By Chloe Abbott
Once again, it's June, and we have plunged into Pride Month. For a solid 30 days, we can expect parades, rainbow-colored everything, and a general feeling that "wow, things have gotten so much better." To many, this month will be a refreshing celebration of what it means to be gay and trans. While the Stonewall Riots of 1969 may be the origin of Pride as a protest, Pride is now a triumphant march, waving the rainbow flag as a trophy, not a war flag.
I go to D.C. Capital Pride every year, which takes place in Dupont Circle, a historically gay community that was once ravaged by crime and the AIDS epidemic with very little police or public health intervention to assist. Now, every year at Pride, not only do police guard the parade itself, but they march at the head of the parade, throwing beads and dancing just like the rest of the revelers. That alone looks like progress. The people who once would not protect the community now participate in as well as protect that community. To a non-LGBT person, this is the ultimate triumph for LGBT people: “Look, a whole month in your honor! Pride is a huge event in so many places for so many people! Gay marriage is legal as well, meaning so many couples can legally tie the knot! This is what progress looks like.”
I’m not launching into a tirade about how conditions around the country are inconsistent for gay people (but they are, as the Bible Belt alone still sports a distinctly homophobic and transphobic attitude, not to mention the homophobia around the country in other religious groups and amongst many minority communities). This isn’t much of a talking point, as any non-LGBT person who sees progress also knows that, of course, there are still going to be people struggling. That’s why we still have not just Pride, but charities and homeless shelters specifically for young gay and trans people. Saying plenty of gay people still have it difficult isn’t a shock, I would hope. Even more so, I would hope it is no shock to say that trans people are still at square one in terms of public acceptance. I think many people’s real reactions are of confusion: What is the LGBT community? How long is the acronym, and how many terms are there? What does it mean to be trans? What pronouns do I need to remember, or is it even worth my time? Is it against my religion or not? What is it that these people do? Even a truly good supporter of the gay and trans community likely has confusion and questions that they are too afraid to ask for fear of being labeled homophobic/transphobic. This is an unacceptable state for our allies to live in, and if our allies are confused, then just imagine how moderates feel.
The overwhelming response when someone says or tweets a homophobic/transphobic idea is to tell this person to apologize and “educate themselves.” This key point, of “educating themselves,” is a problem for me. People who tweet homophobic ideas probably feel like they have educated themselves and are staring down at a weird, unexplainable social phenomenon with no logic to its motives. I think that people who “educate themselves” without knowing the proper resources or communities will find the worst sources possible and not understand the difference. It’s entirely idealistic to expect that someone who does not know better should have the tools in their back pocket to know better, but just doesn’t use them. Sure, plenty of people may revel in their own ignorance, purely enjoying trolling people, but more often than not, the moderate audience who does not understand LGBT politics does not understand LGBT politics. Telling anyone to “educate themselves” does nothing to actually guarantee that they will learn anything. All it guarantees is a defensive response and a shutdown to actual information out of frustration and further perceived victimhood: “I can’t say anything these days without a mob coming after me.”
Maybe you’re thinking, “It’s not a mob! It’s expecting accountability!” I argue that the other side does not know what your definition of accountability is. There is an information gap between LGBT people who want the general public to know their terminology, know what acceptable behavior is, and know how to have a respectful conversation about it, and the general public who doesn’t understand the terminology or what acceptable behavior is, and therefore cannot have a respectful conversation about it without some background.
The tricky thing is, background is hard to find from the sources we want. Looking up LGBT topics on YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, or Tumblr gets you a lot of misinformation from both sides of the discussion. If you simply look up the word “transgender” on YouTube, you get some decent looking videos, but more common are videos of “DESTROYING trans arguments” and odd debates of “Are there more than two genders? Trying to find middle ground.” There are no definitive answers to be found with search results like these. Someone who wants to educate themselves will only be more confused when your results range from Stephen Colbert interviewing the man who lifted the transgender ban in the military to Ben Shapiro “destroying transgenderism and pro-abortion arguments.” There is nothing to steer a confused person in the right direction, and the most dangerous videos often have the catchiest titles. Even worse is that YouTube’s algorithm will keep recommending similar kinds of videos with increasingly radical opinions. By asking someone to educate themselves without giving them any foundational information, you are sending them off to chase a rabbit hole and, if they don’t know any better, plunge deep into it.
