The Value Of Two Cents, or, I’m Dealing With My Own Change So You Can Keep Yours

(This began on Facebook. The question was a real question.)

You know what I can live without? “Although this is an internal discussion within a marginalized community I am not a member of, here’s my 2 cents!”
We already know your opinion, thanks.
Question from the audience: Fliponymous, and this in all sincerity: are the opinions and points of view from people outside the community of value? If an outsider expresses their view could it provide something of substance to the conversation and, if not, could be an opportunity to educate the commentator on the issue? Or, is it better to shut non-community-members out of the conversation all together because their experience is too far removed from the circumstance to have any value.

I am honestly curious on this. Being a white middle-class hetero-cis-male I am almost always on the outside of conversations–and tend to stay out of them as well, both to preserve my peace of mind and to respect the community having the conversation but I sometimes wonder whether it is appropriate to take part, usually hoping to learn more.

There are two kinds of conversations had in marginalized communities. External conversations are general discussions where anyone’s input is welcome. Internal conversations are just that — discussions about how we are going to solve our own internal issues. Discussions about labeling are common, and frequently contentious. In these cases, the opinions of people who are not stakeholders are generally already well known and/or irrelevant, and frequently disruptive. For example, when there’s a discussion about bisexual vs pansexual as the appropriate label for people with attractions to multiple sexes/genders, a straight person wandering in and saying “Labels are just words and don’t matter” not only fails to add anything, but is actively disruptive, no matter how well-meant.

As a community we’re sensitized to this sort of thing. While it’s possible that a person outside the community might have something substantive to add, in the vast majority of cases at least part of the problem is because of people outside the community setting the terms – in the bi/pan Label Wars, for example, much of the debate is driven by straight and gay-developed Queer Theory and its expression in academia to the point that definitions of bisexuality not historically used by the community are in textbooks.

Brief aside: There is something that makes me uncomfortable with the terminology “outsider” being applied to a cishet person participating in an LGBT-focused discussion. Outsider is a misnomer here — views and opinions that are informed by the Overculture do not suddenly transform into #UnpopularOpinons because you’re in our space, even if invited to be. Being the only heterosexual person in a room full of queer people does not actually make you a minority.

The question “are opinions from outside the community of value” might be more properly expressed as “are opinions from outside the community unknown.” In the vast majority of cases, we already know what straight people (in general) think, and frankly the odds that what one individual outside the community has to say is different or valuable enough to be worth taking up air in the debate space (because discussion takes energy) are slim to none. (I fully expect to be pilloried for that statement, Reader, please take note of who objects to it.)

The “opportunity to educate” argument, while superficially plausible, falls apart for two reasons. One is that any internal discussion on an issue large enough to even catch the attention of the Overculture is big enough that there are phalanxes of volunteers working to educate the masses about it. The actual discussions where we are trying to solve our own problems are inappropriate venues for education.

Here’s an analogy for you. If you’re a Christian, and you want to know more about Judaism beyond what you can get from reading the easily available material, do you a) contact a local rabbi and sit down over coffee and ask questions, or b) walk into the nearest synagogue during Shabbat service and start asking the people around you what’s the deal with not lighting a fire on Saturday morning and it seems to you that it’s perfectly OK to set a timer so the TV comes on so you don’t miss Seinfeld because a timer’s the same thing as using a thermostat and you love Seinfeld because he’s Jewish, right?

If you get gently asked to leave because you’re disrupting something that is not directly your problem (even if you think it is because, hey, you have to give your more orthodox Jewish employees Saturdays off, and you’re a good employer because you do), is that the same thing as being “shut out of the conversation”? And believe me, when you look at the way queer people are excluded, any response that you get from us is gentle as eiderdown on a jasmine-scented breeze in comparison.

The other problem with the “opportunity for education” argument is, of course, the expectation that all members of marginalized communities have the obligation to drop what they are doing and perform an Act Of Education for anyone who demands it – or anyone who doesn’t want to be educated. Frankly, it’s hard to tell sometimes the difference between the honestly ignorant and the concern troll. There are days where it takes every ounce of energy we have just to keep going, and expecting us to always be willing to spend it on your enlightenment is actually pretty aggressive.

