Saturday, February 16, 2013

MBLGTACC part 3: Identity Caucuses and Allies

Part 1 is here
Part 2 is here

"I hate it when allies talk," is something I was told by a close friend after MBLGTACC was over and we were discussing our experiences in different identity caucuses. For the first time in my life I've been able to understand this sentiment, and it's a heavy one so I'm taking a whole post to break down what it means to me and potentially what it should mean to allies. The first part of this post is largely based around experiences at MBLGTACC, and so it's related primarily to the LGBTQ community, but in relation to the allies themselves it doesn't matter what group they're allies of. This is important content to understand.

Some background: I'm a big fan of allies in a lot of ways. I'm proud to have had the privilege of speaking at an Ally Day march and rebuking Kate Bornstein's famous quote that "we don't need allies, we need members." I've said that as a member of the Polyamorous community I'm thrilled to have Kate Bornstein as an ally. The first time I ever attended MBLGTACC I did so as a passionate straight-identifying ally with barely a hint of the queer man-in-a-skirt I'd eventually become. That same conference I attended a Bisexual/Pansexual/Fluid caucus as someone trying to better understand the feelings of same-gender attraction. Ultimately I didn't find myself identifying within that community but it was one of the stepping stones that led me to recognize Polyamory was feasible in the real world and to finding my own Queer identity. 

Some more background: An identity caucus is an event at MBLGTACC, and possibly other queer conferences, that allows members of a particular identity group to get together and talk about issues relevant to their group. At some conferences caucuses are closed, which means that only members of the identifying group can enter, and some are open which means that people not of that group can enter. In the past closed caucuses have had problems with people of color being visually assessed for group membership which led to a reassessment of how caucuses should be held. As far as I'm aware this was not the reasoning behind having open caucuses this year at MBLGTACC, it was a public relations calculation. That means that regardless of the validity of allies being in caucuses generally the open caucuses this year were sleazy.

To get down to the meat of the issue what really needs to be discussed is the role of allies in queer space,  more generally in what could be considered member-only spaces when talking about other communities. Let me start by breaking down the background.

First off, there is something incredibly wrong with the fact that I've had the opportunity to speak at an Ally March but no pride marches because there aren't any where I live. I won't take back anything I've said about the value of allies, and more importantly (to me) I won't break my rule of making a post specifically about my campus (and for that matter I'm not that big a fan of corporate-choreographed pride marches to begin with). What is an issue is that the role of allies in many queer spaces is given more emphasis than the actual queer people those spaces are supposed to be designed for. Secondly, when I was a straight ally at MBLGTACC I was completely obnoxious. Someone had informed pre-feminist-me about the existence of something called "conference sex" and as someone that hadn't discovered feminism yet I felt entitled to it and definitely made some people uncomfortable with flirting. I took up time at the Bi/Pan/Fluid caucus trying to sort out my own issues instead of listening and allowing people that couldn't do their sorting elsewhere to wait. If I could go back and yell at myself I'd do it. If anyone that attended that caucus reads this, I'm sorry.

I believe that allies have an important role to play, despite valid criticisms from the Queer community about how they're playing that role and disagreement over whether that role really exists. That role does not grant additional privileges from the community. You do not say 100 supportive things to LGBT people and earn access to some kind of super secret life bonuses. You can't be-a-decent-human-being yourself into being an honorary Queer. Why not? Because what allies express when they say they should be able to enter queer spaces or use reclaimed language IS privilege. Those things they're asking for aren't things that communities are obligated to hand out to everyone that hangs around long enough, they're resources that members of the in-group fought their whole lives and often died for. Safe spaces are still new. Safe spaces in which a police officer can come onstage and introduce her partner, like MBLGTACC, are radically new. For allies to see something shiny that we've only managed to pick up for a tiny fraction of the time our movements have existed and insist that they, the people who have always had safe spaces, always had the right to speak openly about whatever they thought, and already have the 23 hours a day and 364 days not dedicated to an identity caucus, deserve a chance to hold it is not only wrong, it's vile. It doesn't matter how nice my gold dollar looks to a millionaire, I don't owe them any time with it. I was never owed the time that I took from the caucus I sat in on as an ally.

When you become an ally to a community your goal should be eliminating the privileges you already have, not keeping them when you're outside the community's line of sight and claiming to deserve equal time when you're in it. Your responsibility when you are in a space set aside for a group you aren't a part of is to listen and, more importantly, to leave if you're asked to. Everywhere else you can go in the world you get to talk, to claim that you're being oppressed by not being able to speak in a single room is the height of privileged vanity. Having lost ten minutes of time with people I could truly identify with and might never see again to someone that seemed to have just wandered in by mistake is enough to make me frustrated and angry as a Polyamorist. Some of the groups in other caucuses have experiences that, quite realistically, cannot be talked about in front of members of the group responsible for their oppression. To assert that your own presence is more important than the feelings of safety of the other people around you, or to assert as MBLGTACC's planning coalition did, that the inclusion of allies is important enough for public relations that those feelings don't need to be considered, is disgusting. They aren't the actions of anyone that should be allowed to consider themselves an ally to a community.

So I would say to my friend, "Don't hate it when allies talk in your caucus. An ally wouldn't talk."

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