I’ve posted somewhat often over the past few years about queer identities and the issues surrounding them. I think it might be useful to try and gather together my thoughts and offer a mostly comprehensive explanation of my beliefs.
Let me be clear: I have very strong beliefs and principles around this—fundamental value buttons—so I’ll do my best to lay out my perspective as clearly as I can. Forgive me if this gets long-winded. Brevity may be the soul of wit but it’s not the soul of precision nor comprehensive and nuanced understanding.
Keeping up with the vocabulary is one of the biggest challenges of committing to being a queer ally and accomplice, which is something I’ve commitment myself to. The vocabulary around queer identities is in a state of flux and changes frequently. Culture evolves, politics change, movements coalesce and grow and fracture, visibility and acceptance waxes and wanes, and language changes concomitantly. It’s also worth noting that the “queer community” isn’t a monolith and there’s disagreement between queer folk about what words should be used and what they should mean.
Part of the challenge is that English has a poverty of words sufficient to describe the variety of queer experiences. We have to make due with many words that aren’t quite good enough, or try to convince people to accept new words we invent. Neither option is ideal. We do the best we can.
“Queer” is a perfect example: Not too long ago, this word was taboo. Now the current general consensus is that “queer” is a positive word which encompasses anyone who doesn’t fit into the dominant cultural identity of cisgender and straight—anyone in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum: gay people, transgender people, nonbinary people, bisexual people, pansexual people, asexual folk, intersex folk. Anyone not cis and/or not straight.
And let’s not lose sight of the fundamental issue:
Concerns over language are never more important than supporting and affirming the lives and identities of actual people.
Another part of the challenge is there’s no consistent cultural perspective: different queer communities have different experiences. Many gay people are cisgender and some reject nonbinary folk, for example. Even some transgender folk reject nonbinary identities. Some trans and nonbinary folk are gay and some are straight. Intersexual and asexual people can be found throughout the full spectrum of identities.
The main point is that gender identity is a broad spectrum of possibilities, culturally defined, separate from but interacting with sexuality in deep and interesting ways, and people can decide for themselves what they want their identity to be. Your gender identity may change throughout your life or it may remain constant. It’s complicated and bursting with possibility.
Lots of cis straight people, and even some queer folk, are afraid of that. Some are more accepting, some are not, and some find it all fascinating and beautiful and wondrous. (I’m very much in the latter camp!)
Queer people are always aware they live in a world dominated by cis straight people, the same way black and brown people must always be aware they live in a society built by and for white folk. Cis straight culture is so dominant in our society it’s inescapable. It’s the status quo of our world.
The opposite is a much bigger problem: Too many cis straight folk have no idea what it’s like to be queer in this world and don’t care. This gets to the heart of the arguments we’re having over representation in media, in books, in movies, in the stories of our world and culture.
We don’t need any more stories about cis straight folk. Our stories are and have been overwhelmingly dominant for far too long. It’s the minority perspectives, the disenfranchised and traditionally excluded perspectives, that need their turn to take center stage and shine.
There’s a concept among storytellers called, “Mirrors, windows, and doors.” Some stories are mirrors: they show you yourself and the world as you experience it. These stories are necessary for us to understand ourselves and reflect critically upon our world. Some stories are windows: they show you perspectives and experiences that are different from yours. They show you how the world can be very different for different people, how even the same world can treat different people differently. These stories build empathy and encourage us to question our assumptions about how we think the world works. Stories that are doors take it a step further: they allow you to enter the experience of people different from you, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and understand what that feels like. Doors are the apotheosis of empathy.
I realized a couple years ago why I’m so excited by stories from minority and oppressed authors. For most of my life, most of the stories I’ve read or watched have been mirrors. The vast majority of stories published in our society are from cis straight, white men from a Western cultural background. People very much like me. And I gotta be honest:
I’m tired of staring at myself. It’s boring. It’s nothing new. It feels embarrassingly narcissistic, solipsistic.
