Monday, May 26, 2014

Privilege Cuts Both Ways

Privilege is in force in a multitude of ways, whether we are conscious of them or not. It can work for us, work against us, and sometimes both in tandem. I benefit from male privilege because I am treated as male by the outside world. Even decades after women's liberation, I’m taken more seriously in the workplace than a woman would be and, statistically speaking, paid more than women. Furthermore, I benefit from white privilege because of the color of my skin. To cite only one example, I’m less likely to be jailed and severely punished by our flawed criminal justice.

This problem, in part, is economic in nature. Should I be a person of color, it’s entirely possible that any wealth and influence passed down from my parents to me might simply not exist. As a result, it could not come to my aid and assistance to further my education and get a job. Necessary funds that would open doors of social advancement are simply not present to many.

In both instances, I get cut a break that many do not. Even though I am proud of what I have accomplished on my own, what I have accomplished has been tethered tightly to my ability to lean on my parents and other family. Areas where I am not privileged involve my sexual orientation and gender identity. I’ve been told my whole life, either directly or indirectly, that something is very wrong with me because I’m not straight. Because I’ve identified heavily as feminine rather than male, I’ve been led to believe that some innate part of me is terribly askew.

I’ve begun my post this way in order to now introduce a comment from a reader to a post I recently wrote. In it, I had been writing about what it is to be genderqueer, the benefits and the drawbacks.

Thank you for sharing. I can't understand your situation as I am cis-gendered, but I am trying to learn to be open and compassionate, and to learn the best ways to interact with people who are "different" than me. Articles like yours help me to grow, and I appreciate it.

This is a kind comment and I appreciate it. Clearly this ally wishes to learn more and wants to fully understand people me. Remarks like these are the very reason I take the risks I do to share who I am with others. Labels like transgender, genderqueer, or even bisexual have never been a good fit for me, but I use them when necessary for the aid of translation. I haven’t always felt that I was different in every way, but there have been situations where I did feel very much like a fish out of water. Being different for difference's sake has grown very old with the passage of time.

Unlike some, I’ve been very fortunate. Never once was I told that I was going to hell for being who I am. The most prominent instance during which I’ve faced discrimination was in grad school. I made a professor uncomfortable with my honesty. I introduced a book into seminar discussion that described being gay in the South. After my presentation, the professor refused to sit next to me during seminar, moving all the way to the other side of the table. He thought better of it three class days later. Though he never apologized, he did at least recognize that his reaction was not acceptable.

I could have been more offended, but I was equally uncomfortable with myself the way that I was. So far as I was concerned, this response was somehow my fault. I had no remaining energy to file a complaint or register my disapproval. I had allies within the university, but part of me was shocked into inertia that someone would object as highly as to me as he had. I got enough of it at home. My father’s homophobia is legendary. He won’t even go to a movie by himself because he’s convinced that doing so would somehow indicate that he is cruising, fishing to obtain a male sexual partner.

It makes sense, then, at how much effort it’s taken to write about these parts of myself. Until I met others with similar stories, I saw my own as eccentricities, certainly never to be shared with others. I believed I was strange enough that I had every need to cover up certain parts of myself. This was a behavior of which I had lots of practice. A high school friend cut ties with me completely when I revealed to him that I was queer.

His mother was virulently homophobic herself. I had a cassette tape copy of the Neil Young song "A Man Needs a Maid," which she had mistakenly thought read "A Man Needs a Man."

I'd felt different before the question of LGBT identity was even present. I’d been a severe bedwetter as child, and was afraid to sleep over at the houses of friends. In addition, I’d had a severe anxiety disorder and a speech impediment. Acting as though nothing was amiss with me was how I coped. I wanted desperately to be whatever normal really was.

One might think that I’d still be in the closet, not writing this down today or at time of my lifetime. For some reason, I felt I needed to open up frequently not long after coming to terms with it myself. Those my own age were tolerant almost to a person. It was those a generation or two prior who gave me problems.

I never would have dreamed we’ve made such progress as a society in a short period of time. I thought perhaps I’d only converse with complete honesty about such things with people my own age, and keep silent with those older. My reader who left a comment seeks to put forth extra effort to learn who I am. It is especially conspicuous how much she is trying to be a good liberal.

I imagine I have come across the same way in my own ally work, on the other side of the table. The author of this comment wants me to know how she has made careful preparation towards figuring me out, crossing all the T’s and dotting every I. While I appreciate anyone with the right attitude, I’d mostly want to be treated as no different as anyone else. It is true that I have some distinguishing characteristics that set me apart from others, but I have no real need to be anyone’s study in inclusivity.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus encounters a rich young man who wants salvation and to reach heaven. He also comes from a place of great privilege.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" "Why do you call me good?" Jesus asked. "Only God is truly good. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.'
"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy." Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!"

Those who have much will always be at a disadvantage when it comes to fair and equitable arrangements of wealth and privilege. In this story, the young man will always place a premium upon the luxuries of his life first and foremost. Those truly devoted to an unselfish cause must be willing to see through their own trappings of great riches, or, in this case, the privilege they hold over others.

And furthermore, those who need their assistance most do not have a lot of money or power themselves to spare. As Bob Dylan notably wrote, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

I’ll continue to educate others based on my writing, my vocal ministry, and my conscious decision to speak about myself in a public forum. But at the end of the day, I’m the very same as everyone else. I have never seen much need in pandering for sympathy or pity. I would much rather who I am be a sideshow, a secondary diversion, not the main event. Or, as a wise person once put it, there are two sorts of queer people: Queer professionals and professional queers. I much prefer the former.

From time to time, we will all make mistakes. We will say things that might even be insensitive out of our own ignorance. I usually go lightly on all but those who plainly intend to be hurtful. Much of the prejudice I have experienced was never intentionally meant to inflict pain. I do believe that we’ve turned a corner from the hurtful, hateful attitudes of another time.

A minority view in opposition to tolerance may yet remain, but what was once radical has become downright ordinarily. Despite the problems, it’s a good time to be alive.

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