Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ally Lessons

I seem to be always writing entries at least a weekend after events happen.

Last Friday was The National Day of Silence – a day when lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth and allies attend high school and college in silence. The idea is that their silence (our silence I suppose) allows the world to not only feel the lack when queer voices are silenced but also to encourage ally voices to speak up for instances of homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity when they occur. This promotes awareness of pervasive violence and silencing of queer people and the need for allies to not just wear pretty rainbow ribbons but to take action on behalf of their ally identity.

Personally, I have always felt my voice is better speaking than silent. The one time I did participate in the Day of Silence was my junior year in College. On that day my class “Gender, Sexuality, and African American Communities” was discussing racist sexism-based homophobia prevalent against lesbian and bisexual African American women in the 1930s. On such a day the voices of the queer people in the class (which was a good 2/3 at least) were silent. While the other students – all intelligent, all with good intentions – debated these issues what was needed so desperately was for the queer kids to speak up and add their voices to the discussion. For everything was flat, without depth or intense discussion. There was no understanding of nuanced identities or economic strain. What hurt me the most, however, was that the students speaking up about these issues seemed to think that they had had a fantastic discussion.

This memory was brought back to me recently when I was told that I speak up too often for other people. The person telling me this meant to inform me that I need to trust that other people’s voices are as strong and ready as my own – and this is a good point. I do need to remember to back down and to give everyone an equal chance to defend themselves and their beliefs before I say anything. I have always known that I could benefit from remembering to step back and not dominate conversations, making space safe(er) for other voices. That said this particular remark was about my advocating for full affirmation of transgender identities. When another transgender person remained silent after a rebuff I spoke up advocating for our full and equal inclusion. While either of us could easily have said the exact same things I felt it was better to address the issue at the very moment as opposed to later in the week. It is easy for me to look at this instance and say that I understand the silence this other transperson chose to use. Because I can imagine these same affronts on myself it was an easy – and I still believe defendable - action.

My complainant reiterated that I should allow for every voice to speak, and seeing that I was losing an argument to someone who has some control over me, I let the subject drop. I worry now that I did not fight for the importance of ally voices, that I did fully explain how exhausting it is to state your identity and your background time after time. I worry that I justified silence as an acceptable tool for an ally. Does my justification lead one to conclude that if a person can’t identify with a situation that they should be quiet until the offended or oppressed party speaks up? While I worry about white voices overpowering voices of color and able voices having more access than the voices of people with disabilities I also know that it is not the duty of a person of color or a person with disability to constantly critique and speak up about a situation. Part of the point of the Day of Silence is to teach allies how to use their voices when LGBT people aren’t in a position to speak. In my previous post, White People & Racism: Speak Up!, I note that a white person should have brought up the critiques that were in my partner’s head, that she alone wasn’t responsible for Everything Black. I called on white people to point out racist actions - but clearly not at the expense of voices of color. I am still concerned about the balancing act of identifying and speaking up against privilege and the importance of supporting other voices that are historically ignored.

Today, a friend of mine just provided me with a wonderful example of an ally voice. He teaches a writing course at a school and occasionally I come in to help him. The class has many LGBT students in it, and they have talked throughout the year about homophobia and transphobia. Today one the students asked me if I was a real man. I said yes, I am a man. The student then repeated “but I mean, are you like a real man?” I have to admit that I was stuck. For about half a second I just stared at the student not sure if I should continue to adamantly claim the identity I hold dear or if I should explain that I am transgender. Mostly, I was worried about all the questions that would follow. My friend looked straight at the student and clearly said “ ---, don’t be ignorant”. The student looked at him, then me, and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude”. The subject was dropped until later when I thanked my friend. I told him that I had been stuck as to what to say and I appreciated how clearly he had ended the questioning. His response was “well, I had to say something. We’ve talked so many times about trans-ignorance, --- should know better.”

My friend allied with me eloquently and appropriately. He did not sit silently by while I tried to maneuver myself around the situation, nor did he put words in my mouth about how to discuss identity. He saw me being hurt and he stood up against it. Allies are truly needed when a person least expects to be affronted. I can handle myself and advocate for transgender people any single day of the week. But when my mind is elsewhere and a fifteen year old asks me out of the blue who I am – that is when I need someone to be ready to stand up with me. Not all of my ally questions are answered, but I now have an example that I will never forget.

No comments: