Complicit: Thoughts in the Wake of a Massacre

A few weeks ago, I was half way through an article about how Brock Turner, the Stanford Rapist, would likely only serve 3 months of his criminally short 6-month sentence. I moved my thumb from the smudged screen of my unfashionably small iPhone, and I stopped. I stopped subjecting myself to the hurt and horror of the USA Criminal Justice System’s misogyny. I stopped engaging with the unpoliced victim/survivor blaming in both mainstream and social media. I stopped anxiously reading about the competition at home between two old white men as to who can concede fewer rights to women and queer people. I realised that every story about someone in power putting money before vulnerable lives or leveraging fear of social change to maintain their power, that every time a journalist misgendered someone, found a way to justify violence against women or the limited rights of queer folks was reminding me that this society is one in which many would prefer that I didn’t exist. Having to face the queerphobia of my society and my lawmakers each and everyday was, as happens occasionally, wearing me down, shoving my head back below water every time I summoned the strength to rise up for a gasp of air. So I avoided the news for a little while, retreating into the world of my own making, with my queer chosen family.

And then Orlando happened.

A man with a military grade weapon walked into a gay nightclub’s Latinx night and murdered 49 people.

On the other side of the world I was ensconced in a bright, loud, delightfully queer party. I kissed my girlfriend and laughed with old and new friends. I danced like a fool and drank cold cider from the can. It wasn’t perfect; masc white men took up more space than they needed to and the bathrooms were needlessly gendered. But I was myself in a space that actively encouraged it, a rare and precious thing. When my partner and I left the party we were tired and happy and cold, the midnight winter wind giving us all the more reason to hold each other close.

Then she checked her phone. ‘Mass Shooting at Orlando Gay Nightclub’.

Shit.

When I read the headline, all I could really comprehend was exhaustion. Sadness, vulnerability, horror and rage, these would come a few hours later on the train home, with tears clouding my vision as I read the latest update on the massacre. But in that moment of initial realisation, I felt the sort of tiredness that seeps into the bones. I was preemptively exhausted by the inevitable racism and Islamaphobia that the media and politicians would draw out from this, at the predictable erasure of the ethnicities, genders, and sexualities of the victims and survivors. I felt already sick of what I was certain would be a Facebook feed full of misery porn, of non-queer folks sending ‘thoughts and prayers’.

I had assumed that people would make the Pulse nightclub massacre about gun control, mental illness and ‘Radical Islam’, erasing the meaningful and devastating reality that this happened at a Latinx themed night at a queer club with trans headliners. Of course, it would be reductive to deny that the issue of gun control, among others, is relevant here. However, there are many people, from Malcolm Turnbull to an acquaintance on Facebook, who appear unprepared to concede that this was a hate crime, that the roots of the Orlando massacre lay in racism, homophobia and transphobia, as much as they lay in the US’s gun laws.

This sort of straight-washing and white-washing is pretty standard. However the tenacity with which some refuse to admit the role of ethnic, sexual and gendered prejudice in the shootings, barely a day after they occurred, caught me off guard. Why can’t (straight) people just let us have our grief? Why would anyone push their point against someone who was simply trying to make visible the fact that this was a hate crime against queer people of colour?

Yet all over my social media feeds, and those of most people I know were long comment threads in which one or two people responded to a queer person’s expression of grief by reframing the massacre as being about “all of us, as people”. I have seen people deny the significance of the victims and survivors Latinx and queer identities as less important than the fact that “it could have been any of us” and that “none of us are safe” when anyone can access guns.

This sort of ‘me-too-ism’ is typical of privileged groups in the wake of crises that do not primarily affect them. It seems to me that this occurs most often when members of a majority group are somehow implicated in the perpetration of a tragedy. I wonder if the Facebook commenters, media outlets and elected members of parliament who try to erase the specificity of this and other hate crimes do so in an attempt to simultaneously erase the reality that they have something in common with a murderer. Because they do. We do.

My own white and cis privileges and the everyday, unintentional racism and cisnormativity that I perpetuate, even as I learn how not to, are responsible for making groups who are not white and/or cis, targets of violence and discrimination. Everyone who continually expresses – or fails to stand up to – homophobic opinions and transphobic microaggressions, who accepts the disintegration of programs like Safe Schools, who can’t be bothered learning their colleague’s new pronouns, who hands out flyers saying that same-sex couples are bad parents, or who makes a “harmless” f*g or tr*nny “joke” is implicated in making non-heteronormative and non-white minorities accessible and acceptable victims of violence. The more we fail to actively oppose queerphobia and racism, the deeper our complicity with the murder of 49 innocent people grows.

And that is fucking uncomfortable. So much so that some would rather perpetuate the very white-washing and queer erasure that enabled the massacre, rather than bear witness to the grief of those affected. These are difficult, ugly things to confront within ourselves and those we love. It is work that will be neither fast nor straightforward. But it is important that we try.

I think that’s what I’m trying to do here, by writing this piece. Like the many, many think pieces that flooded my social media feeds in the hours and days following the Pulse massacre, I do not have anything particularly original to offer in response to this tragedy. However, when we say these things aloud, that queer communities are brave and hopeful in the face of violence and erasure, that queer Muslims face a double burden of islamophobia and homophobia, and that our inaction in the face of racism, homophobia and transphobia makes us complicit in the murder of 49 people, what we are doing is trying. We are making an effort to actively oppose the Whiteness and heteronormativity of the media, of the political system and within ourselves. We are trying to change the social conditions that enabled queer Latinx people to be murdered, and that is all that we can ask of each other right now.

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Queer Allyship and Other Workplace Taboos

I want to say that for those of us with privilege, doing extra work is what allyship is all about.

