As some of you may know, I am a butchy gay woman. I'm kind of stereotypical in a lot of ways which means I am represented in the lgbt movement better than some, but I also have to deal with many more micro-aggressions which are directed specifically at me personally too. I've been thinking a lot recently about why we can't seem to get people to take micro-aggressions seriously. I think people may not realize what it feels like to deal with.
Micro-aggressions by definition seem minor becasue they are just little things. We aren't talking about gay bashing and in fact microaggressions are usually perpetrated by people who would get quite offended if you suggested they were biased in any way. Let me describe a incident that happened to me at work this past week as an example.
I was expiditing the pass in the kitchen at the restaurant I work in. This means I worked at the area where the servers came to pick up the food and was in charge of organizing the orders for the kitchen and getting them into the servers hands. All the rest of the kitchen staff work behind my back. So a server came up to the pass and was trying to get the attention of the other cooks behind me. It's very loud and they didn't hear her or respond.
SERVER: "Oh my god, those guys are such fags!"
ME: "Really? Come on, I'm right here." (said in a jokey kind of way)
S: "Oh, I don't mean anything by it, come on. I'm a fag too sometimes."
ME: : "No you're not." (deadpan)
The server walks away with a kind of confused/angry look on her face.
On the surface whats the big deal right? I mean it's just a little word and she didn't mean anything by it. I know this woman, she's really cool. I know she doesn't hate gay people. Now a lot of you might think to applaud me for saying something in this instance, but I'm not so sure doing that benefited me at all.
When something like this happens in real life you have only two options really:
1) Say something and risk a serious confrontation at the worst (you may be dealing with a serious homophobe - things could get potentially dangerous if you don't know the person you are talking to) or at the very least you give the other person a bad taste in their mouth about you. You become an instigator. You caused a problem. You are not a nice person, you accuse people of being homophobic. You are a meany. You are over sensitive. This is the option I chose above and by the look on her face, I immediately realized I had to work with her every day and maybe I shouldn't have made her feel bad. This is going to be gossip fodder for sure and I'm going to be the bad guy in the story. There is quite a bit of self-hate that results from taking this option as you realize that standing up for yourself makes other people feel bad and makes things harder for yourself so you think about it for some time afterwards.
2) You let it go and it stews inside of you until you can get away from the person and then afterwards you have an internal conflict about whether you should have stood up for yourself until the next incident occurs and you have to start the decision making process over again (the next incident isn't too far away, don't worry). There is quite often a bit of self-hate that results from this option too (Why am I such a wuss? I just rolled right over and said nothing), even though this is the most used option by far due to having to get along socially in society and the fear of confrontation.
So most often we choose to let it go. The problem is, while the incident doesn't make the other person feel bad and they instantly forget it ever happened, I can't forget it. I wonder if I should have stood up for myself, I feel like a failure because I didn't. I'm reminded how little the world cares about my feelings and that feeling doesn't go away. Each time it happens it compounds on the unresolved feelings from the last time it happened. The problem with little incidents are that they are stark reminders of far worse ones. Every time, I am reminded that while this person may be simply clueless and not homophobic, the world is pretty damned homophobic under the surface. It's the kind of world that makes it okay to call people fags.
If I do stand up for myself, I pretty much universally can expect to receive a bad reaction. The level of bad varies, but it is never good. Standing up for yourself causes people to say bad things about you. It causes you to wonder if you are just overly sensitive or too quick to anger at good people. The entire world is gaslighting you and sometimes it works.
Notice the important commonalities between the two (only) options I have: the inability to forget and self-hate. These are the most important takeaways here to understand why micro-aggressions are such a big deal.
How much of a problem do we really have with homophobic micro-aggressions though? This gets complicated because homophobia and sexism are fraternal twins. Gender policing is a huge part of gay micro-aggressions. Anytime you see someone policing gender, there is usually a gay or trans micro-aggression packaged in there. That's how pervasive it is. There was an article on Gawker a few days ago about a guy who had tons of surgery to make himself look like Justin Beiber. Well obviously he doesn't look like Justin Beiber, but who does the commentariat think he does look like:
It's easy to say "Oh, what do you expect from Gawker commenters?" but Gawker commenters are a better cross-section of the real people out on the street than Jezebel is. Gawker is a better example of the sorts of people I have to interact with out in the real world everyday but it's not like Jezebel is any better anyway.
Can we just all realize how gross it is to compare gay women to men who don't look masculine enough? It's a gender policing dig towards men using that insidious 'shemale' dig on gay women. It's gross to the power of 2. Usually someone will come into a thread like this and say something they think is a positive derailment like "He wishes she looked as good as Rachel Maddow!". This isn't helping. The correct response to a comment like that is "You're gross for comparing gay women to men and/or vice versa. It homophobic and gender essentialist and enforces macho culture in men and self-hate in gay women." I really wish I would see that response just once from someone other than me.
My intention here is not to point at these comments and hate on them. I mean, I do hate them, but my point is to show you how pervasive and common these little micro-aggressions actually are in the real world. I am reminded that the world hates me nearly every day somehow (most of the time it doesn't outright hate me per se, that would be unfashionable, it just thinks I'm gross and/or funny and/or exotic but that is pretty much the same thing). No one is completely impervious and while some of us allow these things to wash off our backs much better than others, no one is completely immune.
Some of us are more like sponges than others and eventually after soaking up too much, we start to leak. If you ever wonder why a minority might respond to a micro-aggression with what seems like out of proportion anger, now you know.