Part One: No Apologies
Last time we met, I appear to have said some mildly negative things about a very large group of people, and talked a bit about the dynamic of that in the context of privilege/oppression, of dominant/marginalized. In fact, I didn’t actually directly say anything negative about straight people. I quoted a couple of real and hypothetical negative things that have been or could be said about straight people, but the only thing I really did was
1)acknowledge that some queer people do sometimes say negative things about things that people who represent the dominant culture do and
2)ask for those statements to be cut a little slack.
Some interesting things happened as a result, and I’m going to dig into it a little bit deeper. Because I was so polite about it, there was pushback but no serious outrageousness (and, yes, people who say things like what I said sometimes get death threats for saying it. Seriously).
Some people in the queer community reacted with “Thanks for saying this.” To them I say you’re welcome, and thank you for being part of a community of empowerment.
Some people in the queer community pointed out some legitimate flaws. At one point I said to straight people “I cannot harm you”, and that sentence, while a bold statement, was incompletely justified. So let me be more clear. If a queer person says something negative about something that some or many straight people do out of privilege and its attendant obliviousness, the worst possible consequence is that some straight people might feel momentary discomfort while they parse the statement. Because power.
For example: if I write a blog post calling out people who claim to be Allies who are actually not helping me – who are helping themselves to feel good but end up doing things that are actively harmful because their feelgood cookie is more important to them than the things I actually need – does that apply to all straight people who claim (or have been given) the title Ally? Of course not. It’s not only implicit in the statement, but explicit.
So the idea that I cannot harm straight people doesn’t mean that nothing I can say can cause harm to a straight person. Of course if I lay out a vicious attack on an individual, it can be a problem for them.
But what it cannot do is subordinate them. Marginalize them on the basis of their identity as a straight person.
The marginalized cannot cause the dominant to experience the serious long term effects of being marginalized in the arena of which they speak.
Of course, as a white cismale queer person, I could very easily marginalize trans*gender people, people of color, and female identified people. Because intersectionality. I do not intend to give the impression that because I suffer marginalization in one area, I don’t have enormous privilege in others. I do, and I need to remain cognizant of that.
So I thank the people who brought up that point.
A lot of straight people read the article and were open enough to read past their discomfort and see what I was saying. To them, again, thank you.
Now to the part that’s probably going to piss more people off.
Part Two: Anger-shaming
The negative reactions to the idea that it might be legitimate for queer people to be able to make statements that are negative about the dominant group (or people in that dominant group) are primarily anger-shaming and strawmen.
The anger-shaming part, ironically, is exactly what I am putting down in the original article. The excellent (and frequently attacked to the point of being temporarily removed from the web) Derailing For Dummies has a lot to say about this. You can go read the relevant parts here, I’ll wait. For those of you who are already familiar with these ideas, here’s some music to listen to while the others catch up.
“It is not at all unusual, therefore, for marginalized people to have to be accustomed to being very, very cautious about the way they engage with the privileged.”
This is crucial. In those areas where you represent the dominant, the things you do and say are not considered to be representative of your entire group. They are either things that are to be judged individually, or not judged at all because it’s just what people say. (Hear the implicit normal there?) If you say something about behaviors by people in the dominant group that you belong to, you aren’t attacked just for saying it.
Let me give you an example. A friend of mine started a discussion on a social media website that was about some problems going on in zer local community that involved problematic interactions and policies that favored cis people and disenfranchised trans* people. Ze specifically asked that the particular discussion (which was being conducted in the open so that trans*folk could discuss without having to be specifically invited) be restricted to trans* people, that cis people were welcome to observe but should not inject themselves into the discussion, positively or negatively. That this was not a place for cis participation, not because there was a problem with cis people in and of themselves, but simply because this was not their discussion.
And a lot of cis people decided that it would be appropriate to come to the defense of all cis people, to join the discussion and defend “themselves”, because some anger and frustration being expressed with both the actions of some cis people and the cluelessness of even more cis people in the situations being discussed was making them defensive.
Now, if I were to talk about this discussion and say “Wow, many cis people don’t get it,” because I am cis, there is no consequence for me. Not a single person is going to sincerely attack me on the basis of my making cis people feel bad. No one is going to accuse me, a cis ally, of hurting the cause of trans*folk by driving away cis allies.
