What Being Gay Has Taught Me About White Privilege

So here are some things that straight people might not know:

Even though gay marriage is now legal across the country, I am still afraid to hold my wife’s hand in many public places.

When I was planning my wedding, instead of simply being able to enjoy the chaos of planning a wedding, I got nervous every time I met with a new vendor for the moment they would assume I was marrying a man and I would have to correct them.

I am terrified of the first time that my daughter sees a “God Hates Fags” sign and I will have to explain to her what that means.

When my family and I are staying in certain places, I always check in to hotels by myself because I look “less gay” than my wife does and we never know if we are really going to be welcome or not.

Every single year that I have to come out to a new group of students, I get dry mouth and worry that this is the time that someone is going to call and complain about it.

Whenever I write something about being gay, I am worried that one of the comments that is going to be left is going to be filled with hate.

I have waited for election results knowing that the winning candidate would determine whether or not my family got to be considered a family in the eyes of the law.

When people are rude to my family, I always wonder if it is because the person is just a jerk or because the person is a jerk who has a problem with gay people.

I worry, all the time, that people are going to one day tell my daughter that her moms are going to hell.

This is my reality.

And one of the things that is hardest for me is when I try to discuss my reality with people who are straight and they automatically begin to reassure me that the world isn’t really that bad.  When I tell people how hard it was to come out as a gay educator, they often ask me if I really thought anyone was going to have a problem with it.  When I tell people about my fears of holding hands with my wife in public, they often tell me how many friends of theirs show support for gay people on Facebook.  When I tell people about my fears of what my daughter is going to have to encounter in her life time, they often tell me what a good time in history it is to be gay and how much better things are today than they used to be.

And I know these people have the best of intentions. But what they don’t see is that by trying to reassure me about how good the world really is, they are denying me the experiences that I have had that have shaped the perceptions that I hold of the world.  By trying to tell me that it really isn’t that bad, they are trying to erase my feelings and my story and make it all just a bit more comfortable for me and perhaps even for themselves.

Except it isn’t comfortable. Hate never is. And it shouldn’t be. The discomfort is what should propel us to move forward and to keep fighting.

When I tell people what it is like to be gay, to be a gay educator, to by a gay mother, what I need most from them is for them to listen.  I am comforted when people respond by saying, “I had no idea.” I feel supported when people tell me, “I can’t even imagine that.” I find such solace when people say to me, “That sucks.” Because that shows me that they are not trying to deny me my truth. It shows me that they are learning from my story and it is going to motivate them to try to do better. It shows me that they are not going to try to argue with me that homophobia still exists. They are going to listen to my story and learn about the things that are still broken in this world so that they can try to help to fix them.

And all of this. All of this in my own life has started to shed a bit of light for me on the idea of white privilege.  Ever since Ferguson, I have been working to understand all of the things that I didn’t even know that I didn’t understand.  My idea of where we are in terms of race in this country was so wrong. Not wrong because I didn’t care. Not wrong because I didn’t want to do better. Not wrong because I am an awful person. Wrong because I have the privilege of not having to think about race in my daily life.

Just like a straight person doesn’t think twice before holding the hand of the person they love, I, as a white person, don’t think twice before walking into a store about how I will be perceived because of the color of my skin.

The not having to think about it. The not realizing how much others HAVE to think about it.  That is privilege.

And the only way that I have been able to start to understand my own privilege is by listening, really listening, to the stories of others who DON’T have that same privilege.  By hearing those stories, I am better able to understand the things that are broken in this world.

And when I hear these stories, I have to be careful that my first instinct isn’t to comfort, isn’t to reassure that things aren’t really that bad, isn’t to make it clear that I am not a racist and so I couldn’t be a part of the problem. Because all of those instincts that I have. They are wrong. They simply erase the experiences of the person telling the story.  Yes, I like to fix things. Yes, I like to make people feel better.  But by doing that I am sometimes just making the problem worse. Because denying that the problem exists is not a way to make things better.

So I am recommitting myself to listening. To seeking out the stories of those who have to think about race every day.  To listening and honoring the experiences that others are willing to share with me.

And then.

I want to bring those stories to my students. I want them to begin to understand the things that no one ever helped me to understand because we were too busy spreading the message that skin color doesn’t matter.

I want to seek out lesson plans that are written by others who know more than I do so that I can bring more than just my own experiences of privilege into the classroom.

