Today I have been reflecting on a buschcraft session I taught to a group of adults last week. We did carving, fire building & cooking, tied knots and ID’d trees. It was really fun and I got on with the group well; they all had something to offer and something to learn. The one negative that has really stuck with me though is a recurring theme that I really want to face up to and do something about. Half way through the reflection (which turned into the below blog post) I realised that the achievable goal I needed to set myself was to ask for help overcoming this problem. I’m not getting very far on my own. This post, therefore is an explicit plea for help. I’d be very grateful for any response.
Frequently I am the only woman in sessions. Society doesn’t make it easy for women (or anyone who isn’t a man) to access outdoorsy physical activities. Frequently I come across attitudes to gender (from colleagues as well as learners) that I think are problematic. The more men in the room the more sexist attitudes seem to come out. One of the learners even made a comment that implied that if I wasn’t there it would be worse. In a positive light this highlights the idea that my presence in a typically male space is a form of challenging gender norms and embedding diversity, but does it really change attitudes when the implication is that men just suppress their sexism when women are in earshot?
When I feel like I’m picked out because of my gender, or think a sexist attitude is present in sessions I find it harder and harder to assert what I really think. I even have less confidence in my abilities as a teacher. Things ‘slip’ and I don’t feel as though I can pull it back or challenge attitudes, which affects how and what people end up learning from the session. I really hate this dynamic & it seems as though it’s a bit of a vicious cycle.
Part of it is that my perspectives on gender are different to the majority of people, even feminist people. In my personal life I am constantly engaging with radical queer* politics and identity which asserts that gender is NOT innate, that society coercively assigns and expects certain behaviours from individuals based on a messy collection of biological sex characteristics (which in themselves are arbitrarily separated into ‘male’ or ‘female’ when there is infinite grey areas).
What I want people to understand is that if we expect a person to act a certain way, and shape their whole world and identity around that; that is what they will become. If we divide society down the middle and treat one half differently to the other and construct the world to reinforce that, it will be easy to ‘prove’ that that’s just how it is. That women’s brains are just wired differently, that men are from different PLANETS!
What I want to ask people to do is to act as if this isn’t true. BECAUSE IT ISN’T. It is only true because we believe it to be true and so we construct that truth on top of our belief. I am weak because you told me I am weak by implying I can’t carry that box of tools and somewhere deep down I believe you are strong because that’s how the world works, even though you are skinny and wobbly and I know for a FACT that you will struggle with that box.
I want this not just because I want women to be equal to men but because I want to destroy a society that keeps us in those two factions and rejects anyone who doesn’t fit neatly on either side. I want this for me, for the men in my sessions and for my strong (most of the time), beautiful (always) loved ones who get punished daily for being too ‘diverse’ to fit into societies gender norms.
But how do I work for that in a two day bushcraft course? And if I were able to, would it be ethical to embed a radical queer liberation agenda into sessions with people who didn’t share that worldview? My answer to that when sat writing is a resounding yes, but I’m not so emphatically courageous when faced with a fire circle of kind hearted, slightly sexist men.
Can you help me?
How do I challenge subtly sexist comments made in sessions?
Should I go in right off the bat and explain that I won’t tolerate sexist attitudes? Wouldn’t this just mean people hide their attitudes from me, leaving no space for change?
How do I wrap up ‘emphatically courageous’ and carry it with me into every teaching situation (actually every life situation!) like a shiny queer forcefield to protect me from the trembling, scared little woman feeling I get when I’m blindsided by the patriarchy?
How do I embed gender diversity (and equality) into my sessions in a way that changes attitudes and actions?
How do I ask people to change when it hasn’t occurred to them that change is needed?
* If you don’t know what queer means aside from a homosexual slur, I invite you to look it up! I just typed ‘What does queer mean?’ into google and found a great HuffPost discussion. There is a culture within queer communities that says it is not the responsibility of queer people to educate the wider world about their existence. I am fully behind this because I know its terrifying to be expected to discuss the most private parts of your identity with a world that is mostly hostile towards that part of you. The respect that is shown by self-education is a great place to start these conversations because once you find the language, you find a way to navigate your uncertainties with real people without being unintentionally hurtful. I am a teacher & queer so I willingly take that responsibility at certain times and within certain boundaries. This, as you can probably guess is wholeheartedly one of those times. I’ll let you know if for some reason that changes.