Storytime: Identity Assumptions for Advocates

20 Oct

Funny thing about being a radical sexual pluralist and sex positive activist. A lot of assumptions seem to be made about who I am, what I do, and how my body and sexuality are designed. Granted, we all have assumptions made about us on a regular basis, based on how we dress, act, look, or some other arbitrary feature. But I’ve noticed that when I am verbally in support of a group of people that one cannot immediately tell whether or not I am a part of, I am assumed to be a part of that group- because why else would I care?

Nobody has ever mistaken me for a gay leather man, or a nice young pair of men looking to adopt, even though these are lifestyles I vocally support. Of course, you can look at me and tell that I seem to be presenting to the world as a woman, and thus (probably) don’t identify as a gay man (the funny thing here is that, on some days, I do!). However, you can’t look at me and tell if I’m a trans woman, HIV positive, polyamorous, kinky, a sex worker, a Domme, a submissive, a sexual assault survivor, a lesbian, or queer. I am some of those identities, and I am not some of those identities. As I say to strangers who ask me directly: That’s between me and my partner(s), thank you.

I think it’s curious that when I do not immediately confirm or deny association (it feels very strange to say “I advocate for the rights of ____! But, oh, no, of course I’m not ____.”), the assumption is made that I clearly care because I am a part of that minority. I think it speaks to the second, invisible assumption: Who would care but members of that minority?

Take, for example, trans issues. When I am invited to “women only” events, I often respond to the invitation asking if it is a trans-safe space. I have had women lovingly tell me they hope I don’t feel awkward that they’ll be discussing biological realities I don’t share, but are happy to tell me about what it’s like to menstruate or give birth. I’ve had women tell me that the community hasn’t talked about it yet, but I should come so we can have that conversation. I’ve been visually assessed and bluntly asked, “why does it matter, you don’t look trans.” I’ve been told cheerfully “well, we haven’t had a trans person in our group yet, but you’re more than welcome!” I sorta liked that last response; it was open, honest, and friendly, even if it did make assumptions. However, all of those responses assume that a) I am a trans woman (I didn’t say that, I just asked if it was a safe space), b) I want you to tell me about bodily realities I supposedly can’t experience, c) I want to be the focal point of your community conversation, and d) trans women look or act a certain way and can be immediately identified by the casual observer. The idea that I would only ask or care if I was a trans person, and not potentially out of solidarity for my trans sisters, is dangerous. It doesn’t matter what my identity is: As a transfeminist, believe it is important that women stand up to protect the rights of other women- all women, and actively question cultures of exclusion. In my dream world, every woman would ask if a women-only space is trans friendly, until the day comes where trans women can assume physical and emotional safety in a majority of such spaces.

I think it’s great when members of a minority sexuality population decide to speak out about an issue near and dear to their hearts. I am pretty loudly poly and kinky, because those are the two personal identities I want to share with the world right now. However, I think it’s a problematic assumption that if somebody is passionate about a minority topic, it must be personally relevant. I also think it’s a problematic assumption that it’s okay to ask minority populations really invasive and personal questions. I welcome pretty invasive questions about poly, but I’ve made that pretty clear to the individuals who ask. I find it curious when this somehow translates to very personal questions totally unrelated to poly, such as questions about my body, how my sex life works, or the status of my immune system. It’s especially puzzling when I have not been presenting information from the perspective of  “here is my experience, and I’m more than happy to answer your questions about it,” but from “here is a topic that is important, and some perspectives and thoughts on it.”

I know it can be confusing when people are very open about one identity for others know where the limit is on asking about another, which is in part why I think this would be an interesting conversation to have in the sex-positive community. How do we advocate without being cornered into making an “us or them” declaration of allegiance? How do we avoid validating stereotypes or devaluing our knowledge on a topic by confirming or denying our involvement? How can we be public about one part of our identity, and private about another? How do we foster curiosity in the people who ask us questions, while gently discouraging being invasive about personal life issues?

Until I sort all of these things out, I will keep up my favorite line: “That’s between me and my partner(s), thank you.”

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2 Responses to “Storytime: Identity Assumptions for Advocates”

  1. Bahli Padma October 22, 2011 at 9:34 am #

    I agree that the personal-relevance assumption relating to minority groups is shit, but then again, privilege will do that, especially if this wild kinky-poly-queer stuff has no intersectionality with your typical cis-vanilla-straight person’s life. “But but but….I’ve never even heard of half this stuff…..if you know all about it, you must be one of THEM!!!11!!1!”

    Rude questions:
    “Goodness. Do you usually ask such personal questions of strangers without volunteering any information yourself?” Then I smile and wait, while they turn red and get flustered as they realize how rude that was, and if I’m very lucky, stammer an apology.

    Or if I’m not lucky, I get condescending tones that imply that since I am not perceived as part of the norm, I deserve to be under the microscope at any time, for anyone who asks, and damned if I don’t enjoy calling out people who are hostile to my privacy. 🙂 “You look uncomfortable; I’m going to guess that it’s because you know it’s rude to ask about the gritty details of someone’s gender/body/sexuality. But since you felt that your curiosity was more important than your manners or my privacy and did it anyway, why don’t you fill me in on your motivations?”

    Encouraging questions:
    If it’s not something I’d prefer to answer, I’ve usually got a mental arsenal of resources to write down or show someone, so they can get their curiosity satisfied without trying to look at it using my experience as a lens.

    If I think they’re curious or afraid to ask, casual stuff in conversation seems to work best for me. For the poly stuff, mentioning my partners usually draws out the questions or concerns, although I continue to be rather appalled at the notion folk have that we’re all just using each other. It kind of hurts my feelings, really.

    Sorry, I’m rambling. I really enjoyed your piece, and as always it’s food for thought. 🙂

  2. startledoctopus October 22, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    It is such a tricky question! For the asking invasive questions issue, I tend to favor pointing people towards the internet (sometimes providing search terms or websites where I’m sure they’ll find decent information), since so many people have already done the sometimes painful work of sharing there, and why should people have to keep repeating it when anyone with a little Googlefu can find it themselves? I do think personal, in-person sharing can be important in fostering a personal emotional connection to the issue (this is the case for me in several areas of my privilege, where I am lucky enough to have dear friends who educated me out of that cocoon) but that should always be done at the instigation of the person sharing the information, I think.

    As for assuming one must be a part of the minority to care about it, SO MUCH THIS. Grr. I think at times it is more important to not disclose, to ask “how would it change your perception of what I said if I were?” But I’ve also been dismissed because of my assumed status, along the lines of “Well, you just believe gay marriage should be legalized because you’re gay,” type of thing. In that situation, I said “I’m not gay, I support it because it’s RIGHT!” served both to make zie question hir assumptions, and also to quickly shut hir up. The second was an important thing for me, because a closeted gay friend was nearby and lives every day in a seriously toxic homobigoted environment. I could, without repercussion, shut that person up – that, for me, is an important function of allyship. Those who aren’t directly impacted by the issue must show that we care, that we support those who are, that we don’t support those who marginalize others, because being like them sometimes means (sickly) our opinions have more weight with them. Sort of like how men need to start talking about the unacceptability of rape with their male friends. I guess you have to play it by ear, depending on the situation and participants, as best you can…

    (PS Hi Bahli Padma! *waves*)

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