SOCIAL INJUSTICE AND UGLY SHOES
To whom it may concern,
And really, it’s everyone’s concern. I am writing this as a Métis woman who cried over having white privilege the other day. That’s right. I cried, over being “too white”! You see, in order for me to claim certain benefits as an Indigenous woman, I have to prove my ancestry. My father, who is a wonderful man but sick with alcoholism, has lost any documentation proving where we came from. My mother, who is European herself, grew up in an Indigenous community, with Indigenous children, and has been struck with concerns that many Indigenous individuals are forced to deal with, given our current state of affairs. My mother, with next to no resources as a single, lower income parent of five, had run to my rescue, trying to sooth my white privilege nerves by going to Vital Statistics, and again – on a lower class income – paid for me to rush order any proof that I am in fact not completely white! I can apply for that one scholarship! I can declare that underneath all of this white privilege that I am in fact Indigenous and I deserve to be treated as such!
And then it got me to thinking… what does it mean to be treated as such? As we were in line my cousin came in. A single mom of two, trying to support her children on next to nothing. Somehow she managed to step away from her children for a short moment, to bus downtown, and wait in line to pay for something, with money she really doesn’t have, in the hopes of being able to not lose the social assistance that supports her family. A situation all too familiar to my childhood friends. I can’t count the number of times my closest friends were sneered at as they lug their stroller onto the bus, in hopes of someone making room for them. Trying to care for their family, with probably no guidance of their own as a reference, under the judging gazes of others.
Later this afternoon as my mom and I had gone to a reputable government institution offering job search assistance, I noticed the receptionist looking my mom up and down, not realizing I was with her. My mom was wearing these awful, neon blue/neon green running shoes, and a pink tank top (probably from Giant Tiger, or the 80’s. Or both)! My mom, who herself is not of aboriginal descent has grown up and raised her family in a heavy Indigenous area of town. She herself has had to suffer for her children, for her friends, for her income, under the judging gaze of others. She no doubt has had to lug that same stroller onto the bus, carrying me, trying to avoid eye contact with those judging her for being a young parent, with my Indigenous dad beside her, looking just as uncertain. She had to drop out of college sometime early on in my childhood to take care of my four brothers and I, and my dad, a product of the residential school system who carries his addiction like a genetic disposition. To put it lightly, my mom did not have the opportunities I have had. To move from a lower to middle-class. To wear designer underwear, own a nice pair of Nike’s, or go after not only a first post-secondary diploma but a second. While she herself is white, she suffers the issues so many of my family members and friends, who are and “look Indigenous” are forced to deal with.
Last week a kid I grew up with was shot, by another kid we grew up with over gang related issues. Both boys are Indigenous.
Today at the bank an Indigenous woman was being ushered out by Caucasian employees. She was clearly in hysterics and upset over something. Not speaking English, probably frustrated she was being misunderstood, had finally left. The (white) bank employee rushed to his other bank employees to wash his hands with sanitizer and complain about how uncivilized this woman was being… uncivilized.
Growing up in traditional Métis culture I often went to sweat lodges, received many teachings, medicines, and my colours early on in life. All of which made me feel incredibly proud of who I was and where I came from. I had never been shunned away from any of these, by any of my community members or family (though with the slight joke that I was a little “white washed” looking). My blonde hair and green eyes were greeted with a “Welcome Home” the first time I attended the Sweat lodge. And I don’t know if it was until today when suddenly I felt like a brown person trapped in a white body when my heritage felt threatened… that I had realized just how much privilege I have carried my entire life. That the very stereotypes my friends and family members have been fighting to defy I was trying to jump into.
Let it be said that I, Steph Jael, a self-proclaimed white-knight (pun intended) of social injustice from her neighborhood, cried over having too much opportunity. Cried over not being able to apply for a scholarship (while being fully funded the SECOND time) while her cousin paid $65 (for a birth certificate, proving her child is, in fact, her child) from the $300 she receives to support her kids. I cried over being virtually invisible as the bank tellers judged this woman who was clearly just misunderstood. I cried over not being able to throw my white privilege out the window in order to be a visible part of a minority that is STILL forced to deal with so much hate, judgment, and divide.
Perhaps it’s bold of me to link poverty and racism. But today it particularly stood out to me as I reflected on weeping over having one less thing I had to fight against.
Nothing pisses me off more than social injustice, and ugly shoes.
P.S. I love you mom, but you need new shoes
*Disclaimer: All of these are 100% real questions that I have been asked a countless number of times throughout my life when people “find out” I am a lesbian. While these responses may reflect the view of some who identify as a lesbian it is not (and should not) be taken as a broad generalization representative of every other individual that identify as such.
Each response is my personal thought and is presented with the intent to kindly shed a little light. It is also to be noted that these experiences are those of a short-haired, sans make-up wearing lesbian. Believe it or not these factors have lead me to have experiences that may differ from a lesbian who is traditionally more feminine. This is largely due to stereotyping. We will later discuss “Femme Invisibility”, an issue for lesbians that do not look “stereotypically gay”.
