How My Feminism Changed & My Mother Accepted Me

Collette Charles is a natural light, freelance photographer living in Salt Lake City. She is a frozen yogurt connoisseur, workout fiend, and expectant mother. Follow her adventures and check out her photography here.

It’s funny, five years ago I would never have called myself a feminist. In my house growing up, “feminist” was synonymous with words like, “uptight,” “pushy,” “overly sensitive,” and “Hillary Clinton.”  Only after taking several Women’s and Gender Studies courses, did I begin to realize how strongly I identified with what was being taught, but that I just hadn’t known the right words to express my feelings. As the Death Cab for Cutie song suggests, “There are different names for the same things.”

Even still, the first day of my first Women’s Studies class at BYU Hawaii, I was wary and suspicious of the teacher’s “agenda.” She started the class by asking us what we thought of when she said the word feminist. While others were spouting out phrases like, “women’s liberation!” and “voting rights!” I raised my hand and shamelessly answered, “uptight lesbians.” In that moment, I had no idea how much my life would be changed by this word carrying so many connotations, “feminist.”

When I was 14 years old, I was sexually assaulted by a neighbor boy on multiple occasions. I experienced all the stereotypes and clichés many of us think of in situations like these. The “Blame the Victim” mentality was my life up until about two years ago when I started to face what had happened to me. Without those Women’s and Gender Studies classes, and hours of therapy, I would never have been able to type those words, “I was sexually assaulted.” Learning about topics such as The Myth of Male Weakness and the way our culture reinforces a mentality of “she or (he) asked for it,” and “it was her (or his) fault” hit me smack dab in the face. What had happened to me was not my fault and I did not deserve it. And then, there was the gravity of how absolutely wrong it is that I didn’t know those truths from the start.

These realizations about sexual assault weren’t the only big beliefs that feminism was challenging. I began to think a lot more about hetero and homosexuality, something that until this point, I hadn’t worried too much about, because being a straight woman attracted to straight men in our culture, especially the “Utah Mormon” culture, is a simple place to be.

Here’s where I am going to ask: for you to be as open minded as I try to be, because believe it or not, this goes both ways.

I am a member of the LDS church. I believe in God, Jesus Christ, and the teachings of this religion. I do not see that changing. But wait, how can a person be an advocate of feminism and belong to a church that is based around patriarchy? Doesn’t the LDS church hate gay people? This is a can of worms that I’m not going to completely open up right now, but I will say this: the doctrine of the LDS religion is often misunderstood and misrepresented by its members. I am absolutely appalled and disgusted by the behavior of many of the members of my church and this is something I will deal with for the rest of my life.  Sitting through Sunday school, there isn’t a lot of dialogue about homosexuality beyond, “it’s a sin.” Because it wasn’t something I worried about, being a straight woman, I hadn’t given it much thought beyond that.

Until one night several years ago I received a phone call that changed everything. A very dear friend of mine called me in hysterical tears, and told me that he was gay, (something I had suspected.) and that he didn’t know how he could live our religion, knowing he may be sentencing himself to a life of loneliness. He told me how heart wrenching it was to sit through Sunday school and Priesthood meetings, and hear other members talking about homosexuality in terms of “homos” and “hell,” while he sat there trying to feel spiritually uplifted. I wish every person who chooses to use the words, “fag” or “homo” or “queer” could hear the desperation in my friend’s tears, as he told me he was considering ending his life.

Several months ago, my extended family got together to eat dinner and celebrate the return of my cousin who had just served an LDS mission. I was happy to observe the cousin’s growth and hear the stories of his service. Until he made a crack about “hoping none of his cousins turned out to be queers.” I felt so confused that the two years of service and supposedly learning Christ-like behavior hadn’t included love for someone who might be different than my cousin. I called him out on the comment and then told everyone at the table I hoped we could love each other no matter what sexual orientation the other identified with, The subject was quickly changed. This scenario happens all too often. I understand that it can be uncomfortable to see such things in a new light, especially in our culture, but there is never an excuse to treat another human being as being less than a human being for identifying as anything other than heterosexual.

I know that through education, attitudes can and do change. My mother proves this to me over and over. Several years ago, when my outlook on that word, “feminist” began to change, I often confided in my mom, telling her the things I was learning. Instead of scoffing or disagreeing, she listened. My mom was raised in a small town in Idaho. Her political and social views are conservative. She taught me some very important lessons growing up. First, having a college education is important. Because my mother graduated from college, I knew that I would graduate from college. Second, choosing to have children and care for them is not a second rate assignment. After I was born, my parents’ financial situation required that my mother work. She worked as a teacher for years, but as soon as circumstances allowed, she quit to stay home with us children full-time, because she wanted to. She taught me to never be ashamed of that choice, something I also learned from a feminist point of view, that women should have the right to choose and not feel guilty for it, whether than means working a high-powered career outside the home or staying home to raise children, or do both.

So as my attitude about our culture and homosexuality began to shift, I often talked to my mom about it, and hers began to shift as well. At a family reunion, when some of the aunts and uncles were discussing how “weird” and “unimaginable” being gay would be, my mom spoke up, saying that it is not our place to judge others, just to love them. That maybe the aunts and uncles should consider how difficult it would be to be attracted to your same-sex in a culture that sees that as a sin.

Several months ago I found out that two of my friends, who happen to be a lesbian couple, had purchased sperm from a sperm bank and were going to try for a baby. When I told my mom this news, these were her exact words.

“Well, that’s an option any couple dealing with infertility might use. Why should it be any different for your friends? That’s great!”

I told her how great she was for reacting that way and she said this. “It’s not my job to be anyone’s judge, thank goodness. All I have to do is love others.”

This is the attitude that gives me hope. That in our really messed up world, education does have the power to change mindsets. And yes, it can be uncomfortable, stepping outside of your belief system, but it can be done. If we all share our experiences, try to step into each others’ shoes, and then practice the underrated art of compassion, we will change the world. Oh and patience, lots of patience.

It’s exhausting. Many times I feel as though I’m always arguing and debating with family and friends. Once, during a discussion about our culture and rape, a family member asked me why I am always harping on the negative. “Isn’t it depressing to always be talking about this? Can’t we just focus on the positives?”

No.  Ignoring an issue does not make it go away. (Trust me, I’ve tried that route.)

Being an advocate of feminism doesn’t mean you are a bra burning man-eater. Remember, “Different names for the same thing.” Being an advocate of feminism means you believe everyone, regardless of age, race, class, gender, and sexual orientation deserves to be treated with love, kindness, and respect. And I bet, if you put it in those terms, you’ll be surprised at how many people agree with you.

Comments

  1. beautifully written. you precisely put in words, my exact thoughts on all those topics.

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