accommodation vs. adaptability, or how social justice movements are sometimes their own worst enemy: part 3

last spring, there was an anonymous bit of writing floating around the internet on the topic of queer invisibility. it was written by an anonymous woman who identified as queer–specifically, bisexual. she was a femme lady who had mainly been in relationships with women, but her piece was about how she was currently in a relationship with a man, & she had noticed that she no longer got the “queer nod” from other queer folks she passed on the street. people looked at her & saw another straight-looking lady on the arm of a dude. she wrote at length about how this invisibilized the complexities of her sexuality. she went into detail about how she used to “sneer” at straight couples in line with her at the movie theatre when she was with her girlfriends, but now she was that straight-seeming woman being sneered at (though she did not actually say that anyone sneered at her). by the end of the piece, she was practically weeping magical lady internet tears over how her fellow queers don’t bend over backwards to validate her sexuality now that it is not apparent to all & sundry that she is “in the choir” (to quote the emcee at this local GLBT summit i attended the other night; he must have said “in the choir” at least 47 times).

a lot of my queer-in-relationships-with-dudes-lady friends really liked this article. they were linking it on facebook & on their blogs & talking about how it “spoke to their hearts” & such forth.

i did not understand. this seemed like a CLASSIC example of wanting to be accommodated rather than adapting to different circumstances. the thing about being queer is that no one knows you are queer unless you come out, by saying, “hello, i am queer,” perhaps, or by walking down the street holding hands with a person identifiable as being of the same gender as you. if you instead walk down the street making it apparent that you are in an intimate romantic relationship with someone of the “opposite” gender (in quotes because we all knows there are more than two diametrically opposed gender) as you, some people are going to assume you are straight. hopefully there will be some people who do what i do, which is perhaps make an unconscious note of two people being in a relationship without making assumptions about how they identify their sexualities. but i think we do need to ground ourselves in the reality that a lot of people are going to go ahead & think you are straight.

& that matters because you will then enjoy the privileges that come with being straight. you will probably not be gay bashed if someone thinks you are straight, for example. probably no one will hurl a homophobic epithet in your direction. there’s a fairly good chance that if you & your partner decide to get married, that will be a legal option that will be able to pursue without much difficulty. & such forth. perception matters because privilege is real. & while you may prefer to live in a world where those privileges don’t exist because the attendant oppressions that others face also don’t exist, this preference also does not negate the privilege. even if you are enjoying a privilege that does not correspond to your actual identity…the perception of others is still what counts.

the crux of this anonymous woman’s article was that she wanted to continue to be perceived of as a queer, without having to do anything to expose her queer identity & compromise her straight privilege. she wanted to have her cake & eat it too. she wanted the other members of her queer community to validate her oppressed status while she enjoyed all the perks of the oppressor status. how exactly is this shit speaking to anyone’s heart? i mean, i guess it’s cool that people were so willing to admit their basest, most solipsistic tendencies. it’s not everyday that a whole crew of folks interested in social justice can all band together & sing out as one: “yes, i am incredibly selfish & devoid of critical thinking skills!”

when i brought this up with a few friends, they flipped the fuck out. two friendships were lost to the arguments that ensued from my criticisms. i was somewhat taken aback by the lengths people will go to in order to avoid considering the possibility that they may not be as awesome as they think they are 100% of the time.

i sometimes struggle with striking a balance around issues of oppression & privilege. i generally feel that if you can’t make a cogent argument without falling back on some snarky remark like, “your privilege is showing!”, you probably don’t deserve to be having the conversation. but there are times when people are willfully, obstinately blind to their privileges. i also wrote recently about the way oppression is often used as currency & cachet in social justice circles. a marginalized identity is not a trump card to be busted out when you want to win an argument…but some people use it that way anyway. how many times has some radical somewhere prefaced their smug, self-satisfied remarks with the words, “as a pansexual pagan descendant of an authentic cherokee princess…” or some variation thereof? about a million times. but then, there are times when some nincompoop is going on about, “working class people think thus & so & then they do this & that,” & it only seems fair to jump in & say, “as a working class person, let me tell you why you’re full of shit.”

basically, i guess i think a lot of this language has been corrupted. & it functions as a kind of secret code, to keep conversations within certain safe, ineffectual boundaries. example: last night at feminist book club, we were talking about how parenting expectations fall disproportionately on women…STILL. men who contribute to parenting, by, say, taking their kids to story hour or changing a diaper, are either applauded & celebrated for fulfilling the most basic of parenting functions, or they are viewed suspiciously, like maybe they are pedophiles for wanting to hang around kids, or maybe they’re trying to get with the moms on the playground. this weirdness, which is totally a function of patriarchal maternal caregiving expectations, was familiar to pretty much everyone at book club, except one woman who was all, “we have lots of great dads who come to story hour at the library.” that’s…cool? we weren’t saying great dads don’t exist. even great dads can fall victim to being over-celebrated for knowing their kids’ names or being given the stinkeye by the swingset. it’s not about their actual quality of care. it’s about their gender & the baggage that goes along with it. i don’t know. it’s like suddenly the air was taken out of the sails of the conversation by the realization that not everyone was up to speed on the subtext or something? it was weird. i just don’t know how to proceed sometimes.