I love experiencing stories from people who are different from me. They show me how different the world can be from what I know, how much more possibility exists. They show me how much broader and deeper and more inclusive humanity can be than just me. It brings me out of myself and leads me to become something more. Hopefully someone better.
There are a couple things I believe about which many people will disagree with me:
- There are far more queer people in the world than most non-queer people realize.
Despite the progress made toward queer rights and visibility over the past couple decades, this world is still very prejudiced against queer folk and it’s still more dangerous to be out than to stay hidden. Many queer folk still feel tremendous pressure to pass as cis. For every out and proud queer person you see, there are more who you’ll probably never realize are queer.
- If we lived in a society that truly accepted and embraced the full spectrum of queer identities, a lot of cis and straight people would be less cis and maybe even less straight.
Cis straight people are subject to the same cultural pressures to conform as queer folk. If those pressures were gone, I believe many of us would take the opportunity to explore a wider range of possibilities for ourselves. Many of us would welcome the opportunity to explore a greater variety of possible identities.
And now, a bit of a digression:
When I helped redesign a major library website, we spent a lot of time researching how to design the site to be fully accessible to people with disabilities. This research into accessibility standards showed me that designing for disability creates systems that work better for everyone, even nondisabled people (the Curb Cut Effect is a standard example). Design for disability is the most fertile source of innovation we have and it improves the world for everyone.
This same principle applies to all aspects of society: legal and justice systems, healthcare, economic systems, education, science and the arts, and other cultural systems. If we build society to meet the needs of the most needful and least privileged, that society will be more just, healthier, more profitable, and more successful for ALL people. Including me.
Demographically, the least privileged and most needful person in our society is a homeless, poor, disabled, queer, black or brown woman. Society works best when we work to serve the needs of the most needful. Therefore, I want us to build a society which elevates and empowers homeless, poor, disabled, queer, black and brown women. I believe even I will be better off in that society than in this one.
This is why I’ve chosen to commit myself to social justice work serving people who aren’t me. Me and others like me don’t need the help. Any frank assessment of history shows that people a lot like me created most of the problems we desperately need to solve. My comfort as a middle class, white, cisgender, straight man from a Western cultural background should not and cannot be centered if we hope to build a better world. I, personally, may not have created racism, sexism, xeno-, homo-, or transphobia, but I can certainly do my part to try and undo them. If I don’t step up to do that work, then I play a role in perpetuating it. There’s no sitting this one out. Acceding to the status quo only helps the most powerful, never the most needful. To do this work, I must actively and intentionally decenter myself.
One of the things that excites me most in our current era is the work being done in fiction and history to highlight the stories, experiences, and perspectives of nondominant people in society. We’re actively pushing back against the old saw, “History is written by the victors.” We’re working to give voice to those whose voices have too often been silenced: the oppressed, the colonized, the outcasts, the least privileged. I think this is good and healthy and necessary work, and it’s the work that excites me the most. It’s the work I most want to share with others.
The past couple of decades have convinced me that Western capitalist culture is failing. It’s killing the planet and destroying our mental and physical health. This world was built by straight white men seeking wealth and power. This world we’ve built is more bad than good. We need to change it. We need to build something different and, hopefully, better. To do that, we need ideas and perspectives from people who are not straight white men seeking wealth and power.
The stories of oppressed and minority folk, the experiences and values of different peoples, provide us with a wider array of possibilities to explore. If nothing else, wrapping our minds and hearts around perspectives so different from our own helps us to break out of our mental and cultural habits, and promotes more fertile soil for ideating a better world for everyone.
My story—cisgender, straight, not poor, white male, Western culture—is the most dominant and inescapable story in our society. My story doesn’t need any more help to be told.
My story isn’t the story we need right now. Centering the needs and comfort of people very much like me is what’s causing the most damage for the most people. We need other stories to help us all map a path to something better.
So… That’s a lot. My perspective and beliefs, as best I can explain them at the moment.
I just want to do good. I want to do my part to make my community better. It seems to me one of the best things I can do is to use my privilege to make space for people who are traditionally excluded and let them take center stage. I’m really good at stepping back and taking a role as a supporting straight man.