Our background and upbringing inevitably leaves us with blind-spots in our interactions with other people. I firmly believe that one of the challenges and requirements of adult life is learning to move beyond the assumption that other peoples’ understanding of the world will mirror our own. A great example of where this process began for many of my peers growing up was summer camp. Namely the horrific realization that in different parts of the United States carbonated high-fructose corn syrup bases drinks were referred to in different ways (growing up in the northeast it was “soda”).
Of course that example immediately paints a picture of where I was coming from, at least in my pre-adolescence. While the norm for my fellow upper-middle class peers, spending the summer at camp is certainly not the standard summer for most children in this country.
My own experience as a young adult was rather the reverse of the aforementioned process however. Rather than have my worldview stretched bit by bit as I aged and prepared to leave home, I was often the one doing the stretching. The perfect storm of the onset of severe Tourette Syndrome (as opposed to the minor symptoms I’d likely had for years prior) and my coming out as queer conspired to both brutally shred my ideas of where my life was going and expose me to the worlds of people I would never had encountered otherwise.
Because of the severity of the Tourette symptoms there was never any real chance that I would attend public high school (for the record my family didn’t “agitate” for an alternative placement, my home district rightly made the decision on their own). Both of the alternative high schools I attended were good experiences and I believe that with one exception I received an excellent education. As you might imagine however, none of us at my high school were “typical.”
I had three social groups in my high school years. The first was my small high school, located an hour’s commute from home, which I was driven to and from each day by a district provided car. The second was the young adult GLBT youth support and social group that met once a week in my home town. Until I was old enough to drive myself, my parents dropped me off every Wednesday, even if it meant rearranging their own schedules to do so. The third group was my local synagogue’s youth group, which was made up of kids I’d grown up with since I was in first grade.
One of these things is not like the others. Perhaps foreshadowing my future spiritual work, I didn’t hide any of who I was, with the exception that I didn’t tell the synagogue youth group that I was already identifying as pagan. I was open about my sexuality from the time I came out (at 13) and when people talked about what was going on in school I shared along with them. Once you are at the point of involuntarily screaming out graphic obscenities, further opening up isn’t all that challenging. I distinctly remember once answering someone in the temple youth group’s funny story about something that happened in class with a humorous story from my school about a friend of mine’s ongoing recovery from heroin addiction (really it was pretty funny). I also thought nothing of going to a temple costume fund raiser in drag, where it should be noted that, as with the Tourette, I was perfectly accepted. The rabbi (a woman) gave me lipstick pointers.
As I mentioned, I was often a catalyst for expanding my peers’ sense of the world. I distinctly remember an argument with a childhood friend about prostitution that sums it up. At 17 he was convinced that prostitution was an urban legend and that even if maybe it did happen sometimes it certainly didn’t happen in the city we grew up in. I on the other hand knew guys who had turned tricks after being kicked out of home for being gay. I also knew more than one fellow student in high school who was the victim of domestic or sexual abuse, also things he believed to be urban legends.
All this is on my mind recently because I recently found out that while all this was happening I was developing at least one assumption of how the world worked that until recently I had not been disabused of. Last week I went in for my twice yearly HIV test (clear) and had my eyes opened.
If you were involved in gay culture in the mid 1990’s the thing you know better than anything else is what HIV is, how it’s spread (and not spread), and that it kills you. By the early 90’s there were treatments that kept it from killing us as quickly and there was the dawning understanding that it was possible to live with HIV not just die from it, but it seemed like everyone realized that it wasn’t something to mess around with. My sexual partners over the years have largely backed up this perspective.
As I came into my late 20’s and became involved in the Kink/BDSM/Poly scene, especially as a needle top, I found that with some exceptions, most people seemed to take blood safety just as importantly as I’d been taught back in the GLBT youth group.
My recent newsflash was that GLBT people who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and kinky people aren’t necessarily representative of mainstream views. I know, no shit. I had just assumed that when it comes to HIV, everyone was on the same page and it isn’t true. As I waited for my test results (it was the rapid oral HIV test) I had a great chat with the director of the local AIDS services organization and one of the outreach people.
Some of their stories chilled me. College students believing that their oral contraceptives protected them from HIV and other STIs was bad. Worse was a recently infected person who was worried that casual touch could infect people that they came into contact with. Call me naive but I thought that as a country we had moved passed touching as an HIV vector before Clinton took office.
And I guess that’s the point I have been driving at. I am naive. I am much more comfortable on the outskirts of society than the mainstream and I think that there is just as much of a tendency towards an attitude of superiority among those on the edges as those in the center. I had believed that HIV awareness and prevention was a universal priority because it was such an important one in my world. I imagine it is much the way many conservatives feel when faced with people who are happy being queer and don’t feel the need of a “cure.”
Our world as it is now has really only been around since the middle of the 19th century. That’s when steam locomotives made inter-regional travel feasible. Before that it was a lot harder for people who use the term “soda” and those who call it “pop” to mingle. In the span of human history that’s not a whole lot of time. It is not longer enough to passively allow our experiences of the world to develop. We need to make a conscious effort to expand our own concept of reality, even, or especially when it’s hard to do.
That all said, for fuck’s sake let’s get rid of abstinence-only sex ed and teach kids how to avoid the gods-damned plague.