I’ve been out for over 20 years so you can imagine that I’ve had my fair share of situations where I’ve had to point out homophobic and transphobic language. When I was a senior in high school I took a public speaking class and one of the speeches I delivered was about homophobic language and how it makes gay people feel when they hear it. That speech was also the first time I stood up in front of a room of people and announced I was gay. I still have a copy of that speech floating around my apartment somewhere, 3000 miles away from where I read it for the first time.
Since then, there have been numerous occasions where I’ve had to gently correct a friend when they’ve said “that’s so gay” or explain to someone why they, as a straight person, can’t say dyke. I’ve been doing this since before social media, since before blogging was a thing. I guess you could call me a hipster of battling homophobia and transphobia through language – “I was doing it before it was cool.”
Over the years I’ve grown bolder, both with age and in sobriety. Because of this boldness, I find myself correcting and educating more often than ever. All of this is to say that I can’t ever think of a time where I was offended in any of these instances. I have a pretty good sense of who is saying something due to sheer ignorance of how it could make me (or other queer folk) feel and who is saying it in a malicious way. When your uncle makes a gay joke, you’re not offended. You’re hurt and disappointed. When someone earnestly asks you who the “man” is in your relationship, you are maybe surprised but if it’s an honest question there is probably more of an impulse to educate the asker than anything else.
To say I was offended would be severely downplaying what I feel in these types of situations.
I have recently come out as agender and, with that, there’s a whole new set of words for me to examine to see how they make me feel. I need to decide which ones I’m okay with and which ones I need to speak up about. It’s challenging because people understand binaries like gay and straight but, try to explain that you don’t have a gender and you can see smoke coming out of their ears.
As I’m correcting people about what words to use to describe me or when I’m even first telling them what words to use, one of the first things I hear is “I don’t want/mean to offend you.” As soon as someone says that, I am immediately put in the position of comforting that person and making sure they know I’m not offended or won’t be offended in the future. Assigning offense as the primary reaction a person must be having removes the focus away from the actual marginalized person and puts it squarely on the person who is saying the thing that is inappropriate. Every time. No matter what your intention is. No matter who you’re talking to.
On the flip side, being offended is often a performative reaction. Think about who really ends up talking about being offended most often. It’s usually the people who are trying to be “good” allies, the ones who are trying to show how much they know about how offensive a statement is. True allies simply correct the problematic language or behavior and move on. Folks such as myself, who are truly impacted by language or actions are – more often than not – expressing emotions and reactions that are much more complicated than simply being offended.
If you want to be an ally, step back from being offended. The best way to help out any marginalized community is to shoulder some of the weight that comes with constant education and oppression. Instead of simply stating whatever someone said was offensive or offended you, take on some of that education burden. Explain why its problematic to call a trans woman he or why queer folk aren’t asking for “special rights” when they ask for respect or whatever other homophobic, transphobic or racist thing someone has spewed off.
I propose we stop assigning feelings to folks and let them tell us how they feel for themselves. If someone corrects word usage and doesn’t say how that made them feel, simply apologize and tell them you’ll do better in the future. If someone says a word makes them feel uncomfortable, apologize for making them feel uncomfortable. If someone says they are hurt or disappointed, acknowledge that those are the feelings they’re having. Don’t try to wrap them up in a package of offense that is easier to deal with.