Leaving without abandoning: How to engage problematic communities?

Instant photograph of lower legs and feet walking away. The subject is wearing slacks and brown shoesIf we are going to refuse to support our own and others’ oppression, how do we leave and cease to cooperate with anti-queer (and racist, transphobic, and other oppressive) forces without abandoning both the oppressed and the oppressor who remain behind?

I don’t, by any means, have all the other answers and so I would love to hear your perspectives as well. Below are some of mine to get us started:

Leaving is not abandoning

I no longer attend the church I grew up in but I have not abandoned it. I still maintain relationships with many of the folks I knew while a member, including one of the pastors. These relationships include an honesty about my current beliefs and perspectives and an unflinching explanation that their beliefs are oppressive and ultimately harmful. For a few years, I would attend services and other events there occasionally. I still go to the young adults programs on occasion but do not attend the main service. It does not feed me and I cannot, by my presence, condone the racist, classist, nationalist beliefs and actions actively espoused from the pulpit (and the implicit homophobia and transphobia which pervades the culture).  Instead, I engage the community through small groups, Bible studies, and social events where dialogue is open. I am openly queer and do my best to model affirmation through my presence and words.

Staying is not (necessarily) supporting

Don’t we often decide to stay in an effort to support the community or to make change from within? That’s a noble goal which isn’t necessarily achieved through staying put. What does it say to those around us when we pour our time and talent (and often money) into an organization which beats us up, forces us to remain silent, and asks us to choose between parts of our identities?

Straight folks might have it easier: they may not need to lie about who they are or they may not be forced out. What happens when straight people are allowed to stay in places where queer folks are not? Is it appropriate to say “I need to go be with the queers… the oppressed are more important than the oppressor”?  What happens when the only voices are those for whom this is an “issue” and not an everyday lived reality?

Staying in an oppressive community or institution might bring about change. If that is going to be the tactic, we need to be sure that it is one of active resistance and creative re-imagining. If we stay only to be silent, to be told we are worthless, to be shunned, then we are saying with our consent “We don’t matter” and that will do more harm than good.

So then what?

What then shall we do? Share your experiences in the comments below of times when you’ve walked away and times when you’ve said. What did you do? What happened? What have you learned? How have you changed?

Photo by Valentin Ottone

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3 Comments

  1. Vince Pancucci November 23, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Any space that queers intentionally occupy is transformed from a site of oppression into an active site of resistance.

    Queering spaces are one of the most powerful ways of making our lives and beliefs known in otherwise oppressive communities.

  2. Brian Gerald November 23, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Thanks for your input. How do we make sure that we (queers) are intentionally occupying and resisting a space instead of passively occupying or even cooperating with oppression?

    And what are straight people to do in spaces where queers are pushed out or do not feel safe/comfortable joining? What are they/we to do?

  3. Vince Pancucci November 23, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    I agree that there is a total difference between occupying a space, where we intentionally are silent or passive amidst homophobia and transphobia (and racism, nationalism, militarism, sexism, classism, etc.) and occupying a space, where queer bodies are actively engaged in resistance. This resistance, which often takes many forms, can manifest itself through working directly with our oppressors or queering spaces that are traditionally oppressive.

    However, far more often than not, we choose to occupy spaces that are oppressive (without resisting and often without fully realizing that oppression), because we are scared of standing up against and/or have accepted and internalized that oppression. In essence, we are complicit with the spaces/institutions that would subjugate and relegate us to second-class status, because we don’t resist the institutional violence that is spewed from the pulpit, for example. In fact, we may even begin to think that we can change the space through peaceful dialogue after the violence has been committed (i.e through coffee hour talks or after-hours bible study). But, doesn’t active resistance mean that we confront and fight back against the violence as it is being thrown at us? Wouldn’t it be better to engage right then and there instead of waiting after the damage is done. As queers, we are extremely resilient. This resilence, however, bites us in the ass, because we are used to getting back up after we fall down. How many times do we need to be knocked down in the first place before we come to the realization that we can fight back (verbally and physically) before the violence comes our way? Coming from someone you know, Brian, I am no longer willing to negotiate or dialogue about the lives and livelihood of my queer brothers and sisters.

    Passive occupation leads to blind cooperation and ultimately, complicity with the oppressor.

    As to the question of what straights are supposed to do when we are pushed out or do not feel safe/comfortable joining oppressive spaces or institutions…I demand that they leave those spaces or actively resist them, as well. If they’re not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem. Straight people need to learn that or else accept the blood that is on their hands.

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