Thursday, December 6, 2012

Thoughts On Being An Ally

[content note: cissexism]

As I navigate various online spaces in which I have both more and less relative privilege than other participants in forums, I've been thinking lately about what it means to be a good ally.

So far, I like Heina at Skepchick's thinking:
"Don’t get in front of me and talk for me. Don’t stand off to the side and do nothing. Back me up."
Recently, following a post I wrote on gay "conversion therapy," I was in a conversation in which I, a cis woman, was discussing "conversion therapy" amongst several non-queer men, several of whom are also generally against equal rights for LGBT people and/or believe homosexuality to be a "sin." The conversation took a turn when one of these men began, in a pretty uninformed manner, trying to relate gay "conversion therapy" to gender reassigment/sex affirmation surgery for trans* people and demanding that people explain how it's morally consistent to oppose one while supporting the other.

While the very question itself evidences a certain level of ignorance, his additional commentary and general descriptions of a trans* experience, to me, suggested that he likely doesn't have a great deal of knowledge about either topic and wasn't too interested in learning. Rather, it looked as though he was more trying to make a point that it's inconsistent and possibly hypocritical for people to oppose gay "conversion therapy" while supporting people's right to choose gender reassignment/sex affirmation surgery.

It did not feel appropriate for me, as a cis person with limited knowledge and experience myself, to turn the conversation into a Trans* 101 forum as that, to my knowledge, would have been a conversation about trans* people's autonomy and experiences that was taking place without actual trans* people's voices. So, I tried to steer the conversation back to the original topic of my post, which was the abusive nature of gay "conversion therapy" itself.

My thinking was that, as someone trying to be an ally to trans* people, I wanted to say something to let this guy know that maybe he wasn't the most informed about trans* issues, but that I also didn't want to try to speak for trans* people or to suggest that I was okay with trans* people's experiences being reduced to an uninformed man's abstract, intellectual exercise or game of "gotcha." (Well, all of that, plus my belief that Debating Gender with anti- and nonfeminists can be like gargling with matches and gasoline. I mean really, how many times do I have to entertain the argument that "But but but men and women are just different. Even a toddler knows that" as though it's a genius contribution to the gender discourse?)

And yet, problematically, I also found that the men within the conversation did not grant my voice, as the author of the original piece and as an actual gay woman the piece intimately affects, the same sort of deference and respect as that of fellow feminist and equality-minded (and non-queer male) blogger, Barry, within the conversation.

Although I had explained that I wanted to steer the conversation following my article about "conversion therapy" more toward the topic of gay "conversion therapy," the male participants lauded Barry for, unlike me, being respectful and "model[ing] a correct response" for continuing to respond to the commenter who instead wanted everyone to talk about the Consistency Of Opposing Conversion Therapy While Supporting Trans* People's Rights to Have Surgery They Want To Have. 

One of the commenters called me "abusive" and "dehumanizing" for assuming one of the other commenters was not transgender, even though from my previous experience with the commenter in question I know that he contributes to an anti-LGBT blog whose participants have a history of deliberately mis-gendering trans* people, who opposes equality, and who refers to trans* people as "they" rather than "we."

You know..... this is no Startling Revelation, but it's almost like if a woman's being assertive, people who don't tend to think critically about gender can't help but see her as an abusive bitch who is inflicting severe human rights violations upon them by not demurely agreeing with everything they say and not dropping everything she's doing to read their half dozen linked articles and answer their resulting barrage of uninformed poorly-written questions, while they simultaneously give a man who might be disagreeing with them big time props for merely Not Being An Asshole in a conversation.

(And I mean no offense to Barry, he's great! My point here is to note the disparate ways two generally civil people are viewed by others, a disparate view that I speculate might be based upon our different genders. As Julia Serrano has noted in her book Whipping Girl, she could engage in the exact same behavior and people would categorize her behavior very differently depending upon whether she was presenting as a man or a woman).

I'm not sure if I have a big huge point to make here, other than to spark a discussion on what people think being a good ally consists of, both on Internet and in non-Internet interactions. Because, you know, it can be surreal to experience both relative privilege and marginalization within the same conversation. That can be... I don't know, tricky and frustrating to navigate, and for white cis men who are heterosexual, wow, I think it must be pretty cool to be operating under the assumption in so many conversations that one is somehow Standing Above the Fry and has an especially-objective, neutral take on so many situations.

(I've noted a tendency, for instance, for some privileged folks to bark things like, "You're wrong" as though of course they're just stating an objective fact, as opposed to a, "I think you're wrong," a statement acknowledging that the declaration is emanating from an actual person that might have actual biases and misconceptions.)

To end here, I'll note that I get many private emails from folks saying they admire the way I engage with people who are really hostile, indicating that many people read comment threads and see people being abusive but who nonetheless remain silent. Even as I understand that sometimes people have entirely reasonable reasons for not engaging, I admit that I have at times felt frustrated by the silence of the crowds, those Internet "bystanders" to abusive, sexist, racist, cissexist, transphobic, and other problematic behavior in various forums.
What I think is important for people of relative privilege who are trying to be allies to be mindful of is that, by virtue of not being members of the particular marginalized group we're allied with, our voices are often seen by outsiders as more objective, more civil, and carrying more authority.  I also think it's important to know that our voices are not, actually, more objective, more civil, and possessive of more authority on the topic at hand.

If someone tells us that, unlike that big mean marginalized person, we are being So Thoughtful, maybe think about that and use our privilege to suggest that maybe the person who thinks that needs to rethink their perceptions of the other person. Back people up.

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