HuffPost Live producer Brooke Sopelsa garnered online attention two weeks ago after publishing a controversial article on the Huffington Post’s blog. Sopelsa’s article, entitled “Dear Queer People: Let’s Stop Making Straight People Walk on Eggshells,” argues that the queer community’s “attacks on well-meaning straight people” have damaged the movement for LGBTQ rights, preventing people from asking questions and ultimately, as she sees it, perpetuating homophobia and ignorance. While Sopelsa’s point about encouraging open dialogue in order to create social change is important and valid, this open dialogue should not come at the expense of the community that is being advocated for in the first place.
As Sopelsa recognizes, education and open dialogue are the foundation of any social movement.However, there is a difference between having open and respectful dialogue and tolerating microaggressions — that is, individual interactions in daily life that communicate bigotry — at the expense of a marginalized community.
Communities cannot hope to be more tolerant by being palatable to straight people. Prioritizing straight cis people in a movement with the goal of amplifying queer voices is fundamentally problematic; it is inherently contradictory to the movement’s mission of gaining larger acceptance and civil rights and perpetuates the very heteronormative ideals that necessitate this advocacy in the first place.
Sopelsa argues that worrying about microaggressions hurts the movement by distracting from the bigger and “more important” issues facing the community, such as marriage equality, queer teen suicide rates and violent hate crimes. She says, “We have bigger fish to fry than attacking curious straight allies,” insisting that things such as straight people asking queer people personal questions or not knowing “the latest LGBTQIA lingo” should automatically be tossed aside no matter how upsetting they might be. The author assumes that microaggressions and these larger- scale and explicit aggressions aren’t related.
When looking at individual instances alone — such as, for example, an acquaintance asking a queer person for their coming- out story — it is easy to see why a straight person casually saying this might not seem like a big deal. But microaggressions are the foundation of bigotry; they are dangerous behaviors that have become so normalized that they are nearly invisible to those enacting them. These seemingly small things, such as the use of dehumanizing language like “the gays” or asking questions about the incredibly personal experience of coming out, are important in legitimizing oppression. Microaggressions such as these act as one of the first ways through which violence against queer individuals becomes acceptable.
Sopelsa fails to acknowledge that while asking questions is the best way to learn, queer people are not by default our teachers about queer issues. We cannot expect them to be willing to share their personal experiences with virtual strangers just because we are curious. The fact that these microaggressions are often unconscious or unintended is proof of how deeply ingrained these prejudices are in our society. Sopelsa’s argument that queer individuals should put aside these microaggressions in favor of creating “teachable moments,” such as taking time to educate the person on queer issues instead of becoming upset, downplays the significant role that these behaviors play in the perpetuation of bigotry and oppression.
Ultimately, Sopelsa thinks very little of queer allies and their commitment to fighting injustice. She suggests that being yelled at for an unintended offense would send any potential ally running for the hills and that the only way to have any allies at all is to placate them and make the movement as palatable to straight people as possible. But the allies to the queer community who run for the hills at the smallest of conflicts are not real allies, as they are ultimately prioritizing themselves over fighting for the queer community.
As a straight cis woman, I recognize that the struggles of the queer community are not my struggles, and demanding that marginalized people cater to my privileged desire to not be uncomfortable is unjust and completely unhelpful in creating change.
They say that the greatest learning comes when you leave your comfort zone, but if my view of the world as a straight cis person is never challenged, then I will never have to leave it. Making real social change isn’t a happy, comfortable process — it’s difficult, awkward and sometimes even painful. My discomfort over challenging deeply held beliefs shouldn’t be a sign to stop the conversation, but a sign to keep going.