Sunday, September 27, 2009

White Heterosexual Male Privilege: A True and Not So Simple Story, part 1 of 3

[image distinguishing the white male ass from the white male elbow is from here]

[Here is part two]

[Here is part three]

OF COURSE the day after Andrea Dworkin's birthday there'd be a reminder of what's so messed up about the way white heterosexual men (W.H.M.) perceive themselves and the minescule world they live in. Tragically for the oppressed, they rarely take full responsibility for the conditions they remain in willful denial about perpetrating, or, at least perpetuating.

I am a white man: I know how annoying and violence-supporting I can be or could be, due to my privileges to "not know much" about what most of the world experiences--as human experience. I was raised to think "white men" WERE the standard and most appropriate models for "what it means to be human". The only aspect of my social/political being that separates me from my white straight brothers is my sexual orientation and how their overtly and covertly expressed heterosexism and homophobia hurts me, invisibilises me, oppresses me, and repels me. Were it not for me being gay, I'd be "one of them". And as far as many women have experienced me, I am one of them. I accept that as truth: I have behaved with the level of ignorance and arrogance known to run amock among my hetero white brothers.

Which takes us right into the emotional crisis du jour. Today's crisis began when I went to visit some white hetero friends--a whole group of 'em--totaling six in number, all of us cisgendered. These folks' ages range from mid-twenties to mid-fifties. Most of these are people I know VERY WELL except for the youngest male of the bunch, who is around 25. I've known him the shortest period of time and have probably spent the least amount of time with him, though we're off to a rather cozy start. We hit it off and care about each other a lot. But, there's not much of a history there, including a history of "how to resolve conflict".

I know what you're thinking and what can I say? I admit it: some of by best friends are white heterosexual men.... not that there's anything wrong with that.

So I sit down with the only two who are in their twenties. They are a heterosexual married couple. I've known her for years; as alluded to above, I've known him for months. He only moved into this area that long ago.

For the sake of protecting her anonymity, we'll call them "Donna" and "Thomas".

The three of us get to talking right away about the fact that he doesn't feel very comfortable in his home environment (which is not with his family of origin). For the last months he's been with white roommates who are queer in different ways. One person is trans, the other a lesbian ciswoman. Donna has been interested in women in various ways, and her ethnic background and presence is not "white". But Thomas, the roommates, and I are, in this country in particular, very white. Donna would probably not say that she is "heterosexual" although now that she's married to a man and they behave married in public, she has heterosexual privilege, which, for a straight woman, is "for better or worse". (A radical lesbian feminist friend of mine had a long discussion twenty years ago about whether or not heterosexuality in women, when and if it occurs, is "a privilege". There are strong arguments to be made for either case. Heterosexual women, more often than lesbian women, live and sleep with men. Their lives are more often bound to adult men in ways that lesbian women's lives aren't necessarily. I mention that decades old conversation because it kind of factors into what follows.)

I ask him why he doesn't feel too comfortable there. He tells me the history of the house in which they have an apartment is that it's always been queer-majority space. By that I assume he means probably for the last five years or possibly ten. Unless a group of trans and/or non-hetero friends have lived together in one space for more than ten years, few apartment buildings around town are queer-majority or queer-dominated. This isn't the gentrified part of The Castro in San Francisco, for example, where white monied gay men have been living for decades, displacing poorer queers and queers of color, and women across race, class, and sexuality.

So it seems there was this guy, a transman, who was fond of coming over to the apartment where Thomas lives, with a key, well after the time he'd moved out. He'd come in as if this were still his place too. And Thomas didn't particularly care. But the two roommates did. (Donna moved in after this part of the story happened.) The two roommates WERE uncomfortable with this transguy showing up repeatedly, unannounced, with key access. But they didn't feel empowered to ask for him to hand back his key to the place. Somehow it got arranged that Thomas would ask for the key back, and establish some needed boundaries, re: this transguy stopping by.

So the next time the trans fellow came over, Thomas did just that. And the trans guy experienced that as a sign that the house was no longer queer-friendly space. And he told his trans friends about the fact that now that there's one non-queer person in there, he's setting all kinds of new rules. (Well, no; Thomas just asked for a key to his and his roommates' apartment back, on behalf of his roommates.)

Our experiences are shaped by what we know. I can understand how the trans man would get the sense that now that there's a W.H. [non-trans] M. in the home, the space being no longer readily accessibly to him would lead him to feel that it was due to the straight cisman being there. To avoid this interpretation of reality, Thomas probably ought to have supported his roommates asking for the key back themselves, which would have left the cisman out of this, and he could thus have been spared being known as transphobic.

Word apparently spreads around parts of the trans community (and we could be talking about a dozen or so people here, to be clear), that there's "this transphobic cisman now living with my former roommates", and "only when the cisman moved in did I get a request to leave the key to the place there". Due to how this played out, what was made invisible to the transman was just how uncomfortable the other two roommates were with him coming by, with key in hand--and in lock, making himself right at home. This wasn't, any longer, his home. But sometimes when we move out of a place, we still hold great attachment to it, and I can understand the transman wanting to not cut ties to his old home. (And who knows how queer-friendly his current living situation was.)

I sympathised far more with the trans and lesbian roommates: having one's home space invaded by any man--trans or not--can be a very frightening thing; it is, at the very least, annoying, invasive, and insensitive. It seems clear he was intimidating enough to them for them to not feel comfortable asking for the key back directly. Or they just didn't want to hurt his feelings and leave him keyless and feeling rejected. Hard to know. But I certainly support any woman or women having safe space, to the degree that is possible. (This point too factors into the story.)

