I’m a closeted lesbian, but my aunt has known I’m gay for a long time. I never told her and she never asked. She just knew. She’s like that. Super em-pa-thic. A few years ago I told her I was thinking about coming out publicly. I expected her typical open, affirming, supportive response.
“Don’t do that! Why do gay people always feel like they NEED to tell people they are gay? Your sexuality is private. Nobody wants to know. Seriously, don’t do it.”
It would have been easy to say heteronormativity or homophobia were the problem, but that left me unsettled. It was her inability to wrap her head around my need to be open about myself that got me considering something deeper might be going on than those labels describe.
The Privilege Factor
White privilege is a hot topic these days. Privilege is the concept that there are advantages to being of a particular race, sex, or status that the person of privilege is totally unaware of, and which make aspects of life more accessible and easier. Privilege is a complex, invisible system that results in a power differential of one group over another.
The fact that you aren’t aware of all of the ways you have “credit in the bank” creates a phenomena of “universality of experience.” In other words, the world is as I experience it. If you experience it differently there’s something wrong with you.
A quick search on privilege of any sort will bring up lists of external experiences of the privileged—things you can expect to have as an advantage over people without your privilege.(1)
The side of privilege that we aren’t talking about is the internal experience of the privileged. How do the invisible effects of privilege handicap a person’s ability to connect, empathize and understand others that are different from them?
“What the Hell is Water?” Describing the Handicap of Heterosexual Privilege
The impact of heterosexual and cisgender privilege on a person’s ability to connect, empathize and understand the “other” has yet to enter the arena of conversation between heterosexuals and LGBTQ individuals, but it needs to, because it’s been a significant source of violent disconnect between the two.
What might that disconnect feel like on the inside for someone who is a cisgender heterosexual?
Let’s try this anecdote.
There are “two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ and the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”
A person who is cisgendered and heterosexual is likely completely unaware of how their sexual orientation and gender identity impact their reality, because they’ve been swimming in the effects their whole lives. The way these elements weave into the fabric of their being, and influence their experience of life is invisible to them. This is why the LGBTQ experience is so difficult for them to understand.
It makes sense why heterosexuals are often left with a feeling of, “what is wrong with you gay people?” And, homosexuals are left with, “I cannot get through to you. We are on two completely different planets!”
Grace and Putting On My Big-Girl Panties
I am a woman that dreams, gives, loves, serves, and desires to make the world a better place. I have values that matter a great deal to me. Values that I believe do make the world a better place. I also happen to be gay.
And, the heterosexual person sitting across the table from me who would prefer that I don’t exist; who sees me as a danger, an abomination, an infection to all good, wholesome, freedom loving society also has these same human qualities.
Though we may defend evidence to the contrary, because of how we’ve been treated by the ‘other,’ the fundamental truth is we both are people whose existence matters. We both have experience, feelings and beliefs that are valid; we both are ultimately seeking for good.
And, we both have to live, love, work, and worship on this planet together.
And, the real life realities of our conflict are ugly, even deadly in some cases.
And, somebody’s foot has to step into the chasm first. Somebody has to make a move toward empathy, understanding, and equanimity. Somebody has to put on the adult panties first.(2)
Why shouldn’t that somebody be me? Or you?
What would happen if LGBTQ individuals were more consistently willing to come to the table offering grace and patience with the handicap of heterosexual and cisgender privilege?
I don’t know what would happen. What I do know is that when I’m sitting across from that guy who’s telling me “There is something wrong with you!” I can hear, “What the hell is water!?”
This perspective expands me. It has made my heart softer and more resilient. It has allowed me to stay in dialogue when my natural inclinations are to fight or fly.
The conversation will always remain hard, but acknowledging the internal experience of privilege is an invitation to become more curious about the existence of WATER; the waters we swim in, and the waters others swim in, and explore how that water influences our view of the world and others. It’s an invitation to offer grace, one of the ingredients of empathy.
It’s small, and seems insignificant, especially in the face of such overwhelming impasse, but maybe, just maybe, grace is a key that opens doors we couldn’t see before us. Doors that eventually lead to the table where we can commune together, even amongst our differences.
(1) Peggy McIntosh has created an extensive list of white privilege advantages in her paper, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”
(2) I expect to get feedback from LGBTQ folk who are sick and tired of being the ones always “giving grace.” I get it. The real question here is what’s your ultimate objective? If your objective is to leave someone beaten and bloody on the ground, because you’re so %$#@ing mad then by all means put your gloves on. But verbal fistfights, or making someone pay for their ‘ignorance’ never results in a real win. A real win is achieved when a conclusion honors and validates the humanity of all involved. That takes a hell of a lot of work to accomplish, or at least pursue. If your objective is to encourage and foster dialogue then the gloves have to come off, and somebody has to take off the gloves first. Taking off your gloves means that a nose punch, or worse is probably inevitable. That’s why an expansion of perspective is so important. It fosters resilience, disconnection from personalizing attacks, and a softer heart. It’s through dialogue that we have any hope of coming to conclusions that honor the humanity of everyone. To engage in dialogue an effort towards empathy is required, and grace is a critical ingredient of empathy. This one effort of infusing grace into our conversations seems like small change, but by small and simple things are great things brought to pass. It’s either true, or it’s not. I believe it’s true.
I have always felt that it is important to remember how someone else is feeling is real to them. Whether how they feel is good, correct, etc. isn’t really the most important part. That it is real for them is important to remember. So you can then move forward correctly is what’s the most important thing. I think you expressed that well in this post.
As the guy on the other side of the table, thank you for taking me somewhere I have never been before. I guess what is water helps me to know there are differences other than the obvious and for me to be more patient, more accepting of others points of view and being able to listen longer without fear. I look forward to your future posts.
Don, you’re a gem. I’ll sit at the table with you anytime.
It just never occurred to me that we weren’t all in the same water and that we didn’t all recognize the water. I hadn’t been privy to the whole privilege topic but in the last couple of years have been trying to give a name to something that I have wanted to understand. Privilege is it and it explains many things to me in many areas. A relief, the whole article is a relief and helpful!
Thank you for this generous and perceptive perspective.
I read it twice. And will refer to yor article again. Soooooooo smart you are.
A real win is, indeed, honoring the humanity and the heart of everyone. Gender, race or socioeconomic status fall away when we truly “see” the soul of every being. It’s an honor to know the soul of this author.
That David Foster Wallace speech you linked to should be canonized. I love the idea of staying at the table even though it’s difficult.