value and I’ve developed the skill set to ensure that I make smart choices (well, most of the time). On the one hand, this provides me with the ability to share my knowledge and mistakes with all of you. But, on the other hand, I think that I occasionally forget how hard it is sometimes to be a teenager facing all of the pressures out there today. For one, I certainly don’t have other people worrying about if I’m having (or not having) sex and with whom said sex is or isn’t occurring. Well, at least, if they are, I don’t know about it.
So, while perhaps my experiences are not exactly the same as yours, I think that my job as a writer is to find the universal truth of situations and to help you feel what I’ve felt. With any luck, you can relate to parts of my story (if not the entire thing) and use my words to point you in the right direction. I don’t pretend to know all the answers, but I do think that I know a little something about the subject of sex and sexual health. As I’ve said many times before, sexual health education isn’t just about learning how to use a condom or to avoid rape—those things are important as well, but maybe, this time, it’s about the “expert” learning from you.
It was a good burn. It had been a while since I had breathed in the salty air rolling off the beach. One foot on the pavement, I felt the sting creep in. I inhaled deeply, letting the balmy breeze permeate my lungs and fill my head.
Venice, if you have never been, is quite an amalgamation of stimuli—from the people, to the sounds, and the smells, there is always something to soak in. To be honest, I am completely out of place in a beach town filled with people who are not like me but the great thing about Venice is that nobody really cares. Here was a place where a number of worlds collided in one long strip of beach that, more often than not, contained a trace of pot incense.
Over the course of the day, I mentioned to Kim and Tiffany that I had rented a documentary about four students at the Harvey Milk High School contrasted with the creation of a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” tribute album. Although seemingly a bit random, the proceeds from the album went to supporting the Hetrick-Martin Institute (which, at the time, ran the high school). The existence of the Harvey Milk High School is a bittersweet one for me: on one hand I applaud the idea that we have set aside money for students to grow in a safe space but I also hate that we have to have such an institution in the first place. Why is that we even need to create an area for GLBTQ youth? Can’t get all of our teenagers to respect each other?
Watching the documentary, what struck me about these students was that they were physically much younger than I am, but also much stronger than I may ever be. These individuals were not yet out of high school but they had already walked down paths that I had yet to start. One girl ran away from home after being excommunicated from her church and established a life for herself independent of her family and, although happy, mentioned upon seeing her home that, “This is where I should have been.” Another transsexual girl mentioned that she knew cutting was not a good thing but that it relieved the hurt inside and sometimes she felt as though it was all she had. How do you react to something like that? I didn’t even know this girl and I felt so much sorrow for her.
Without a doubt, the students in the Harvey Milk High School had suffered and as I reflected on their experiences, I began to wonder if there was any truth to the phrase, “No pain, no gain”? American culture teaches us that we must work hard for our success and that the best victories are hard won. We often hear that we define ourselves in our weakest moments, or in the face of our mistakes. We know that growth in every sense involves some measure of discomfort—we never develop intellectually if we are not uncomfortable, if we aren’t challenged. Learning isn’t easy.
Maybe it’s only because we have suffered pain that we are able to connect to others? As we grow up we first look for a mate with no complications but then gradually shift to look for someone whose baggage goes with ours. And what is baggage if not an emotional scar? A place where we were cut and didn’t heal just right? Well, at least not yet? Or is love simply the experience of baring your biggest hurt to your partner? Surely that isn’t all there is to the emotion, but it’s hard to deny that, having done that, you don’t love someone just a little bit more.
Pain, in all of its forms, defines who we are as people—embrace yours and learn to use it as a tool to shape who you want to be.
If you were to come to my office, you might see a small whiteboard that collects ideas for these articles. Plastered with colored notes, the unassuming space holds an assortment of thoughts that run through my head in conjunction with sexual health education. The board constantly morphs, with new topics going up as I think of them and others coming down as I write. But, although I have been creating these entries for a while, there has been one square that has managed to remain untouched.
Leaning over, I felt a slight resistance as I pulled the note from the board. How would I even begin to talk about the presence of transsexuals (or transgender issues in general!) in popular culture? I was certainly aware of the trans community but I certainly did not have extensive knowledge of the subject.
So let’s start there.
A couple of years ago, it became apparent to me that transsexuals were the new token population in television. Shows like Dirty, Sexy, Money; America’s Next Top Model; Ugly Betty; and The Real World all began to feature transsexual characters and I honestly didn’t know how to feel about it. On the one hand, I was glad that this segment of the population was gaining exposure, but the cynical side of me suspected that these characters were being shown for shock value. Was this is how it had to be? Did minorities have to undergo this process in order to be accepted or were we just exploiting the culture?
While I’m still a little skeptical about the portrayal of transsexuals in media, I’m going to choose to try and see the good in what has happened. So gather around kids, and let’s get ready for some knowledge to be dropped.
Although there are countless variations in gender identity, one of the distinctions that I want to make is between the terms “transsexual” and “transgender”: the former refers to the belief that you were born the wrong sex while the latter applies to people who challenge the prevailing notions or definitions of gender. It makes sense, really, if you stick to the definitions of the root words and see “sex” as a physical manifestation and “gender” as a societal creation. To make things even more complicated, you can toss in sexual orientation, cross-dressing, and drag! While many people associate all of these terms together, they are actually all distinct categories, albeit with some overlap.
With all of this swirling around, it seems all too easy to label this population as “other” and just push it to the side. After all, it’s strange and defies convention, so it’s easier to refrain from thinking about it, right? But, like in real life, actually understanding what you face often makes it less scary. Confused? Just look at this Wikipedia entry for a brief primer.
While doing research, I came across this article, and all of a sudden, this global idea of transsexualism became more personal. The article told the story of Catherine Carlson, suddenly making it evident that the crafted personas on television represented real people—often with very real problems.
Reflecting on the article, it seems only natural to root for the underdog, to cheer for the one who has borne the burden of a life filled with hardship. The exuberance that I feel for this woman is both pure and selfish, for, if I’m honest with myself, it’s a life that I’m grateful not to have. I know that if things had turned out differently, I might have been in that situation, but while I’d like to think that I would rise to the challenge, I don’t know if I would have found the strength. So, Catherine, while I’m sure life is hard, know that I’m pulling for you with my heart breathing “Go, Baby, Go.”