This dynamic is because I am socially the equal of all other cis people in the arena of “the politics surrounding gender perception and presentation”. And, frankly, I hold that social position because it is the dominant position – I don’t actually have to declare that I am cis to get that status, all I have to do is exist. I didn’t ask for this privilege, I don’t do anything to maintain it, I just have to be mindful of it and not use it to stomp all over trans*folk.
It doesn’t matter, by the way, if I am talking to a group of cis people, a group of trans* people, or a mixed group when I say this. My position on top of the privilege hill assures that it’s just my personal opinion and not an attack on all cis people.
Whether it is an angry scream or just an eye roll and the words “cis people”, my dominance means that it’s OK for me to say these things. My dominance means that not only is there no consequence for me, but there is no consequence for my audience – no assumptions are being challenged if I, a cis person, say something about other cis people. If my anger and frustration were from someone on the marginalized end of the discussion, however, cis people would be furious at me for stepping out of line. Because even though their position cannot be imperiled, they can be made briefly uncomfortable by the thought that, gadzooks, it might not actually be all about them all of the time.
The other day, I was having a private discussion with another queer person, and we were talking about something that some straight people of our acquaintance were doing, something that was purely and totally because of their privilege, something annoying and self-centered that they were not aware of, something that in other words could only be done by a straight person, because a queer person would simply lack the privilege to even consider doing it, much less actually do it. And I rolled my eyes and said “Straight people.” And my conversational partner laughed, and that was the end of it. We had shared our mutual frustration with something that was spawned by the power dynamics of privilege and obliviousness. And we felt empowered and connected, because in that moment our frustration became a little easier to bear because it was a shared burden, and instead of individually fuming about what had happened, we were able to categorize it, depersonalize it, see it as something systemic and borne of obliviousness to our experience rather than as an individual being a jerk.
Right now, at this very moment, reading this, a bunch of people (mostly straight, but a couple queer) quit reading. Some of them may be angrily typing a comment in reply to what just offended them. The comment will probably read something like this: “Your disrespect of people because their sexual orientation is different than yours makes you as bad as any homophobe. You’re alienating your allies, unfairly painting a whole group of people as nasty and clueless.” (Anger-shaming with strawmen and concern-trolling, wow, the hat trick!)
Because I was honest enough to say that I rolled my eyes and said “Straight people” when I was frustrated about something that straight people – not all straight people, not most straight people, just some straight people (but only straight people) – do. I dared do it in public.
Yeah, that’s really aggressive. That’s just me being a horrible person. Because I failed to consider that expressing something I was feeling – a legitimate, justified, honest feeling – violated the Code of Marginalization, rule one of which is “Know your place”.
Never, ever prioritize your feelings and experiences ahead of the sensibilities and comfort of anyone socially dominant.
And that rule is enforced with anger-shaming (sometimes overt “I can’t talk sense to you until you calm down”, sometimes passive aggressive “Good luck with your anger”, and frequently making what you are angry about your fault because you are angry about it, a triumph of twisted logic such as “You won’t convert anyone to your point of view by making people uncomfortable” when the point wasn’t converting people but relieving my stress, because every damned word out of my mouth should not have to be judged based on how a random straight person will interpret it) and a variety of strawman arguments.
Part Three: Man of Straw
In case you are not familiar with the strawman in discourse, here’s a quick definition: rather than discuss what your opponent actually says or means, you make something up and argue against that instead. Sometimes the arguments are devastatingly effective, in fact – against whatever it was that you just made up. But they’re completely irrelevant to the actual point being made.
There were two main strawman arguments specifically used against the previous article.
#1) “If it’s not right for you to be discriminated against for your sexual orientation, it’s not right for you to discriminate against others based on their sexual orientation. Straight people have no more choice in who they are attracted to than you do. You should direct your anger at only the individual who angered you and leave their orientation out of it.”
I’ve restated this one as bluntly and clearly as possible in order to make it as obvious as possible what an incredible and utter load of horsepuckey it is. Look, if a queer person says that straight people are mentally ill for restricting their attractions only to the socially accepted sex/gender, I’m going to land on them like a ton of bricks. If a queer person claims that straight men are disgusting because they have sex with woman and that’s nasty, I am going to go after them for their misogyny. If a queer person says that women who like sex with men are traitors to the female cause because they’re sleeping with the enemy, I’m going to make a ruckus.
