Back in the day, when I was just a newly-out, wee, little, baby queer, we used the code word “family” to talk about LGBTQ folks. As in, “Oh, he’s cute, is he ‘family?’”
I sometimes still hear that term, but I have noticed that it is far less common today. Back then, in my baby queer days, I longed to find that magical LGBTQ family. I thought this family would pluck me out of my mundane teenage existence and take me away to a place where I felt affirmed and loved all the time.
I had this beautiful image in my mind of what the gay community must be like; I conjured up a society which totally accepted each other. In my imagination, these were people who lived their lives based on ideals of connection and kindness. Now that I have been immersed in the LGBTQ world for well over half my life, I look around and feel nostalgic for the innocent hope I once carried in my heart.
Today, instead of dreaming of an imaginary perfect queer community, I find myself wondering, why do we, LGBTQ folks, often treat each other like garbage? Now, of course I am not talking about all of us. I am sure that you, dear reader, are truly made of rainbows, sunshine and kindness. But in case you haven’t noticed, we in the LGBTQ community can be rather awful. I am under no illusion that the mistreatment of one another is unique to this time period, or even to our region. It did not emerge with social media or even with Grindr, and it isn’t limited to one geographic location. We queer folks long ago mastered the art of throwing shade and tearing each other down. Have you ever stopped to wonder why?
Why are our people so prone to lateral aggression and horizontal violence? In both of these social phenomena, oppressed peoples target those within their own oppressed communities, instead of lashing out against their oppressors. Instead of forming alliances with one another, we who find ourselves as targets, often learn to target those closest to us. We, LGBTQ folks, are experts at drawing lines of exclusion and splintering our own communities.
My theory is that we often conflate social justice with pie. We look around and we know that we want to find justice and equality in our own lives. We also think that we want this for the lives of others. However, on some subconscious level, we fear that if these “others” experience equality we might not get as much.
When the “others” are assumed to be a lot like us, but are not exactly similar to us, we start to become extremely possessive about our piece of pie. We can easily become convinced that if someone else’s piece is too big, ours won’t be big enough. Here’s an example: a white cisgender gay man over 50, who has experienced oppression, might come to believe in this idea of pie and convince himself that he is fully entitled to a big piece. He might argue that he fought for that pie, maybe he was kicked out of the military for it, perhaps he “acted up” in the 1980s for that pie, or he watched his loved ones die without ever tasting that sweet, delicious pie.
He put his life on the line, this is true, but what happens when a non-binary, queer, 20-year-old person of color who uses “they/them” pronouns shows up and also needs some pie? Are these two hypothetical individuals likely to form an alliance with one another, or will they fear each other more than they fear those who aim to harm them both? The pie is an illusion, but the oppression is very real. Does the first person’s life struggle negate the fact that trans-identified people of color are more likely to face violence than others in our community? Or could varying experiences of oppression lead all of us to deeper engagement with one another and possibly life-saving activism?
As long as we continue looking around at our community and finding excuses for exclusion instead of places of connection, we perpetuate harm. Once we begin the “not my problem” litany, we step into the slippery slope of dehumanization. Lateral aggression and horizontal violence make it impossible for us to see the very real human need for connection. Yet here is where it gets even more tricky. It is not enough to say “it is all the same struggle,” because it is not all the same.
Ignoring diversity does not create equality, it just silences the voices that are courageous enough to be different. We must find a way to thrive in that in-between space, neither proclaiming that our struggles are the same, nor falling into the apathy where another’s journey seems irrelevant to us. It is in that sacred in-between place that we live into solidarity.
With solidarity we don’t have to journey the same path as one another. We don’t have to all look, speak, or identify the same way. But we do have to give up the fear that we might not have enough pie.
Rev. Jakob Hero-Shaw is the Senior Pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Tampa, MCCTampa.com. He and his husband are the proud fathers of two wonderful children.