Being an ally to queer people (or any other group, but in this essay I'm going to be talking about queer people) is a process -- it's not a label you can affix to yourself once and for all, but a title that has to be earned by continued effort. What kinds of work does an ally do? How do you create a space that's safe for queer people?
As a general principle, you can show through your behavior that with everything you do, you're thinking through what effect it might have on queer people. The way to demonstrate your intent is not to tell people what it is, but to act on it.
When I was 16 I was dating a guy who was older than me. I won't say how much older -- if I did, you would probably think poorly of him. But what I wish to recall here is a way in which he was
wiser than me, perhaps due to being older, perhaps not. At this point in my life, I believed that I was a heterosexual girl, and as far as I know, everybody else also believed that about me. My boyfriend and I went to Boston Pride together. It was my first Pride event, and I don't remember why I wanted to go. I didn't know that I was queer until about two years later. Maybe there was a band playing that I wanted to hear. In any case, I tried to hold hands with him while we were walking through the park to get to the festival. He said that no, we shouldn't hold hands, because it wasn't tasteful for us as a hetero couple to do that at a queer event.
I was ashamed of myself both for having broken a rule and for not having known the rule existed, but I didn't want to admit that, so instead I was mad at him for pointing it out. Surely, I thought, everybody around us should know that we're people who think it should be safe for everyone
to hold hands. They should just know that our hand-holding was saying that
; not "Look at us, it's safe for us to hold hands in public but it's not safe for you."
I don't hold it against my past self that much for being so narcissistic -- I was 16 and had pretty limited life experience. But nevertheless, I was wrong. I was wrong even though we actually were
a gay couple. It's just that neither of us knew it at the time. We experienced heterosexual privilege because we could both be sure that no one was going to look at us and react in the way that homophobes do when they think they see a queer couple.
I also want to note that 1997 was a different time, and context is important. Maybe it would be okay for a couple with heterosexual privilege to hold hands at Pride now. What remains the same, and what will remain the same as long as there's inequality between queer people and heterosexual people, is that there are things that have a different meaning when somebody with heterosexual privilege does it. Indeed, that's precisely what "privilege" means: that the same action can have different consequences, different risks and benefits, depending on who's doing it.
If you are a person experiencing conditional heterosexual privilege at any given moment, what I expect you to do in order to be an ally is to quietly reflect along these lines: "Hmm, am I in a space where it's safe for queer people to make out? Because if I am, then great, I'm going to make out with my partner with reckless abandon. But if I'm not, then I'm not going to do that, because I don't wish to take advantage of my heterosexual privilege. If queer people would get hurt for doing it, I don't want to be the one who's doing it all the while knowing that my queer friends in the same room can't do the same." I expect this more strongly from people who are in a life stage where they've been exposed to enough different perspectives that they can take other people's point of view. (In other words, I don't hold 16-year-olds in 2016 to higher standards than I hold my past 16-year-old self.) And so if someone isn't making this mental calculation, I notice, and I conclude that they're not thinking about how queer people will feel about what they're doing. And then I conclude I'm not safe, because I'm not in the group of people whose welfare is being looked after.
Why might people (any people) engage in public displays of affection, anyway? They might not have any private place in which to be affectionate, which is another reason I don't hold younger people to this standard all that strictly. That can be true both for people with, and without heterosexual privilege in a given situation. They might be swept away by the tide of overwhelming lust -- again, I cut younger people more slack here, since overwhelming lust does tend to take precedence over awareness of others when overwhelming lust is new to you, and that's OK with me. But there are other reasons. Maybe you decided "I would like to let other people here know that I'm a man who has the status that comes from a reasonably attractive woman being willing to let me stick my tongue down her throat." Maybe you didn't, but if you have a choice in the matter -- if you're getting all up on your partner because you weighed the costs and benefits and concluded the benefit to you was greater -- then there's a reason
why you're choosing to do it in public.
