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I’ve been dating my (amazing, sexy, opinionated) girlfriend for about six months now. We have a lot in common in terms of values, but there are some major sticking points that I think stem from our respective educational backgrounds and what they mean for our queerness(es). I went to a hippy-dippy liberal arts school where I “came out” by starting to make out with girls on the dance floor one night and no one really asked questions. I also had the benefit of a supportive infrastructure — there were at least three LGBTQ groups on campus at any given time. My honey, on the other hand, went to a super preppy, conservative college and was one of the few gay people on campus when she finally did come out. While I identify fairly closely with the queer community, I don’t think she feels that way (which isn’t necessarily bad!)
Because she didn’t have the same opportunities to be exposed to and learn about queer culture the way I did, she often expresses some opinions I find offensive and ignorant. For example, she finds effeminate gay men annoying and has characterized trans people in reductive ways. When she expresses those opinions, I get offended, though I also try to explain my reaction. However, she maintains that she wants to be able to share those feelings with me and I don’t want to make her shut down. That being said, how do I tell her that some of the things she says (though, granted, she wouldn’t say them in front of anyone else) are just WRONG? I want to be a resource but I don’t want to be offended all the time or get pigeon-holed as the non-feeling educator.
Before I get started, I’m going to clarify that because of the way you frame your letter, I am assuming you and your girlfriend are both cis women, and I’ll be answering this question from that perspective. If I’m wrong, let me know in the comments, and we’ll take it from there.
Sometimes we love people who don’t share our same value systems or knowledge sets. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love them, but it can mean we need to work hard to make sure we aren’t compromising our own values just to placate them.
To sum up what I got from your letter: You think your girlfriend (I’m going to call her Amanda) is the bee’s knees. She thinks you’re the bomb. Amanda has opinions about trans and queer people that you find offensive, sometimes flat-out wrong. She only shares these opinions with you, but when you speak up and say you take offense, she is dismissive. You don’t want to stop speaking up, but it sounds like you’re concerned about how this will affect your relationship.
There are two things going on here: one is about your relationship with Amanda, and the other is about your desire to be an ally to your queer community. I’m going to address these things separately a little bit, but mostly together because they’re really completely intertwined. Being an ally is about building and maintaining relationships over time, both with people we share identities with, and people we don’t.
First, with regards to your relationship: it sounds like Amanda trusts you, and sees you as someone who can make her feel heard and respected. This is great! But you deserve to be heard and respected, too. It’s important that she be able to confide in you, yes, but there’s a difference between being a confidante and being a carte blanche receptacle for her opinions, especially if they hurt you. That’s not how it works. You actually don’t owe her that.
When it comes to allyship: it’s really important for cis people to educate other cis people about gender and trans issues. I’d go so far as to say it’s our responsibility to do it patiently, clearly and persistently, because it helps create a world in which trans people don’t have to shoulder the entire burden of raising awareness about trans issues. An important way for cis people to be allies to trans people is to be allies even when trans people aren’t in the room. Trust your gut when it tells you that you don’t want to let what Amanda says off the hook.
So now let’s look at how your relationship and your allyship intertwine.
I think it’s interesting that you say Amanda wouldn’t say these things to anyone else. Whether she’s told you this outright or if it’s just something you’ve intuited, I’m not sure. But I think it’s important you ask yourself why you are the only one who hears her say these things. I don’t know what the answer is. You said she doesn’t have strong connections to a queer community, so it’s entirely possible these things just don’t come up with anyone else. But I also wonder if she thinks it’s fine because you give her a free pass when you don’t want to upset her or disrupt your relationship equilibrium.
I hear you in your concern that you don’t want to be pigeonholed as the educator. It can be really hard and exhausting to take on this role for people who you love (or just really really like). But would it help if I told you it’s ok if you don’t transform Amanda overnight? Because it’s not something that can happen instantly. She isn’t going to learn everything you want her to know immediately, or maybe ever. If you want to maintain your relationship with her while also helping her be a better ally or more informed, I think it’s entirely possible, but it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take work, because allyship is about building and maintaining relationships, not about achieving a particular status or getting all the cookies. It’s impossible for her — or for you — to be right every time.
One thing I do want to push back against is your sense that you need to be a “non-feeling” educator. It doesn’t sound like you are educating without feeling. It sounds like you feel this is important to you. But something I’ve noticed is that you’re framing your queerness entirely within the context of your college environment. Though it’s hard to know for sure from your letter, I wonder if this is part of why you haven’t had much success talking with Amanda about this so far. Remember, that academia often (and let’s be real – ESPECIALLY with stuff about identity, gender, and sexuality) utilizes inaccessible language to describe situations that affect people’s lives in really REALLY real ways. As a person who also went to a hippy-dippy liberal arts school, there have definitely been times when I have put my “academic” hat on to explain why someone is being offensive about gender stuff. With people who aren’t super familiar with that vocabulary or context, it’s never been particularly successful. I’ve been much more effective when I’ve put my “empathetic human” hat on to describe why something is offensive or incorrect.
If you’re having trouble parsing out the difference between those hats, I’d recommend you take some time to make a list of all the reasons why it’s important to you (to YOU — not your professors or favorite queer theorists or even your favorite Tumblr-ists) for your girlfriend to be on the same page as you. Do you have close friends or family members who would be hurt by your girlfriends’ opinions? Are there things she says that hurt you personally? See if you can shift from “non-feeling” educator to “feeling” educator. Then when this comes up again, frame your offense in terms of “I statements.” It might be easier for Amanda to connect with what you’re trying to communicate if she sees how it affects you on an emotional level, not just an intellectual one.
Ultimately, the decision to change comes down to her. You can try to shift your strategies based on what I’ve said here, and maybe one of them will make things click for her. But you also have to be ready for the possibility that you just might not be able to get through. In the end, all you can really do is trust yourself, trust what you want from the situation, and trust that you deserve to be heard by your girlfriend.
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