I want to say that to those of us who have lived with invisible advantages our whole lives, equality often feels like discrimination.

I want to call up the strength gifted to me by the words of Audre Lorde, which I have read only a few hours ago: “your silence will not protect you”.

But I am sitting in a work meeting. And it is to my boss that I want to say these things.

For me, activism had always been a collective endeavour. I would raise my voice with dozens, sometimes hundreds, of like-minded others against injustice. We would march down George St. or Oxford St., we would meet in the University’s Queer space, or even in my High School’s chapel. Never before had I been a lone voice advocating for my own rights and the rights of others.

And this is undoubtedly a reflection of my privilege.

Sure I’ve had long discussions with friends, family members, even colleagues about why asylum seekers are not ‘illegals’ or why it is important to respect other people’s non-binary pronouns. And yes these discussions are a type of activism. I choose to engage in them in the hopes of influencing the hearts and minds of people around me. But unlike many of my friends and partners, I have never had to engage in activism by virtue of being who I am.

I have come to see it as my responsibility, as someone who walks around every day with the invisible benefits of cis, white, middle-class privilege, to use my relatively empowered position to work towards change

I have never had to be the one to test my workplace’s anti-discrimination policy by wearing a dress to work, having presented as male prior to that. I have never had to force my school administration and peers to accept gender-neutral bathrooms, because if they didn’t I’d have nowhere to pee. I’ve never had to be the person making material change happen because my life depended on it.

I cannot help but view these acts of survival as indicative of a failing on the part of our broader community, queer and non-queer alike. Most of us believe in equity among all genders and human rights for non-heterosexual folks. Indeed, some of us are gender and/or sexually diverse. Yet it is often our failure to speak to the most marginalised in our communities, to understand their needs and to work with and for them, that results in the most oppressed people being forced to do the hardest work in the pursuit of change.

I have come to see it as my responsibility, as someone who walks around every day with the invisible benefits of cis, white, middle-class privilege, to use my relatively empowered position to work towards change. After all, as Audre Lorde reminds us; “unused privilege becomes a weapon in the hands of our enemies”(1)

So, when I was recently given the opportunity to give feedback to my employer about my workplace, I spoke up. I told my boss that I’d like to devise a strategy for making the place more queer friendly. And the first thing on my agenda? Gender neutral bathrooms.

Unisex bathrooms are a pretty hot-button topic in the United States right now, but it has been an issue for most non-cis folks their whole lives. I only became aware of the possibility of unisex bathrooms once I stepped out of my all girls catholic high school. The problematics of gendered bathrooms became even more apparent to me a few years ago when I found myself speed walking across the University of Sydney. I was with a genderqueer friend and we were rushing to the one and only unisex bathroom on campus. Thus slowly dawned my awareness of my own cis privilege.

my suggestion that they be labelled “this bathroom has been liberated from the gender binary” was ignored

Fortunately, my boss is relatively receptive to the idea of changing the signs on the bathrooms from gendered ones to those that simply say ‘bathroom’ (my suggestion that they be labelled “this bathroom has been liberated from the gender binary” was ignored). The sticking point seemed to come at the prospect of extra work for me and my colleagues (and him) in the form of reactions to the change or the effort of having to announce it.

Rather than respond as I would have in a collective activist situation, with perspectives on privilege and allyship, I quietly agreed that I understood his concern. Given that I am on no formal contract and therefore have – as far as I know – almost no legal rights in this workplace, I don’t regret the way that I responded. But I don’t feel good about it either.

The Marxist analysis almost writes itself: workers must bend to owner-class ideology because their livelihood depends on being able to sell their labour to those who own the means of production. And while it should be stated that I am no political economist, this way of seeing things has its uses. Certainly, neoliberal capitalism depends on a rigid gender binary; it’s not only the basis upon which we are sold things but also the basis upon which the owners of land, businesses and intellectual property – who are, coincidentally, often white, cis, straight men – maintain their socioeconomic power. However, in this framing, it is me, the worker, who is the one being oppressed and marginalised. In this perspective, my gendered privilege, as a cis woman, is erased(2).

I do not believe that my boss was hesitant to go to extra trouble to accommodate non-cisgender folks because he is a man who oversees only female employees. However, I do believe that a gendered lens illuminates this situation. Everyone in my workplace is, as far as I know, cisgender. We all feel that the genders assigned to us at birth based on our genitals align with the way that we feel about our genders in our own minds and hearts and bodies. In a way, it makes sense that my boss baulked at the idea of extra work.

Why would you do extra work to make a place more comfortable for folks whose ways of being gendered are so far from your own experience?

How can you access empathy for a concept totally foreign to your own life?

For me, the answer to these questions lies in the idea of allyship. That means taking the initiative and responsibility to learn about lives beyond our own. It means learning when to step back and let people with lived experience of oppression speak over and above us. It means using our own privilege for good.

I’m pretty sure that I’ve convinced my boss to change the bathrooms at work to gender neutral ones. I have agreed to field any and all complaints, questions and challenges. This will be extra work for me that will not be easy, just like summoning the courage to ask for change was not easy. However, if activism is difficult for me, how much of a challenge must it be for those who do not have the privileges that I have? If they can make change happen against all odds, and indeed marginalised groups are often the only people who do effect change, surely my small effort is not so hard after all?

(1)Quoted on pg. 90 of Coyote, I.E and Sharman, Z. 2011‘Persistance: All Ways Butch and Femme’ (A book for which I could not find an online copy)

(2)It is entirely possible that there is a Marxist analysis which accounts for cis privilege, however, I am not across it (please see above re “I am no political economist”)