February172013

On Being an Ally to the LGBTQ Community — Part Two

Part One of this post – and it must be read as part of a whole – discussed my personal commitment to inclusiveness in my life and my classroom. I ended with the questions I’ve asked of myself about what it means to be an “ally” to the LGBTQ community:

a) Am I living out my beliefs by treating members of this community with equality and speaking out on their behalf?

b) Am I doing what I can in my classroom to encourage my students to understand equality on this front in the same way that I do in the areas of race, gender, and class?

It’s difficult to teach something you don’t know much about.

We only know what we have lived and I haven’t had any gay, lesbian, trans, or bi friends since high school. (I talked about my fabulous high school for the performing arts in Part One.) What a vibrant group we all were! No one differentiated between sexualities; there was no gay community. I wasn’t a majority or minority as a straight person. There was a thriving theater community! We were all “pitching” for that team. It was a lot like that innocence you had when you were a kid in a mixed-race classroom (if you were that lucky) — and it just didn’t matter. You didn’t talk about it much because it wasn’t a loaded “issue” – sex itself was the issue because we were teenagers and any sex was good enough for conversation. We just had fun putting on theater shows and reviews and staying up late after rehearsals to talk about the future and … those days are gone. Ah l’amour … 

Then there were a lot of years in a largely conservative town where I wasn’t any place where anyone was “out.” Not until I got to grad school. When you get to grad school, gender and sexuality become an “issue.” We theorize about it, which is not a bad thing, but doing so tends to place the human factor at a remove. Because I will always be a student, my attitude toward such things is: OK, I want to learn and I want to do. 

But I have to admit something here, though I’m genuinely worried about being misinterpreted. I hope others are interested in the conversation. I hope it can be a productive conversation.

I’m having trouble with my attempts to be an “ally” to the LGBTQ community. 

What does the LGBTQ community want in its allies? I’ve tried to think about this in terms of the more general (if that’s the right term) feminist community and its social/cultural and political goals. When I come across someone - male or female - who I know is just beginning to “get it” and has questions, how do I interact with this person? I certainly don’t accomplish anything by a) continuing to yell in their face about women’s rights or b) behaving as though they are hopelessly naive and backward, by looking down at their attempts at understanding with a condescension that suggests I am somehow better than them for being more aware, sensitive, or politically correct. 

I’ve been thinking about how we treat those we want as allies. We as feminists of various stripes have had an ongoing conversation about the image and identity of the angry feminist—the “bitch.” On one hand, so the argument goes, don’t we make a powerful statement about refusing to submit ourselves to the masculine expectation that we must be “sweet” and “submissive” women by embracing our inner bitch? I personally love Bitch magazine both for its content and its choice of this name. On the other hand, if our political mission is to forward understanding and equality, a more careful definition of “bitch” must come into play. To assert oneself and one’s ideas serves that goal; being unkind and assaulting others runs counter to the mission of equality. Being unkind isn’t being a strong, powerful, butt-kicking bitch; it’s just being mean.

So maybe there are mean feminists – but that isn’t what feminism is about. At least not my feminism. And when I embrace my inner bitch, I don’t use it as a pass to be unkind or nasty.

I know that being a woman and a feminist isn’t the same as being gay or bi- or trans- or pansexual or asexual (I’m sure I’m missing something here) in terms of negotiating an identity in a world dominated by heterosexuality. I’m just trying to make a connection — trying to understand the best way I can. 

And so I ask, with a mix of curiosity and wounded liberal pride, why I have been met with everything from silence to scorn in my attempts to be what I assume the LGBTQ community would want in an ally — an advocate, an open mind, and an educator. I suppose that it would be fair to say that not everyone wants to be an “advocate” or “spokesperson” for the community. Maybe I take it for granted that all my liberal friends are outspoken and political, whether they are gay or straight. Have I stepped over some unmarked line that says that straight teachers aren’t supposed to speak on behalf of the gay community when teaching students about inclusiveness, when raising these issues? Should I not ask questions? I think that an enlightened man can teach feminist theory; should I not be teaching things like queer theory if I’m straight? 

I saw a post on Twitter recently — “Pause to learn which of your habits are assaults on identities different from your own.” 

I guess I’ll have to figure out how to negotiate what that means. I’m still learning. I’m pretty sure we all are. In the meantime, part of me is ready to give up and go quietly back into teaching what I know while keeping my mouth shut in an attempt to not hurt anyone’s feelings.

Sounds like a lame cop-out to me, but it’s “safe.” And after being told last week that I was an idiot for asking a question about someone’s objection to being called a lesbian, I’m close to throwing in this towel in favor of playing it safe. 

I leave this as an open-ended discussion, though I ask only that you stay on the topic of my essential question: What does the LGBTQ community ask of its straight allies?

 

[Constructive answers only, please. Inflammatory comments from any point of view will be deleted.] 

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