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”)