Friday, September 5, 2014

The Burden of Privilege #LGBTQI

"Check your privilege!" 

It's the new catchphrase among activists. Basically, it means don't assume your life is an accurate representation of an "average" LGBTQI individual. Unless you live with poverty, poor healthcare, chronic illness, and fear, you're not average according to recent polls.

To those clinging to the image of a Caucasian gay couple living in Manhattan, you need to pay closer attention. That stereotype was debunked years ago. The average LGBTQI person is a minority struggling to survive in a lower class neighborhood and has a lot more to worry about than their sexuality.

Human beings are egoistic. I get it. Those of you with degrees in psychology or sociology can undoubtedly tell me why that's hardwired into our genetic code, but for the sake of this discussion it's enough to know it's a thing and fighting that mentality is difficult. It's also the central problem in the battle for equality. Too many people can't see beyond their own situation to consider that there are people in the same state, city, and even neighborhood that have it worse. We love to believe we have less than others do. We seldom admit we have more.

Courtesy of Pixabay

I read an article yesterday about college students opening Georgia's first LGBTQI health care center. Two pages of comments after the article highlighted readers' ignorance of their own level of privilege. They weren't trolls. They were just people who had never been in a situation where a doctor refused to treat them. They didn't know the humiliation of hearing a medical professional hurl slurs at them before ordering them from the building under the threat of a trespassing charge simply because they're different. It wasn't only hard for them to imagine, it was impossible for them to believe. They called the Lambda Legal studies about mistreatment of LGBTQI patients lies and "propaganda" and sneered at a community that wants to be treated equally but asks for their own clinic because they don't see any reason for one. They don't see and that's the problem.

Being treated with respect isn't a right. It should be, but it's not. It's privilege and not everyone has it. Ask anyone who identifies as trans*, intersex, or even gender nonconforming and they'll tell you. Doctor's visits are such a traumatic event most don't go unless it's to a known LGBTQI-friendly clinic or an emergency room when they no longer have a choice. They find ridicule in something as simple as renewing their driver's license at the DMV, showing their ID when they use a credit card, picking up the keys to a new apartment, taking a trip to the grocery store.

Privilege isn't just for those born into wealth and high society. It's for anyone who is guaranteed anything simply because of their gender, the color of their skin, their address, their sexual orientation, and a dozen other things we don't notice because it's background noise. We all know our place and the rules and we believe they're the same for everyone. We're wrong.

Courtesy of Pixabay

Even within the LGBTQI community there are layers of privilege. The removal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell restriction in the military made that difference so obvious it was painful. I still cringe over it. LGB organizations lobbied for change and won it...for lesbians, gays, and bisexuals. Then they gathered their briefcases and funding and walked away from the negotiations leaving transgender allies to fight for the same rights on their own. Rights they are still without. 

Being gay and lesbian comes with many privileges other members of the community don't have. Legitimacy, for one. Trans* activists are still trying to figure out how best to use their shiny new spotlight and while it's not legitimacy, it's acknowledgment that they exist. That's a start. Intersex is still in the shadows because few people even know what that word means and poor bisexuals may never get there because most people see them as something akin to urban legend. Their sexuality isn't even valid. They're just confused.

That's half-right. Someone is confused but it's not the bisexuals.

Every activist organization understands the burden of privilege because getting past it takes up a majority of their time. They have to repeatedly explain to people like House Speaker John Boehner why things such as ENDA are necessary because he's convinced no one has ever been fired or evicted based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. They have to tell middle class conservative Christians that what they call 'oppression' is laughable. Real oppression happens every day but they've never experienced it so they don't see the chasm. They have to tell people who have always had the ability to be open about their sexuality that most people under the LGBTQI umbrella don't have that. Telling others to suck it up and just come out of the closet is bad advice when those people have no support. That lack of understanding comes across as callousness, but I don't think it's meant to be. I think people like Margaret Cho are just so far removed from the plight of LGBTQI people who have no support system that they can't fathom that level of isolation. They can't comprehend how it feels to live in terror that someone is going to discover their secret.

We all have things we refuse to believe really happen, situations we refuse to accept as anything more than a fluke incident. Take a moment to consider what you aren't seeing because of your own personal bit of privilege. Where are your blind spots? What things do you brush off as trivial? What concepts do you ignore in the fight for equality because you already have it? You may not exercise that right or even want it but you have it.

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