Of Allies, Outliers, and Invisibility

[aka, Some Complicated Thoughts That Sort of Contradict Each Other. Contains some discussion of social justice]

There’s a general idea that allies shouldn’t speak over or for the groups they want to aid; good article explaining the principle of this here. And this makes some obvious sorts of sense: we can intuitively see where a man cheerfully explaining that “what women really want is…” has the potential to undercut the group he’s trying to help. Women might actually really want that thing where they don’t need men to repeat their talking points in order for them to be taken seriously…or they just wanted something slightly different than the mostly-accurate thing the man in question said.

But there are also these other things that seem reasonable principles:

People in marginalized identities can’t always be public about those identities. 
For instance, trans people, the mentally ill, different varieties of queer identities, people in the kink community, polyamorous people, on and on, can have spaces (or their entire lives) for which the cost-benefit of publicly claiming part of their identity is high on cost and low on benefit. This is one of the things I think the social justice community/communities handle very well: acknowledging that not everyone can go around mentioning their plans to get dinner with their boyfriend’s girlfriend or sending a company-wide email requesting different pronouns.

It’s a bad idea to shame or force people to out themselves.
Being mean to people for circumstances beyond their control is not how to support people who belong to already-stepped-on groups. The pushback against It Gets Better videos (it doesn’t always get better, let’s not pretend that you can expect it) probably illustrated this well, as do the reminders I see floating around tumblr to be careful to defer to trans and nonbinary people’s choices of pronoun and name usage in public to avoid accidentally outing them.

And all of the above makes sense to me. But…they collide in complicated ways.

Imagine this conversation:

Me: I think there’s a lot to be said for the medical model of mental illness. It fails people in a very specific and bad set of ways, but I think throwing it out would do more harm than good.

Person: You don’t understand. People who are mentally ill suffer under this model, and it fucks us over. You’re perpetuating something that harms us, and if you wanted to do something to help the mentally ill, you should listen to us, not try to speak for what will help us best.

I could be totally wrong about the medical model of mental illness, and I’m not very confident that I’m right. But I’m in the position of not addressing that until I wave my membership card as mentally ill. Which feels about as comfortable as yelling “no, you should listen to me!” usually does. I’m One of Us, albeit one with a less common opinion about diagnoses!

So in these conversations I usually very awkwardly mention my mental illness while feeling sort of like a jerk and slightly annoyed and then hope we can continue talking. But I’m lucky in this respect, because it isn’t so much ‘outing’ myself as ‘offering information freely available on the internet”. This isn’t always the case, and I’ve watched others get hate  for overreaching as an ally…while knowing the ‘ally’ in question…wasn’t, and also couldn’t out themselves.

People who are exploring their identity seem particularly trapped. Take Riley One, who is uncertain if they want to identify as genderqueer, so they start poking around on blogs and forums discussing nonbinary identities, trying to figure out if they want to describe themselves that way.

In the meantime, Riley realizes that things can really suck if you’re nonbinary, and starts posting/talking/writing/advocating more about how binary gender assignment isn’t necessary. Riley finds the number of gender-neutral pronouns overwhelming, however, and also says stuff like “look, I think the community has way too much attachment to having special snowflake pronouns but we should have gender-neutral options.”

People who have found themselves comfortable in specific pronouns for the first time are, understandably, upset when they run across this. Who is this person who wants to tell the world that varieties of gender-neutral pronouns are unnecessary?

But maybe there’s a Riley Two. Riley Two has some friends who are nonbinary and considers himself an ally but just thinks that whole variety-of-pronouns-thing is silly and harming their cause, and occasionally says things like “look, I think the community has way too much attachment to having special snowflake pronouns but we should have gender-neutral options.”

At this point, Riley One and Riley Two are indistinguishable in outward appearance. And treating Riley One like Riley Two will probably send them far away from a community they might want to be in, feeling more isolated and even less understood. Simultaneously, it’s unpleasant and common for disadvantaged groups to be unable to voice their concerns as more powerful, less disadvantaged outsiders speak over them, insisting they understand. Forcing people to out themselves in order to participate in the community violates some deeply held and valuable norms that offer protection and safety to the most vulnerable.

I have no conclusion that isn’t heavy sighs and rubbing my temples. This stuff is complicated. And deeply important. And complicated.

6 thoughts on “Of Allies, Outliers, and Invisibility

  1. Furthermore, what happens if you realize you are X and were always X, where X is some marginalized identity? Since you were always that thing, does that now retroactively justify you having an opinion on it, like in the Back to the Future series where the newspaper articles change and fade when they alter the past/future?

    Something seems inherently incoherent about that, which makes me question whether the assumption it’s based on (you aren’t allowed to have/express an opinion on an issue that touches on X group unless you are a member of X group) is a valid assumption.

    1. I think the assumption is “you can never fully understand all the issues of X group unless you are a member of X group.”

      The issue is perspective and I think the conflict arrises when the opinion you hold appears to be that of an outsider.

  2. Wouldn’t the resolution of this problem be for Riley Two to never make that statement? I know that’s grossly unrealistic, but the problem is people who don’t have sufficient knowledge or who are unable to see things from a given perspective (perhaps because they aren’t part of some group), clouding the waters, so to speak.

    Imagine if only people generally versed in feminism were discussing feminism, and other people just kept quiet. Many places I think you see its does work like that with men being a productive part of the conversation, in fact conversations where the authors’ genders/sex aren’t mentioned.

    But then of course there’s less of a cost to “outing” oneself as a man/woman compared to things like disability or non-binary gender.

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