When Discrimination Is Up In The Air

I grew up in a place where Confederate flag stickers littered the lockers of my Catholic high school, and our plan to have a “jeans day” on World Aids Day (students would theoretically pay $5 to wear jeans instead of our usual uniforms, and the proceeds would benefit an AIDS awareness organization) was rejected because AIDS was “the homosexual disease.” Needless to say, as soon as I graduated, I set my sights on the northeast, and eventually New York, where I could (hopefully) leave all that behind.

Coming from Florida, I thought New York City would be the one place where I wouldn’t have to question being out, and where I naively thought we were all on the same page with regard to homosexuality — like it wouldn’t even need to be a conversation.

via leticiaavila.tumblr.com

Unfortunately, in the few months I’ve been here, I’ve come to realize that I’d been wearing some seriously rose-colored glasses.

A couple of months ago I was floored by this one guy’s response to a discussion of race. He’s a cis white male, talking about how sick he was of hearing about “blacks against America.” I jumped in and tried to begin to explain how being a minority works and that the “battle against America” is actually just a fight to be treated equally. To illustrate my point I used another example of a minority group looking for equal rights: gay people. Before I could finish, he cut me off.

“Gay people aren’t a minority. I’m a minority. I’m a musician. Musicians are a minority.” He went on to talk about all of the ways he is “discriminated against” as a musician.

I didn’t know whether to be appalled by his ignorance or just laugh.

I didn’t have long to decide before he started fighting with the two men next to him and I decided to leave, not wanting our conversation to continue.

Just this past week, I had another jarring experience that really illustrated the degree to which these queer issues that loom so large in our own lives are invisible to others. I work as a Social Media Manager and our firm was hosting a dinner for current and prospective clients. Among the group were the Social Media Managers for several big name companies and at dinner, I was seated next to the SMM for a major airline.

As social media is our business, we began talking about dealing with the crazy posts that come through on our walls on any given day. She was clearly educated and well-qualified for her job. As the conversation progressed, I asked her what had been her biggest social media “crisis.” She said when a famous actor was kicked off the plane recently for reasons some deemed ridiculous, she heard about it for days on end.

I recalled having read recently about another high-profile incident regarding a pro-choice t-shirt. The shirt had read “If I wanted the government in my womb, I’d fuck a senator.” The girl was asked to change her shirt before boarding her flight. As her luggage was already checked and she wasn’t going to buy another shirt, she was told she could put her shawl over the shirt and that would suffice. I asked the Social Media Manager if she had seen much fallout from that incident, given the current political climate. She said it had only lasted for about a day, but explained the issue wasn’t the message. “The only reason this made news was because the shirt had a pro-choice message, but the problem wasn’t the message. The problem was the profanity. Airlines often ask passengers to change their shirt if it has profanity, and it just doesn’t make the news.”

Though I don’t personally agree with the policy, I thought her explanation was reasonable and went on the ask her about another incident I had heard about and followed closely: when Leisha Hailey and Camila Grey were approached by a flight attendant for kissing and told it was a “family-oriented airline.” As Hailey became upset, she and her girlfriend were escorted off the plane. I couldn’t remember which airline it was specific to and asked her if this was her airline. She said, “No, it was Southwest, but I could understand why they did it.”

how could you discriminate against bangs like these?

Despite the fact that my boss was sitting next to me, I couldn’t let the comment pass. “Why is that?” I asked. She replied that often if something is making a majority of passengers uncomfortable, they have to consider the other passengers. I was beside myself.

“What if the majority of passengers on the plane are racist? Would you kick a person of color off the plane because he or she made other people uncomfortable? It just seems to create a slippery slope.” To which she quickly replied, “My best friend is gay…” to demonstrate that she couldn’t possibly be homophobic.

She suggested it was because of the PDA, regardless of the genders involved. I mentioned that I had never heard of a straight couple being approached or removed from a flight for PDA. I mean, there is a reason the “mile high club” is a cultural concept. And I have heard enough stories of my friends actually getting down to (some forms of) business in the seats. Was it really the PDA, then, that was making other people uncomfortable?