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13 responses to “accommodation vs. adaptability, or how social justice movements are sometimes their own worst enemy: part 3

  1. That article is actually the worst article ever posted on the internet. It will someday go down in history as the worst thing ever said, I swear.

    What I really remember being the most irritated about is the bit about how she gives a “nod” to two lesbians and they respond negatively, or just don’t run up and hug her or whatever. Seriously? It’s already kind of nervewracking to walk down the street in public being visibly in a gay relationship, and then some woman, holding hands with her boyfriend, gives you a look that basically implies, “hey! I see that you are a lesbian!”. Wouldn’t that freak you out a little? Wouldn’t that make you nervous? How did the author of this article not *get* that?

    • I didn’t read that article, but I understand that woman’s line of thinking. That said, I am genuinely baffled by it. I’ve only ever been in queer relationships-not on some annoying meta-political level, but like, my dating history consists solely of real, actual queer people. In some of these relationships, I’m sure we’ve been perceived as “straight,” i.e when I’ve dated passing trans men. In other relationships there’s no way that we could have been perceived as straight, i.e when I’ve dated women.

      It has never occurred to me to give a shit what strangers walking down the street think of me. I don’t assess strangers walking down the street. I don’t assume that two people walking together are a couple, as I walk down the street with all types of people all of the time. Similarly, I don’t assume that of two people eating together at a restaurant, two people who live together, two people who own a house or a car or some other big purchase together, et cetera. Basically, I have better ways to expend my mental energy than to give a shit about any person walking down the street. At the same time, I do not give a shit about what some nosy stranger on the street thinks of me. Maybe this is an uber-Boston way of thinking, but really. Why would anyone give a shit what some dumbass who writes dumb feminist blogs thinks about them? Why? What does this have to do with ANYTHING??

      Personally, as a queer, I’m annoyed by people who can get married to their partners, have kids without having to pay thousands of dollars in unfair adoption fees (or may not be legally able to adopt, period), all of that jazz, but claim that their general “queerness” is the same as mine. No way, dude. Noooo way.

      • Personally, as a queer, I’m annoyed by people who can get married to their partners…all of that jazz, but claim that their general “queerness” is the same as mine.

        As a queer lady life-partnered with a straight cis guy, the thing I’ve been wrestling with over the years is what the fuck it means exactly for me to continue to identify as queer. I do, but it’s complicated. Not because boo hoo, people shockingly often read someone in a heterosexual relationship as heterosexual, but because wtf does it mean for me to claim queerness when I’m constantly having heterosexual privilege heaped upon me from almost every direction?

        I was actually thinking about exactly this the other day, after I posted the quote from that godawful Bitch letter, where she says that as a fierce femme lezzie, or whatever she called herself, she’s on the the “transgendered spectrum” or wtfever and thus deserves a space to speak on trans issues. This isn’t a very good analogy, really, but that sentiment’s awfulness spun me into thinking about how as someone in a hetero life partnership who nonetheless IDs queer, I don’t get a say “as a queer” on all kinds of queer issues. Like gay marriage. I have all kinds of special feelings about it, and it’s a weird feeling to be in a relationship where I could get married in my state, when, had chance swung a different way, I might well be in one where that wasn’t an option. It’s a weird an interesting dynamic between me and my partner, because he’s always had this societal approval and thus doesn’t viscerally feel the advantages of a heterosexual relationship the way I do. And that’s all very interesting, at least for me and him, but the fact of the matter is that straight privilege: I haz it, and because of that it’s not necessarily my place to spout off all the time about the problems with marriage as a strategic goal for the gay rights movement and etc. I’m entitled to my opinions, and there are times when it’s appropriate to voice them, but for me as someone who HAS the privilege to marry my partner, it would be pretty fucking disrespectful for me to argue with someone who doesn’t about what their goals should be regarding their own lack of legal rights. And etc.

        • i struggled with this same thing for a long time. the last time i was in a queer relationship was in 1998, i guess. i openly referred to myself as queer for several years afterward, but at this point…it’s been 13 years. i’ve been with the same cisgender dude for four of those years. i have dated cisgender men pretty much exclusively for the last 13 years. when i wrote the thing about “perception matters because privilege is real,” i was specifically referring to the fact that if the average rando on the street can look at me living my life, strolling arm in arm with my boyfriend, & assume i am straight, or if we can go down to the courthouse in kansas & get a license to get married, i’m benefiting from straight privilege & it would be somewhat appropriative of me to stomp my feet & demand validation from the larger queer community. i still mention my queer history publicly when i feel it’s relevant or appropriate, & i generally don’t go around saying, “i am straight.” i say something more like, “i benefit from straight privilege.” a subtle nuance, but one that does, i think, make a difference. to me, anyway.

          i think to say that i cannot identify as queer because i am in a relationship with a cis dude is to reify the idea that queer is what you do & not what you are. i don’t think queer is only what you do. i think someone can be queer even if they live their whole life not being in any relationships or having sexual contact with anyone at all. i don’t want to reinforce this weird idea that people need to prove their queerness by having queer sex. BUT. i do think queerness is a marginalized & oppressed category & that it’s not just there to be claimed by any random person who comes along & feels like claiming it.

