I’m going to tell a story every minority has experienced at some point, an example of one thing that sours what could have otherwise been a good conversation in a fairly safe environment. Now, those who know me in real life, don’t get me wrong: the environments I am currently in are about the safest I’ve ever been in as an out queer who doesn’t do binary gender. I’m incredibly grateful to be in rooms full of outspoken left-wing small-L liberals where I can say what I think and feel with very little negative consequence, and as someone who is both anxious and outspoken (believe me, that combination is insane-making at times) it goes a long way to making me feel comfortable in a world where I think twice about just sending people my new email address or linking people to my blog.
I explained to a group of people why I have problems with ‘same-sex marriage’ as a phrase and the use of said phrase in mainstream publications.
(As a pansexual non-binary person, I despise ‘same-sex marriage’. It doesn’t include me. It doesn’t acknowledge my gender, it assumes that queer attraction and relationships are based on sex and not gender, and it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that I am attracted to people who aren’t my gender and/or sex and are people I still can’t legally marry in this country (because sex and gender are always binary). If this movement is all about giving me rights – and in fact it’s only about giving me one right – then why doesn’t it do me the basic human right of including me in this dialogue, beyond the obvious and actual answers of biphobia, transphobia, non-binary erasure and heterocentrism? ‘Marriage equality’ is no less awkward a phrase and describes the movement far more aptly, but it is too seldom in use outside extreme left publications.)
Now, everyone agreed with what I said. That’s not the reaction that had me scratching my head – they are, after all, decent people. The thing that had me blinking was when people felt the need to explain to me, in detail, why ‘same-sex’ was still in use in the mainstream Australian media, why the general population isn’t going to understand all this newfangled stuff about other genders, and why social change, of course, needs must be slow and I should expect this. This wasn’t the first time I heard these comments, by the by. This was only the latest time I heard binary cishets, decent people who care about me, say those things. I’ve heard them said so often I could fill out a bingo card.
There’s no way to say this that isn’t rude: fucking duh. Statement of the bleeding fucking obvious much?
I’m an intelligent, literate queer (or so I hope). I’ve got some education, including an Anthropology Honours thesis on sacrifice and scapegoating (which included a study of the media in Rwanda leading up to the 1994 genocide, compared to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party in the late 90s as the same process). I write personal essays for fun (assuredly not profit). I live the day-to-day reality of being a queer in this society, and while it’s by far better to be a queer here in Australia than it is many other places in the world, I still don’t have the basic human rights Australian cishets take for granted, and I still live the consequences of not being seen as normal. (I am happy when registration forms include male/female/other, because that’s better than choosing from a binary of lies, but it tells me in a most literal fashion that my gender does not exist: I am other.) I know exactly why the mainstream media do what they do. I know that their ignorance, in fact, is a marker of privilege. Hell, I grew up in a family that’s it’s own micro-level oppressive system, right down to its use of ignorance as a weapon and a justification. I have seen, just on that micro level, how slow change takes root: my mother, after almost three years, still can’t remember to call me by my preferred name (which is only my birth name shortened). I know that society truly doesn’t grok what it means to be binary trans, never mind non-binary trans. I know all this because I live it, day by day.
When I say I don’t know why the Age doesn’t use ‘marriage equality’ instead of ‘same-sex marriage’, I don’t mean it literally. It’s an expression of frustration: I don’t know why people keep denying me my humanity. But even that, too, is rhetorical. I know why. Of course I know why. It makes no sense that people who don’t even know me hurt me so much that I don’t even exist in their eyes, though, and that’s what I’m saying: their behaviour isn’t rational or logical. I don’t understand why people don’t try harder to look at what they say and do and how it impacts others. Except I understand that, too, because I am a child of an oppressive family system (not to mention having studied such systems on the macro scale), and I know how desperately people cling to their own sense of correctness from the fear of looking their Shadow self in the eyes. I know that people would rather be right and ignorant and shackled than wrong and free to learn, and I know I live and work in a world where it is harder to say the words I do and place them before an audience. Not to say that an audience doesn’t exist, because that would be a gross dismissal of all the people who have let me know that they hear what I have to say and have been touched in some way by it, but it is harder to find. I know, in fine detail, exactly why the Age publishes what it does, and I get to sit back as an intelligent, literate queer and say that these justifications are the execution of oppression and privilege.
For some reason, though, people feel the need to tell me things I already know.
(‘For some reason’, of course, doesn’t mean I don’t know. I know why they explain things to me who must already know: the execution of oppression and privilege. I am, again, frustrated, and when I am frustrated I tend to rhetorical questions that, for some reason, people take literally. Which is, for the third time, the execution of oppression and privilege.)
I’m sure, if I asked them, my explainers of basic and obvious truths would say that of course they know I know this. I think it’s an expression of sympathy, in a way: their acknowledgement of all the things that create an oppressive system (they benefit from). It doesn’t come across as this way, though. It’s a patronising symptom of the power imbalance: I, an outspoken DFAB non-binary queer, need a cishet man to tell me why this oppressive system is the way it is – or, at the very least, they believe there’s something they can add to the conversation (the explanation). Like the discussion on allies, though, there is very rarely anything a cishet can add to discussions on queerness that a queer can’t say better and more accurately. In point of fact, if a queer doesn’t say something, chances are that the queer in question thinks it’s so obvious it’s not in need of saying. If one wants to express solidarity, and one should, explanations don’t accomplish it half as much as a nod and something like ‘Yeah, it really sucks that The Age does that’ or ‘Yeah, our fucking mainstream media is bullshit’.
(Now, the cishet in question might be educating other cishets in the room, but he’s doing it at the expense of the queer minority in the room when he addresses me, and that’s why any explanations about education don’t fucking fly.)