“Well, I won’t ever fly Southwest again after that incident.” I said. She looked at me surprised, “Really?”

She went on to say that it was possible that the issue wasn’t that they were kissing. “You know, if someone is big enough that they need two seats on the plane and refuses to buy a second seat, we may remove them from the flight because they are infringing on the space of another person. Perhaps Hailey and her girlfriend are were infringing on someone else’s space.”

I said maybe, but it didn’t seem likely considering homosexuality remains socially unacceptable. “Really?” She said, “I don’t think homosexuality is socially unacceptable anymore.” I was stunned.

I said it was probably because she had the privilege of living in New York City, and she said she was actually living in Dallas. Dallas, however, is also a metropolitan area and does have a strong gay scene.

She proceeded to tell me that gay people often think what is happening to them is because they are gay. I said, “Yes, that is their worldview because so often, these things do happen to them because they are gay.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; I tried to find a common ground. “Well, I’m sure you can understand that as a woman?”

via stereotypesempty.tumblr.com

“I’m not really discriminated against as a woman. I don’t really think it is a problem.”

I didn’t know what to respond or even how to begin. I brought up a recent story about a friend of mine who was being sexually harassed by her boss. “Well, my friend works at J.P. Morgan…”

“Oh, well, yeah, I hear the financial sector is bad.”

Silence fell for a few moments. I struggled to process the entire conversation before someone came to the table to make an announcement.

She is educated. She is working at a very large and influential company and has lived in major metropolitan areas. And she can’t see the oppression.

She is in a position in the public eye. She contributes to formulating the public messaging surrounding situations such as the incident with Leisha Hailey and whether she realizes it or not, she has power to contribute to these cycles of oppression. And even scarier than active homophobia or sexism is the complete denial of its existence. If someone who is well-educated, clearly successful, a member of a group that is largely discriminated against, and best friends with a member of another discriminated group can’t recognize the oppression, how many other people also can’t? And how long will the oppression continue?

The next day, I wondered if I had crossed a line, given that it was a professional environment and I was sitting next to my boss. Did I go too far by continuing the conversation? Should I have dropped it at some point? I didn’t get angry and I remained respectful throughout the conversation, but I still felt I had done something wrong. Then I realized how absurd it was that I was the one worrying about this. Why should I worry that I crossed a line? Why should I have to stop and think about whether or not I had made her uncomfortable? Why is a conversation like that often considered “inappropriate”? I wish I didn’t have to ask any of these questions.

Another upsetting incident was at last year’s Dyke March. I wanted to attend the Dyke March this year. However, after my experience last year, I will only attend the Pride parade. The Dyke March ended in Washington Square Park last year and, as it is the Dyke March, there are several topless women. And I know that for most of these women, being topless isn’t sexual. It is about freedom and personal expression. But the straight men who congregated in the park to watch the women certainly considered it sexual. My friend and I watched the women splash around in the fountain, feeling free to be who they are, if only for that moment, as the straight men hooted and hollered and whistled them on. I left, discomforted and discouraged.

Was I naive to think that leaving the southern part of the country for the most-educated and liberal region of the country would provide an escape from ignorance? As I am learning, apparently so.


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34 Comments

      • i’ve been having a lot of weird little experiences like this lately, so this comes at a good time. i hate turning inward after vocalizing some kind of reaction to oppression or privilege or what have you and realizing that i’m being shamed into thinking there’s not an issue at all. it’s hard to resist that momentum… and then i remember that the world is just uneven in ever-subtler ways that are no less real

  1. You basically summed up all of my feelings, from the ‘musician minority’ to the ‘how absurd it was that I was the one worrying about this.’ and the straight men at dyke march. These are all feelings I’ve felt before and this is great and eloquent and necessary.

    p.s. “You know, if someone is big enough that they need *two seats on the…. Perhaps Hailey and her girlfriend *were infringing on someone else’s space.”

