Is analyzing and fighting racism only the responsibility of those directly impacted and disadvantaged by it? I hope not.
I’m sitting around a table at a bar with one man and three women—three of my lesbian friends. They’re discussing the need for more lesbian meeting spaces and hangouts in our city—maybe a lesbian café, arranging some lesbian movie nights, more opportunities to get together to meet other lesbians in a group for drinks. Yes, I think, yes! I want to help! I want to make posters, do the social media, and advocate for a distinct lesbian social enclave. Pick me, pick me!
The thing is, the man we’re with is my boyfriend, and I am not a lesbian.
I’m a straight, cisgender woman—meaning, I’ve never doubted my gender as female, and I’ve never doubted my sexual preference as hetero (and it’s not for a lack of analysis and self-questioning, as I’ve always been interested in breaking down boundaries and challenging norms, especially within my own identity). So as a very vocal feminist and student doing work in gender studies with specific interests in LGBTQ and, especially, trans experiences, I am not a member of the populations I’m interested in and this is something I am careful to explain.
Another situation I’ve experienced involves a group discussing the different labels currently being used by “members” of the LGBTQ population. They’re talking about how some people choose to use “queer” and others avoid it altogether, and the implications of label choice—such as “lesbian” versus “gay woman.” There are lesbians in the group, who respond with their thoughts. I want to jump in with my academically informed, extensively read thoughts on various theories and the political benefits of choosing terminology for building group identity—but I limit my response.
I’m not even gay—so do I even get a say? Does my voice matter in this conversation?
Where do I fit in?
When I was younger (like in high school), I thought everyone should be equal and be treated fairly, and I cared about gender relations and considered myself a strong young woman who refused to listen to ideas about feminine versus masculine roles. I knew all this, but hadn’t yet come to “feminism.” I recall my 12th grade English teacher commenting on the way I was, the way I wrote, and the things I was involved in and stating, quite matter of factly in conversation, “You’re a feminist.” I remember being alarmed. Am I? What does it mean?
In the years that followed I slowly and steadily became passionate—and at times, enraged, about LGBTQ rights and experiences. Between making many gay friends and performing as the narrator for a local production of The Laramie Project, I became an ally.
But it’s only in recent years, as I’ve gotten more deeply entangled in gender studies, that I’ve realized advocating for a group you don’t “belong” to has its challenges, and is not unproblematic.
It’s not surprising that much advocacy and activism for social and gender justice comes from those who identify with certain marginalized groups. Of course women were instrumental in making the gains and changes brought about through various waves of feminism. Of course transgender studies was launched onto the radar in the early ‘90s by transgender people who wrote powerfully about their own personal experiences being trans in a time when such a complex experience was less understood and accepted. It makes sense that a great deal of transformative change comes from groups advocating for themselves. Erasing prejudice and bringing the marginal into the mainstream seems to require a certain amount of personal investment—people speaking for themselves about their personal, daily life experiences.
Because I vocally show so much solidarity with gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, transgender, and genderqueer people, I’m sure some people I meet, or classmates I have, might question why I’m so invested in these topics. They may wonder if this very normatively female-looking person is actually transgender, or perhaps bisexual or a lesbian. And I encourage them to question, if only to dismantle their own assumptions about why people are invested in certain topics. Not all LGBTQ people are interested in actively examining LGBTQ issues on a larger scale, and conversely, I am not only interested in social justice for issues that personally impact me.
Is analyzing and fighting racism only the responsibility of those directly impacted and disadvantaged by it? I hope not. Everyone has a part to play in all forms of social and gender justice.
I articulate myself as straight and cisgender not because I care about dispelling people’s misconceptions about my gender and sexual identity, but because I’m concerned about ensuring people recognize that I am not speaking on behalf of LGBTQ people (as if those letters represent one cohesive group at all, which they do not). I’m trying to speak with you, or to stand behind you, and show my support, interest, and commitment.
To say there is no place for a straight, cis-woman to do work in queer and transgender studies is akin to saying feminism doesn’t need men, or men can’t be feminists or write about feminism or be a part of feminism. Nothing is farther from the truth. Women have been the catalysts, the mobilizers, and champions of feminism and gender rights, because we were the oppressed gender, the “second sex.” “Women,” and whoever identifies under the banner, will always be integral to feminism, but men are important too.
Isn’t the point actually to get everyone, male and female, on board with recognizing the reality of gender equality? Isn’t the point to get people of all genders to stop discrimination and gender-based violence?
For feminism to be an elite club with guarded entry seems counterintuitive to the entire movement.
I am not gay, I am not trans, but I am an ally. And there is a place for allies.
Zaren Healey White is a St. John’s, Newfoundland based journalist, web editor, and blogger. She is completing her Master of Gender Studies degree at Memorial University in St. John’s, having already completed a Master of Arts in English at McGill University in Montreal.