This might seem like a statement of the bleeding fucking obvious, but what we, the oppressed, want isn’t intellectual understanding or proof of one’s ally status via demonstration of intellectual understanding of the situation. We want empathy. We want our pain to be acknowledged. Quite aside from being demeaning and steeped in privilege, explanations of why the world is the way it is don’t show empathy on behalf of the speaker. I feel that speakers believe it to be empathetic – again, I lived in an environment where Mum would give me all the advice in the world and be frustrated when I told her that wasn’t what I wanted or needed, because when I asked for empathy from her she believed she was giving it to me via her advice. No. True empathy isn’t an answer, a solution or an explanation: it is a simple expression of sorrow for someone else’s pain. True empathy is the hardest thing to give, because in being empathetic we surrender the power we feel we have when we solve or explain. That power, though, is only an illusion, and while it might make us feel that we have done something ‘helpful’, all we have done is add to the burden of frustration the oppressed carry. We haven’t lightened their load. We’ve just reinforced the construct that divides oppressor and oppressed.
Chances are we’ve just made them annoyed or frustrated enough they hop online and write a lengthy blog post about the role of empathy in communication, and that is a failure to be both empathetic and an ally.
There can be something tremendously powerful in having someone validate our pain.
Do not, ever, undervalue the power in a hug, in sorrow, in acknowledgement. That validation is worth far more than an explanation or a solution most of us either already know or will figure out in our own time. It’s something we queers seldom get from cishets, something we need to get if social change stands even the remotest chance of success – an understanding that they appreciate what it is we endure. Education about what we are isn’t the thing that will make society different; all that information is already out there, accessible if one takes the slightest of steps outside the spoon-fed media. What makes us human to oppressors is their ability to empathise with their fellow human beings, and while equal rights are treated as an intellectual exercise – queerness isn’t a choice so of course we shouldn’t demonise people for something they can’t change – change won’t stick nearly as well as if people look at the lives we live and break inside.
(I don’t think queerness is a choice for me in the sense that I did not decide to be queer as much as recognise my queerness, but if it weren’t I would choose it, and I think it takes away from the agency of queer people to declare it not a choice. Why can’t it be a choice? Why can’t it be just as valid to choose to be queer? Trans people make decisions about their gender, how to express it and how to live it; queer people, monosexual and especially bi/pansexual folk, make choices about the words that best define our individual brand of queerness. We choose to live queer every day of our lives, no matter how hard it is, so why do we deny the power of those choices by proclaiming that queerness isn’t something anyone would choose? When gender is this diverse and amazing landscape that stretches so far beyond the cis man/woman binary and contains so much unfettered potential for self-expression, why would anyone not choose to be trans? If transphobia/transmisogyny/non-binary-erasure is the only reason, that says something sad and horrific about cis folk, not the trans experience. Why do we have this implicit idea that queerness is so wrong and awful nobody would choose it, therefore it must be innate? What kind of awful message does that send to young queer folk?)
We need our allies to look at us and weep for the lives lost to depression, anxiety and suicide. We need our allies to weep for a world that denies legitimate, positive representation of bisexual and pansexual people. We need our allies to weep for transmisogyny. We need our allies to weep for non-binary queer youth who grow up never knowing the words for who they are. We need our allies’ hearts to break such that they look at us and decide that the status quo is not a thing that can be endured a moment longer. We need them to know that expecting us to wait six months or a year for the next tiny step on the road to equal rights is too damn much to ask of anyone (and telling us that we need to wait a little while longer is not an act of support). We need them to tell us that they’re sorry. We need them to tell us that they’ll do their best to fix the world. We need them to feel just how much we have been hurt.
Explanations, categorically, do not give me any sense that you, an ally, understand what it means to be me.
A hug or an expression of sorrow can.
This is an act well within our power.
This is an act that, for one priceless moment, makes me feel that I am not alone in a world set on denying me presence and life.
If we need empathy, and I think that’s the only thing that can change a world, then we rely on our oppressors to develop that ability. As always, the ability to make change is out of our hands. Does that make this whole post redundant? It takes empathy to understand why explanations about my lived experience hurt me, and while we can shout and yell and write, while we fight for the right to be human, we are powerless if our oppressors do not ache for us. Chances are that the people I’d love to see read this post, or something like it, will never happen across it. Our conversations are slow and hampered by the lack of empathy on behalf of the oppressors to begin with, or else why is the world as it is? The insistence that equality is some intellectual exercise divorced from the reality that people are dying from the want to be safe and human is a difficult chasm to cross, and while we can tell stories, while we can lay bare our lives to an audience, we can’t make people develop a skill (empathy) survival in our world as it is, in all its passive disinterest in the pain of others, actively discourages. If only we could!
You know my conclusion, of course: this post might be redundant, but I will write it anyway. Yet another statement of the bleeding fucking obvious, I know.
(True courage is picking up the sword and wading into battle with the expectation that it will be useless but maybe, just maybe, these words will reach someone. As a storyteller, my words are my weapons. I tell stories to validate my siblings’ lives, and this is my first and foremost raison d’être, but also because I want people to step inside someone else’s skin and weep at the crime of what we wreck on other human beings, laugh at our awkwardness and humanity in common, sorrow for what we must endure, think about what it is society truly asks of us who don’t fit within its current definitions of human. I want to develop that spark of empathy in all those who happen across my words.)
If you are my ally, I beg you. Read words written by the people you support. Delve into their worlds. Experience their sorrows. Cry, so very desperately, for the hurts they endure. Stand up and devote your life to empathising with the people who suffer as a result of the privileges you enjoy, and never forget that explanations are not expressions of empathy.
You have, in your grasp, the ability to do something far more powerful for the people injured by the world.
Practice – and preach – empathy.