As a psychosexual coach, I treasure those moments when I’m approached by clients who are standing on a threshold, and looking for someone to cheer them on as they step over it. While I’ve accompanied clients over thresholds ranging from career changes to bereavement, inevitably, the thresholds I’m often approached for are those that fall under the broad umbrella of GSRD – Gender, Sexuality, and Relationship Diversity. From first forays into non-monogamy, to that oft arising question, “Can I call myself queer?”, one of the joys of the job is undeniably supporting clients to find the permission to embody new identities and explore new lifestyles – and getting to see sides of them that were previously stifled start to flourish.
However, one of the things that I’ve noticed causes seekers to falter on those thresholds is the impression that many of the communities and narratives surrounding GSR diverse identities exude – that you’re either all in, or you’re out.
Particularly when the individual in question is exploring a new world of possibilities for the first time, or being drawn into a lifestyle by a friend or lover, they are likely to encounter self-appointed gatekeepers who delight in telling them what it will take for them to belong. Whether it’s having certain experiences (“You don’t know the meaning of pain until you’ve been hit with a single tail”), having certain experiences with certain people (“You don’t know the meaning of pain until you’ve been hit with my single tail”), or having certain experiences with certain people whilst feeling the “right” way (“You don’t know the meaning of pain until you’ve been hit with my single tail. Don’t worry about your partner, she can watch; you’ll see, you’ll both love it. If you don’t, you really shouldn’t be here.”) – communities defining themselves in opposition to wider cultural norms can be surprisingly quick to replace the binary thinking and rules that they are ostensibly escaping with brand new ones.
Of course, there are certain attitudes that help those of us exploring and embodying GSRD to thrive. The following are currently my top three:
- Consent: The radical conviction that each individual has a right to physical and emotional autonomy, safety, and choice. The belief that everyone – and it’s important to include ourselves in this – has an undeniable right to have their needs, boundaries, and desires respected. The behaviour that follows from treating ourselves and each other with that respect. At this point in time, the practice of consent should also come with an awareness of power imbalances and intersectionality. Ideally, when seeking someone’s consent, we should be looking for it not just on a verbal level, but also on a physical (what is their body-language doing in response to what we’re negotiating) and energetic (what is my intuition telling me about how the space between is responding to these negotiations) level.
- Respect: The awareness of whose shoulders we’re standing on. This is different from the fealty or sacrifice that self-appointed community gate-keepers demand. Rather, this is a sense of humility and gratitude towards those who have come before, those who are paving the way, and those who are walking beside you. An awareness that we cannot do this alone – and the realization that it really isn’t much fun to try. As a queer person for example, I need to be mindful that I’m standing on the shoulders of a black trans woman who was willing to risk police brutality to create change; that I’m walking in the footsteps of a generation willing to fuck with hand-me-down language until it produced something they could work with; and that I’m moving forward in the excellent company of activists working hard to carve out space for people like me in the hustle, bustle, and bureaucracy of our daily lives.
- Kindness: The understanding that we’re all in this together, we’re all somewhere on the path, and we’re all struggling with our own unique mess of stuff. Acting like we’re all worthy anyway. It’s a value that is not always as popular as I might wish among my fellow changemakers; perhaps because of a fear that it denotes weakness where fierceness is the order of the day. But my sense is that it is a vital companion to that fierceness. It is the capacity to see ourselves in another, even in those instances where we need to draw a line between us; it allows us to draw that line whilst still acknowledging their humanity – and maintaining our own. It is the ability to engage with the difficult conversations that lead to understanding, even as they bring up intense emotions. It is the discernment to give the second chances, to others, and to ourselves, that allow us to keep living on the same damn planet. And it’s inextricably intertwined with our capacity to give ourselves and each other permission to live our best lives, even when it means drawing outside the lines – as articulated by the inimitable Kate Bornstein:
Do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living. Anything at all. It can be illegal, immoral, unethical, self-destructive… anything at all if it makes your life more worth living. There’s only one rule to follow to make that kind of blanket permission work: Don’t be mean.
As long as our actions are underpinned by values like those above, I would argue that we are not well served by the attitude that there is a “right” way to do gender, sexuality, and/or relationship diversity. Rather, I often find myself encouraging clients to think of each new threshold as a Spectrum of Possibilities that are available to them – instead of a set of rules to which they must subscribe in order to “pass” on the other side. I invite them – and you – to approach each new experience or invitation within that Spectrum as an opportunity to practice discernment and self-consent.
I’ll talk about what this looks like in practice in my next post. Suffice to say that…
By moving at a speed that gives us time to listen to ourselves, and our embodied instincts, wisdom, and boundaries; by only taking the risks that our hearts, bellies, and souls really long for; and by taking the time to communicate and negotiate until anyone else involved on our new adventure understands what we need in order to embark on it, we can side-step the temptation to leave one crab bucket for another.
The term ‘crab bucket’ is used by Meg-John Barker, who draws on Terry Pratchett in their book Rewriting the Rules to describe communities that generate their own sets of shoulds and musts as crab buckets, because “you don’t need a lid on a bucket of crabs; if any of the crabs make it over the rim of the bucket, all the other crabs will pull it back in”.
If we are able to navigate our way out of the claws of our fellow crabs – the shoulds and musts of the bucket we start in – and land on the beach, the journey has only just begun. We can feel tremendously exposed out there. As powerful as the pull over that threshold can be, the longing to belong is just as strong, and often stronger. It’s very tempting to start performing a new identity or lifestyle in such a way as to allow us to fit straight into a new crab bucket.
The beach is uncharted territory, and it’s understandable that we would reach for a map – even if it was designed for someone else’s journey rather than our own. However, if we can find the courage to take a moment, lean into our discomfort zone, breathe, and give ourselves permission to just feel what we’re feeling… Then we’re likely to find that we do in fact have a compass in our heart, a guide in our belly, and the creativity to chart a course that is our own.
This also allows us time to look around, and spot the fellow travellers who are charting new courses through the sand too. In time, we find the ones whose maps can inspire our own, whilst giving us greater permission, and opening us up to more of who we are.