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Being a good ally

Reckoning with privilege is uncomfortable — but necessary


July 12, 2016

     Historically, when we have discussed the low-level paranoia that thrums along our day-to-day existence and the constant threat that comes from being queer in literally any community, people have looked at my partner and me like we have three heads between us, and none of them working. 
    It is understandably hard to comprehend that hate resides in places where we, ourselves, feel safe. We all want to think that our towns are better, that our neighbors are better than what happened in Orlando. Better than what happened in Laramie. Better than the burning of churches, or the firebombing of mosques, or any of the many incidents that continue to fuel the Black Lives Matter movement.
    Although I am queer as the day is long, I am also not easily readable as such, and I walk through the world mostly without being noticed. A trip to Walmart might be hellacious because Walmart just plain sucks, but I do not have to steel myself against the way the public will treat me while picking out bananas. 
    My partner is pretty impressively androgynous, though, and as such, people stare. Occasionally, the stares are admiring, and sometimes, they are relatively innocent, if ignorant. But most often, the attention she garners — just for existing — is sinister and aggressive. 
    More than once, we have walked through the door of a business and walked right back out, based upon immediate reception. I hardly touch her outside of our house. If the car next to us sits higher than ours, we get nervous about holding hands. We have only kissed in public once, and then entirely in shadow. 
    Together, we approach social interactions tentatively, anticipating something negative, and because we experience this together and as a result of our being together, I know how real it is. Still, as I rarely encounter it on my own, I forget sometimes how much she contends with alone. 
    I will blithely let her know that a doctor I visited was kind, or that a retail establishment was friendly, or that a receptionist was, well, receptive, only to have her come home from those very same places to report discrimination and hostility. 
    This has been true of everywhere we have lived together, and has been true for my previous partners, too, who have also tended toward gender ambiguity, if not outright masculinity. Throughout my queer adulthood, in the company of my girlfriends or partners, I have experienced harassment on the streets of multiple cities, small and large, in red and blue states. 
    We have been shamed and gawked at with regularity, and have come to expect as much. But some people have taken it further: We’ve had things thrown at the moving tires of our bicycles, been yelled at from open windows, followed off of public transit, raced down interstates and incited to the brink of physical altercation in line at the store while running everyday errands. And truly, you would be amazed by how many people ask queer folk what it is we do together in bed. Sometimes, they even tell us, or show us, like charades. 
    Because I am queer, no matter where I have lived, I have been afraid of other people, for my own sake and for the sake of those I love. No matter how diverse a population, no matter how progressive a city likes to think itself, certain people are always, inherently at risk, just for being themselves. 
    That can be hard to hear, and it’s harder still to know where to go with it, but if we truly want to better our environments, the more privileged among us need first to do some serious thinking about what we do and do not know. No matter how good our intentions are, we cannot make change by insisting that our lens is the only lens, or by denying that there are lenses at all. 
    There is a lot of debate about what constitutes being a “good ally” to minority communities. I don’t pretend to have answers, but to me, at the very least, it begins with listening and affirmation, with resisting the impulse to negate the lived experiences of others simply because I am made uncomfortable by them, or because I have not experienced the same myself. 
    As a white person and as a cisgendered queer person who passes as straight in mainstream society, I am trying to pay more attention to what life is like for people whose identities are both visually apparent and societally condemned.
    For instance, I am finally, belatedly coming to terms with something I should have known a long time ago, before I even laid eyes on my partner: I cannot possibly understand what she deals with on a daily — even momentary — basis. 
    I may feel like I know it as well as my own, but I was not born into her body. I do not fear public bathrooms, or locker rooms. I do not field constant commentary about my gender presentation, or my body, or my clothing. No one calls me “sir,” not by accident and not out of spite. 
    That is privilege. That is a safety I have taken for granted. It’s hard to admit to my own, innocent ignorance of my loved one’s day-in-day-out. It’s harder still to keep in mind that as I grow, many more such belated epiphanies will come. 
    But that doesn’t mean that my time, attention and indignation do no good, or that my empathy has no place. It just means I’ll try now to speed along the excavation of my own awareness. In the meantime, I will let my love know that from here on out, I’ll be here, standing sentinel, working harder to see.


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