I have an acquaintance, a brilliant painter, who went to a diversity training some time ago in Arizona. She found it to be a bizarre experience, so she was telling me a story about it over coffee. The seminar presenters sat everyone in a circle and went from person to person insisting that each individual affirm loudly: “I am racist!” Suddenly, she felt trapped. She was laughing as she relayed the story, recalling her discomfort and desire to run out of the room. What was it that made her the most ill at ease? Was it the phrase itself? Or, perhaps feeling pressured, forced even, to say it? Maybe, she just isn’t much of a yeller?
I have been to a few diversity trainings, myself. I know about blatant, internalized and institutional racism. The point is not lost on me. Everyone has varying degrees of awareness and understanding of how existing racial prejudices affect our thoughts, actions, and feelings. No one individual is exempt from this. However, many people might be unfamiliar with how prevailing racial biases truly impact their outlook/worldview. I will admit freely to falling under this category. There is so much I have to learn. Just like my friend the painter, I might have hesitated to take ownership of the racism within me.
So too, it is extremely difficult for me, as a person who believes in sexual and gender diversity and inclusion, to admit that I am heterosexist. I live in the “us and them” culture. Homosexual. Heterosexual. Male. Female. Right. Wrong. In the not so distant past I might have dismissed the egregious nature of this outlook saying, “Sure it isn’t the best angle to look at the world from, but it is what it is.” I realize now that our culture cannot afford this attitude. This paradigm regarding sexual health is both outdated and damaging. I am quite frankly tired of it and have a desire for us all to have a deeper understanding of human sexuality and gender. Here is a helpful definition of heterosexism found on Wikipedia:
Heterosexism is a system of attitudes, bias, and discrimination in favor of opposite-sex sexuality and relationships. It can include the presumption that other people are heterosexual or that opposite-sex attractions and relationships are the only norm and therefore superior. Although heterosexism is defined in the online editions of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary as anti-gay discrimination and/or prejudice “by heterosexual people” and “by heterosexuals”, respectively, people of any sexual orientation can hold such attitudes and bias. Nonetheless, heterosexism as discrimination ranks gays, lesbians, bisexuals and other sexual minorities as second-class citizens with regard to various legal and civil rights, economic opportunities, and social equality in many of the world’s jurisdictions and societies.
The phrase that I would like to point out is “people of any sexual orientation can hold such attitudes and bias”. Heterosexism influences everyone. Now, my intention in writing this is not to convince you of your own heterosexism or even explain what that might look like. I simply hope to point out that there is a pre-established code of conduct. Who we are, or at the very least how we identify, is tethered to that code and how far outside of it we stray. There is a line in the sand drawn by privileged society. Certain behaviors push individuals to the “other side” of that line. Throughout history that line has been drawn further and further out from the center. Those unfortunate enough to cross it before it is redrawn become separate. Any future acknowledgement of equality will be tainted by that separation – the “us/them”.
Kat Callahan articulates this existing paradigm through a Cultural Lesbian Feminist lens:
“Cultural Lesbian Feminism states while some aspects of gender and sexuality are inherent; much of it is determined by the accepted codes of conduct in a given society. In western society, such as American or Canadian, the accepted codes of conduct are generally compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory gender roles.”
“By compulsory, what is meant is that society has set up a reward and punishment system for every individual within that society. If an individual keeps within the boundaries prescribed the codes of conduct, he or she is rewarded by being considered “normal” or even “popular.” If an individual strays too far outside of the code of conduct, he or she is punished by being considered “abnormal,” “unpopular,” or even by violence or death, as too many of us know all too well from personal experience.”
What I especially appreciate about Callahan’s summary is her inclusion of the “punishment” construct. There are very real ramifications for behaving in a certain way without convincing society that it is acceptable first. (A behavior might escape this punishment if it is indulged by the privileged in private and not widely spoken about. Notice there is no ‘C’ for cross-dressing in LGBTQQIAA.) Alienation is perhaps the most profound punishment once the line is stepped over. In every societal subgroup there is a genre of folks attempting to “pass” or sneak back across that line into the group of the accepted and privileged. They blend in as best they can and often keep the label assigned at their previous line crossing. They long for inclusion.
Who does it hurt, right? I mean, who hasn’t heard some of the following comments:
“I am only into straight-acting gay men.”
“He is dating a black girl, but I mean, her skin isn’t BLACK black.”
“I don’t care if she’s a lesbian. I just don’t want her throwing it in my face or hitting on me.”
At some point, accepting “separation equality” and learning to play by the rules starts to seem very appealing. For many people in the margins, this choice might mean the difference between acceptance and horrible mistreatment, a sense of belonging rather than total isolation, or even life as opposed to violent death. Society with its reward and punishment system has the power to decree: “Be dishonest like the rest of us. Hide what doesn’t quite fit. Be as sexual, gender, race and faith normative as possible. It doesn’t have to be the truth but make it convincing. Don’t worry. We all do it.”
For everyone else looking from the outside in, this is a powerful implication, that they too should crave the acceptance of society enough to foreclose on their truth. This brings me to my point. Whether you live on one side of the line or the other, you deviate from the norm. At a certain point the man enjoying his privilege today could not have baked his own child’s birthday cake without scrutiny. There was a time when identifying as “she” meant wearing a dress, not jeans, and never taking out the garbage or changing a tire. A Baptist mother of four can try reverse cowgirl. And, Mr. Big Money can wear his wife’s pumps in the bedroom. After all, they are each still holding a stick that has sketched a line and thus learned how to keep a secret.
Rather than hoping that you will see me as an equal or let me back on to your side, I would prefer it if you would be honest about the ways you express yourself that could’ve landed you on the other side of someone’s line. Instead of using your privilege to convince the rest of the club that I am worthy of admission, tell me (and them) about your expressions of self that wouldn’t have always fit the mold. Risk telling your secret that violates one of the rules, and when you do, take ownership of an even bigger truth. You and I are the same. We were never going to meet every standard. We both have doors to swing open and dark corners to sweep. Step on over to my side and help me wipe away this line. In fact, let’s erase them all.
Wikipedia. Found From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heterosexism
Callahan, Kat. Your Childhood Pal, Anne of Green Gables, Was Probably Queer. Found From: ROYGBIV http://roygbiv.jezebel.com/your-childhood-pal-anne-of-green-gables-was-probably