    • You’d think, logically, that since they would be kissing each other, the only space they’d be enthusiastically infringing would be their own. People will come up with the most ridiculous shit to justify prejudice (see also: EVERYTHING ELSE THAT LADY SAID).

  2. I’ve also felt that misplaced guilt when challenging someone else’s problematic boner for the status-quo. Good for you for pursuing it with a cool head– hopefully she thought twice before casually defending homophobia again.

    As for the dudes crashing dyke march, jesus, IS NOTHING SACRED?

  3. This article has important things to say, but I was distracted by the typos.

    Also, the point about never flying Southwest again-while a valid sentiment-falls flat considering the author didn’t remember that it had happened on Southwest.

  4. Just because one may be a member of a class that has a history of having been on the receiving end of oppressive acts does not mean that individual is currently in an oppressed state. As a female born in the 60’s and who has lived in Texas much of her life, I know what has happened in the past and I know what happens in some places. However, I can also easily see where an airline executive (quite likely with American given the Dallas home) might not be the present recipient of ongoing oppressive acts. I’m in a different field and not in the most liberal part of the State, but I would be hard-pressed to say that I have been ‘oppressed’ as a result of being female. And, admittedly, I also have seen little repercussion as a result of being an out lesbian. Not all of us look for victimization lurking under every shadow or rock…nor shall we hold onto a victim status where we have not been victimized.

    Regarding Leisha’s experience on Southwest, I never got all of the particulars. And admittedly, aside from forwarding her some executive contacts I had with the airline from some significant IRROPS delays the one time I made the mistake of flying the cattle car, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the outcome. I also don’t know enough people flying them to say whether what they experienced was truly a bias endemic to the company or whether it was a relatively isolated experience.

    One person’s perception of ignorance from another is not always the correct perception…

    • The issue isn’t so much that the lady said she hasn’t personally experienced discrimination, but that she assumes that because she hasn’t, no one else has/it doesn’t exist anymore. I.e. she’s not aware of her position of privilege. In that respect, her comments do seem somewhat ignorant.

      I’ve had a similar experience talking to professional women who think “oh it’s not a problem being a woman/minority/queer/etc. anymore.” That’s a sad thing to hear, because these women don’t realize they’re holding back the tides of change for other less fortunate people by voicing such inaccuracies, nevermind clearly not actively fighting back against discrimination (since they don’t perceive it to even exist).

      • I didn’t read it as a “I didn’t see it so it doesn’t exist anymore” sort of thing. After all, there was a concession about what she had HEARD about the financial sector. I am in the legal field but not with a mega-firm (nor will I ever seek one of them out). As a result, I am more or less immune to some of what I reasonably believe still goes on in the dog-eat-dog-claw-your-coworker-to-death struggle to get a partnership in a world where success was predicated upon billable hours. I also know the issues in the other old-boys-club fields such as the financial sector.

        However, it is problematic when I see terms such as ‘ignorant’ being tossed around to describe individual perceptions or experiences. The fact that I tell people that I am not witnessing such events (or that the dinner-table-conversant in the article was not seeing it) does not make our perceptions of OUR realities ‘ignorant.’ There IS no ‘tide of change’ for us to be involved with in our day-to-day experiences nor is there an actual experience of discrimination to have to be fighting back against.

        • I guess you missed this part:

          “”I said maybe, but it didn’t seem likely considering homosexuality remains socially unacceptable. “Really?” She said, “I don’t think homosexuality is socially unacceptable anymore.””

          ^That’s not just speaking to her own experience – it seems very much like she’s taking her own, very limited experience to make a judgment call she’s not equipped to make about others’ experience. In fact, that’s exactly what she does, because then she goes on to say…

          “…She proceeded to tell me that gay people often think what is happening to them is because they are gay. I said, “Yes, that is their worldview because so often, these things do happen to them because they are gay.””

          ^So, she goes on to negate the experiences of gay people who do speak up about discrimination or personal experiences by saying they just “think” certain things are happening to them because they are gay, i.e. the implication being that their complaints or the discrimination they are talking about is invalid/nonexistent.

