Words come so hard

I don’t want to say nothing about Orlando, about the massacre at the Pulse nightclub. I don’t generally comment on news items, because I don’t feel adequate to the task. But I also don’t want to just stick to my already-scheduled posting pattern as if nothing happened.

I am numb and dissociated. This is another reason I don’t generally write about these things. Words aren’t really accessible to me in this state. They come so slowly.

The shooting in Orlando was absolutely an act of terror against queer communities. I was weirdly heartened when I first saw it was being investigated as such. Because that was before I realized why – why, of course – the powers that be had been so quick to make that connection. It is not that the criminal justice system and the mainstream media suddenly developed compassion and understanding for the terror that these acts have inevitably struck among queer people within and outside the US. It is simply that these violent acts were committed by a Muslim.

But let us be very clear: this is not an act of terror against America. It is an act of terror committed by an American man, who had access to the guns he used because he lives in the US. His attitude toward queer people is shared by many people of many faiths (and atheists) throughout the US.

This is an act of terror that grew out of and was enabled by US culture and laws.

It is also an act of terror at least partially based in Islam. In this queer-hating American man’s personal interpretation of Islam, absolutely. He made a point of saying so himself. It does not and should not condemn the religion as a whole, any more than the rampant queer-hatred in many Christian churches should be used to condemn all of Christianity. But neither should this aspect be erased. It is relevant to this man’s perspective on the world, and I know of too many queer Muslims and ex-Muslims who are telling me it is relevant to be ok discounting that.

This was the worst mass shooting in the US since 300 people were murdered at Wounded Knee. And it was directed at the queer community during Pride celebrations. It occurred it what should have been the safest possible space for queer people. And it is terrifying to contemplate, as Pride celebrations continue around the world this month, that each of us needs to recalculate whether we feel safe being queer in public spaces. That is what terror does.

More than 50 people are dead, many more injured and possibly dying. Many of them are Latinx. All of them were celebrating queer community when they died. I hurt for them and I hurt for us.

And I have no other words.

Bigotry and ignorance are not “phobias”

A very kind commenter recently pointed out to me that in using that word “homophobic” in my post about eliminating ableist terms from my vocabulary I was in fact (in an unfortunate irony) using an ableist term.

Phobias are, in fact, recognized mental health issues. Homophobia is not, in fact, a phobia, and conflating it with the very real experience of people with phobias is unfair. In many more ways than one. Let me explain.

The primary issue here is, of course, the unfair, incorrect, and damaging impact of comparing people with real phobias to bigots. Mental illness continues to be massively stigmatized, and people with mental illnesses are often portrayed as violent or otherwise inherently and uncontrollably abusive. By suggesting that anti-trans, anti-gay, anti-bisexual, anti-queer, and anti-asexual bigotry are “phobias” we are only contributing the idea that people with mental illnesses are bad people.

But I know that a lot of people are for some reason not convinced by this kind of argument, and think that because “everyone knows” that bi-, homo-, trans-, femme- and acephobia aren’t actually phobias that the use of the same terminology is irrelevant. So let me give you some other reason why it might be useful to avoid using these terms.

Referring to bigots as being “phobic” lets them off way too easy

The rhetoric of bigoted “phobias” carries the inherent implication that bigots can’t help the way they are, and that they can’t change. And, while I actually don’t believe most bigots ever will change, I also think it’s important to remember that the fact that they don’t change is entirely on them, based on a series of choices they make throughout their life (to not listen to other people’s experiences, to care more about their discomfort with learning than about the pain and death of other people, etc.) Bigots are responsible for their own bigotry and absolutely need to be held accountable, always. Calling them what they are (bigots), and calling their ideas what they are (bigoted), calling their actions what they are (bigotry) instead of couching it softly in terms of phobias is a powerful and necessary rhetorical move.

But it does even more than just holding people accountable.

Referring to bigotry as bigotry, and not as a phobia, makes it harder for the folks committing bigotry to derail the conversation

You see it again and again: someone points out that something another person said is problematic, and calls what was said (or the person saying it) ace/bi/femme/homo/transphobic. The person being accused of said “phobia” responds that they are not afraid of the group in question, and that they are therefore not “phobic”. Of course we know that this person knows that’s not what the word means. Of course we all know that no one thinks that anyone was actually referring to a real phobia.