So maybe Tumblr is a better bet? After all, a lot of young gay people found their community on Tumblr. Tumblr led the way for the first generation of young gay and trans people to feel more comfortable open and out in a society changing its mind. Emboldened youth spread the gospel of tolerance and gay rights to me and many others in the early days of popular social media, and it has become a site known for liberal politics and lots of LGBT users. The problem is that Tumblr has been horribly wrong about a lot of LGBT issues. Not because anyone was stupid, but because the leaders of this new generation of gay kids were actual children: children who did not understand the vast history behind gay and trans people, rather just understood their own experiences.
Most people’s impression of Tumblr politics is that a bunch of people believe there are hundreds of genders and orientations, and that anything can be oppression if you play victim enough. This has unfortunately been pasted onto liberal politics as a whole, with “Did you just assume my gender?” as a strawman liberal argument to be mocked. I can’t completely lie and say this reputation of Tumblr alone wasn’t at one point relevant, but it is a fallacious argument because, again, it was the logic of children who very quickly realized that most trans people do not get offend that quickly or that aggressively. The rapid adding of letters to the acronym LGBT was a result of young gay people trying to combine both the concept of inclusion in liberal ideology and the concept of fulfilling a role that being a young person instills in you. “Bisexual doesn’t fit me, because I’m an individual with specific tastes!” When you’re pubescent and desperate to find your role, you create your own to feel special. This is not the pattern of adult LGBT people and never has been. Adult LGBT people have always understood that they are individuals, even under whatever labels fit their orientation or gender. I remember having a lot of conflict over who I was as a gay person because of how I felt forced into specific representations of gayness and gender. I grew out of this conflict as I grew out of young teenhood, much like anyone else with any other identity confusion in late-middle and early-high school. The fact that non-LGBT people’s general understanding of gay culture is that of puberty and middle school is deeply troubling to me.
There is no blame to be assigned because you cannot hold middle schoolers accountable for disrupting the messages of a long-oppressed minority or for seeming juvenile. In fact, if anything, blame should be put on anyone who pointed to this era of young teenagers and proclaimed this was the new wave of dumb liberal ideas to watch out for. But maybe they didn’t know the difference because, when online, anonymity makes it difficult to tell who’s an adult and who is a child. Instead, we must address the consequences head on. LGBT people are not here to get rid of gender. That would be dumb, and very few people believe in this, just like any other extreme ideology. They are not here to get rid of straight people, either, or masculinity, or femininity, or privacy in bathrooms. If your impression of a gay or trans person is someone who aggressively hates straight people and demands special privileges, ask yourself, “Does this sound like adult behavior, or like a middle schooler who just learned what a protest is?” If it sounds like a middle schooler, then you should second guess your assumption, because it likely is the work of a middle schooler, and they’ll likely improve their outlooks. There are people who haven’t, but they become, and remain, the strawmen for a movement that largely does not share their views.
So. What can we say this pride month to help the general public better understand gay and trans people? The answer is to actually respond to people. When someone says something objectively wrong, or ignorant, or makes a mistake, be direct, polite, and speak without condescension. Accept that you are not going to change people’s minds with one Twitter thread; just plant the seed so that they know where to begin if they so choose to pursue real answers. We need to get comfortable with engaging people who hold troubling opinions or say troubling things. Public perception of gay and trans people needs to become more mature to combat a juvenile understanding of what we want. We don’t just want our Pride festivals and RuPaul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye, and we certainly do not want to talk about Caitlyn Jenner (unless you want to hear why we do not care for her). We want gay people to be able to adopt children and not be seen as a fashionable entertainment commodity, trans people to be understood and safe from assault. Remember that the majority of America is moderate and interested enough to ask questions, but maybe not enough to seek good answers. Instead of demanding them to seek answers (“Educate yourself!”), maybe we should offer up our knowledge and experience and history as the insight that they don’t know, but that they really, really need.
because no one else should do it for you.