          So, regardless of her feelings on sexism, etc, she clearly says, if she’s being quoted appropriately by the author (which is in dispute, but it’s not like I haven’t heard the exact same things from other professional women), IT DOESN’T EXIST ANYMORE.

          So I don’t know what article you’re reading?

          So, if she’s going to make judgments about being gay and how socially acceptable that is/if discrimination still exists, it follows that she’s likely to also take her personal experience and incorrectly apply it to the field of professional women/etc.

          In fact, if it’s a direct quote, that’s exactly what she does.

          See

          “”I’m not really discriminated against as a woman. I don’t really think it is a problem.””

          She didn’t say “Well, I don’t have a lot of experience, as I’m not really discriminated against, so I can’t speak to that, but I know it exists.”

          Instead she says “I don’t think it is a problem.”

          It’s denial through and through. And your post is an echoing that denial, ignoring clear as day quotes on the article from that women that show TWICE that she is denying social unacceptability/discrimination/etc. still exist. It’s disheartening to see people ignore stuff that’s not even between the lines – and I think that’s exactly what the author is getting at. You seem to be proving her point, if anything.

          • I agree with your points, Mandy. Though I think it is genuine lack of understanding because people live in different worlds, rather than deliberate denial, that creates the problem. It’s interesting (and disheartening) how easily even intelligent people assume that their personal experience is universal.

            In further illustration of this point:-
            I visited NJ in 1988. My hostess was a hardworking professional woman. She was kind, highly intelligent, broadly liberal African American woman who had been raised in Mississippi. She was very conscious of the disadvantages that many African American people, particularly those living in the South, experienced, while recognising her own relative privilege compared with them. I commented to her one day that I had noticed a distinct difference between soap operas in the UK and those I had seen while in NJ. It seemed to me that soaps in the UK tended to focus on the everyday problems of working class people, while those I had seen in the US revolved around exceptionally wealthy people: even those regarded by the other characters as ‘poor’ seemed middle class in their living style. She thought about it for a moment, then said: ‘I guess it’s because we don’t really have poor people in the States. Not like you do in the UK.’ I was absolutely speechless. This was the same woman who had told me about Oprah’s generosity in providing college funds for impoverished students, and I had seen for myself the beggars on the streets of NYC. I was a teen at the time, and honestly did not know how to respond to her without offending, so I let it go.

            For those of us immersed in LGBT and gender politics, it seems inconceivable that other people don’t see what is so clear to us. To those of us immersed in the politics of race, the same. And yet, people in each of these two groups – people facing broadly similar issues – can be almost completely blind to the problems faced by those in the other, because they lack their experience.

            It wouldn’t surprise me if I had done this myself, on some topic, and been completely unaware of it. I hope that, unlike teen me, people will point it out to me when I get it wrong. The only way we can understand (and then address) oppression that we don’t experience ourselves is if it is pointed out to us.

          • You’re right…and in a sense it’s not fair to point fingers at people, aghast, and say, “How ignorant!” Because, really, I know I’m ignorant about a lot of things, too, and I’d hope people would point it out to me, and not just talk about my ignorance behind my back. We’re not perfect. In a way I can forgive the woman, even though it’s disheartening, because at least she’s engaging in the conversation and listening, and making concessions. In a way I see that’s at least partly what Michelle is saying, too.

    • You are correct in a sense, in that not everyone experiences their potential -isms the same way. Other factors do play in to that, like where you live, what your family is like, and so on and so forth.

      However, the fact is that generally speaking in the United States (and elsewhere of course, but I am trying to stay within my primary experience here) certain groups of people still experience unfair, vicious, and wholly undeserved discrimination for their ultimately harmless characteristics, simply because society has falsely equated those characteristics with unrelated undesirable behaviors. (homosexuality and child molestation going hand in hand for bigots is a song as old as time) Simply because the woman in the story has not herself experienced that, she is ignorant in that sense because she is assuming therefore that all other women in the country have likewise not experienced sexism as a notable problem.