          on a related note, i saw some weird/interesting art yesterday that featured a big umbrella with the word “transgender” on it, & a bunch of labels that fit under the transgender label beneath it…including “feminine men” & “masculine women”. & it made me feel weird for similar reasons. it pretends that “transgender” is not a word that actually has a meaning that is both politically & descriptively necessary & useful. it pretends that any random cis dude who likes to wear pink t-shirts & any random cis lady who cuts her hair short & wears ties can just go ahead & claim “transgender” for themselves, while continuing to reap all the benefits of being born into a body that matches up with their gender identity. i feel that it is yet another example of the slippery slidiness of this kind of radical language, another example of how the categories are expanding in ways that sublimate their political efficacy, another way that marginalized identities are being used as dress-up clothes by people that will likely get bored once they finish college.

      • I dunno Nicole, I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself. I mean, I know this sounds wicked simplistic and all, but you are who you are. I think a lot of the point of these blog posts by Crabigail is that she’s asking people to examine the various aspects of their identities and to be real about it all. Identifying as queer when someone’s in a heterosexual relationship doesn’t make someone an asshole. What makes someone an asshole is when they call their relationship queer when they willingly receive all of the privilege that comes along with it, when they crow about being queer all the time, etc etc etc. You don’t do any of that. You’re yourself, which is admirable.

        With most of the relationships I’ve been in, my biggest fear while walking down the street with my partner has been whether or not I’ll make it home without having a bottle thrown at my head. I can’t imagine what this blogger woman was thinking. It’s so myopic and privileged and horrible.

      • i think a lot of people do care what random people on the street think of them, & how they are being read, because i think a lot of people lack the ability to validate their own identities to themselves. they feel the need to announce their identities, or display their identities, in order to get little kickbacks of validation from whoever is around. i think there are a lot of different ways that people do this–i have written about it before on this blog in some of my writing about mental health stuff, for example. i think i cared quite a bit about what people on the street thought of me when i was younger–not that i wanted to “impress” people in the traditional way, but i wanted to signal that i was weird or queer or punk or feminist or whatever. why the fuck else would i have dressed the way i did? i was looking for a reaction, & even though i would act all angry when i got a negative one, didn’t a negative reaction also validate my perception of myself as threatening to the status quo or something? i think most of us grow out of that (even if we choose never to really look totally “normal”–i know i don’t), but some people don’t. a lot of people, maybe, just never develop the emotional coping skills to know who they are without using the rest of humanity as a mirror.

      • Hmm. WordPress won’t let me reply directly to the later comment of Robin’s to which I’m replying. Hope this doesn’t make a mess of the thread.

        Anyway, Robin, thanks, but I don’t think I’m being hard on myself. I wasn’t trying to say it’s assholic of me to identify as queer–I do, and I don’t think I’m as asshole–just that what that means is shifting for me now that I’m in this long term hetero relationship. I appreciate what you’re saying and I agree–I am who I am, and I don’t feel very straight, but I do still benefit from straight privilege in a very real way, and that affects what it means when and if I say I’m queer. When I walk around and random straight people are like “oh, look at the nice young couple” and giving us verbal or nonverbal approval in all these blatant and subtle ways, I’m pretty aware of the fact that this is this flip side to if I was walking around with a girl and had to be aware of people’s reactions in a totally different way. No one’s going to verbally or physically attack us for being an obvious hetero couple…well, maybe that blogger’s friends would sneer at us. Which, as an aside, is so weird, I mean, who does that? Unless you’re like, 15? Maybe her current alienation from other queers is karma for being so smug and jerky prior to her hetero romance.

    • it really was terrible, wasn’t it? i tried to find the link so people could read it & judge for themselves, but i couldn’t even remember what website it was on. feministing, maybe?

      i’m sure that if you had the opportunity to ask the woman who wrote the article why it didn’t occur to her that queermos on the street may have felt somewhat threatened by her looking at them, she would have said something like, “but i didn’t mean it that way! i didn’t mean to be threatening!” you know this is a lady who thinks intentions can trump any & all actual behaviors or words. ugh.

  2. As a queer-in-relationships-with-a-dude-lady, this post really spoke to my heart.

  3. The thing I found weirdest about that article is that she used to sneer or glare at straight couples. And mentions it as if it’s a normal thing all gay people do. “Hey, let’s go to the movies and mean-mug everyone in line, then complain about how unwelcoming they are!” Some people make their own problems. Personally, I get a kick out of when people assume me and my best dude friend are a couple ’cause dude is a catch.

  4. Someone just posted this on Facebook and I thought it merited a mention here. This guy’s checklist about “monogamous privilege” is completely dismissive of queer lives; almost everything on that list is a struggle that queer people face.

    http://www.eastportlandblog.com/?p=9176

    • HOLEEEY SHIT, msjacks, that link was HORRIFIC. Dude, I’m a queerio woman in a long term relationship with a cis dude, therefore reaping some good ol american privilege, but even I read that list like WHUT O_O

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