I volunteered to work at the Motor City Pride festival this past weekend. I’ve always tried to go to LGBTQ events and I’ve been a frequent attendee of the Chicago pride parade; this was my first event in Detroit around these issues.
I love pride events because they’re generally amazingly positive. People walk around with smiles on their face, dressed to the nines, dancing and talking and generally having good interactions with each other (that I have seen, anecdotally, in public, only in my experience). Instead of getting catcalled and feeling raked over by men, I get to just be friendly, with less overt sexual innuendo; when I’m approached by a woman, I rarely feel dirty, guilty or endangered if I (politely) turn her down.
But this is an article about a t-shirt.
Before the event, there were some jarring happenings. My boyfriend told me I should reconsider volunteering “because someone might think you’re gay.” He also told me he was concerned that I might be targeted for violence because I was working at the Planned Parenthood table. After the event, I met friends for a drink; one of them kept expressing his amazement that there were many POC around “I thought these were just a white people thing, black people aren’t so gay.” Whoa.
I’m a newbie to LGBTQ activism, and definitely coming from a place of privilege; I grew up in a middle class home, I’m white, cisgender and straight. It doesn’t get much more privileged than that. As such, I’ve been working on my understanding of how I can be an ally to the LGBTQ community without pushing an agenda I think people want, devaluating their experiences or making it all about me instead of about the community and people’s lived experiences. I work in mental health, and have members who identify all across the gender and sexuality spectrums. I’m lucky enough to call some LGBTQ folks good friends and colleagues.
Anyway, back to the point. I bought a shirt from Ally tees (www.allytees.com) at the event. I wore this shirt to work today. And it provoked a huge amount of angst and anxiety in me.
In Michigan, you can still get fired for being gay. I work with people who may have bad reactions if they misinterpret the shirt, but more importantly, I was concerned about them misinterpreting the shirt and rehearsing speeches about what being an ally is, speeches that started with “oh no, I’m not gay.” I work in a dangerous area, and thought hard about if I wanted to walk down the street wearing a shirt whose message started with the word “lesbian.”
It shouldn’t matter if someone thinks I’m a lesbian. Really, it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t be an issue for my workplace to walk around in a shirt with words like “queer” and “intersex” on it. But really, the issue is all I was doing was wearing a fucking t-shirt.
If I’m freaking out about a word on a shirt, that’s a function of my privilege. People are in danger of physical harm while walking hand in hand with the person they love. People stress about who to bring to a Christmas party because their boss might find out and they’d lose their job. People are devalued, dehumanized, shamed, blamed and attacked for being the people they are (which my own profession did not stop until the 1970s).
Naming who we are, in gender, sexual preference, and every other way we identify, is not dirty or something to be ashamed of. The people who are open and upfront all the time are brave in a way I can barely conceive, and those that aren’t have my empathy. If it is not easy to just walk around with a t-shirt on, can you imagine if the person you are is not “acceptable”?
Fuck this (cis)tem, man. Fuck the patriarchy. Most of all, fuck thinking our experiences are the only right ones, and other people should bow down to what we think is right.