But the conversation is derailed, just like that, and moves into a conversation about what it means to be whatever-phobic. Why give the person in question, the one who fucked up, such an easy out, when it can be so easily avoided? Call bigotry what it is, and close the door to this sort of derailment.

My commitment

All of this is really to say that I am making a personal commitment to no longer use the terms transphobia, acephobia, homophobia, and the like. I will instead refer variously to what is actually happening. There’s actually a plethora of better, non-oppressive, and more precise terms than “phobia” applicable to various incarnations of bigotry or just plain ignorance. Consider:

  • Acephobia may refer to:
    • anti-ace bigotry
    • compulsory sexuality
    • ace erasure
  • Biphobia may refer to:
    • anti-bisexual bigotry
    • monosexism
    • bisexual erasure
  • Femmephobia may refer to:
    • misogyny
    • devaluation of femininity
    • compulsory masculinity
  • Homophobia may refer to:
    • anti-gay bigotry
    • heterosexism
    • gay erasure
  • Queerphobia may refer to:
    • anti-queer bigotry
    • queer erasure
    • heterosexism
    • monosexism
  • Transphobia may refer to:
    • anti-trans bigotry
    • transmisogyny
    • cissexism
    • trans erasure

I mean, just look at the amazing list of more precise terms to refer to different kinds of bigotry and ignorance faced by LGBTQIA folks! There are so many options, and they are all so useful and way more accurate and direct than “phobia”.

I also plan to go back and edit references to phobias out of my old posts, although I currently barely have time to even sit down and write this out, so I’m not sure when I will manage to do that. I simply promise that it will happen.

I will, however, continue to use “phobia” terms in my tags, for indexing purposes. As a librarian, I understand that using the terms that other people use is sometimes important to make information searchable and findable. I am open to the idea of making sure that false phobias don’t turn up in the tag cloud on the right though, if that is potentially harmful or triggering for people. Please let me know if you have thoughts on this!

Inclusion fail

(via Tessa de Jongh on flickr)

A number of years ago, I attended a Bachelor of Education program. I’m theoretically qualified to teach junior and senior high school, but I have not maintained my membership to the Ontario College of Teachers, so I’m not eligible for any (public school) jobs. Teaching didn’t turn out to be what I actually wanted to do with my life.

Among the things that happened that annoyed me during the program (and there were many; because Ontario has dedicated Catholic school boards for all districts, a distinct proportion of the students accepted to Ontario teaching programs are Catholic, to fill the rosters of those schools), one haunts me in particular because of its genuine good intentions, but failed execution.

There’s a disturbing pattern among the classic lesson plans for teaching tolerance of diversity, which is that the plans tend to assume that they will be applied to a homogenous class of students who sit solidly on the privileged side of whatever division is being discussed.

For example, there’s the Jane Elliott’s blue eyes/brown eyes exercise that is meant to make white students understand what it is like to live in a world where you are a member of a discriminated-against class of people (i.e. what it’s like to be a person of colour in North America). It’s not clear to me how this exercise would work in a mixed-race context. It might actually be more interesting in some ways, but it’s pretty clear to me that it was not designed for this purpose.

The clearer example I have is geared toward reducing anti-LGBT (ar at least anti-LGB) prejudice. In one of my classes, the professor actually ran the exercise on us, so I got to experience first-hand just how problematic it is. It’s a simple enough premise, and involves walking through one version or another of this questionnaire.

The questions are kind of cute, and intended to inspire reflection among straight people on their assumptions about sexuality. And that’s all well and good. But.

As a queer person, I found myself completely and utterly excluded from the entire exercise and ensuing discussion. The answer to many of those questions for anyone who isn’t heterosexual is a simple “not applicable”. It was extremely frustrating, not least because the exercise could easily be altered to explicitly ask for input from LGB people (or, for the sake of not putting LGB students on the spot if they are not comfortable discussing it, at least leave some implicit openings/prompts that can be meaningfully addressed/answered by LGB people.) As it was administered, the whole process was deeply lacking in opportunities for meaningful diaogue.