      To me that is a failure of basic empathy. When we first teach kids about empathy we often say, well how would you feel if someone came up and called you names in an effort to get the child to relate the situation to themselves. But that’s not far enough. To me empathy also has to include the idea that one’s own experiences don’t generalize to the entire world.

  5. Pingback: Discrimination Up In The Air

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  7. I just found the line “Artists, people of color and members of the LGBT community encouraged to apply” in a job posting. I think there may be others who believe musicians are oppressed minorities…

    • I was just invited to a facebook group campaiging for ‘artists rights’. The ‘about us’ section mentions that it is inspired by the queer equality movement and encourages artists to imagine what could be achieved if they banded together like LGBT activists. I was disgusted.

      • Isn’t non-musicians stating that musicians aren’t oppressed the exact same thing as heterosexuals stating that queer oppression isn’t an issue anymore?

        I’m not a musician but I certainly can’t say that musicians and artists are or aren’t discriminated against…

        • Well I’m both queer and halfway through an MA in a creative arts field, the discrimination I’ve faced for being an artist has nothing on being queer. Where I live, arts is largely government funded through grants and subsidies. My state and local (and federal to a lesser degree) governments actively encourage and support artists- maybe not as much as we’d like but it’s not the same. Queer health services are having their funding cut to the point they’re having to close, and my marriage was considered equal to being long term roommates.

          Personally, I just dont think comparing the two is cool. It sounds too much like appropriation to me, the creator of the group is straight and it pissed me right off that (in our context) she was claiming the same kind of discrimination queer people deal with. I might be undervalued by some people because I’m not aiming for a Fortune 500 career, but can’t see anyone here being scared of being bashed for being an artist.

          (if it needs to be said, I’m only speaking for my experience and my knowledge of the arts industry in my area. I know there are places artists don’t have it nearly as easy as I do)

    • In a way, there are a lot of groups that are discriminated against…including artists (try being an artistic child in standard American primary/secondary school) and introverts (try being an introvert in school or in the job market in a country with an extrovert ideal) and atheists (I literally have had someone say, “It’s ok that you’re an atheist…God made you that way”)…

      …However, I think that to me the difference (and the reason why I care a lot more about discrimination against people who are queer and the ladyfolk than the status of art in schools and people telling me that I’m “too quiet” and people asking me how I continue to have purpose if I’m an atheist is that this discrimination isn’t just inconvenient or irritating, it’s violent and it hugely impacts basic human rights, and people aren’t just ignoring women and queer people…they’re actively seeking to dehumanize them.

      This is all stuff that could be worked on but we should probably, as the human race, have our priorities.

      Anyways, I think I would also slap musician guy in the face…you know, one artist to another.

    • That was my first reaction (re: the musician) but I hate it when queers/women/POC/[…] raise their voice and then people want to punch them. Perhaps sometimes we should do the exact thing we ask otherwise privileged people to do when we speak up? (I’m in no way trying to argue, just merely sharing a thought!)

      • I’m sorry, but sometimes it’s hard not to be angry when someone is invalidating your existence. I find your statement “I hate it when queers/women/POC/[…] raise their voice and then people want to punch them” problematic because it implies that it is the oppressed group’s responsibility to keep calm in the face of prejudice, and that their[/my] anger is an inappropriate reaction to microaggressions. Maybe the problem is that people “want to punch” anyone who speaks out against racism/sexism/homophobia/etc, and not that these pesky “queers/women/POC/[…]” keep raising their voices instead of remaining quiet and nonthreatening.

        Constructive dialogue is great, but when something someone said makes you feel hurt, angry, frustrated or invisible, it’s extremely difficult to subdue those feelings (or at least it is for me.)

        • Sorry I’m just seeing this now, I’m not sure if you’ll get to read this.

          What I meant was that punching people in the face is NEVER, in my opinion, a constructive, efficient or productive way to express anger. It will get you nowhere positive. “Wanting to punch” anyone is an understandable feeling – I get it all the time – but it will get you nowhere.

          I also meant that replying to homophobia with violence will get you nowhere.

          I wish I hadn’t drank so much coffee today and could express my thoughts better. No dice.

