Kick the ladder down
Published: Monday, January 28, 2013
Updated: Monday, January 28, 2013 15:01
There is a common way we minority advocates seek to further the rights and cause of our community: stressing sameness. We tell and retell narratives of “we’re just like you” to anyone who will listen. We emphasize and re-emphasize our similarities and how we are all just so alike!
Difference becomes something we deny and conceal. Those who can “pass” assimilate and those who cannot are left to their fate: to either be different in exile or fight even harder to conform.
The truth remains, however: We are not all the same.
Many social justice activists have it all wrong. They treat privilege and the mainstream sameness as a ladder to climb, an exclusive club they want to be able to join rather than an oppressive hierarchy they want to challenge. They focus on how their group – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks; people of color; women – are actually the same as the privileged class, and whitewash difference away in order to beg for inclusion in the melting pot of indiscriminate gray soup.
Some power changes hands, but nothing is challenged. Some power changes hands, but the nature of power doesn’t change at all. Whoever is currently deemed “the same” still exercises power over whoever is currently different.
Think back to the Irish in the United States during the 1800s, when they were the different, frightening “other” that Americans of German and English descent feared and discriminated against.
Believe it or not, the hatred of the Irish in America was once nearly as vicious as the hatred of African-Americans (www.pitt.edu/~hirtle/uujec/white.html).
Over time, with the Irish fighting to be recognized as part of the sameness and with the construction of whiteness vs. color, they became considered part of the same, mainstream whiteness.
The Irish advanced as a result of sameness, but didn’t challenge racial hierarchy. People were still privileged or discriminated against based on race. The Irish climbed the latter, when they should have been kicking it down.
Focusing on sameness will never truly improve the world, because it reinforces the conceptions that a) To be the same, conform, and assimilate is good; and
b) That we can only value and accept others for their sameness and in spite of their difference.
The same dangers of climbing the ladder are present today and have been causing tension for a long time in various communities.
The battle lines are clearly drawn in my own LGBT community between those who wish to assimilate, to be “normal,” to erase their difference and climb the ladder; and people like me, who wish to embrace our difference, express and emphasize it, and use it to challenge the mainstream.
The queer “sameness” crowd resent me and others like me who are “flamboyant” or who challenge the mainstream in other ways because our gender subversion and challenge of social norms disturbs their senses of sameness and their attempt to be absorbed in the dull gray melting pot.
They are fighting to climb the ladder; I am fighting to kick it down.
I do not argue that a focus on similarities isn’t worthwhile and useful. Shared humanity helps us identify with one another and each other’s struggles.
I do, however, argue that this approach should be only a part of an approach that prominently emphasizes the beauty, worth, value and right to exist of the different.
Because, no matter what we say or may wish were the case, being gay isn’t the same as being straight. Being a person of color isn’t the same as being white. Being a woman isn’t the same as being a man. Being trans* isn’t the same as being cisgender.
There is no such thing as being blind to difference.
Rather than attempting to deny and erase our difference, we should be focused intently on it, expressing it openly, and working to convince others of the validity of our difference.
The LGBT community itself has made gains by showing others that we’re not all that different – this is true.
But in doing so we have not challenged the system that assigns worth to sameness and devalues difference. That, in our advance, we have actually reinforced.
We have also made many gains by emphasizing our difference.
We take pride not because we have accomplished something in being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender – inherent qualities – but because coming out and acknowledging our difference in this culture of sameness is truly an accomplishment.
We take pride in our rejection of shame about our difference. The coming out of millions of LGBT folks is perhaps the greatest act of emphasizing our difference to de-stigmatize it.
Because we are not the same. And that is valid. That is worthy.
In fact, I think it’s far better this way.
Because whatever gains can be made by whitewashing difference away, something vital is lost along the way.
A different culture. A different perspective. A different possibility for how our world could be is lost when we decide to deny difference and conform.
That is because there is no revolutionary potential in sameness. There is no room for debate, disagreement, or a challenge to the status quo.
Our difference has the potential to challenge and transform the mainstream in ways our sameness never could.
I could emphasize my sameness to try to fit into a heterosexual, gender-binary world, or I could use my difference to challenge the devaluation of homosexuality and challenge the gender binary in favor of a gender spectrum.