When I started writing this blog initially it had been some time since I had met someone who didn’t know my orientation. Therefore I didn’t actually know for sure if people really still asked these kinds of questions. Later that night I had a business meeting at a pub. After the meeting ended a man who was nearby started to chat with me. We chatted on and eventually at some point he must have felt comfortable enough to start with the “gay questions”. He managed to ask every single one I will mention below – word for word. I responded to them then exactly as I will in this post. While I am always happy to inform and educate I find there is a way to respectfully probe for information when inquiring into very personal topics. Here are the top three questions you probably didn’t know you should stop asking lesbians (and a guess at what you probably mean to actually ask).
1. You like girls?!…. What’s wrong with men?!
Playful Answer: The sarcastic person in me that is so sick of hearing this question, and so tired of having resistance from society over something that is inherent in who I am says, “nothing… why don’t you be with one first and then I will?”
The real answer: I think what you’re looking to ask here is “why do you like women?”
Here it is; nothing is wrong with men. At all actually. As I have mentioned before, some of the very best people I have the privilege of knowing are men. Each of them possess attributes and characteristics that I value in such high regard within an individual, period. But it comes down to this; men are simply not what I am attracted to for a romantic partner. I wouldn’t even call it preference as preference implies I have a choice. Being attracted to women is not a choice, much as it is also not yours. As it’s not a person’s choice if they are attracted to a man… or ballet… or the Winnipeg Jets. It just is. And that’s okay. It is however a choice to accept these parts of yourself – to which I have had the opportunity to embrace.
2. So which one of you is the man?
Playful Answer: Neither of us is the man. We’re lesbians.
The real answer: I think the question you are looking to ask here is “who is masculine and who is feminine”?
So here is my answer: stating that there “need” be a man implies that the relationship simply cannot exist or be warranted without the presence of one – which as we know is not true.
Further, if you ask who is more masculine/feminine this still wouldn’t truly be accurate to who either of us are. I don’t wear makeup while my partner does. When I get married I intend to wear a suit while my partner would prefer a dress. However, I am also more sensitive than she is. Her hair is just as short as mine, and she is also attracted to people “traditionally feminine”. So who actually is more masculine? Who is more feminine? To be honest I don’t think either of us are just one or the other. We are both a little bit masculine, a little bit feminine, and a lot of everything in between. That is the premise of this blog. That we as human beings fall within a spectrum and should embrace this.
3. “So… where the party at?”
Playful Answer: This statement has become so offensive I no longer have one.
The Real Answer: The first few times I was asked this I didn’t even get it. After probing further I quickly realized “where the party at” meant being a lesbian was synonymous with entertainment. This became gravely offensive quickly for two reasons.
As a lesbian I have found over and over again that my orientation, gender, and therefore my relationships with other women (even platonic) are often fetishized – by both men and women. When people realize I am attracted to women they often try to relate to me by disrespectful and chauvinistic comments about them. Which is not only disheartening but the complete opposite of how one should view them. All of the women in my life I truly love, respect, and admire – the way I do any other individual. The women in my life aren’t stage props that need to be controlled or complained about. They are strong, independent, power-houses that allow me the honour of being part of their lives.
Second, here is the thing about the phrase “where the party at”… my life isn’t actually a party my friend. Contrary to what media may portray we aren’t in a hot tub at all hours with mojitos (although if you figure out how to go about this life please let me know). We get sick and need to be cared for. We are gross in front of each other. We lay in our pajamas all day. We go for dinner with our parents, go to school, struggle, cry, laugh etc. We are actually the same as everyone else. Lesbian is not synonymous with “a good time”.
And the reality behind the questions you are asking is this:
- Same sex marriage only became legal in Manitoba in 2004. I was 16 years old. If I were a born a decade earlier I would not have been able to marry the woman I am in love with right now.
- Traveling to certain countries is off limits for me and other LGBTQ people because of our orientation.
- People around the world are still being killed because of their orientation.
- Even within “safer countries” like Canada, we still experience an enormous amount of homophobia in both passive and physically aggressive ways.
As with any minority group we are given the special task of educating people. While it can be exhausting, frustrating, and sometimes even offensive to continue answering these questions, when it comes down to it I am quite honored to be able to teach and share. Particularly in recent months I have had the opportunity of sharing my experiences with gay youth in hopes of providing support and guidance.
I think the world is slowly but surely getting better. Attitudes are changing, people are becoming more accepting, and for the most part within North America my experience is that homophobia is not only no longer trendy, but unacceptable. I am both blessed and grateful to be gay in this part of the world during this time.
To end this post I have one more bonus question for you:
You remind me of Ellen Degeneres…or KD Lang…. Or my aunt who is actually Jane Lynch and married to my cousin Susan who has a daughter named Ruby Rose… I wonder why that is?
Real Answer: It’s the haircut.