By Jessie Petrow-Cohen
“Just this past month while taking AP exams at my high school I was filling out the student information section of the test when I came across a section with two boxes. One said, “fathers information” and the other said “mother’s information”. Used to this by now I crossed out the word father and wrote mother next to it. The proctor of the test, while going around to check that everyone had completed the section made me erase the word mother I had written in because it was an “irregularity” on the paper.
Now, the fact of the matter is, having two moms is irregular. However, it is an irregularity that I could not possibly be more proud of. It is not something that I want to erase or hide, it something I want to write everywhere in sharpie and let the world read. That is really what this day is all about, not just looking for acceptance under the law but looking for Pride.”
This is an excerpt from a speech I gave at North Jersey Pride as a senior in high school. At the time my understanding of pride involved telling everyone I met that I had two moms. It meant wearing “Love=Love” shirts and my personal favorite “Got Moms.” shirt to school without a second thought. Pride meant never saying “my parents” but instead boldly stating “my moms” and then explaining to the questioning looks that sometimes followed.
In essence, pride meant claiming my stake in the LGBT community out loud, for the world to hear, in sharpie.
This past weekend was Pride in San Francisco. Trans March, Dyke March, and the all famous San Francisco pride parade. An entire weekend filled with people determined to graffiti the world in sharpie, claiming their pride for their sexual orientation, gender identity and allyship.
I want to focus in on that last term. Allyship. Ally. Me.
LGBT. LGBTQ. LGBTQQ. LGBTQQI. LGBTQQIA.
You have to add a whole lot of letters to this acronym before you get to the A for “Ally”.
(Fun fact: that last one stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, ally.)
Since I began working at the center this summer I have felt myself reassessing my role as an ally. I have tried to understand the nuanced situations in which I can and should use my privilege to advocate for the more oppressed, and the times in which I can and should step back, understand that this isn’t always about me.
I’ve kept some notes on coworkers who have questioned my sexual orientation and gender identity, who have questioned my commitment to the LGBT community. I have often felt as though those around me were determining if I was worthy. If they were gonna take the time to write what has got to be the world’s longest acronym to get all the way to the A. Deciding whether I was truly a part of the community, or instead an outsider looking in.
“Jess, are you queer? I’m not judging I’m just asking. I have always assumed you have to be at least a little queer to work here…”
“So are you yourself gay? Or would you say it’s more of a family affair?”
“Get ready Jess, coming out as straight to this office is like coming out as gay to your catholic grandfather.”
I used to be so sure that I was a part of the community. So positive that because I cared so deeply, felt so strongly, and felt so closely tied, largely because of my moms, that there was no question as to whether or not I truly belonged. Now, I’m not so sure.
Last week I attended “Musical Mondays” at Edge, a gay bar here in San Francisco. The Edge caters to an audience of older gay men. Standing there, surrounded by my DukeEngage cohort of 8 other people my age, we stood out like a sore thumb. There is no way that the men in the bar could’ve known we were in San Francisco working directly with the LGBT community. No way they could’ve known that among us we had three gay men, a bisexual woman and several other “allies”. No way they could’ve known that I have two lesbian moms. That I work at the LGBT Center.
No. To the men at The Edge, I was a straight, white, cis gendered girl infringing upon their territory. And they let me know it.
“You don’t belong here. Just go home.”
One of my bosses owns a gay bar, not The Edge, but his bar services a similar clientele. At lunch yesterday he told me that this weekend his bar was packed to the brim with young, white, straight girls, drunk of their asses and dressed in rainbow. He seemed so frustrated, to the point of being disgusted that those who were not truly a part of the community were making the weekend about them.
I told him about my experience at The Edge. I could actually see the wheels in his head back pedaling. “Well, um, no, not you! You would’ve been welcome, of course!”
But just from looking at me, I don’t belong at a gay bar. Just from looking at me, I could be a straight girl looking to be liberal and trendy, spend a night not getting hit on by sweaty strangers, and flaunting my rainbow colored spandex on Instagram with a caption titled “SF PRIDE!”
I have spent a large part of my life defining myself by my work with the LGBT community, my investment in the fight for same sex marriage and involvement with various pride festivals. I am someone who defines myself largely by my passions and equality has been the pinnacle of my passions in life.
It is a difficult position for me to be in. Realizing that what I have defined myself by for so long may not be an identity that I can fully claim. Because I am not gay, I have not experienced the oppression, discrimination, and harassment that accompanies such an identity. Sure, I have had some second hand stuff. Peers who disapprove of me having two moms, and let me know it, but never have I faced the direct oppression that accompanies an LGBTQ identity. Instead, I am privileged enough to receive only the second hand burns that come with an LGBTQQIA identity, emphasis on the “A”, and in truth, those don’t even compare.
So I’ve realized that some spaces are not for me to occupy. No matter how deeply invested I feel, or how passionate I am. Some spaces are not for me. As an ally, there are times where I can speak up, use my privilege to the advantage of the community I care so deeply about. But there are other times, where I have to step back.
This past Friday was Trans March, a day dedicated specifically to transgender pride. I spent the day in Dolores Park, tabling for the Center’s Trans Employment Program. I had my elevator pitch down pat and it was beautiful out, a perfect day to celebrate one of the most overtly marginalized communities that we serve here.
About half way through the day a newscaster approached our table. He held the microphone up to me and asked what we were here for. “Hi! We’re here with the SF LGBT Center tabling for our Trans Employment Program,” I responded.
I was surrounded by about 6 coworkers, at least 3 of whom were trans themselves.
The newscaster pulled me aside, “I’d love to ask you a few more questions.” I told him my colleagues would be better equip to answer, I was just an intern.
“Ah, but you’ll be the most digestible to our audience, people will want to hear from you more.”
I declined to comment.
I felt guilty as I walked back to my table, as if everyone else knew exactly why the 60 year old, white, male newscaster had chosen to speak to me.
I look back at my speech from 2014 Pride. I see a me, wracked with anxiety about AP exams, brimming with excitement about prom and graduation. I see a me, that was brazen, bold and proud. Who would’ve jumped at the opportunity to speak to a newscaster. I would’ve thought to myself “Hell yeah! We’re getting the word out, our message is going to reach more people… and if I get a little airtime while we’re at it no complaints there!”
I wouldn’t have questioned the message that is being sent when in an entire park of transgender individuals of every age, race, and gender identity, the white, straight, cis girl is the one on the news. It wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. I would’ve been off, sharpie-ing the world with my Pride.
But now, I think sometimes us “allies” have to know when put our sharpies away. We have to know when it is no longer our time, or space, to be the ones writing.