The Constant Struggle for Equality: 5 Ways to Be a Better Ally

2015-08-19-1439981850-6707697-SalfordUniversityviaCreativeCommonsLicenseFlickr.jpg
Credit: Salford University via Creative Commons license on Flickr

Employment discrimination used to be annoying for me. It has happened a lot throughout my life, and so in the past, I have tended to use a very extreme method to counteract it -- by simply getting on a plane and working in a different country instead. I spent a chunk of my twenties traveling for work and training opportunities. This was easier than just fighting discrimination at home because no-one was very interested in the fact that I was being routinely, systemically disadvantaged anyway. It was essentially seen as my problem due to my "choices," and had nothing to do with anyone else's complicity.

For a long time, I felt like this seemed fair and taking it as a chance to see the world wasn't even horrible. Now, I am old and tired though, and I'd like to settle down someday, so we are finally going to talk about it. We congratulate ourselves for advocating equality, but then we still see LGBTQ people being denied deserved employment and opportunity because they are deemed to be "unsuitable" for it. And when we do not act on this, it shows that we truly just do not care.

I'd like to focus on the bigger picture and examine why, regardless of anti-discrimination legislative changes, LGBTQ employment discrimination will remain economically divisive, socially permissible and unfortunately commonplace. I'd also like to point out how vital it is to get allies to recognize this issue as a valid and ongoing struggle.

Crucially, we have to remember that it is not LGBTQ people that are responsible for homophobia, so we will look at a sociological ecosystem of implicit homophobia that still does not permit queer people to thrive within it.

Young queer male colleagues I have shared a classroom or workspace with have almost uniformly worked markedly harder than our heterosexual counterparts. When it came to group projects, I found myself, over time, angling to work with queer males for the simple reason that they cared about making a good impression with their work, whereas heteronormative peers seemed to operate under the assumption that the quality of their work would bear no influence either way on their chances of success or access to opportunity.

Furthermore, young gay and queer men from less advantaged socio-economic backgrounds worked even harder still, indicating that they might have been compensating (consciously or subconsciously) for an even higher degree of systemic disadvantage placed against them. It is apparent that after these young people have overcome economic barriers, their own internalized homophobic programming and various trauma associated with a plethora of other social disadvantages, they are still cautious about how the world will feel about them and are addressing a latent reality that their best will never be good enough, simply because of who they are. Summarily, I feel that these peer observances indeed bear "real-world" workplace relevance. Not really fair, is it?

Attempting to inform heterosexual allies that such damaging discrimination against LGBTQ people still very much exists has also been harrowing to say the least. I'd like to believe that this is an apathy that is nonetheless open to future galvanization, but here is a sample of some of the responses I have had so far and some hints to offer on how to refocus and reframe our understandings of queer struggles:

1) But women are discriminated against too.
Yes and there are very obvious intersections between misogyny and homophobia and, indeed, many women are LGBTQ, lest we forget this. Gender equality is very basically numero uno for me. However, when we are trying to discuss a culture of discrimination specifically against queer people of all genders, it's very diminishing to try and assert that there are simply more important issues, and that those "higher value" issues are indeed explicitly heterosexual. Listening is a very important part of supporting. We could use listening to build a sense of common purpose, silently recognizing similarities and then sharing strategies instead of falling into the trap of divisive thinking that is being promoted so heavily all around us. But first, listen.

2) Discrimination will be a hard thing to prove.
Well, the way it works is, if an organization discriminates against an individual, it's the organization that has to prove in court that it did not discriminate. Why is it so easily deemed that there should be a different set of rules for LGBTQ people, implying that it is up to them to prove that they are not lying, omitting facts or being oversensitive? Queer people are actually all unique individuals -- not an organization with an agenda, believe it or not. This thinking negates the fact that the injustice is being committed by the perpetrator and not the victim, and ignores the possibility that not all queer people can financially afford to challenge discrimination in a court of law. Allies could educate themselves on systems of oppression and not make LGBTQ people feel like they are inconveniencing that same system with their irritating difference and uppity sense of basic self-worth. Get the power roles correct.

3) Are you sure it was even discrimination?
In other words: "Aren't you just playing the gay card because it's easier than nursing a bruised ego?" This is an invalidation that stems from a lack of desire to listen, learn and expend any actual effort to evaluate the actual situation. Playing ones part in a discriminative culture means that you don't have to actively discriminate, but you can certainly assist by silencing and demoralizing those who object to oppression. With this act, you also don't have to stop and evaluate the experiences of others in systems that you might incidentally thrive in, and therefore hold no personal objections to. Allies don't show up for the party and then try to assert that the struggle is not constant, proceeding to leave a cartoon-like, ally-shaped hole in the door when hard work needs to be done. Listen to the full story, even if it's a total drag and shatters your illusions. Do not enforce your own narrative into it and proclaim your vantage point as the universal default. Become aware of when you are doing this and realize that it is not helpful.

4) Women are discriminated against all the time. You're a man, so tough luck.
This kind of statement is so binary, and once again fails to recognize both why and how gay men are discriminated against so widely and effectively. Do you remember that scene in Braveheart (Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1995) where they wrote in a gay male character for the sole reason of having him casually thrown out of a window to his death, simply as a device to delight the heterosexual majority audience? Well, when you are a man with perceived feminine qualities, or a woman with perceived masculine traits, then you are wide open to an effective doubling down of socially encouraged invasions into both your privacy and your very identity from all angles. The fetishization and glorification of patriarchal masculinity as the ideal is not even remotely relatable to the dismal experience of being routinely and regularly devalued and defiled for simply being male and queer. Queer people are objectified twice as intensely and scrutinized and judged disproportionately higher to more normative peers. Trans* people even more so. Please think about intersectionality, and remember that good allies don't isolate or dumb down someone's identity for their own advancement.

5) You seem very angry. You might not want to alienate or upset straight people.
I never want to upset anyone, per se. However, I do want to upset the damaging hierarchies and power systems that we all so effortlessly accept and maintain without any of us ever receiving any real benefit from them. And I do feel angry about a great many things, even though I readily admit that I generally have it pretty good. I try to become aware of and learn about the struggles of other oppressed communities and individuals outside of my own experiences. My anger signifies that I am not placated and permissive of imbalanced and unequal systems. My anger is valid, healthy and positive because oppressed people are generally exhausted and are often unable to even feel their own anger after a point in that constantly mounting exhaustion. So when I speak up, I channel my anger into empathy, analysis and rationality, despite the fact that the first things oppressors will attack and skew are these very valuable traits that I have developed slowly over time.

I endeavor to understand precisely why feelings might get hurt when I talk about inequality or injustice, but I also look at the cultural, political and societal systems that validate and reward specific ideals of normativity/superiority over the "other," or over those of us that possess perceived undeserving social signifiers. If your systemic advantages are so over-inflated that the worst you have to worry about is hurt feelings, I think it's pertinent to assume that these advantages will serve as an extremely good cushion for any guilt that you might feel. Certainly, discomfort is good. I would see discomfort as a positive first step, provided one is willing to take the next compassionate step after it.

The best allies assume accountability, process another's situation and then endeavor to change their actions, and this is the main thought to hold onto here.

So to dispense with denial, let echo this question on LGBTQ equality in a vein of genuine honesty and palpability: Can we ever verifiably achieve equality? And do remember I'm not even asking, "when?" I'm rather depressingly asking, "If?"