(In)Visibility and Privilege

I felt strangely vulnerable as I made my way through the London Underground one evening last September.

I was dressed normally, and I wasn’t carrying anything particularly valuable. But I found myself more than usually alert to my surroundings (more even than the low-grade, background uneasiness common to any woman in a public space). I felt uncomfortably visible.

My feeling of visibility was due to a wristband I was wearing: a mottled purple and pink bit of plastic reading “BISEXUAL.”

I was on my way home from attending a panel on the inclusion and visibility of bisexual people in LGBT spaces, held by the Southwark LGBT Network. The wristbands had been distributed at the meeting.

Wearing one felt like a symbol of solidarity within the meeting space, but in a public space, it felt more like a marker of difference, a potential attractor of danger. I couldn’t help but remember the many stories of LGBT people being assaulted or insulted in public spaces. As I sat quietly in the subway cars or walked down the transfer tunnels, I felt slightly worried that some stranger might see my wristband and confront me.

I took the wristband off when I got back to my flat, relieved to be safe, despite how small I had known the likelihood of any untoward incident to have been, especially in so cosmopolitan a location as central London.

But that short trip was a reminder that, more usually, markers of otherness that often put people at increased risk in public can’t just be taken off at will—somatic markers of difference like possessing a female body, being a person of color, or having a visible disability are far less removable than a wristband. It was also a reminder of my own privilege in contrast with many other LGBT people who are far more visible; it’s a function of our heteronormative culture that in most spaces and situations, I am (at least initially) assumed to be straight.

I’m aware that my relative invisibility as a member of a sexual minority creates social privilege. As someone in a relationship with a member of the opposite sex, I frequently have a great deal of passing privilege.

My most vivid memory from preparing for episode 3.1 of the Christian Feminist Podcast was a moment when I recognized that inequality in privilege between myself and many LGBT people. In that episode (shownotes here, episode here or on iTunes), Victoria Farmer, Laurie Norris, and I discuss third-wave feminism, with a focus on the Riot Grrrl movement as portrayed in Sara Marcus’s book Girls to the Front. In reading for the episode, I enjoyed learning about the riot grrrls’ impassioned rejection of sexist paradigms in both politics and popular culture. Their sometimes tentative and flawed attempts to proclaim their full equality with men in the punk rock scene and in the larger American culture and legal system were characterized by a burning sense of justice that I found inspiring.

But like any feminist movement, riot grrrl groups had some problems with intersectionality, problems that Marcus doesn’t gloss over. She talks about the riot grrrl groups’ issues with racism and classism, and in one section, Marcus describes a lesbian riot grrrl recruit’s efforts to promote greater LGBT inclusion in the movement.

In that section, Marcus writes that the new recruit was dismayed to find that, though the riot grrrls group claimed to be inclusive, most of the girls were just “bisexual with a boyfriend.”

The dismissive phrase struck me strongly, since it’s one that could very well be applied to me. Sitting on my bed in the house where I was visiting my boyfriend’s family, I felt a certain sense of chagrin. The implication seemed to be that the girls weren’t actually a part of the LGBT community, that in some significant way, they didn’t count. That in some significant way, I didn’t count.

In one way, of course, this dismissal or belittling of the girls who were “bisexual with a boyfriend” is wrongheaded. A person “counts” as gay, lesbian, or bisexual because of their perception of their own sexual orientation and their self-identification based on that perception, not because of others’ perceptions or judgments. A celibate lesbian, a gay man in a mixed-orientation marriage, a girl who is bisexual with a boyfriend—all “count” as much as any other self-identified members of the LGBT community.

At the same time, I saw that the lesbian recruit’s attitude toward the other riot grrrls was understandable, since it was based in a recognition of the greater privilege that tends to be accorded to any person in an opposite-sex relationship in contrast with any person in a same-sex relationship.

If I walk into church with my boyfriend, the situation is different than it would be if I were to walk into church with a girlfriend, even though I would be the same person in both cases.

The unfairness of that difference in privilege is one reason that I feel so strongly about Christian teachings on sexual orientation and same-sex relationships.

As I was growing up, because I was able to be attracted to members of the opposite sex, I never had to worry about the negative teachings I heard about gay people (and I never did bother to worry or to question those teachings). Unlike so many other LGBT young persons, I didn’t have to wrestle with myself, wondering if I were broken or mis-created. I was just normal.

Given purity culture’s tendency to condemn any and all sexual  desires outside of heterosexual marriage, it seems somewhat ironic that my possessing a wider range of possible desires should have made me seemingly more acceptable than monosexual gay or lesbian people.

I know that I am no different from them in terms of being capable of desires deemed culpable by traditional Christian teachings. But my experience was extremely different from that of so many LGBT young people who were wounded by the church. The profound unfairness of that difference breaks my heart.

My having had that relatively stress-free childhood and adolescence is like my being able to remove a purple wristband and pass as straight—a function of my personal privilege.

Many other bisexual or pansexual people had a very different experience growing up, and of course many, including those who are also in opposite-sex relationships, have a very different experience of privilege in their adult lives as well. I’m speaking here primarily about my individual experience of privilege.

Yes, I “count” as an LGBT person. Yes, I am aware of my frequent comparative privilege. And yes, and most importantly, we should challenge the heteronormative cultural and religious values and assumptions that create that privilege.

Safety and acceptance shouldn’t be functions of invisibility. We should all work toward a society in which every member is equally safe, accepted, and visible.

[Photo credit: W. E. Jackson via photopin cc (cropped and resized)]

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