If Inclusion Demands Visibility, Count Me Out
What does inclusion look like for the invisible? I posed the question on social media, knowing a few campaigners on my feed might rise to it. They disappointed me with their answers: visibility. So to them, inclusion doesn’t exist for the invisible. Thing is, that’s not what inclusion is, nor is it what inclusive policies do. I’m wondering if my friends are really thinking this through.
Actual inclusion doesn’t demand anything of the individual. All it really does is foster a social responsibility to include minorities of whatever sort. When working properly, it does this without singling minorities out, and that’s where my contacts seem to miss the point. Inclusion is about shaping things like government policy to automatically include those that are commonly forgotten or actively excluded. It’s about undermining privilege. If these things are working as intended, then it doesn’t matter how much people know about me because the thing will simply include everyone.
So why are folks that teach this stuff telling me that inclusion demands visibility when actually, true inclusion means nobody is singled out? If an inclusive society just includes everyone regardless, then nobody actually has to be visibly anything: they’re included regardless. And yet their responses were quite clear: visibility meant inclusion; there was no inclusion for the invisible.
What troubles me about this enforced visibility, beyond the fact that it’s not what inclusion means, is that the majority of us don’t actually want to be out there, visible and resisting. Most of us are happy to get on with our lives and quietly contribute to broader society. I say most of us but the truth is we don’t know. The folks in the woodwork are in the woodwork! They are an unknown number that we assume are legion, but we can’t be sure.
I’m not receding into the woodwork because I lack inclusion. My fiancée knows my status, as does my family. My boss and colleagues all know; some of the customers know. It’s not exactly woodworking at that point, is it? Except it’s not a topic of discussion. If I raise it, then everyone is happy to chat about the issues I’m facing or ask me questions about my experience. Thing is, I never bring it up: I’m receding into the woodwork because I prefer it that way. Another way to see it is I’m included, so I see no reason to bring that specific detail about me into focus. I’m receding into the woodwork because of inclusion.
"WHEN SOMEONE ISN’T IN AN INCLUSIVE SPACE, THEY HAVE SOME DIFFICULT CHOICES TO MAKE."
When someone isn’t in an inclusive space, they have some difficult choices to make. The most debilitating consequence of visibility without true inclusion is the constant othering. Non inclusive spaces create a paradox: I can exclude myself by outing myself or I can be excluded by those around me. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. I’m excluded either way through othering, internal or external. I get to suffer regardless.
If no matter what happens you get to feel out of place, then why not just be visible all the time? Well, that was my initial strategy. I was open and visible all the time. But as things wore on and I tired of repeating the same few things, over and over again. I got to the point where I would avoid people because I couldn’t cope with describing the various aspects of identity to half the people I came across. I even ate a raw habañero chilli to get out of telling my future father-in-law what I thought of whatever banal Channel Four documentary on queerness was on TV. It was very painful but so was the conversation.
Being open and visible in queer circles traps you into this space that lost its appeal for me a while ago. I like seeing euphoric friends and I want them to feel they can come to me when they’re struggling with what they are, but maintaining close ties to that world means being constantly caught in the same three or four conversation loops. We’re all so much more than our queerness. I understand that finding oneself is a major project that dominates life for a while, but it’s not dominating my life anymore and I’m ready to move on.
The truth is I’m bored. I’m bored of being the educator, I’m bored of being on display, and I’m bored of being caught in a conversation that ran its course for me some while ago. I don’t want to be visible anymore. I don’t want to have that awkward coming out conversation; if being excluded means I never have to have that conversation again, I’m happy. In a truly inclusive space, I wouldn’t ever have to.
That’s what activists fail to see when they tell me that visibility is the only way. Actually, visibility is a symptom of a society that excludes people. We will never get to that ideal world and there will always be times where people need to come out. My ‘coming out’ moments are medical these days: I need a label to effectively communicate certain things about my health in a medical setting; basically every time they ask me how I know I’m not pregnant. Otherwise, it’s just not relevant.
And that’s the thing, there are a lot of folk like me that activists simply fail to represent. Whenever I write what I privately call ‘queer fatigue’ stories like this one, I get emails and comments from many readers echoing my frustration. Folks happily in the woodwork that have needs too but are bombarded with messages from LGBTQ+ orgs to come out and be seen. It would be nice to be told that we’re all doing a decent job of getting by in our lives. It would be great to be told that we’re not part of the problem. That actually, our invisibility is evidence that we are included; evidence of their success.
The activist’s adage that inactivity abets the enemy alienates people in the woodwork. It sends a clear message that using the inclusive space being created is somehow morally wrong. But if it’s morally wrong, why fight for it at all? Something's not right. I’ve met several folks in the woodwork that spent the first few minutes of our conversation offering me an explanation for why they aren’t visible. Why should they feel they have to do that? They’re using the space activists are fighting to have! It reminds me of Lenin claiming large houses ‘for the people’ then forbidding anyone from living in them.
"..I WANT NO PART OF A MOVEMENT THAT DICTATES MY BOUNDARIES TO ME, THEN VILIFIES ME IF I DON’T COMPLY."
The toxic attitude activists have towards the countless people they should be embracing is disgusting. We have no idea how many folks are in the woodwork, and we won’t know if we keep telling them they are part of the problem. Activists should actually be creating a space so safe that we will never know. A big part of my own withdrawal is to do with activists making such comments; I want no part of a movement that dictates my boundaries to me, then vilifies me if I don’t comply. I get enough of that just existing in the world and I don’t need to sign up for more.
It creates a state of anarchic ambivalence: I want to resist. I want to be part of what makes the world better, and whatever else can be said about the movement, it has made the world better. But their structures aren’t welcome. I would love a place at the table, but nobody’s created a place I can sit. My solution is to do my best to keep this outlet separate from my private life. So far so good; we’ll see how that goes.
I’m privileged enough to be in a near universally inclusive setting. I’m privileged enough to have a choice: invisibility is not a necessity. That privilege is created partially from the oppressive systems we’re seeking to undermine but also from the progressive changes fostered by the same activists that insist visibility is the only way to be included. Their efforts afford me the freedom to be partially in the woodwork, to not come out explicitly, to be out but not open. I’m not part of the problem for exercising my freedoms; not all of us want the existence being sold to us.