I entered the Toyota Camry a confident gay man; I exited it a confidant man still, but one whose gayness had been put to the test.
“There are lots of things to do in Chicago,” my Uber driver said. “A lot of places. A lot of cultures. A lot of girls.”
I forced a smile and put my iPhone down. I loved girls. But as someone who had just Googled “Justin Trudeau feminist hunk of my dreams”, I did not want to do girls.
My Uber driver, David, had a soft smile and drove with both hands on the wheel. He went to the University of Michigan to get his undergraduate degree in Pre-Dental Studie. , he listened with genuine interest as I talked about eating disorders and minority mental health. Looking back on the drive, I almost know I could have corrected him – actually, I’m attracted to men, for better or worse – and he most likely would have apologized before continuing our friendly conversation.
But there’s a chance he could have been homophobic, and I would have been trapped in the car of a random man in a city I knew almost nothing about. There’s a chance he could have given me a bad rating at the end of our Uber ride, one star for my unfortunate preference for penises (let’s face it, penises are just not that pretty.) There’s a chance he could have stopped talking, that the momentum of our conversation would have collapsed into a dead, stony silence.
So I said nothing. When he pulled up to the curb of my hotel, I thanked him for our fun, thoughtful talk. As I walked into the main lobby and saw him driving out, I wondered if he imagined me going to graduate school in Chicago, if he pondered whether I would do a lot of girls.
I wonder if I should have spoken up. As a gay man – and as a peer educator, an African American, and an ally and advocate for intersectionality – I feel an intrinsic responsibility to correct heteronormative assumptions, to stand up for what I believe in. Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” David might not have killed me by assuming I liked girls in a romantic way, but he did erase my gayness, an important part of my identity. And I had done nothing to stop him. Building on Hurston’s quote, Paulo Freire, in the first chapter of his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, says that “the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed [is] to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” If no one from the oppressed group speaks up, how will they survive? I recall many of the great social justice movements in American history, and while allies played an essential part in those, I question whether such monumental change would have occurred if not for the uprising of the oppressed themselves.
But should marginalized groups really bear the responsibility of enlightening others when they already hold the burden of surviving racism, homophobia, ableism, etc.? Speaking up can siphon your emotional resources. It can force you to disclose something about yourself you may feel uncomfortable sharing. When I find myself in an all-white or predominantly white classroom, and no one pays attention to minority individuals in my readings, I say something – and while I love doing that, I love doing other things too, like contributing comments about scientific methodology or concepts like compassion and empathy. Audre Lord puts it well in Sister Outside: Essays and Speeches, when she writes that “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” This expectation of representing and advocating for certain aspects of our identity we may not even feel in touch with marginalizes us further – it detracts from our self-compassion.
As a double minority, I find myself stretched even further. How much do I advocate for African Americans? How much do I advocate for queer people? Intersectionality complicates the equation, as does taking into account other silenced voices. How much do I advocate for men who have experienced disordered eating? Or African Americans who have experienced trauma? These questions weigh on me often: as someone who cares a lot about mental health in minority communities, I push myself and push myself to think: is this enough? Am I doing enough? Am I enough?
The bottom line when it comes to whether we have a responsibility to advocate, to speak up: it depends. As a future parent, I want to give a clear cut answer, that you have to speak up in X circumstance or you never have to speak out if Y occurs. But it depends on a lot of factors. It depends on how much the oppressor is willing to listen and to admit wrongdoing, as well as how much they have already sought to educate themselves. It depends on whether you feel like speaking up will empower you or whether it will drain you, if you have the self-care strategies to handle the latter. It depends on whether you feel safe in that very moment.
When I think back on that Chicago Uber ride, I think about all the ways I could have responded to David’s statement. I could have said “what about boys? Are there any boys in Chicago? Particularly well-read, compassionate, feminist boys?” I could have said “well, is Ariana Grande one of those girls? Because I love her. Like, more than life.” I could have said “well, look, I’m not interested in girls because I’m gay. And if that doesn’t sit well with you, I’m going to step out of this car and find another ride.”
But I didn’t say any of that. I could have said something; I could have done more. But he could have done more, too, by checking his assumptions, by educating himself. We can all do more. We are all privileged in some way. The question then, the one with no clear answer, the one we must each figure out for ourselves: how much doing – how much advocacy, speaking up, and service – is enough?
Thoughts on any of the ideas presented in this post? I am growing and I am learning, so I would love to hear your perspectives. Hope you are all doing well.