But pointing out even with overt anger that something straight people are doing is frustrating is not even in the ballpark with attacking straight people because of their orientation.
And making anger and frustration only acceptable if it is directed at a particular individual who has done something specific turns frustration with the system into a personal attack; easy to dismiss and ignoring the cause of the problem, and allowing the individual offender to take themselves off the hook by saying “I didn’t mean it” or “what’s the big deal” or even “You’re being unreasonable, calm down.”
#2) “By lumping people together into an undifferentiated mass, you’re not giving straight people the same regard that you are demanding from them.”
This one… when this one first showed up, I was taken aback. My very first thought was, “what article did they read?” Because I carefully and specifically used the words “many straight people”.
“Many”. As in “Not all.” As in “Here, I am specifically leaving you, dear straight reader, an out that you can use to say to yourself ‘well, he’s not talking about me, so I don’t even need to do so much as bother to check and see if he might even be talking about me’.” (And that is in reality something that could be considered deeply problematic for a lot of reasons.)
Nope. Enter this particular strawman, the idea that even the mildest criticism of straight people – not even all straight people – based on something that they do that is clearly and easily seen as doable because of their privileged position in society is actually a simple condemnation of all straight people, everywhere, regardless of their actions and words, forever and ever amen. And at best this requires a declaration that “I’m straight, and I’m not like that” (which I have to tell you is something that I have been guilty of doing myself in other areas where my privilege is challenged, I’m not perfect, just trying to improve) or another defensive response all the way down to “I’m dismissing your argument because you can’t be bothered to see that people are different”.
Even though that was explicitly acknowledged.
And it’s not a matter of tone. It doesn’t matter if you stand right there and say “F*** Straight people” or if you couch your frustration in careful apologies and language calculated to ensure that no one could possibly take personal offense to what you have said.
The strawman is proof against even your most careful and conscientious efforts to phrase your argument in a way that takes the (seemingly fragile) sensibilities of the dominant into account. Because it allows people to react to what they want you to have said, rather than actually pay attention to what you’re saying.
And, oh yeah, it’s all your fault for their unwillingness to actually face their discomfort and try to understand what you are saying – not trying to say, because this is not a matter of your being opaque or ranting incoherently, but the actual words that are coming out of your keyboard.
Part Four: Damaging The Cause
“You are damaging your cause by being angry, real understanding can only happen if all sides are respectful and patient.”
That’s a direct quote from the Derailing for Dummies site, in case you didn’t recognize it. And it’s a big part of the thrust of the original article.
It’s not enough to merely hide your frustration and anger. It’s not enough to be ultra-polite, to behave with a gentility and courteousness that, if it were reversed, would be taken as sarcastic and offensive. (Because the rules are different depending on your position on the dominant/subordinated axis, you know – if you’re on the dominant end of the see-saw then bluntness and honesty can be encouraged. In fact, my privilege as a white cisman is probably one of the reasons that I can make these arguments with the level of confidence that I have.)
No, it’s not enough that you say it carefully or even not at all.
You are not even allowed to feel it. Because to even feel that there are things going on because of straight privilege that are annoying or irritating or angering makes you a horrible person – and is going to strip your cause of its righteousness.
Your anger is going to disempower you by harming your cause, because you can only succeed with the help of people who are not marginalized.
And if you piss them off, they are going to leave in droves.
I’ve seen it happen. I was privy to a conversation where someone who claimed to be a capital-A Ally decided they were no longer going to go out of their way to support LGBT equality, because the people in the conversation were “being a bunch of jerks”.
If I were to say that this person was never actually an ally, I will be accused of “applying a purity test” and “expecting perfection” and “tearing the movement apart like always happens when people get too picky”. But, seriously, this person was waiting for an excuse to withdraw their dubious support. They got what they wanted – that precious Ally cookie – and when they figured out that they were not in charge, they huffed off in a stomp. And they can still dust off the cookie whenever they want, get off the hook for future behavior by saying “Well, I tried to help them, but they didn’t want me.”
But is this the case of the majority of the people who support equality for all? Of course not. It’s a poisonous few. There is even a specific name for them: the Concern Troll.
