Saturday, April 30, 2011

Totem Pole

About this time last year, Soulforce came to visit Union. They came because Union's current policies do not ensure acceptance and safety for people of different sexual orientations. This young inter-faith group basically came to say, "Hey, ALL people deserve rights and freedom in your institution, and currently that's not happening."

There was a group meeting where the Equality Riders (those who came on the ride and were either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ)), could talk with Union students about their desired policy changes for Union.

I joined a group of a dozen students and 3-4 Equality Riders. Jaxson, whom I would've assumed was a male, informed our group that zhe is a hermaphrodite, or a person born with both male and female reproductive organs. Jaxson said that zhe prefers gender-neutral pronouns because zhe is neither male nor female, so why should zhe be called something zhe's not? (Disclaimer: I'll probably mess up the pronoun usage, but I'm trying. It takes practice and it's worth it to me)

I listened to Jaxson's plea, that there be equal rights for people like zhimself and there should be a safe place on campus for people who are LGBTQ to find solace. In response, I said something like,“I think it would be a great idea to see a safe place for LGBTQ members on Union’s campus, but because I identify as heterosexual, I probably wouldn’t be the one to start it, but I’d support them for sure.”

It was at this point that Jaxson absolutely humbled me: "You don't get it. You are the only person who can actually do something to change this and all you want to do is watch us keep trying."

Ugghh. Blow to the chest.

Essentially, I need to be the change I want to see in the world, not just support others who I expect to do the changing because it's not my problem.

Are victims of sexual abuse supposed to be the ones fighting for laws that protect them? Who has more power to end violence against women? Men or women? It is not the oppressed who harness this power; otherwise they wouldn’t be oppressed to begin with. It is the potential oppressors—those who have this position of power—who have the greatest platform to create real, lasting change. It is the silenced who need our voice.

It's not fair and it's not right that in our society there is a totem pole in place and the people at the top have more power and influence than the people on the bottom.

A year ago, I was made clearly aware of my place on that totem pole.

I am a white, middle-class, heterosexual woman. I've spent a lot of my life aware (and often frustrated by) those typically above me:
white, heterosexual, upper-class women
white, heterosexual men

What Jaxson reminded me is who often sits below me:
people who have immigrated to the States
people with physical or mental disabilities
people who are not white
people who are lesbians
people who are gay
people who are bisexual
people who are transgender
people who are queer

This is not to say that anyone who is gay or Mexican is "below" me. This is to say that I have not had to fight for my rights to safety and freedom like those that have commonly been pushed to the fringes of the typically accepted American Dream. There are certain people who are quickly accepted by mainstream culture and those who are quickly rejected, pushed aside, and told "You are not the norm, therefore, you are not worth my time."

This is why we've only recently elected a Black president.
This is why only in the last 30 years have laws surfaced that protect people who are mentally disabled and provided them rights to an education.
This is why Title IX came into play in the 1980s to give girls equal opportunity in academics and athletics.
This is why Matthew Shepherd was murdered and some people applauded their behavior.
This is why LGBTQ youth are committing suicide at an alarming rate and some people just don't seem to care.

Thursday, I walked into Interpersonal Communication class to find all of the desks disheveled, some flipped over, some facing the wall, some on their sides. A sign said, "Do not move the desks," so I sat down in one that faced the door and twisted my body to listen to Mr. Blake teach class. He began a completely sexist rant against women, their ability to think, to reason, to lead, and... to drive. We sat in disgust, yet humor, knowing that Mr. Blake doesn't stand for 90% of what he was saying.

Throughout the discussion, he would call out and disagree strongly with people whose desks were not facing forward, "Umm, excuse me. I need eye contact here. What you're doing is incredibly disrespectful!" And to those whose desks were positioned facing forward and they simply sat down in those desks, he said, "I really appreciate your attention and respect. You are model students."

After he finished his rant, we all re-aligned ourselves in rows and talked about the meaning of the desks. We cannot control the positions of our desks. Some of us are born into desks that are clean, upright, and facing forward. Some are born into desks that are crooked, upside-down, and facing the wall. They can't change it. They are treated differently based on their alignment, yet expected to function like everyone else, and often called out, ridiculed, or harassed when they don't.

To judge others based on factors beyond their control makes no sense at all.
To sit comfortably in a desk that fits the "norm" and act as though I deserve it or have earned it, is completely asinine. And ignorant. And ridiculous.

Entitlement is a slippery slope that no one can stand on without looking like an idiot. Like the quotation says, "He was born on third base, and thinks he hit a triple."

After all when did I choose to be born in America?
How hard to I work to be part of a middle-class, white family?
When did I choose to be a heterosexual?

When I began considering whom I'm "above," I realized I have a lot of work to do. There are many people who have not been granted a voice, but they deserve one, and I want to be a vehicle for that change.

I cannot change the world.
I can change my world.