Grocery shopping is seen as a chore for most, so it is crucial to identify the products you want to buy quickly as you walk down the supermarket aisle. Because of this the consistency of the shapes, colors, sizes and textures of products will make your life easier. Ask any marketing aficionado how successful a specific female-shaped bottle of maple syrup is, and how sweet it makes your morning pancakes.
The branding of objects has seen benefits throughout our history, from defining the artistic movements throughout the ages like the Renaissance, the baroque period or Pop art to understanding the difference between a rose and a tulip. This differentiation can be a life or death situation when diagnosing an ailment which requires specific treatment and care. Labels are useful, because when we talk about objects, it is key to discriminate between what speaks to you and what does not. The discriminatory nature of our brains allows us to make sense of our physical worlds, and in that context, deciding when to stop searching for additional information and commit to a choice becomes an organic chore.
Now, when we talk about humans and the many languages, colors and idiosyncrasies we bring, the need to label each other becomes much more complex. As history has shown us, our perceived identities and differences have been under fire for thousands of years.
Whether we are tall or short, male, female, Muslim, elder, African American or LGBTQ; our fundamental urge to find the tribe we belong to brings us to assertively defend what makes us different and conform to what the majority defines as acceptable. However, when we nitpick into the notion of individuality, we end up in a rabbit hole of endless connotations that will continuously vary depending on who you ask. Psychologist Scott Barry Kauffman said in 2012 that “when we split people up into such dichotomous categories, the large variation within each category is minimized whereas differences between these categories are exaggerated.”
In social settings, however, identifying a group of individuals with specific traits allows their circumstances, needs and historic background to become visible, sketching a wedge into what we recognize as the norm. Different from the supermarket aisle, we humans do not need to conform to a specific placement on the shelf or wear a brand on our sleeve. Much to our chagrin, the labeling and relegation of individualistic traits determined by our skin color, size, place of origin, sexual orientation, beliefs or gender identity and expression have created more division in the same community that is supposed to be a haven.
How can members of a community marked by so many phobias and rejection intrinsically mimic the same patterns they have relentlessly received from non-LGBTQ friendly institutions?
The night Romone Bowens went out with his group of mostly male friends, each of whom were dressed in all white, he was hoping for a good time enjoying the bustling nightlife in St. Petersburg. He hopped into his friend’s car and they drove directly to one of the white parties that have become common within the community. As they walked from the parking lot, they approached another group of acquaintances that were waiting for them outside the venue, when one of them jokingly turned to Bowens and asked him: “What are you doing here? This is a White Party!”
As the entourage made their way into the party, and moved on determined to have an amazing evening, Bowens was perplexed by what he considered one of the most racially charged and insensitive remarks towards him in his life, which, coming from an LGBTQ person, made it even more wounding.
For this 31-year-old physical therapist assistant, growing up as an African American gay man was never an issue, as his family and close friends have been his strongest support system. Yet, when this seemingly unconscious comment was blurted out from another gay man, Bowens says he saw this as an opportunity to educate his closest circle of friends. He saw the chance to help his peers to act as better examples for the attainment of true equality.
“I didn’t want to respond aggressively because people respond negatively to that,” Bowens says of the situation, after feeling derogatorily targeted. This action quickly triggered other instances in his past which—being much less poignant, raises the question of whether we, as a community, must begin to represent, rather than preach, the equity we seek for ourselves in the smaller, everyday acts.
Stories like these, of either conscious or unconscious microaggressions against generally marginalized groups, have not exactly dwindled in today’s perceived openness on the subject. In fact, once you scrape the surface, the viscous reality comes forth showing off its fangs. The topic of race in the country and within the community continues to raise many questions (and eyebrows) from those who refuse to accept or simply dismiss these microaggressions.
Marinette Beltrán, a Puerto Rican sociologist and social worker in the Orlando area, says the main source of any discrimination comes from the relationships of power.
“Each interaction between two individuals always carry a relationship of power,” explains Beltrán, who also paints a broader picture to the source of prejudice and discrimination, pointing specifically to the constructs created by the social patriarchy, from which a great majority of our biases stem.
The decades-long struggle that LGBTQ individuals have fought for recognition and visibility has served as the gate for younger people to live openly and unapologetically today more than ever. However, as part of a minority group, Beltrán says we cannot oust ourselves from the rest of the community at large, surrounded by mainly fundamentalist ideals that threaten our own livelihood. As society is conformed of layers upon layers of particularities, the compartmentalization of societal characteristics doesn’t necessarily disappear when you identify with a minority or specific group. Within the LGBTQ community, there exists a soft discourse that just because you are from one marginalized group that you aren’t capable of marginalizing another community.
Acts of rejection within the LGBTQ community are felt most heavily in the dating arena—the popularization of dating applications made swiping the rule for casual or formal romantic encounters. As Kauffman states, however, it is by minimizing the larger variations in dating apps that the differences within the community are exacerbated.
“I’m not even into black guys, but you are beautiful” is the sort of failed attempt at flattery Bowens has received. The constant objectification of African Americans and Hispanics pushes a burden on individuals that only wish to be accepted as human beings, with no differentiation aspect attached to their sexuality.
