by Elaine Schleiffer
Writer’s Note: If, in 2020, you have yet to read the books of Black authors and the articles of Black researchers and the narratives of Black experiences that are readily available to you, stop reading this article and go do your homework. There are too many white queers in the world who think this national dialog on race is not for us, to us, or about us.
Three years ago, the queer community was given a gift. This gift gave us the opportunity for healing, listening, and walking side by side with some of the most marginalized members of our family. It was met with silence, indifference mostly and especially from white queers.
Two years ago the queer community received another offering, this one more pointed, particular, purposeful. White queers still weren’t ready.
In 2020 the luxury of wallowing in our self doubt, self pity, and self obsession is gone. Laid bare for us white queers are our biases, our comfort with discrimination, and all the ways we have participated in systems that harm our family members.
White queers like myself are scrabbling now to educate ourselves, to learn and to understand. I am, alongside so many other white queers, often in a messy rush to try to reclaim a perception of myself that is progressive.
I am watching symbols stand in for real conversations: hashtags instead of dialog, t-shirt slogans and tweets where a whole essay is needed. I am watching folks who identify like me—and that includes identifying as progressive, informed, striving leaders—offer up gestures, when deep and thorough change is what’s needed.
White queers, we must slow ourselves down. We have to give up the frenetic energy of envisioning this as an issue of crisis communications, and sink into the knowledge that deep cultural and personal shift is at work on us now.
It’s lucky for us that so many vanguard voices of the new world are family members. So many of the authors and trainers and speakers and artists who understand this moment and this movement are our family members. For white queers, this is a time for listening.
A few years ago I heard a poet perform a piece about a particular well-to-do block in a freshly gentrified neighborhood where almost every house flies a pride flag. (We will have to talk about monied white gays and gentrification another time.):
good morning, here is an unpublished poem i wrote in june of 2017 pic.twitter.com/xBsYpyc0Pz
— monster machismo marzi (@wigglytuff_pink) July 24, 2020
I think constantly about that poem and its fearless author, who performed it just a few miles away from that block, for a local and queer audience.
It’s easy to use symbols as shorthand for complex ideas, and we’re used to using images to communicate like that. In 2020 I am learning that my understanding of symbols is not the same as that of others. I fear that if I don’t revert to spelling out exactly what I mean, the symbols that I use will become the “blank, blank signs,” of the poem.
So this is what I mean.
- When I fly this flag, it means you are safe with me and in my house. It means you are welcome with me and in my house.
- This flag means that my commitment to honoring my full community is deeper than my discomfort at being a race traitor or a gender traitor, both of which I have repeatedly been called by straight cis white men who meant it as the worst kind of insult.
- This flag means I am specifically coaching myself on paying attention to the needs, dreams, goals, and initiatives of marginalized community members. For all my community members holding all kinds of marginalized identities, it means that wherever your path intersects with mine, I will amplify your voice.
- This flag means I am committed to evolution when my past beliefs no longer serve my future goals.
- This flag means that I take pride in being your coconspirator. I take pride in disrupting the systemic, institutional, and interpersonal abuse of my family members.
- Because I am the one most likely to walk past it or look at it, I must acknowledge that this flag is for me.
- This flag is my daily reminder to do the work. Seeing it reminds me to start implementing all the new habits I am trying to curate. Seeing it reminds me to go follow more black thought leaders and culture makers on social media. To buy black made products from black owned businesses. To support black led nonprofits, and attend black led community events. To donate to black led projects, and to donate to the endless gofundmes and Facebook fundraisers that stand in now for the financial equity we must work toward. To investigate big ideas, like reparations, demilitarization, or decolonization. To hold with both hands my own discomfort with those ideas, while still holding on to the vital impact they’ll make in my future.
I’ll celebrate pride month when we can get back into the streets; but in the meantime, this flag on my street keeps me close to my community.
Elaine Schleiffer is a community organizer, writer, and advocate focused on reproductive justice and queer rights in Cleveland, Ohio. She is proud Board member of The Buckeye Flame. Find her at elaineschleiffer.com.