  8. I am skeptical of this article because it’s basically a, “he said she said” ordeal. I am not saying that things like this don’t happen, however coming from an objective standpoint, I think it would only be fair if these people could defend their arguments, without hearing about it indirectly via paraphrasing. There is a huge case of bias with things like these and it opens up the whole “bandwagon effect,” which can be a fallacy, if you are not careful. Also, I think this is what the above poster, michelle is trying to convey and I agree with her on that particular aspect.

  9. My job was threatened yesterday for ‘discussing sexual orientation in the workplace,’ a.k.a. my coworker accused me of being gay and I didn’t deny it. As a waitress, I get winked at, ass grabbed, verbally harassed, told that I’d be prettier if I were ‘less masculine,’ I am referred to as ‘sweetie’ or simply as ‘Woman,’ and I could continue. Yet this author is correct in that sooo much of the population believes we (as women and homosexuals) are free from discrimination!! This makes me want to cry.

  10. I get hit with the same experience constantly at my new job. There are 8 of us all sitting in a room and news stories are often discussed, and one morning we were discussing the Rutgers tragedy. Someone was convinced it was just a coincidence and had nothing to do with the fact that he was gay. And these people are just completely oblivious to the oppression of our community, of women, of poc, its always so jarring. Im always flabergasted at how often people are content to just sit quietly in their bubble.

  11. Yes it’s important to realize that not absolutely everything happens because of straight up discrimination–and if you as an individual becomes convinced of said same you’re going to have a bad, bitter time–but I can’t stand this kind of thing: …” Perhaps Hailey and her girlfriend are were infringing on someone else’s space.”

    OR MAYBE IT WAS HOMOPHOBIA.

    At a certain point questioning it over and over is ridiculous and always sounds, to me anyway, like the person doing the arguing is trying to find any way possible to get out of it. (btw Santorum was totes going to call Obama a “negus,” you guys, GOD NOT EVERYTHING IS ABOUT RACE. /sarcasm)

    OP did the right thing and did it respectfully without sacrificing her point. That’s all anyone can do. Self care has to kick in after that and you have to walk away from people who aren’t teachable.

  12. I…have so many feelings about this. Most of the time I feel like I’m taking crazy pills because I grew up in white racist Republicantown where blatantly prejudiced statements were the norm, but things haven’t gotten much better now that I’m in “liberal” Boston. I don’t know how many times and how much energy I’ve spent trying to convince people in my circle of friends that YES, racism/sexism is still a thing, and NO, it’s not okay to make racially offensive jokes because “it’s okay to joke about these things now.”

    I don’t know how many times I’ve heard female friends say they haven’t been discriminated against and therefore sexism isn’t real, that slut-shaming isn’t a problem because “I’d feel the same way about a guy having too much sex,” that feminists are “crazy” and “angry” and just want women to be superior to men.

    I even heard a coworker the other day say, “I don’t think racism is really a problem in the United States anymore. I mean, like I still get scared when I walk through a neighborhood of mostly black people, but there are some things that won’t really change and we just have to learn to live with them.” (at which point I wanted to scream and throw myself out the window, especially when other people AGREED WITH HER)

    I could go on and on, the point being that WE ARE NOT IN AN OPPRESSION FREE WORLD and it astounds me that people can’t see the oppression that goes on every day around them. The problem is that people who are intent on living in a post-racial/sexist/homophobic world always have some invalidating comment to make every time you bring up anecdotal or statistical evidence of systemic discrimination. So to answer the question “How do you begin to change a world that thinks it’s already changed?” ….I have no fucking idea, someone please tell me.

  13. I don’t know how many Social Media Managers airlines have but you should seriously consider omitting the city she lives in because that gives away what airline she works for.

    Actually, I just googled the name of the airline based in that city + “Social Media Manager” and of the two names/faces that popped up only one is a woman. All signs point to this being the woman you had the above conversation with. Obviously I can’t be sure, but it would be prudent to take steps to protect her reputation (and, in effect, your job).

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