But there are a couple of things that have to be said. They don’t get said, because we get told constantly (and frequently by Concern Trolls) that to say anything is going to drive away all of our Allies. Because to be an Ally is to be placed above any criticism at all, because we need Allies oh so much.
But that does a disservice to our Allies. Because criticizing something an Ally does is not the same thing as rejecting their help, as making them feel bad. Think about it. If you’re doing something, and you could be doing it better, and no one tells you that, will you? Or will you just assume that you’re doing fine?
And since I’m already standing up and saying things that are pissing people off, I may as well get it off my chest.
Part Five: If You Are Already Upset, Skip This Part. Seriously.
Many straight people act as if their involvement in the LGBT Equality movement, and their particular issue regarding that movement, is the most important part of the movement.
But the cold hard truth is this: there is a certain amount of time, energy, and money that needs to be spent on developing and serving the needs of straight people who are involved in the movement. But it is not and should not be the primary focus of our time, energy, and money.
Anytime that the needs of queer people are overshadowed by the needs of allies, there’s a problem. So when Trans* people say “Why is there one Transgender Day of Remembrance, and little or no representation of Trans* people and issues during LGBT History Month programming, but there’s an Ally Appreciation Week with activities?” they need to be listened to rather than told to quit rocking the boat.
And in my own little corner of the world, in the constant discussion of bisexual invisibility and erasure and how the use of “Anything But Bisexual” labels unnecessarily divides and weakens not only the political strength of bisexuals but contributes to that erasure in some very specific and harmful ways, I have to say that if you are straight, you don’t have any business telling me what our community labels should be, how I should label myself, or that we should just “get past labels”. It’s not your problem, and you’re making things worse for me. I’m not telling you to shut up and sit down in some attempt to turn the tables of power, I am pointing out something you are doing that is doing harm to me and my community.
There’s a great scene in “The United States Of Tara” where a straight ally is at a meeting of the main character’s queer son’s high school LGBT organization and insists that the name of the organization reflect her involvement in it as a straight person. While it shows that her concern is not really for the people she’s claiming allyship with but her own validation (something that becomes clear as the show progresses), it’s not as bad as it could be. But I’ve heard straight people talk about how “we shouldn’t use labels at all”, and it makes me want to scream for two reasons. One you’re familiar with if you’ve read what I have to say about this, and two, since when are straight people the ones who get to determine what labels we use to identify ourselves? And if you are straight, and you say “We shouldn’t be using labels, we’re all human beings, it shouldn’t matter, labels are so limiting, people are too individual and precious to be expected to be captured in a label” I’m going to get angry and say something that you’re going to try to make me regret.
Because in a world where you don’t need a label because your label is the (hetero)normative, the standard by which everyone else is judged, the automatic assumption that every child born will be, a world where I get a label whether I want one or not and the imposed label is invariably a negative one, how dare you tell me that “labels don’t matter”? What a colossally privileged statement. (eye roll) Straight people, ya know?
But the ones who are saying it are not bad people. They are not trying to be annoying. But because of their dominant position in the hierarchy of society, they are accustomed to calling the shots in a way so pervasive that it doesn’t even occur to them that they may be doing something problematic. And no one has called them on it, because we’re not allowed to.
And if I roll my eyes and say “Straight people, ya know?” or perhaps say something stronger, something with a little invective, use words you wouldn’t be comfortable using around the dinner table at G’gamma’s Harvest Dinner? Well, then I am being unduly aggressive, driving away our allies, discriminating against the majority sexual orientation because of who trips their erotic trigger, and failing to differentiate between the “good” straight people and the “bad” straight people. That I should restrict my annoyance to the homo- and biphobes, that I need to always cut maximum possible slack to straight people because they might get offended.
That I should not feel the way I feel.
But that’s a classic example of the double standard – the double standard that I am accused of when I say “queer people shouldn’t be expected to never voice their anger”. The real double standard is this: if you’re straight, your feelings come first. If I do something that causes you discomfort, I am a Bad Person who should be more compassionate and thoughtful.
Even if the reason for your discomfort is that I spoke the truth. That I spoke my mind.
I have committed the crime of saying something that acknowledges my reality rather than prioritizing yours to the point of erasing mine entirely.
And you know what? I’m not going to apologize for that.