When we began the transition from The Rainbow Center to SOJOURN, we knew that we wanted to place more of an emphasis on issues relating to gender diversity. We felt that both in the South and in faith communities, discussions of gender identity, expression, and trans* issues are severely lacking. Since 2001, we have been leading the conversation on inclusion for LGB (and sometimes T) folks within faith communities in Atlanta, and, now that we were an independent agency and already evaluating our mission, it was time to take the next step. We even went so far as to use the acronym “GSD” (Gender and Sexual Diversity) instead of “LGBT” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender).
So that’s great, right? We’re a southern, Jewish organization that wants to focus not only on homosexuality, but sexuality and gender and diversity and rainbows and happiness and all kinds of great things. Cool!
See, I’m a cis, white, masculine-leaning gay male. And all of the other folks currently on our staff and our board? Also cis. (We’re still in the process of forming our board, so please believe me when I say that we’re working on that, but we’re certainly not there yet.)
I recognize that we’re a pretty privileged bunch of folks. Sure, we all have our own individual stories of struggle and challenge and the path to self- and outside-acceptance, but, none of us has the experience of what it’s like to be trans*. And yet, we go out into the community and lead educational workshops, and yes, even talk about trans* issues. That’s pretty arrogant for us to do.
Well, again, sort of.
Clearly, there’s a difference between speaking about an experience, and speaking from experience. We constantly face the challenge of educating people about what it is to be trans* while being super careful to not talk about what it means to be trans*.
No matter how much I learn (or teach), I will never know what it’s like to be trans*. It’s not my experience and it’s not my identity. But, by working for SOJOURN, I’ve been given a microphone, and every single day, as the person who’s responsible for our educational programs, I’m expected to use it. And I really want to be an ally to everyone in the GSD community.
So here’s where my privilege comes into play: As a cis, white, masculine-leaning male, I’m pretty non-threatening to folks who’ve had minimal interaction with the GSD community. In many cases, that means that I have more leeway to bring up challenging topics in certain situations. It's frustrating that people gravitate to people who are “like them”, but, they do. Sometimes, we have to use that to our advantage.
And sometimes, that’s completely offensive.
It’s a really, really, really fine line. I’m not sure we always walk it perfectly.
My own privilege can only take me so far before I cross that line, and it’s a really hard thing to admit. As I said up top, I’ve been given a microphone because of my work with SOJOURN. We’ve been able to have these conversations all over the state, from rural public schools to urban synagogues to youth groups and everywhere in between. That can make someone think they’re a bit more awesome than perhaps they really are.
(That has made me think I’m a bit more awesome than I really am.)
I want to be loud and I want to make people think, and I want to teach people. I want to have challenging conversations and I want to be the one to change the world. I want to be an awesome ally and I want to be everyone’s friend and spokesperson and protector.
But I can’t be that person - not all the time. Not even most of the time, really. (It's also important to note that there's a large population of folks who don't want allies, [NSFW - language] and that's ok, too.)
Sometimes, I’ve learned, the best thing I can do is sit down and shut up. When I speak too loudly or say too much, I overstep my bounds. I can't talk about anyone’s experience but my own. To do so would be unfair, dishonest, and most of all, offensive.
I can, however, make sure that I give someone else the space to talk about their own experience. I can make sure that I help to create an environment that values other voices - even when they are hard for me to hear. I can do my best to let everyone I encounter know that they are valued and that they matter to me - even if I do not yet know how to relate to them or how to listen to what they say.
(And when I don’t know how to relate to someone or how to listen to what they say? That’s my problem, period. No one else’s.)
And I can do my best to sit down and shut up when it’s not my turn to speak. That’s a hard lesson to learn when you’re an educator and you’re used to running the conversation. Really, that’s a hard lesson to learn, period.
Now, I’m not advocating silence - not at all. There’s a difference between quieting yourself and silencing yourself. I don’t believe that handing someone else my microphone means I’m silencing myself. It just means that I’ve started to recognize the limits my voice has. It means that I’ve learned that sometimes, when I speak, it comes at the expense of someone else’s voice. As a cis, white, masculine-leaning gay male, my voice is louder in the GSD community. Many (most) times, it’s so loud that it drowns out other voices. Whether I like it or not, and whether I want to admit it or not, it’s a reality, and it’s taken me quite a while to realize that.
Sometimes, there’s only so much time or space, and if I use it all for myself, someone else doesn’t get to speak. That’s super hard to acknowledge, and I admit that I still don’t always get it right.
I don’t have a good conclusion here, because I don’t know where the conversation ends. I’m not even sure if it does end. (Actually, I hope it doesn’t end.) But this is where I am right now. I know that I have so much to learn. I hope you think that you have so much to learn, too. And I hope that SOJOURN can find its place and become a catalyst and an opportunity for that learning.
We’ve been doing a lot of talk lately about what we want to see from SOJOURN and where we want to be in the future. We’ve started a strategic planning process and I hope that this conversation becomes a large part of it. There’s so much good we can do as an agency by speaking up. And sometimes there’s so much good we can do by sitting down and handing someone else the microphone, too.
Please feel free to share your reactions in the comments. Have I completely missed the point? Am I on the right track? Is it completely offensive for me to even start down this road? Please feel free to be honest - just do so respectfully. Thanks!