It’s easy to confuse representation with showcasing. The former builds a platform for the marginalised, the latter marginalises. Representation is difficult to get right because the same techniques can be used to showcase; it’s a difference in attitude. Representation is casual, understated. Normal. Representation doesn’t educate because representation happens without exposition; we need education for that.
I don’t know where the notion that queer people just taking up space will teach tolerance came from, but that’s not how this works. Visibility doesn’t teach anything. Visibility demands a response, and that response can be anything. Sure, it might prompt people to go learn more. It might also prompt people to throw bricks at us. From an activist’s standpoint, staying visible is necessary because it keeps people active about the issues we face. But it activates everyone that cares, for good or ill.
“Don’t you think the kids would benefit from seeing you in the school? I mean, you can’t expose them to all this while working in a pub. Don’t you think you’re letting the side down a little for leaving it?” said the boring old white man that stopped in for a pint.
" IT WAS QUICKLY MADE CLEAR I WAS MARRYING A WOMAN, AND THEN CAME THE HOMOPHOBIA..."
He drew me into a conversation with talk of weddings; my brain is thoroughly stuck in planning mode so I indulged him. It was quickly made clear I was marrying a woman, and then came the homophobia: he didn’t think we needed LGBTQIA+ in the curriculum. Apparently me just being there was education enough.
And actually, I can understand why he thinks that. I remember when I first went to work wearing my engagement ring. It actually took a week before any of the children asked me about it. It took almost a month before they voiced heteronormative assumptions that I had to set straight. Valuable? Absolutely. But not a basis for a curricular programme.
Teachable moments are wonderful. Concrete links to learning are perfect. If you have a queer person on staff that is willing to share bits about themselves, that’s awesome. But I would rather my education not be at the mercy of the staff that happen to be there, their willingness to share and whatever particular brand of queer they happen to be. Exposure through visibility is not education.
“I have no obligation to be a living example of anything to anyone,” I replied. He backed off.
Disclosure is a difficult tool to use properly. The first rule of any support or educator type role is to keep the child, client, patient or victim at the centre of the discussion. Disclosing information as a practitioner is a powerful concrete link, but it also inherently takes the focus away from where it should be. Demanding that queer members of staff disclose their queerness as part of their job simply isn’t best practice.
In my earlier example of disclosure, there are a few key details worth pointing out. First, I waited for them to talk to me about it. Sure, I wore my engagement ring. That’s normal. I didn’t announce my engagement to the children I worked with. That would be inappropriate: my relationship with them isn’t about me. Second, I confronted their assumptions as they voiced them. They asked me what his name was, I said it was a her. I didn’t give more information than what they asked for, and I only cleared up what was necessary. Finally, I kept the things I felt unsafe about sharing to myself. I didn’t go on to discuss my vulnerabilities, my other queer statuses, whatever else might complicate what superficially was a lesbian engagement. They learned what I felt safe to share.
We can’t be living examples to the unqueer, or even to other queer folks, because it breaks all the rules of good practice. Visibility is only healthy when it’s normalised and within the boundaries of the individual; to demand full disclosure only serves to victimise the minority. Others disclosing things about my protected traits for me makes my work environment unsafe. It makes my life unsafe. We don’t even out people sat in the same support group: we assume. It’s up to them to out themselves by association or through discussion, and there is no expectation to do so.
We can’t educate hate away. It doesn’t work. The people in charge of hate groups are highly educated, well positioned people. If education ended hate, they wouldn’t be where they are. Representation doesn’t end hate either: it activates people. As a positive force, it shows people that we’re about. It shows queer folks who are unable to share that they aren’t alone. As a negative, it motivates those who hate to hate more. Education and representation does more good than harm, but those things don’t solve the problems.
"IT MIGHT NOT ERASE HATE, BUT IT WILL PREDISPOSE PEOPLE TO TOLERANCE BY ELIMINATING THE FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN FROM THE EQUATION."
Saying that, I want a curricular solution to exposing young people to queerness. I want one because we can discuss all of it whether or not we have an example. I want one because we can make sure everyone is aware we’re about. It might not erase hate, but it will predispose people to tolerance by eliminating the fear of the unknown from the equation. And I’ll be more than happy to deliver that curriculum.
I also want an LGBTQIA+ curriculum because it shields me from what that boring old white man (I might start using an acronym for that: BOWM) wants: my continued victimisation and othering at the hands of society. I know he doesn’t understand that, but that’s what he wants. People that expect me to interrupt my life, my job, my night out to explain some aspect of queer are equating me to a Victorian freak show attraction; my life becomes my strange for the benefit of others. My queer becomes all I am. I become an object of public consumption. I stop being human.
This is why the right to privacy is so important, and why queer rights include the right of disclosure. If we are to be viewed as human beings with complex needs, we need to be allowed to share on our own terms. If we are to be socio political equals with the BOWM, we need to be just as boring. Or at least, our queerness needs to be as boring as their old, white maleness. In this context, being dull is a privilege.