For people who are affected by homophobia and/or transmisogyny in a given context, at a given moment, displaying affection can be an act of defiance; there's a reason that kiss-ins are a form of protest. I think that we would all agree there are still boundaries as to what it's acceptable to do, sexually or romantically, in front of others who didn't consent to see it. Within the community, we might disagree as to where those boundaries are (for example, some queer people would prefer not to see nudity at Pride marches, others prioritize moving the Overton window when it comes to what kinds and degrees of sexuality are acceptable in public), but we agree that there are boundaries. But systematic homophobia means that the same actions have a different meaning when the people doing them are perceived as being a heterosexual couple.
I don't think it's too much to ask that people think about how what they're doing might affect other people in the context they're in, because I think if you already assessed your surroundings well enough to make the decision to neck in public, I'm going to expect that you also thought through what effect it has on the people around you -- you already concluded that it was safe for you
to do this, so I don't think it's asking too much to consider others' well-being too. (And again, I expect more of that consideration from people who are past the age where sex is so new to them that it's easy to get pulled under by a wave of lust and act without thinking.)
So when people with heterosexual privilege who are roughly grad-school age or older are smooching in public, to me that's a signal of an unsafe space. (If they're younger, it doesn't give me enough information to draw that conclusion.) It's unsafe because I know that the people doing that aren't thinking about how queer people might feel about it, and if they're not thinking about that, it's probably not the norm to think about it here. Inattention to (relatively) little slights goes hand in hand with callous disregard for bigger ones.
You might reasonably ask how far it goes, the obligation not to rub in other people's faces "here I am, safely doing the thing you can't do without risking your neck." For example, in the US when the right to marry wasn't universal, there were
heterosexuals who refused to get legally married until everybody was allowed to do so. I think that's a nice gesture, but I don't think anyone was obliged to do it. Marriage has financial and social benefits (which is precisely why we were fighting for it in the first place), and I don't think that the collective benefit of a heterosexual person forgoing marriage exceeds the individual cost to that person of not getting married when they would have done it otherwise. If refraining from marriage isn't obligatory whereas being discreet about what you do with your partner is, where do you draw the line? That's really up to you and what you can be comfortable with -- there's no rulebook for how to be a decent human being.
I don't think it's too much to ask when I ask middle-aged people with heterosexual privilege to refrain from making out and heavy petting in, say, the front row of a concert. After all, if you're that age and you can afford concert tickets, you can probably make out later at home, without bothering anybody else. (I don't mind heterosexuals as long as they don't flaunt it in public.) Not every queer person is going to agree with me on this, and ultimately, if you're heterosexual or if you're in a relationship that doesn't make you susceptible to homophobic violence, who you agree with is up to you and your conscience.
I'm trying to be careful to address people with heterosexual privilege here -- conditional or not -- rather than heterosexual people because the effect
of two people who really are cis and heterosexual laying it on too thick in public is indistinguishable from the effect of two people doing the same thing who aren't cis, or who aren't heterosexual, or both. It's important to respect people's self-identification, but also important -- if we're going to live in an interdependent world -- to recognize that privilege exists and that both self-identification and others' perceptions of your identity mediate that privilege. If you're trying to tell me that I can't call out any instance of heterosexual privilege in action without first interviewing the people involved as to their sexual orientation, I'm going to say that you're gaslighting me. "What if they're actually pansexual or genderqueer?" re-centers the conversation on the people doing harm rather than the people being harmed. It's a silencing tactic, because the effect is to shame people out of talking about privilege. And it's a gaslighting tactic, because the effect is to cause marginalized people to question their own perceptions of reality. ("You're not really
seeing what you think you see.") Saying "this shouldn't affect you because I'm not heterosexual" is more or less the same as saying "I didn't intend to to harm", and we know that intent doesn't determine effects. Both statements are demands that one's own narrative be privileged over anybody else's.
What matters more than the specific subject of PDAs is that if you tell me there is literally nothing you would give up
-- no way in which you would make yourself uncomfortable, no matter how small -- for the sake of making queer people more comfortable, then you're just saying you don't care about queer people. If you're not willing to put anything on the line for us, then at least be honest about it and don't gaslight us by telling us you care.
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