One of the places where this has been coming up recently is in the issue of labeling the entire LGBTQ community. GSM has been suggested, as well as a new one, SAGA. One of the arguments put forth for this is that the (seemingly) constantly-shifting initialism is “confusing”. This aspect is often mocked with constructions like LGBTQWTFBBQ or LGBTQIABCDEFG.

Here’s the thing. The fact that the debate is happening is proof that we have not settled the matter internally. The reason there is no debate about the word “gay”, for example, shows that that particular label has been resolved internally, at least enough that the gay community is comfortable not only using it but having it applied to them. (Are there individuals who object? Sure. But we’re talking about the community as a whole, which means consensus, not unanimity. Take notes, that one will be on the quiz.)

It is not my problem if cisgender heterosexuals are confused by the initialsm – which they aren’t, they are confused by the fact we as a community have not reached a consensus around appropriate terminology. We’re still arguing about the word Queer, and that’s an internal debate that’s been raging since 1990. I had a discussion recently with a straight person – a great public ally to us, in fact – and they decided to argue that they would not accept people using the word queer to describe their child because of its history as a slur. But it was not their decision to make. It is their child’s choice to accept or not accept the word. And their opinion, as a cishet person, does not have any weight with the queer community as a whole. As a white person, there are racially charged words I’m not comfortable with. I have the right to not use them, I do not have the right to tell people of color what words are appropriate for them to use.

There is an internal debate in the Queer community about LGBT vs GSM/GSRM/GSD/SAGA vs Alphabet Soup. I personally favor LGBTQ+ or QUILTBAG. I personally oppose any initialism or acronym that either divides or erases the bisexual community. In my opinion, Alphabet Soup divides, while GSM etc erases. There is no consensus on this yet — I know of at least one person who I highly respect and consider a friend and mentor who is completely opposed to me on this matter. And we can and will talk about it.

But if you are cishet, kindly keep your opinion to yourself – it’s not helping for you to tell me how much you prefer one or the other, because it is literally not your problem.

One final example: there has been debate in the transgender community over transgender vs trans*. I used trans* in some articles here because at the time, the best information I had was that it was preferable. Since then, I’ve been informed that it isn’t, so I don’t use it anymore.

What I did not do was get involved in discussions among transgender people about how I felt one was more appropriate than the other. And you know what? I did not feel shut out of the debate at all, any more than I feel shut out of the primary election for the political party I’m not affiliated with. Once primary season is over, then and only then it will be my problem who the other side runs against the candidate my side decides to run against him. Just as people who have already decided to vote for him, have no business telling me who I should support in order to run against him.

(This is what happens when I tell someone I consider myself essentially retired from blogging. I get inspired.)

Thanks to Ken and Eric, who got me started, and Camille, who introduced me to the original thought.

About fliponymous

Bisexual activist, thinker, writer, husband, father, Licensed Professional Counselor.
This entry was posted in Identity Politics (non-monosexual), Privilege and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Value Of Two Cents, or, I’m Dealing With My Own Change So You Can Keep Yours

  1. I agree with you in general, but I do think there are times in which non-members of a community can add something to internal conversations, particularly if they have relevant experience as a member of some other marginalized community.

    For example, I was in a conversation with other bisexuals about the use of percentages to describe bisexual attraction (how we can find it both reductive and practically useful in some cases). A non-bisexual mixed-race person entered to bring in some relevant points from a similar conversation within the mixed-race community about using percentages to describe racial identity.

    Obviously, it’s important to be respectful and not dominate a conversation that really isn’t intended for you. But I think that part of being intersectional is recognizing parallels between issues of different groups, and that might sometimes mean making exceptions to bridge various internal conversations.

  2. krstaten says:

    I’m glad you’re not totally “retired from blogging,” as I enjoy reading your posts and always learn a lot from them. I saw this post on Facebook today and was really interested to see how it would come out in blog form–even as part of the bisexual community, there was a little part of me going, “But what if someone who’s not part of the community does have something to offer? Is that to be totally ignored?”

    The comment above mine was more the concept I had in mind with those questions, but thanks for contextualizing this. It’s amazing how much I learn from you about the LGBTQ+ community–even though I consider myself a part of it, I still have so much to learn about the community and our issues and perspectives.

  3. Scylla Kat says:

    I find this essay very clarifying. Thank you.

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