[Content Note: discussion of transphobia, homophobia, racism, sexism, emotional and physical violence]
One of the greatest blessings of being active in social justice circles is getting to know so many wonderfully diverse people. I remember when I started college, I only knew a few gay people and one trans* woman. Although I got to know many gay men over the course of my Bachelor’s studies, I didn’t meet any other trans* people until I came to Grad school. And although I’d learned about asexual and genderqueer people from the social justice blogs I followed online, I didn’t meet anyone in person who identified as either of those things until I joined the cast of my university’s Vagina Monologues.
The most beautiful thing about meeting people from all these different groups, to me, is the biological diversity. I don’t necessarily mean race, although that certainly intersects with all these various identities too, I mean things like height, weight, bone structure, arm length, eye color and width, curly vs. straight hair, and so on and so on. Although I’m not a scientist, one of the things I love most about humanity is how different we can be from each other. I, at 6′ and 400+ lbs, represent the extreme of two spectrums, height and weight. There are women I know who are 5’2” and skinny, and we’re part of the same species. We couldn’t look more different, and yet we share 99% of our genetic makeup. What an amazing world we live in, where someone like me and sometime like you can both exist and be human together!
But there is a flip side to this beautiful diversity. And it is an ugly flip. Where people are erased and marginalized, even within their own groups, because they don’t fit the “ideal”. I am pushed to the margins of womanhood because I am too tall, too fat. I am pushed to the margins of LGBT culture because “bisexuality isn’t real” or “you’re too femme to be butch, but too butch to be femme”. LGBT people of color are pushed to the margins because “homosexuality is a white man’s disease”. Trans* women are pushed to the margins of womanhood because “you’re not a real woman” or “you don’t pass”. Genderqueer people are pushed to the margins of both LGBT and straight culture because “there are only two genders”. Asexual people are pushed to the margins because “sexual desire is normal, what’s wrong with you?”. Trans* people are pushed to the margins of LGB culture because “trans* isn’t a sexuality”.
The basic deal is that for every single group, there’s people who aren’t acknowledged as being in that group. And this is where people have to struggle to change things, because the idea of “us vs. them” isn’t a new one. In fact, it’s an extremely old one, that evolved in us over millions of years, and is very strongly-rooted in our cultural DNA. But one of the things that we, as modern human being, have to acknowledge is that our society, our culture, has evolved much faster than we have. Where we have this primitive brain telling us “that person is different from us, shun them” we must say to ourselves “no, I am smarter than that”. And the beautiful thing about the human brain is that is adapts. If you force yourself to analyze your thinking patterns and work to change them, over time, they will change. So the burden, for all of us, is to do this. Not just accept the ways we’ve been taught, not to just accept the status quo, but to be aware and to question things, to learn about others and accept them for their differences.
Of course, I have a lot of privilege here. White privilege, cis privilege, economic privilege, educational privilege, straight-passing privilege, and so on. When I look at a black woman or a trans* woman or a lesbian woman, I don’t feel fear, because I know they aren’t likely to hurt me. But they don’t have that guarantee from me. They have no idea if I, a white, cis, straight-passing woman, will hurt them. They don’t know if I will yell at them, accuse them of stealing, assault them in the bathroom, spread rumors about them, commit acts of emotional or physical violence against them, simply for being who they are.
One of the first acts that I, as an ally, am obligated to do, is to show that I am a safe person. When a genderqueer person meets me and says “my preferred pronouns are ‘they, them, their’ “, it is now my responsibility to correctly use those terms when referring to that person. If I forget or fail, it is my responsibility to apologize and try to do better (and not a long-winded self-flagellation, just a “sorry, I meant they” is just fine for most people). If I meet trans* woman who is not “out” as trans, it is my responsibility to NOT say “this is my trans* friend, X!” because I could be putting her in very real danger. If I meet a black woman and she brings up cultural appropriation of black culture by white people, it is my responsibility to NOT try to play “devil’s advocate” or say “but why does that even matter, there are bigger issues”.
But here’s the key thing, for all you allies or potential allies out there. Even if I do all these things to show I am a safe person, a marginalized person is still not obligated to trust me. Practicing all the little things that protect marginalized people doesn’t make me automatically awesome. And every marginalized person gets to assess whether they will engage with me on that level. If I meet a trans* person who then says “sorry, I don’t trust you”, I can feel disappointed and even hurt, but I do not get to be angry and demand they trust me. I do not get to feel butthurt because they didn’t give me a cookie for being Such A Good Ally. If a black woman says “I do not have the energy to deal with a white person who is trying way too damn hard to be a good ally” then that is every bit her right. And again, I can feel hurt or disappointed (because I have a right to my own emotions), but I do not get to try and explain to her why she’s wrong for protecting herself, or go on a rant on social media about how I try so hard to be nice to “those people” and they always shun me. Because those things don’t make me an ally, they make me an asshole.
I don’t write about social justice issues because I want praise from other marginalized groups. I write about them because they’re important. I write about them because they effect me, and my friends and family. I write about them because it is fucking exhausting to live in a culture that sees me as less-than because of my weight or my sexuality. I write about them because for as exhausted as I am, I know there are people who are exponentially more exhausted by all this shit. And I am not always a good ally. I say stupid, shitty things sometimes. I get mad sometimes when I’m called out on it. But I’m trying. And that’s good enough for most people, and everyone else gets to decide whether it’s good enough for them. And if not, they have that right.
This essay wasn’t written because I want all my friends to give me cookies. It was written because I want people to stop being assholes. If you are a real ally, you don’t get to go on a Netflix comedy special and complain about “all that dang terminology they want us to memorize all the time” (ahem). You don’t get to complain when someone calls you out for saying or doing something shitty. If you want to really be an ally, you will shut the fuck up and you will listen. You will listen when people are kind enough and good enough to explain to you why you’re wrong. You will listen when people say “this hurts me, because”. You will listen when people gift you the stories of their lives, of their struggles as part of a marginalized group. You will listen and you will resolve to do better. Because that’s what a real ally does. It isn’t about being perfect. It’s about being kind. For people who spend so much of their lives defending themselves from physical, emotional, and mental violence, kindness is a gift. So be kind, and listen when someone says “you hurt me”. It’s the fucking least we can do.