Jul 4, 2015

YA and Teen Girls

For a long period of my adolescence, I was a Nice Guy™. If you don't know what I mean by that: I grew up in an environment where women (and especially teen girls) were the punchline of some joke. And there were jokes about them, about rape and so many more things. There were racial slurs too—literal and overt hatred of every race and culture that was not white and American. The racism I objected to openly, and I was called a "[slur]-lover" in jest more times than I could count. For context, the last time I've spoken to this person was when I was eleven years old. But I was a Nice Guy™ for that, because I did speak up against the racism.

I spent a lot of time and energy unlearning it. I still slip sometimes, make mistakes—never of the overt hatred variety, because I'd like to think I'm not an asshole. But I remember a few months ago when my best friend in the universe, who was born and partially raised in Turkey, told me how she sometimes feels like she doesn't belong with her friends. "Everyone's so white and they were raised here, and I'm..."

I said, "Well, you shouldn't feel like that." I brushed it off. I tried to comfort her, to be sure—but whether I realized it or not, I also said "That's not a legitimate feeling." I also said "No one cares." I also said "Let me, a white male born and raised in this small New Jersey town, tell you how you should think and feel."

That instinct to jump in and police what someone from a marginalized standpoint is feeling, what they're expressing (which is a brave act on their part in and of itself)—that's something I have to stop doing. And I am stopping. I'm listening more. I'm not chiming in with my opinion because I recognize that, frankly, sometimes I don't get to have an opinion. I don't go up to a homeless person sleeping in a shelter in the city my town is near and tell them "You're a disappointment." I don't stop a soldier with PTSD who's saying we should be mindful of veterans when setting off fireworks this Fourth of July and say "You're overreacting." Why, then, should I be to tell a girl of color that her feelings are illegitimate?

Why, then, should anyone be able to tell anyone else their feelings are illegitimate?

(I know you knew I was leading to this, but hey, anecdotal allegories are fun.)

If you're part of the YA community like I'd like to think I am (and you are, and all our Twitter friends are), you've seen what's been going on as of late. A girl says she's uncomfortable with someone's presence. Someone else jumps in. Four thousand other people jump in, and then that original person takes to the social media airwaves. "That's not a legitimate feeling," he says. "No one cares," he says. "Let me, an adult male, tell you how you should think and feel."

To return to my original story: there was a lot of sexism in my environment. Like, a lot. I never said anything about those jokes, that hatred, though. Because I knew, from the other adults in my life and my experiences even as a child, that Racism Is Bad—but I'd never heard that hey, Sexism Is Bad. I didn't even know what sexism was.

But I sure as hell was sexist for a long time in my life. I didn't unlearn that anywhere near as quickly as I did racism. Again, it wasn't overt, but it was still real. I remember being defensive every time women's rights were brought up. I remember being told by a feminist online that I'd made her uncomfortable with my wording and thinking "Ughhhh a feminist." I remember tweeting about two years ago in regards to someone saying she was reading books by women exclusively for a year, and I remember my tweet was along the lines of "I really hope none of my followers choose not to read my book because I'm male."

The feminist movement and the LGBTQ+ rights movement have a lot of overlap. And make no mistake: the reason I was introduced to the fact that sexism is wrong was because I wanted to be able to marry and visit my future husband in the hospital and not encounter housing or workplace discrimination. The reason I became aware of my sexism was because I became aware of and was no longer able to deny my sexuality.

But that has little to do with the reason I became a feminist. There's a distinction between being aware of a problem and working to stop it. The reason I became (and become, every day, in listening and contributing and countering and growing) a feminist has nothing to do with me.

It has everything to do with that girl who is uncomfortable with John Green's presence. It has everything to do with that girl who told me she feels like she didn't belong because she was raised in another country. It has everything to do with those women who are victimized on a daily basis. It has everything to do with my friends, online and off, who publicly trade personal stories of discrimination, assault, and rape like they're nothing.

So yes, I'm a feminist. Anxiety permitting, I will utterly shut down discussions I overhear (or am, by the initiator's mistake, involved in) of how women's rights are a joke. And yes, I support racial equality. I try to bolster and support the voices of people of color in any way I can.

But while this story is about me, this conversation isn't. So I'm going to urge you to keep YA safe for teen girls. Keep this a community of compassion and love toward them, not snap-judgment and denial. Support their voices, feelings, thoughts, experiences. If you disagree with them, make sure to remind yourself to be the adult—because you are the adult. Teen girls are valuable, and they are worthwhile, and they are needed. We do it for them, y'know?