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The Circle of Normalcy

Our last 'K class' was subject to a special visit. An ex-student was visiting Brockwood for a few days, researching material for her upcoming autobiography, and was asked to give a talk to the school during K class about her life's work. Io Tillett Wright was a student at Brockwood Park ten years ago and has now embarked on a pretty ambitious nation-wide project in her homeland (USA), photographing 10,000 faces of anyone who identifies as anything but 100% hetero, seeking to spread awareness about a broader spectrum of human sexuality.

Here was a speaker who seemed to appeal to more students than anyone else I've seen up on stage since I began here in September. She began her talk by giving a brief description of her upbringing in Manhattan among drag-queens, radical thinkers and performance artists. At the age of six she decided she wanted to be a boy, shaved her head, and kept up the charade for eight years. At 14 she decided to be a girl again, arrived at Brockwood Park a girl, and fell in love with another girl here (who now lives in Germany, her next destination to collect more material for her memoir).

Brockwood frowns upon what it calls 'exclusive relationships' - a rather touchy topic here in fact. The few staff members who are couples are never seen holding hands or showing any outward affection towards each other, and students are expected to do the same - they're not actually allowed to have a relationship while being at school: sex is strictly forbidden and equates with a breach of the 'Agreements' (ie. the school's rules students sign upon entry) and thus expulsion. Io, being in a relationship with a girl, clearly had her work set out for her.

On top of that, she explained - amid painful glances towards Gopal, the co-principle - how much of an infuriating rebellious teenager she had been and the amount of grief she gave Gopal who was her tutor at the time. She concluded this description of her time at Brockwood by recounting her expulsion from the school due to her stubborn campaign to get rid of the 'Agreements' combined with the fact that she breached them by having sex on campus with her German girlfriend. So much for setting an example.

It gets better though - to the relief of the staff - as Io goes on to do some pretty amazing work exposing the wealth of sexual identities humans associate themselves with, culminating in a TED talk and the aforementioned project Self Evident Truths. Despite having written about TED being a dodgy institution upholding its own particular view of which ideas are worth spreading and, importantly, which aren't (see my post on it here) I've got to admit that I'm glad Io did a TED talk - shrewdly entitled Fifty Shades of Gay - and encourage you to check it out not so much for its branding as for its content. Seeing as it covers much of what she spoke to us about I'll just say that some interesting questions came up as a result of it. Curiosity, really, about what it was like for her to 'come out' while at Brockwood, about the challenges she faced while photographing the LGBT community in the backends of America, etc...

To hear about something a little different - as far as we know everyone at Brockwood is heterosexual - coming in some sense from one of their own kin as it were (Brockwood and its alumni are a pretty tightly knit bunch) and not from a teacher in a sex-ed class, it does feel like her talk helped expand students' views about what gender, sexuality and identity can be. That it might be more murky than they might have otherwise presumed. It was this very notion that she raised in her talk which I found most poignant - this expanding of people's views through simple exposure, something she's termed our 'circle of normalcy'.

Using the circular rug in the middle of the assembly hall as her imagery, Io described this 'circle of normalcy' which includes the familiar and leaves out the rest, keeping it in the dark. Thus if one is raised amongst transvestites and clowns - heterosexuality and sobriety become the otherness one is happy to keep at bay, the eyes of beasts shining out from the darkness. It is a strange coincidence that I had that same day read the penultimate chapter of D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, in which he describes

This inner circle of light in which she lived and moved, wherein the trains rushed and the factories ground out their machine-produce and the plants and the animals worked by the light of science and knowledge, suddenly it seemed like the area under an arc-lamp, wherein the moths and children played in the security of blinding light, not even knowing there was any darkness, because they stayed in the light.

But she could see the glimmer of dark movement just out of range, she saw the eyes of the wild beast gleaming from the darkness, watching the vanity of the camp fire and the sleepers; she felt the strange, foolish vanity of the camp, which said "Beyond our light and our order there is nothing," turning their faces always inward towards the sinking fire of illuminating consciousness, which comprised sun and stars, and the Creator, and the System of Righteousness, ignoring always the vast darkness that wheeled round about, with half-revealed shapes lurking on the edge.

I exaggerate not the striking similarities in the language Io used to describe her idea with that of DHL - whom she tells me she never read - and I conclude that it simply testifies to the very soundness of the notion itself. It appears as rather obvious that one's surroundings will inform that person's perceptions whether they are raised in a war zone or amongst apes. In the case of human relations however it is perhaps not noted with quite as much clarity - for immediately the quetion arises "should we have a hand in this?" If you want to put an end to biggotry and homophobia, simply get everyone to meet and interact with each other. While some - such as Io - are keen to support this, it cannot be said that all share her enthusiasm.

Even here at Brockwood some felt the need to mock Io's talk and were overheard making trenchant remarks when walking out the assembly hall. What is it that prevents us, in fact, from supporting such innitiatives? Does a lack of experience and knowledge fuel fear and resistance?

Yea, and no man dared even throw a firebrand into the darkness. For if he did he was jeered to death by the others, who cried "Fool, anti-social knave, why would you disturb us with bogeys? There *is* no darkness. We move and live and have our being within the light, and unto us is given the eternal light of knowledge, we comprise and comprehend the innermost core and issue of knowledge. Fool and knave, how dare you belittle us with the darkness?"

Nevertheless the darkness wheeled round about, with grey shadow-shapes of wild beasts, and also with dark shadow-shapes of the angles, whom the light fenced out, as it fenced out the more familiar beasts of darkness. And some, having for a moment seen the darkness, saw it bristling with the tufts of the hyaena and the wolf; and some, having given up their vanity of the light, having died in their own conceit, saw the gleam in the eyes of the wolf and they hyaena, that it was the flash of the sword of angels, flashing at the door to come in, that the angels in the darkness were lordly and terrible and not to be denied, like the flash of fangs.

D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow


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