Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rewriting the rules

Recently I was writing a communication for Open Love NY where we were trying to write a rule about safe space. Safe space, as it applies to minority communities and support groups such as ours, means creating an environment where everybody feels welcome and accepted, and not like they are a minority infringing on a group where they don’t belong.

For example, if someone refers to “families consisting of a husband, wife and children” that would be violating safe space for most non-heterosexual and poly people. Making a statement like, “we’re all poly here” (as was done by one presenter recently at Open Love NY) does the same for monogamous people (I corrected that speaker immediately).

In the process of making up the rule, I defined safe space as follows:

"Safe space" means using inclusive language that acknowledges the diversity of this group, including diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities. Statements and language that marginalize or assume homogeneity in our audience (such as language that assumes people in this group are heterosexual or cisgender), or that are offensive toward any particular group of individuals will not be tolerated.

There was disagreement on the use of the word “cisgender.” It’s not a word that is commonly used, and some people thought it would confuse readers or cause them to tune out. It basically refers to someone who has always considered their internal gender role to be in alignment with the gender role they were assigned at birth.

At first, the obvious solution was to post a definition as a link to the word (as I’ve done in this blog). But my problem was that, to me, this itself was a violation of safe space for transgender people, as I explained in an email:

I am against providing a definition for cisgender because it perpetuates the idea that transgender is such a small minority that "of course nobody knows what that means so we must provide a definition, yet one is not needed for obvious states of being like gay or heterosexual". It's another form of privilege that GLBs don't have to worry about the world understanding what they are and trans people must constantly "help" people understand.

If people don't understand, I want them to take the initiative and look it up themselves on whatever their online source of choice may be (Google, Wiki, whatever). But I don't want to ASSUME they don't know what cisgender means. I know this is against good rules of communication, but I'm tired of coddling people when it comes to being transgender, and I know there are others out there who feel the same.

There is no excuse these days for not looking up something if you don't understand it - assuming you want to follow the rules of a group you are a member of.

A major part of our group's mission is to educate (not just about poly) and we should not avoid an opportunity to introduce an important new concept to our audience that (gasp!) not being transgender is simply being cis-identified. Not being trans does not mean you are NORMAL.

No one in this group more strongly committed to clear communications than I am. But as I continue to spend time in queer communities and get to know the next generation of trans and queer people, we must let them (and everyone else) know that we speak their language fluently.

Gender identity is not "trendy" - and if we treat it as such, we get lumped in with the larger gay movement that seeks to leave the "T" off of GLBT, advancing the rights and privileges of straight-acting and looking gays, lesbians and bi's while throwing trans people under the bus with promises to "come back for them later." If this message is going to say we're inclusive regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, there should not be any more problem using "cisgender" than using "heterosexual" to describe the majority identity.

As a lifelong professional communicator but only a recent queer activist, I finally have come to realize that the "correct" way to communicate something isn't necessarily the "right" way to do it.

The return argument was that many in our audience may be only at the beginning of their explorations outside the mainstream and we needed to make them feel safe and accepted as well. While my first reaction is to err on the side of the minority in terms of feeling safe, Open Love NY was founded on the precept that ALL people should be welcome, not just LGBTQ and certainly not just hetero-normative people. There continued to be a concern that there are people who are not academically inclined, or are too lazy or uneducated to look the word up for themselves, so we should look it up for them.

I admit I was pretty outraged that people thought we needed to cater to those who couldn’t do something as simple as looking up a word or reading and understanding our rules in order to join the community that we’ve built:

I'm actually hesitant to say I want our group to be inclusive to people who are not willing to look up a word on the internet in order to achieve safe space. If someone is not willing to educate themselves in order to abide by our rules, then maybe we don't want them as a member. If they aren't going to educate themselves on treating trans people with respect, then can we really expect them to educate themselves about polyamory?

While I agree the word is obscure, it's a necessary way to describe hetero-normative privilege. If everyone avoids using new words needed to describe inequity, injustice will never become visible and it will never be overcome.

Speaking for myself, I am not willing to compromise safe space in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. As leaders of the community, we should be setting the example for others to follow, not just appealing to the lowest common denominator of the mainstream.

But sometimes as a leader, I need to step back and find an alternate solution instead of being continually frustrated that people aren’t as smart as I’d like them to be. So I ended up rewriting the rule to not include the word at all:

Open Love NY practices safe space for all sexual orientations, gender and kink identities, as well as those who identify as monogamous. "Safe space" means using inclusive language that acknowledges the diversity of this group, including diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities. Statements and language that marginalize or assume homogeneity in our audience (such as language that assumes there are no lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer people in this group), or that are offensive toward any particular group of individuals will not be tolerated.

One argument that struck me is that someone said that being college educated is a privileged class as well. While that’s true, it’s different from cisgender or heterosexual privilege in one respect – you have to earn a college education. The others are unearned privileges. You sacrifice nothing to be heterosexual or cisgender - you just are. That’s a distinction that I wish I’d made at the time we were discussing it, but it could get really meta if we started talking about poor people having no choice about being born into a family that can’t afford schooling and higher education, etc. etc.

This whole episode is a microcosm of why I’m so apolitical. It’s a never-ending discussion, there is no right or wrong, and it’s completely enervating to me. Some people thrive on it - I don’t. I know it’s impossible for anyone to understand another person’s viewpoint without engaging in the process, but this takes my focus away from things that are really more important and more immediate to me, both as a person and as president of this group. I have to pick and choose my battles and hope to have made a difference when the dust settles.