“There’s a ton of discrimination in the gay-dating world. We feel invisible. Attraction is based on white male, light-skinned Hispanics,” says Bowens.
Odalis Reyes-Prado, Beltrán’s wife who is also a social worker from Orlando, says that identifying these constant acts of microaggression are helping in the process of deconstructing the face of discrimination within the community itself.
“Because someone is LGBTQ, does not mean he, she or they know about oppression, discrimination or understands how not to fall under the structure of the normative,” she says. For Beltrán, the fact that they belong to a historically oppressed and constantly discriminated group, with heinous acts usually coming from non-LGBTQ identified individuals, does not mean that, amongst ourselves in the community, we will not replicate the behaviors we learned as being “normal.”
Being in a community with a support system is what Christopher Cuevas knows best. Cuevas grew up as the child of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and lived in South Florida surrounded by other immigrant families. Their mother worked as a housekeeper and their father in the fields, like thousands of undocumented working families in the state. The main goal for a marginalized and targeted community, like undocumented people, is to protect each other regardless of genealogy.
“Deportation was always part of the conversation,” Cuevas says. “One person would stay behind to take care of all the children in the community. There was a rotation.” Cuevas mentions that many mothers would stay home and take care of all the children, even from their neighbors, while the rest would go and work, because the threat was the same for everyone. “There was always a need to create community,” they say.
Cuevas identifies as queer, nonbinary; meaning that they do not conform to the binary construct of male or female, nor do they respond to the usual pronouns of “he” or “she,” but rather to “they,” “them” or “their.” This distinction is fundamental for the continuous advancement of human rights and visibility when it comes to gender equality, especially when we deal with the protection of marginalized communities of color.
“Conforming to what society wants can be harmful. We have the freedom to flow. We can resist against very rigid structures if we choose to,” Cuevas says. Today, as the executive director of QLatinx, Cuevas works with the community of Central Florida in the fight for LGBTQ equality, especially the Latinx population. QLatinx was formed after the acts of violence that struck Orlando at Pulse on June 12, 2016. With this initiative, QLatinx keeps bringing support to individuals, as well as other organizations, providing education and guidance when enacting equality policies and nondiscriminatory statutes. One of the main goals for Cuevas is to increase the participation and representation of people of color, and queer Latinx trans folks in leadership spaces.
“There’s a systemic issue where people of color historically do not have representation, and have many education disadvantages,” they say. Being brought up in a Hispanic family in the United States, and within a heavily immigrant population, there was always a massive lack of resources available for them. Additionally, Cuevas never felt represented in the mass media outlets, nor in the increasing institutions that serve underrepresented communities. Even when great strides have been made to create more inclusive, safe spaces for LGBTQ individuals, for Cuevas, there is still more work to be done. Even belonging to the largest minority in the country, they does not feel represented in the media or in the community’s current leadership scene.
“When we talk about policy, and representation in media, everything is predominantly white affluent men,” Cuevas says. This reality makes a striking reference to the conversation on the patriarchal heteronormative and the expression of roles in relationships of power, and for Cuevas it seems like the pattern replicates at every level; that is how deep the patriarchy is imbued within our everyday lives.
Along with the objectification of their race, one aspect that both Cuevas and Bowens spoke about was the fetishization of both the Hispanic and African American communities within the LGBTQ sphere.
“I’ve lost count of how many guys want to meet me, just to fulfill their fetish of being with a black man; and I am a relationship type of guy,” expresses Bowens. The mirror of the systemic discrimination of institutions such as the government, education and worship spaces reflects into a community already wilted by decades of invisibilization and intersectional oppression, shaking up our quilt of intrinsic unity and purpose.
For us to claim our space in society as the responsible value-driven community that we are, we cannot evade how distinct the type of discrimination we have endured and from which those instances of hate come. Just by simply asking respectfully for preferred pronouns, for example, prompts a soothing sense of acknowledgement the community accepts and needs. The choice of whether someone wants to be referred to as a transgender woman, with preferred pronouns they, them and their, does not break any rule, and in the end, that choice remains entirely theirs, not anyone else’s, much less a social institution.
We must grant and recognize that choice for everyone, starting the conversation with those closest to us. Hate-motivated attacks on the LGBTQ+ community continue to happen; five transgender women of color were murdered in the state of Florida in 2018 alone. The number might not be the concern of many, but the target population itself should. As the third-year mark of the Pulse tragedy approaches, the LGBTQ community is compelled to stretch for the longest mile in an effort to attain a more equitable society for all.
The exercise of our freedoms and rights require our greatest endurance, if we are to come out of this race victorious. For that to happen, we need to gather our strengths, but also identify within the community what is bringing it down, to fix those crevices where—intended or unintended—division is seeping through.
The more engaged we become for the needs of the community, the more we learn, and the more we can empathize in favor of the diversity and equality we all deserve. The future might look murky at times, but if we raise the conversation to the level of the institutions, our voice will not be silenced.