Today’s personal account of trying to engender equality comes from Oak.
I was introduced to the term describing the advancement of understanding and actions between men and women, “gender equality”, when I came in contact with the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith when I was nineteen years old. By that point, I had already absorbed much of the social hype regarding how a “man” and “woman” should behave and experienced its shortcomings. I had said, done and heard so much regarding so many less-than-favorable behaviors and postures, and found myself in front of a mirror. A mirror that wouldn’t be ignored or avoided when the term that had been nagging at my subconscious all these years found me. In the mirror I saw a hurt boy struggling to understand his place in the universe, and within the social spaces he traverses, and I often have to converse with him to get a better gander at what I’ve learned and have yet to learn. This conversation would always be incomplete without some of the major players in the social space: Pops, Moms, Lil Sis and My Peers.
Pops grew up in a highly rigid atmosphere within Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as a son to a Priest. This environment had the strange blend of the fear of God and the guilt felt of ones’ own shortcomings. My grandfather wasn’t a monster, but had some very specific training about a woman’s “place” according to a particular Biblical interpretation, and many mixed messages were passed along to his children about what that “place” should look like. Within the household of 3 boys and a girl, maids would turn up pregnant from the men in the household, and new branches of my extended family thus formed. Pops, having internalized these values, went on to have many sexual exploits with women as a source of pleasure rather than a true partner in life to be valued as an equal. This pattern held through his meeting my mother at a club in Spain, where the natural attraction brought them together through dancing and partying. The perceived compatibility of this couple brought them to decide to get married because…that’s what you’re supposed to do eventually, right?
Moms grew up the first of two children in an African-American family that valued education and the arts. She was raised by a music teacher who was driven to succeed in a world where there were very few people of color in prominent positions in society, and was determined to be one of them. Moms was brought into dance, singing and acting lessons, and many other artistic areas that would develop in her a sense of appreciation for the act of creation. Her younger brother was somewhat less inclined artistically, but was given preference in his education, and many stories could highlight how she came to feel less valued and subservient to the males around her who simply didn’t consider that her role in society could be as important as the man that she found to take care of her. As she grew up, her experiences with men developed a pattern of codependency and acquiescence to subservience which carried over into her meeting Pops.
They decided to get married and start a life together. Pops was in Medical school and Moms was studying education in Valencia, Spain, and came together in the US to pursue a path towards material prosperity. My father entered Chiropractic school, and my mother soon had a little Oak in her womb. During this time, Moms was contemplating spirituality for this little person growing within, and found a community to relate to with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The teachings that she internalized informed her that her life had to change, and change it did. This change seemed somewhat abrupt to Pops, and he didn’t gain receptivity to the teachings of Moms’s exciting and new faith. Over time, the things that brought them together faded away. Dancing and partying were now “Things of the World” to Moms, and she wanted no part of it. Their sexual relationship, the very fabric of what their initial relationship was based upon, became strained and faded into the distance. Lil Sis was born, and we moved to the Caribbean where Pops would open a practice. Infidelity and distance began to seriously strain the relationship, and it was determined that the physical location was the culprit, and a move back to the US would be a reprieve from the challenges that Moms and Pops faced, not to mention they had a little boy about to go into preschool. Both of them were trained that the women in the family, to some extent, play a role of servitude to men, and that they were never to be “heads” of the household. That men and women could be “equal” in any practical sense is to this day a puzzling and preposterous thought for them.
Lil Sis brought an interesting new element into the mix, because I was charged by my parents to be a good example and protect her. In that role, I had to challenge even the examples that my parents set in how they saw the role of women in society. I would have to stand up to bullies, teach her to stand up for herself, and ultimately, that role paved the way for my understanding of why calling a female anything less than noble was unacceptable, for I wouldn’t want anyone to refer to my sister in such a way. I also learned that the often patronizing role of men as “protectors of women” was an ego trap, which is fraught with false responsibility and devoid of empowerment of our female family. My most major regret in providing an example to Lil Sis is that I fall into the social pressure trap that many young boys fall into regarding sexuality. Most young boys when I was growing up had little to no sexual experience, but felt the need to prove their “manliness” by boasting of their sexual experience, if not prowess. The social implications for me for being truthful about my utter lack of experience with females had been ridicule and allusions if not condemnations regarding my possible interest in males instead. All of that played on my young brain when my Lil Sis began to ask about all things sexual, and I streamed my usual ridiculous web of tales that I had on hand for just the occasion. Little to knowledge, my response compounded with the other social influences that she was exposed her to actually brought her to experimenting and losing her virginity even before I did. Many things followed that I won’t recount, but it instilled in me a profound lesson on how we can truly be influenced and influence each other. She has grown into a strong woman who I respect far beyond the bonds of family, and I am thankful for the positive influence I may have had in light of my earlier blunders…
My peers informed me of the multitudinous contradictions between what one presents publicly to an audience that doesn’t know you from what they practiced in private. The same kids who would refer to or call a woman a “bitch” in a heartbeat, would speak with the utmost respect to their own mothers at home in most cases. If one said anything untoward about their mothers or sisters, there would invariably be a violent altercation with the source of the offense. Seeing this dissonance made me question a lot about the way we were being socialized and socializing each other, for it seemed to all make little sense.
All of that baggage traveled with me over the years as I explored the space that I occupied with women, and much of the various arguments made on the topic flow through my head as I process my role in the process of understanding gender equality. Many women have been socialized to accept and even defend their role of subservience or inadequacy in covert and overt ways, even those who have been empowered in some ways. Questions that this now married boy asks are: What does gender equality look like within a marriage? Does it mean that we hyper-emphasize the responsibilities that were held to be traditionally “women’s work” as valuable when the family set-up is one that may on the surface look like the traditional model? Do we pressure men to suppress their masculinity in order to prove that they are committed to whatever sacrifice it takes to be the “new man”? Do we ask women to be more like men in ways that runs counter to the unique and powerful station that women naturally bring to the table? How do we treat a couple who is pregnant or has a child, and do we value each individual’s contributions equally? Do we strive to bring equality in all ways or do we favor the traditionally oppressed at the risk of creating a new type of oppression? My answers to these and other questions remains unclear…
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