My Existence Is Not an Intellectual Debate

Defending my existence in the classroom, and how allies can help

The Feminist Closet

Last month, one of my classes was studying sexual orientation. Our required readings were laden with stereotypes about flamboyant gay men and butch lesbians, and ways to tell if your child is a “pre-homosexual.” There was even a joke about kids getting kicked out of the house thrown in at the end for good measure.

Naturally, I was not looking forward to section. Our Teaching Fellow started class with the disclaimer, “Assume best intentions, and say whatever’s on your mind.” Many students took his advice and spoke exactly what was on their minds, including bi-erasure, a strict gender binary, and the link between homosexuality and mental illness.

During a lull in the discussion, our TF proposed a thought experiment. The question was, “If scientists discovered that homosexuality is innate, does that mean that homosexuality is then moral, and that gay people deserve equal rights?” Yep, the thought experiment was on the completely unrealistic and inconceivable topic of the morality of LGBTQ people and our right to equal protection under the law. Never debated that one before. Luckily, someone piped up, “Shouldn’t they deserve equal rights anyway?” to which the TF responded, “That’s not what I’m asking.”

I’m sure that for some cis straight people in that room, this was just a fun little thought experiment about the circumstances under which equal protection applies. Was the topic sensitive? Sure. Was it still valid? Eh, probably.

But not for me, and probably not for any other queer people in the room. I’ve debated this for hours with family members. I’ve cited statistics, provided personal anecdotes, and looked up Bible verses. I’ve sobbed in despair over this and celebrated even the smallest victories. This is anything but a fun little thought experiment for me. It’s my life, which should not be up for debate. In the same way that it’d be ridiculous for the TF to ask our class whether women deserve the right to vote or whether black people deserve the right to own property, it’s ridiculous to ask whether LGBTQ people deserve equal rights. The answer is yes; end of debate.

I’ll bet most cis straight people left class feeling a little uncomfortable, but mostly fine. I doubt that many spent much time dwelling on it. That’s the thing about privilege: Those who have it often don’t realize it. (If you think you don’t have any privileges, think a little harder.) But, for every moment where privileged people have been comfortably unaware of their unearned benefits, marginalized people have felt unwelcome and unsafe. Every day, privileged people benefit from the oppression of the marginalized and often perpetuate this oppression in their words and actions, even without realizing it. But that’s not to say that we should all just feel guilty for our privileges. Guilt won’t break down structural oppression. Intentional actions will.

Allyship isn’t a state of being; it’s a state of doing. If the thought of speaking out against oppression or conceding space at the table makes you uncomfortable, you’re probably on the right track. Allyship isn’t meant to be comfortable. No one gets brownie points for doing the bare minimum by staying in their comfort zone. And the convenient thing about allyship is that you can choose to back out of that discomfort any time. Marginalized people don’t get the privilege of backing out of their own oppression.

So what are some concrete ways to work towards better allyship? For starters, listen more. Too often, privileged people are used to having their voices heard, and that can lead to an echo chamber where they only hear from those like them. If a marginalized person is talking about their experiences, listen to understand, not to immediately offer solutions or opinions.

Paired with knowing when to listen is knowing when to speak up. It can be exhausting for marginalized people to have to constantly defend their existence, so it’s a big help when allies point out problematic behaviors and help educate other privileged people. That’s not to say that allies should be at the forefront of any movement for equality or talking over marginalized people—there’s a fine line between standing with someone in solidarity and taking up space in a movement not centered around you.

Always be willing to improve. If someone points out that you’ve messed up, take the feedback and change your actions accordingly. Don’t get defensive and excuse your behavior by claiming, “But I’m an ally!” There’s always room for improvement, and we should all be actively seeking out ways to become better allies. If we remain stagnant in our allyship, we’ll become complicit in the very systems we want to change.

Allyship must happen everywhere, including the classroom. If a professor, TF, or student says something oppressive, speak up. Some people are upfront about their disagreement; others “push back” by providing a different perspective, or ask pointed questions to encourage them to reconsider their initial statements. However you address it, know that letting an oppressive statement slip by perpetuates the normalization of marginalization and makes targeted students feel unsafe. Students who feel unsafe may not feel like they’re in the position to speak up, which makes it even more important for allies to use their privilege and say something.

I’m incredibly grateful for the student who pointed out the problem with my TF’s thought experiment. While I don’t know whether the student was queer or an ally, it was comforting to know that there was someone else in the room who also felt disturbed by the idea of a class debate on the legal rights of LGBTQ people. For that brief moment, I didn’t feel pressured to be the sole person to defend my existence. I felt a little bit safer and a lot more welcome.

Becina J. Ganther ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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