I also sympathised with the cisman, Thomas. I told him "I'm sorry you got pegged for something you weren't doing in any intentional way". "It sounds like you were being helpful to your roommates, and now the part of the town is abuzz about you being a major transphobe." (It's clear he's NOT a major transphobe, if measured against any other white hetero men I know. He enjoys a really good relationship with his trans roommate; for him, moving into a new home with a lesbian woman and a trans person was in every way something he welcomed doing. They have never identified him as someone who is especially transphobic or homophobic either. As for the roommates themselves, the three got along great, and after Donna moved in, the foursome really clicked and they've all been good friends and respectful of one another in many meaningful ways.

Thomas is a sensitive man. He can come across as meek, is generally not at all boisterous, he's very thoughtful and caring. Donna is more dynamic in social and interpersonal spaces, as are the two other roommates. Thomas isn't often the kind of hetero white guy who loves to be the center of attention, who wants all his needs met at the expense of other's getting their needs met. He probably tips toward being the kind of guy who is likely to ignore his own needs in favor of helping someone else out. Also, Thomas was actively engaged in one trans community support effort, helping to bring in money by performing at a fundraiser. He's done more for the trans community here, than say, I have. Which in no way rules out the possibility of him being transphobic, just as a profeminist guy doing some activism to challenge male supremacy doesn't mean he can't be sexist, or act misogynistically from time to time.

I go on to speak with this married couple about the history of tensions I've experienced in the queer community here, specifically among gay men. I mention that due to my own politics, of being radically profeminist, I've been marginalised in and by that group of "my people". Or maybe I'm just making it all up; but as a point of comparison, every "out" radical feminist lesbian woman I know has been very socially marginalised here, by not being welcomed at some social events, by not being supported when doing their own cultural work, etc. I'm openly, publicly alligned with them and have defended their politics, which rub queer liberals and non-feminist trans folks the wrong way.

There is a liberal politic at work in this community, whereby "anything interpersonal goes" as long as it doesn't appear to hurt anyone. "The appearance of hurt and harm" is something the radical feminist lesbian women I know, who are white, and I, take very seriously. We're well aware that just because no one is appearing to be hurt, that doesn't mean no one IS being hurt. For example: if an almost entirely white queer group has gathered, and a racist joke gets told by a white gay man, the one or two queer people of color there may not feel safe to express their hurt and anger to the larger group; for one thing, they may be the guests in some white folks' apartment--and that alone can have a greatly silencing and intimidating effect; for another their white gay friend may be best friends with the gay man who made the joke, and they don't want to generate tensions between the two white gay men. But that doesn't mean their anger is unjustified, or that their hurt isn't real. Their silence ought not be interpreted to mean "no harm was done".

The white radical feminist lesbian women and I also have a strong and thorough enough critique of "consent" to distrust it as the primary means by which "harm" is determined to be present or absent in any relationship, sexual or not. For example, someone could be consenting to sex with a partner because s/he doesn't know how to say no, due to being an incest survivor who never learned how to do so, or for whom doing so might have meant getting beaten, more violently sexually assaulted, or killed.

Needless to say, emotionally harmful things can happen even in authentically consensual situations. For example, two friends agree to get together for lunch, and during their talk something insensitive is said, and it wounds the other person. Harm happened in that moment. The conclusion to this sort of analysis or perspective ISN'T "No one should have sex" and "No one should ever, EVER meet for lunch!" The point of the perspective is simply to not be in denial about the ways harm can happen consensually, and that what appears to be meaningful consent may not be that at all.

The radical feminist women and I believe strongly in the value of accountability: generally speaking--with some exceptions--you are responsible for what you say and for what you non-verbally do. Period. Liberal society's members, in my experience, operate out of a different ethic. I'm not sure what to call it besides a devaluing of accountability; an indulgence in acting on entitlements. It plays out in white middle class places like this: someone does something that is harmful or hurtful to someone else, without realising it. I'll make the example one that happens between two cismale friends.

The harmed person is silent about the wound, except to a close friend, who then shares the news of this wound with the one who generated it. That person get defensive, not wanting to be perceived as an insensitive and a hurtful person. Their defensiveness blocks out their capacity to stay open, to caring about what was done, to understanding what was done (intentionally or not) from the other person's perspective and through the other person's experience. For the wounder, "intention" becomes THE most important measure of whether it was even possible for harm to have happened. The wounder says "I in no way intended for anything of the kind to be inferred by what I said! It's ridiculous that [the wounded person] took what I said that way! That interpretation is just plain crazy." The mediator says, "Well, that's how he took it and he is feeling quite hurt." The wounder is now in the position to:

a. Care about the fact that a wounding happened, and to stop defending his own ego, or

b. Continue to make the case that the other person "took it all wrong", which invalidates and invisibilises the wounded person's pain and keeps the issue on "what just happened to ME!"

Typically, in my experience, when a member of an oppressor class does something "unintentional" or "out of ignorance", the expectation is clearly placed on the oppressed person to forgive and forget ASAP. And, typically, another liberal ethic, which also implies something that never exists substantively or systemically in real life: a level playing field between oppressed groups and their oppressors.

Which takes us into part two of this story. See the next post for that.