by: Mason Strand
On a night not long ago, I was out at a bar with quite a few of my good friends, dancing the night away at one of the most blissfully queer events I’d been to in a while. The one damper on the evening was that, because the party happened to be held at a bar that usually catered more to straight bachelorette parties, several of the usual clientele wandered in throughout the night, standing around looking confused, or sneering at the glorious freak show on display. As it got later, and I got drunker, their presence seemed to me more and more of an intrusion. In my need to blow off a little of that steam, but unable to actually confront anyone, I did what any self-respecting Millennial would have done: I drunk posted on Facebook. The status: “Straight people you are, at best, extemporaneous here. GTFO.” Feeling drunkenly vindicated, I moved on with my evening and forgot about the status.
Apparently I was the only one. The first couple of comments were semantic in nature (the word I was going for was extraneous – oops!), and a small discussion on that ensued with me admitting my mistake. A few of my friends liked the status, a couple commented that they disliked it, and that seemed to be the end of it. However, in the last couple of days, several of my friends have brought it up to me, and I’ve gotten into a few extensive discussions about the who, what, when, and why of that comment– some also unfriended me, which is their right, but if you’re going to unfriend me because I offended you, please tell how & why first.
I think this is a situation that many queer people can relate to, so I’m going to detail the reasons why I have defended the posting of this status, what exactly it means, and what it most certainly doesn’t mean. The status hurt people’s feelings. I feel badly about that, and though I realize that people’s reactions are entirely their own, it wasn’t my intent, and I think those feeling are misplaced. What I was expressing, in that instant, is complicated.
As a queer person, moving throughout the world is often fraught with unsafe situations. I think the first lesson I learned as a little queer child was to hide who I was. I lived in a small town, and Matthew Shephard was killed right before I entered high school, so I knew what could happen if I wasn’t constantly on my guard. Many years later, when I moved home for a while to take care of a sick parent, I started lifting weights and running so that if one of the nightly bar fights in my town happened to involve one of my gay friends, I could defend them. Is everyone from my hometown a homophobe? Nope. Is it safe for me to just assume that everyone is a good, accepting person? Experience tells me no. Sometimes erring on the side of caution can save your life. Being strong still makes me feel safer, and it makes me feel like I can defend those that I love, if I have to. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to give people more of the benefit of the doubt, but there is still a measure of distrust every time I meet a new straight person. If I’m meeting them through a friend, I always ask, “are they cool?” The implicit meaning: are they going to endanger the psychological or physical well being of our queer family?
One of the questions that came up more than once in discussing the status was, “well, what if so and so straight friend had been with you? Would they have been unwelcome?” I think the important fact here is that my straight friends weren’t there, and that wasn’t a coincidence. None of them had expressed any interest. The people hosting the event were people they had never heard of (fanboy moment: OMG, dude, the guys from OriginalPlumbing are finally hosting a party in Chicago!), and their desire for my company didn’t extend to trekking halfway across the city to dance half the night away with a bunch of strange queers. And you know what? That’s perfectly fine. I have a queer social life that rarely overlaps with the social life I share with my straight friends. This is not a forced separation – we simply have different interests.
For example, all of my queer friends know who Billy Castro is. I’d be shocked if any of the straight ones did. My straight friends are, of course, basically always welcome at the various queer-themed events I attend, but the fact remains that there are times when we need to gather under an identity marker. If you as a straight person find that offensive and demand an invite, your desire to be there only indicates your inability to acknowledge your own privilege. It isn’t about being divisive. It’s about respecting the fact that power relationships exist whether you are consciously re-creating them or not. This is why I respect when queer people of color, or lesbian trans women, or my girlfriend and her best girl-friends ask for their own space. It isn’t an insult to me – it’s about connecting along identity lines that I don’t share and would probably disrupt. Privilege is not something you can turn off. It is, however, something you can seek to acknowledge, and one way of doing this is listening when your friends tell you that they need space, and above all, believing them.
I was told repeatedly, when discussing the situation with my friends, that I should have given context to my comment. Leaving aside the fact that it was a Facebook status (and thus classically free of context), I can admit that my language was harsh. But I won’t apologize for it. Another reality that people need to respect is that members of oppressed communities operate differently in the world because of their different relation to power. The straight people at that bar may have meant absolutely no harm, but their presence was a reminder that because this place wasn’t “marked” queer, and thus a place that broskies avoid, there was the distinct possibility that anyone could walk in and feel the need to “defend their territory.”
You need only look at the bashings that happened at QSC at Archie’s a few months ago to realize what a harsh and constant threat this is for queer folks. I was accused in this situation, and have been in the past, of unfairly generalizing straight people into one homogeneous, bad-intentioned group; that this was no better than the bigotry so often aimed at queer people. But the fact is, my generalizing is not about claiming that every straight person is bad or ill-intentioned, but rather the reality that I can never know whether one of these strangers want to beat the shit out of me. I don’t dislike straight people at all, but for my own protection, I am wary of those that I don’t know. I can give context to the situation: did some of the patrons act in a manner that warranted my comments? Yes. Should I have to offer that as an explanation? I don’t think so.
I think it should be taken for granted by my straight friends that I know better than they do what it is like to move through this world as a queer person, and to know that this fact could cost my jobs, friends, and my physical well-being. Sometimes the result of this constant need to stay alert is anger, and I think when that happens, that anger is warranted. Oppression is a physical stressor, one that weighs on you in ways that you eventually learn to almost ignore, and yet it is always present, and always a part of your psyche. I walk around with the knowledge that there are people in this world that want me dead, simply because I’m living the life I want to lead. That changes you as a person, in subtle but significant ways.
Finally, the discussions touched on the tone of my language; that saying “get the fuck out” was overly harsh. I felt that my language was very specific to the time and place. I expressed my desire for straight people to leave the space I was in when none of my straight friends were there, and the strangers that were there had acted in a manner that made me feel unsafe. You don’t have to believe my account of how I felt, although I think that makes you not a very good ally. You can ask me for context, and you can police my language, telling me when and where my anger is appropriate, but that’s called derailing, and it’s also not a very good way to be an ally. I know a lot of this may be hard to hear. When I was first learning, as a white person, to be a good ally, I had a hard time hearing a lot of the things that people of color wanted to tell me.
I can also acknowledge that I am still learning. While this situation, and the power relations, are not nearly the same, I think that the guidelines for being a good ally still apply. When I talk about my frustration with straight people, sometimes it will not come out perfectly. But it isn’t personal. I need you to believe me when I tell you it isn’t personal, and I need you to be there for me and acknowledge that it is coming from a place of hurt, the scope of which is larger than our friendship. In return, I promise to listen to you, to believe you when you feel a sense of oppression and mistrust that seems to pervade the very air that you breathe. Being an ally as well as a friend, and acknowledging that we all have a different and unique part in this struggle, is how we build a truly strong and powerful community.
Mason Strand is an aspiring film editor whose ultimate dream is to work on queer films with a group of awesome, progressive people. Strand has a B.A. in film and an M.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies, both from DePaul University. During his day job, he teaches school kids about walking and biking safety (which is a pretty damned good gig), and in his free time, he explores Chicago on his bike, seeks out queer dance parties and searches for his next seasonal beer obsession. He identifies as ftm and queer.
 While this article is specifically addressing the queer part of my identity (a privilege since I am white and able to “pass” as male), I do not assume that because a person is queer or LGBT that they do not hold problematic views – there are many other intersections of identity that factor in, including race, gender, gender identity, ability, and religion, just to name a few.