Amo King, co-chair of the Open University in Wales LGBT staff network, reflects on the interplay of personal identities and life experience.
This Pride month, I want to reflect on identities. Not by focussing on the single identities that live under the LGBTQ umbrella, but by looking more closely at the spectrum of identities inhabited by each and every person.
By this, I mean the demographic features, personal relationships, affiliations and likes or dislikes associated with an individual. For my own part, I could say that I am transmasculine, white, queer, middle-class, polyamorous, an Oxbridge graduate, cat-loving, a civil partner, a boyfriend, weirdly into farming documentaries, an allotment holder, an only child, an ex-athlete... The list goes on.
During and around Pride month, other identities - ones that are not about gender or sexuality – are regularly used to bolster a ‘just like you’ narrative. This narrative sees LGBTQ people’s sexual orientation or trans identity as the sole difference between them and their straight and cisgender neighbours. By highlighting the abundance of common ground, we draw attention to the potential for mutual understanding. In this respect, I can see the motivation for presenting difference as a small and contained thing.
The ‘just like you’ narrative encourages the dismantling of stereotypes, for example by presenting the gay man who is not at all interested in musical theatre, preferring rugby and a lumberjack aesthetic. This is problematic. For one thing, few contexts are more homoerotic than a scrum or a log cabin. Glibness aside, there is a serious point about the sort of ‘stereotype busting’ that entirely misses the breadth and diversity within LGBTQ cultures (note the deliberate plural).
The ‘just like you’ narrative is detrimental for two further reasons. Firstly, a rhetoric that relies on the similarity of LGBTQ people to their cisgender-straight counterparts necessarily marginalises those within the LGBTQ community whose lifestyle or identity places them further from sexual and gender normalcy. This could, for example, be trans people whose self-expression does not align with the gender binary of male and female. There is a point at which ‘just like you’ becomes ‘not like them’, and it seems divisive bordering on treacherous to throw our LGBTQ siblings under the bus in this way.
Secondly, the rhetoric of sameness reduces an individual’s LGBTQ identity to a simple matter of who they form romantic pairings with, or whether or not the sex assigned to them at birth matches the way they experience their gender. This can erase a large part of a person’s life experience.
In particular, this simplification erases the rich subcultural contexts in which many of us have found ourselves. More pervasive still is the assumption that our lives will or should follow normative patterns with marriage and children seen as mark of progress and incontrovertibly desirable. It may be that our lives will look different, possibly with a greater emphasis on chosen family, or a relationship style which transcends the bounds of monogamous partnership.
However, the more fundamental differences in our lifestyles, presentation, or cultural capital should not stand in opposition to the still abundant common ground that each of us share with our straight and cisgender friends, family and colleagues.
This brings me to another aspect of identity, one that could not be more relevant to the vital discussions taking place across the world regarding structural racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. Specifically, I would like to focus on the intersection between identity and privilege within LGBTQ communities.
As a queer teenager with a questionable haircut and a fondness for rainbow-themed jewellery, I was shouted at in the street. As an adult, a member of the public once entered my workplace to question my gender. A driver once stopped in the street to ask me what I was. I was threatened with violence on Manchester’s Canal Street, of all places, because of my appearance.
However, it is important to acknowledge that these incidents are memorable to me because of their rarity. I have lived as an openly, and let’s say it – pretty obviously – LGBTQ person for all of my adult life, and I can count on two hands the number of times that this has really caused me any sort of trouble. I have never feared any sort of disadvantage at work on the basis of my identity, and I have never felt that my identity has prevented me from accessing any sort of service.
Why do I think this is?
I can lessen any alienation caused by my buzzcut and visible tattoos with the cadence of my home counties BBC accent, the face of my Oxbridge degree, a mention of my middle-class love affair with sourdough, and, sadly, my white skin. I am starkly aware that these aspects of privilege are key to my ability to navigate the world with ease and achieve the majority of my aspirations. These are things give me a leg up when I need to move in certain social spaces.
Now more than ever, I am aware of my white middle-class privilege. I must reflect on what this means, particularly in the context of ‘just like you’ and ‘not like them’, where this relatability can easily be rendered as complicity in the marginalisation of BAME and working-class people and voices. Using my relatability to a white, cisgender, straight norm can continue to marginalise BAME and working-class people in our LGBTQ community, centring the needs of someone like me, instead of the needs of the most marginalised. By recognising all the areas of our identities that inform our lived experiences, we can see the ways we can make spaces safer and more accessible to our whole community.
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