by Rachel Sparling
Before we start this conversation, I want to acknowledge that I am currently on the Haldimand Tract, the territory of the Neutral, Anishnaabe, and Haudenosaunee people. My home is in Mi’kma’ki, the unceded land of the Mi’kmaq people.
For those of us who are settlers, take a moment before we continue to reflect on the spaces you’re in. Are Indigenous people represented? Is anti-colonial work happening? Whether these reflections are new to you or not, it’s vital to continue learning, listening, and building anti-colonial practices into every level of your organization, group, and life.
Lastly, as we enter this space together, it’s important to understand that this article is written from my positionality as a white, able-bodied, queer and genderqueer settler.
On the first day of my degree, every time I start a new job, or join a new volunteer group, I walk in and my eyes immediately scan the room. I’m looking for people who look like me; people who don’t quite align with rigid western ideas of gender. I know that if they’re present, it’s probably safe for me to be present, in all my gender nonconformity, too.
But, most of the time, it’s just me. Most of the time, I’m the only person who looks visibly queer or gender nonconforming, which means I need to make a snap decision. Do I want to share my pronouns and be myself, or if I should pretend that I’m someone that I’m not? In that moment, I don’t know if my queerness will cost me connection, belonging, opportunities, or my job because of the conscious and unconscious bias that exists in even the most well-intending of spaces.
Sometimes there won’t be any out gender diverse people, but I’ll see that they have language or stickers that promise queer inclusion, so I’ll take the risk and bring my whole self into that space. On the odd occasion, it works out well, and I’m supported and get to be the out queer person who signals to others that this is a safe place to be themselves.
It doesn’t usually go that well though. The stickers and vague language are often virtual signalling by otherwise well-meaning groups. When this happens, I’ve been met with a barrage of people debating the validity of clients’ queer identities, questioning the fluidity of gender, or demanding that I change aspects of my gender expression because it’s an affront to their conservative clientele. When this happens, I’m alone in having to decide if it’s worth the risk to stand up for myself and if I can financially walk away from the job if things go south.
Each of these experiences taught me that safety is something I have to look carefully for, and it’s often contingent on if there are others like me in this space.
In The Body is Not An Apology, Sonya Rene Taylor writes, “When we don’t see ourselves reflected in the world around us, we make judgements about that absence. Invisibility is a statement.” For me, that statement is that we don’t belong, that there is limited opportunity and a limited future in our communities if we don’t fit into western ideas of gender. And by extension, this means that I must fragment myself into bite-sized pieces so that I’m palatable enough for the cis and heteronormative world around me.
This cycle of queer erasure is often reinforced in very subtle ways. On the surface level, many spaces will tout queer-inclusive values such as anti-discrimination policies and gender-inclusive forms without doing the serious reflection and integration needed to create places that are genuinely inclusive of queerness and gender diversity. In most cases, we’re welcomed in theory, but not in practice. When we are present in workplaces, we are often tolerated at best, which in turn pushes us out as we are forced to compress our identities to fit cis-hetero expectations.
Despite having written all of this about the importance of seeing queer and gender-diverse people in our work and community spaces, it’s important to remember that queerness doesn’t have a particular look. It’s not something you can necessarily see, and presenting a certain way does not make someone more or less queer. After all, even the idea of queerness changes with each generation and each culture.
But, those of us who are gender diverse or visibly gender non-conforming are still rarities in organizations, especially at the leadership level, which is truly a loss for everyone. When gender diversity isn’t present in a workplace, you miss out on our unique worldviews and the way that our presence signals to others that it’s okay to be visible and it’s okay to explore what gender means to you. So while not all queerness is visible, there’s still power in ensuring that those who are visibly queer are represented, seen and supported.
Despite writing so much about visible queer inclusion, it’s also important to know that visibility isn’t everything, or the only thing. Of course it’s important, but visibility is a double-edged sword for many. Trans women, transfeminine people, queer and trans BIPOC BIPOC, and people whose identities overlap with these ones often face higher levels of harassment, discrimination, and violence due to their visibility. So while we continue to push for more visible queerness in our organizations and groups, we also need to acknowledge that visibility in our society is not currently a place that is safe for the most marginalized in our communities because of the power systems at play (patriarchy, colonialism, racism, etc.). So the goal here is not for every queer person to be visible, but for every queer person to be able to be visible safely, if, when and how they chose.
Before we head into some suggestions, it needs to be said that the positive and negative impacts of visibility aren’t unique to queer folks. s. When Black, Indigenous, disabled, fat, low income, and immigrant people aren’t seen in the room and aren’t part of the decision-making, it sends a powerful message and creates unsafe environments for everyone. I encourage you to take the time to learn more about this from BIPOC, disabled, low-income, fat, and immigrant writers, podcast hosts, and other content creators. As we move into discussing how we can make spaces safe for visibly queer and gender-diverse people, I want us to keep in mind that this work must be intersectional.
Biography: Rachel (they/them) is a Queer facilitator and Master’s student studying Social Justice and Community Engagement at Laurier. In all areas of their life, Rachel values good food, connection, and nature!
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