Pick Your Battles
A few months ago, my partner and I legally changed our surnames to have the same name. We jumped through fifty-million hoops, including the confusion of filling out government forms which specify on every page “spouse means married partner OF THE OPPOSITE SEX.” In Canada, where same-sex marriage is illegal, this statement is just plain wrong, and the fact that it persists on official documentation is a passive-aggressive move on the part of my provincial government to protest being forced to recognize gay marriage. When I had to pick a form or document to deconstruct for my Qualitative Methods class, I chose the legal change of name form. It felt good to write about that and get it off my chest.
I presented my mini-analysis to my class and, expectedly, a few of my classmates were outraged on my behalf. I was glad of this, but they couldn’t seem to drop it. They were really upset. I was advised to write letters to newspapers, radio stations, the government. To sue! In a conversation with two classmates about my experience, I interrupted an angry rant to say “Do you remember at the beginning of the semester when we read that article about the discrimination faced by wheelchair users? Do you remember how the one wheelchair user remarked that her non-wheelchair using friend would often get more upset about the discrimination than the one being discriminated against?” Blank stares for a moment, then one of my classmates elbowed me, laughing “I see what you did there!” This classmate, a black woman, gestured toward the other classmate, a white woman, and said “She always does the same to me. I tease her about her white guilt.”
I think it’s pretty easy to understand why majority-group allies would feel the need to stick up for their minority group friends. What is harder to understand is why these minority-group friends feel conflicted about this help. Oh, I appreciate having someone stand up for me, but I also resent it a little bit.
The most obvious reason is that I don’t like the implication that my unease is best justified if a majority-group member shares my distress. I’m not being oversensitive, I’m not too emotionally involved in the situation to judge whether or not I’m being treated unfairly. I don’t need an straight person to act as an “impartial” observer to judge whether or not I’m rationally assessing the situation. The women’s movement shouldn’t need male approval to grant it legitimacy, and isn’t there something wrong with seeking legitimacy from the very group you’re trying to wrest rights and recognition from?
I think there’s more to it, though. When my classmates were urging me to drastic action against the government and the registry, I had a fleeting thought of “Oh man, if I fought like they wanted me to against every instance of homophobia I’ve come across, there wouldn’t be anything left of me.” The simple truth, though, is that our majority-group allies have the strength to get outraged and the motivation to recommend and follow through on strong action, because they don’t have to worry about picking their battles. As a lesbian, I see, hear, or hear about some reprehensibly homophobic comment or action daily. I live these battles moment-by-moment, day-by-day. I don’t have the energy to devote to combating it all, because I am more than just a homo, I am a person with a life. My straight allies only hear about the really awful stuff, and they can afford to muster the emotional reserves to get excited. I just don’t have the energy anymore.
It’s for this reason that I get a little frustrated with well-meaning majority group members, but it is also for this reason that us minority members need them so much. I wish they could understand my hesitancy to act, after all, if someone loses their job over this it’s going to be me, not them. If someone gets in the newspaper and starts getting threats, if shit goes down, they can walk away from the situation. I can’t walk away from being gay, my classmate can’t just stop being black. At the same time, when I don’t have the energy to fight for my own rights anymore, I sure could fight for hers. That’s why we need each other. When I am sick and tired of damn gay stuff, my straight allies who do love and care for me (and don’t see themselves as my legitimation) can keep up the good fight. When I am too demoralized from my everyday experiences to tackle the big issues, my allies (who have not just finished dealing with the bigoted receptionist at the dentist, the supermarket cashier who pried and pried until I had to come out, the telemarketer who asked for “Mr. Academicus, or the person who makes the financial decisions in the household,” the greeting card aisle where every “I love you” card has implicit gender assumptions, the gift store where everything from pillows to key racks come in “his and hers” only, and a partner who is too afraid of sexual comments or violence to give me a goodbye kiss on the street or in the mall), can stand up for my rights.