I want to teach my students to listen to the stories of others and use those stories to see what is wrong in our world that needs to be fixed.

I want to help my students to see that race DOES matter and I want to help them to see all of the ways that they are sent messages on race that affect their perceptions of the people they encounter in this world.

I want to read more and listen more and search for more.

And along the way, I know that I will mess up. That I will say the wrong thing. That someone will tell me that what I have said has hurt them. And I want to make sure that I do not see that as an attack, but as a way for me to do better in the future.

Because these conversations. They won’t be comfortable. They shouldn’t be comfortable. The discomfort is what will remind us of all the work that still has to be done.  But in the discomfort there is growth. And that growth is the only thing that is ever going to make any of this any better.

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22 thoughts on “What Being Gay Has Taught Me About White Privilege

  1. Thank you for sharing your stories and your perspective. Yes… We all need to try and listen better. Your writing is filled with honesty and love…great ingredients for teaching.

    • This is teaching. This post and your perspective is, I believe, what we’re needing in the world. When I was a child my mum nodded to sexism when she said; “You’ll need to work harder than any man for the same results.” And so I did. And I saw what she meant. She was right. She called me to be smarter than other people’s prejudices, to dispel this issue by being an example. Yet I still lost my way because of another prejudice in our culture; students aren’t capable yet. My success in school came at a cost of being re-directed over and over when otherwise I’d have flown away along lines my heart was taking me. Students aren’t stupid. Student’s see the issues in the world. Yet our schooling asks us to learn these other discreet packages of knowledge, or you’ll miss out in the future, and to take this test, ignore the outside world, because – don’t you see – if you’re successful enough those people and their issues wont matter to you. Students minds are the most idealistic and imaginative we have. So, I’d like to say to students; if you have something to do, you’ll need to work harder than any adult for the same results.

  2. “I didn’t know… Thank you for sharing this.” was your response. And it was perfect. Thank you for sharing such an incredibly honest and reflective piece!

    • So much of this thinking started in that car ride with you. I was so grateful that you shared your experience with us. It made me feel lucky and so honored. In general, I feel lucky and honored to know you.

      • Jess, I felt that that car ride reminded of what I want to accomplish in this journey. I also feel honored to know people who are so different when we consider the outside superficial stuff yet exactly the same in the essential beliefs that drive our actions, passions and decisions. I shared this with others and I think you have made a lot of us be more reflective about how we approach this topic. Gracias, amiga!

  3. This stopped me in my tracks. It was hard to remember to breathe as I read this. It is incredibly profound but is also just helpful. Simply helpful.

  4. Thank you for getting me to think and see your wise perspective. The line that resonated was:

    ” because we were too busy spreading the message that skin color doesn’t matter.”

    I will strive to listen with the lens of privilege in my life and in my life as a teacher. As I read your story, I was reminded of the picture book, Ruth and the Green Book. My hope is that instead of a green book being made today to help gay families, that our mindsets simply change. Thanks to your story, I will think and act more.

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  6. Thank you for your insight. Your experiences, your honesty, have opened my eyes to not only white privileges but also to your experience as a gay educator, and the importance of not diminishing those.

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  8. Excellent post. Might I suggest Teaching Tolerance from the Southern Poverty Law Center? There are free videos and lesson plans about race, bullying, transgender and other topics that are very difficult to teach because we don’t always understand the perspective. Bravo to you for your eloquent post.

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  12. Excellent message. I remember in my prior teaching career choosing to be so closeted due to how faculty treated one particular faculty member who was “out.” When gossip turned ugly in my carpool about said faculty member, I kicked the talkers out of my car. I never came out then, though.
    I am about to re-enter teaching, 15 years later. Even though the climate nationwide toward gays is a little warmer, I am still wondering if school is, in fact, still “old school.”

  13. Hi Jess,
    Thank you for being so honest in your writing. I see that you wrote this post a while ago, but it is still very much relevant today (especially with everything that is going on in our country now). I would like to know how your students have responded to the readings and such that you have provided them regarding white privilege? Being that you teach in Northbook, I imagine the majority of your students are White. What were their reactions to when you introduced them to the readings regarding this topic? I also teach in a primarily White district and think the points you brought up about listening, and actually hearing the person, would also be very valuable to my students. I plan to bring up what you have mentioned here with my team members once the school year begins in August.
    Thank you,
    Kelley

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