It was three days after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage. A transgender friend posted on Facebook: “WTF is with all y’all straight and cis folks making rainbow and trans flag profile pics? Don’t you already have everything else?”
As a straight ally sporting my own celebratory profile photo (the Statue of Liberty and Justice kissing in front of a pink equal sign), I felt surprised, intrigued and angry to read this question from someone I’d worked with on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, issues. The post struck a chord with others as well, inspiring a variety of lively, enlightening views offered by a diverse group of a dozen people. But a couple days and 130 responses later, it had degenerated into an angry shouting match between allies and LGBT participants.
Social media is almost never the best way to have any important conversation. And yet, it was a familiar scene. Like numerous other attempts at important dialogue, electronically mediated or not, it was a lost opportunity to gain the clarity, understanding and connection that are critical for moving broad, sustainable social change. It was also a classic example of unproductive conflict over “sensitive” issues where every person was right, yet missing some piece of the full truth — particularly the unifying fact that everyone who posted cares deeply about the topic.
While marriage equality is certainly not the end goal of the LGBT community — nor a sign that full equity, inclusion or justice have been achieved — the SCOTUS ruling is a huge milestone and one effect of the rapid change in public opinion regarding the personhood of LGBT people. As we celebrate this victory and regroup to push full equity and inclusion for LGBT families, it’s time to revisit what future progress will require. It’s also time to consider how lessons learned thus far from the marriage equality struggle can be applied to the urgent imperative to dismantle the pervasive racism still plaguing our nation.
Future progress around equity and inclusion requires a subtle shift few are talking about: disrupting binary thinking. “Either-or” binaries — where there are only two options and everything and everyone fits into one or the other — are rampant in our thoughts, speech, racial and sexual identities, and political discourse. Binaries are limiting, incomplete, overly simplistic and unrealistic. They blind us to the full range of truth, possibilities and options at a time when we desperately need more creativity and ideas to solve the problems we face.
No one side of a political issue is immune to binary thinking, as my friend’s post demonstrates. The binary of “us” vs. “them” is old paradigm thinking, as ancient as humanity itself. It’s an outdated war metaphor that reduces and divides people into overly simplistic groups and replaces one oppressor with another at the end of a movement.
Who owns a movement? Is it the people who benefit from the attained progress? The people who worked actively on creating progress? Or all of us? I believe it’s all of the above, and to alienate any one of these groups — which aren’t mutually exclusive — is to slow down or derail change. There are LGBT people who never did anything concrete to forward the LGBT movement who now benefit from its gains. There are straight allies who may never benefit materially from the movement who know more about LGBT issues, and have done more concrete work to move progress, than some LGBT community members. And everyone benefits from a society where diversity, equity, inclusion and justice are valued, celebrated and actively pursued to ensure everyone can contribute the fullness of their gifts to their communities.
Diversity, equity, inclusion and justice benefit everyone not just because we all gain from everyone being whole, happy, healthy and contributing their gifts, but also because no one belongs to only one group. Everyone has multiple identities — some of our group identities are “dominant” (membership in a group that possesses greater relative social, political or economic power, often seen as “normal” or ideal) and some are “nondominant” (membership in a group which possesses less relative social, political or economic power, often seen as “abnormal”). Everyone belongs to both. Everyone can leverage dominant identities. Using my dominant identities (straight, white, middle class, formally educated) to forward progress for members of nondominant groups not only aligns with my values of how the world should operate but also protects my own nondominant identities (female, mental health patient, childfree, spiritual minority).
All of us can, and should be, allies to movements we don’t personally benefit from (on the surface). No movement has been successful without allies — whites were critical participants in the Underground Railroad, abolition and civil rights. Men have been key players in women’s suffrage and the fight for equal pay. Middle class citizens have long been essential allies in the labor movement and immigrant rights. And straight people have played an important role in LGBT equity. We must dismantle binary thinking and learn to be better allies ourselves — or to accept and work with allies more effectively — to advance the common good and creation of a world that works better for everyone.