There’s a kind of sadness in accepting that we still have a long way to go. Today I have been preparing lectures on equality, diversity, oppression and power, and the historical resistance to oppression. I have been reviewing information, case studies and TED talks on racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and these have raised some important issues for me relating to the history of LGBT+ identities and our own resistance to oppression. When we examine the lives and resistance of LGBT+ people, the concept of social devaluation emerges strongly, and this resonates powerfully with me when considering my life, and the lives of colleagues, friends and family.
According to Nzira and Williams (2009, p. 34), “our identity… is defined not only by ourselves but by others. When our identity is defined negatively by those in power, oppressive experiences are highly likely to result. The social process involved has been called ‘social devaluation.’” The experience of oppression is not new to many individuals, but perhaps those who are not accustomed to fighting for the legitimacy of their identities so forcefully, perhaps those people may not be so aware of the impact of social devaluation on people, on their wellbeing, on their ability to survive and to thrive in this vastly complex world. Social devaluation means that aspects of a person’s identity are viewed negatively, and that negativity is widely socially accepted because it derives from a dominant ideology. This can, commonly, be seen for example in groups of society being viewed as ‘second class’ or ‘less than.’ This in term limits opportunity for such people. It limits their voices. Our history of LGBT+ identities, for example, is complicated because history has been written by dominant forces which continue to argue against the assertions of our communities. A common argument for the lack of existence of LGBT+ people or identities in the past is the lack of ‘proof.’ For example, there is no ‘proof’ the Ladies of Llangollen had a sexual relationship – therefore it cannot be asserted that they did. This is an interesting approach. There is no proof that a whole raft of famous ‘straight’ people had sex either, yet it is assumed that there was a sexual, or heterosexual foundation to their marriages, despite there being no proof that they actually had sex. It is assumed that, because for example, they were married, that they had a sexual relationship, or at the least, a romantic relationship. The same measure is not applied to same-sex relationships of people in the past.
My response to that, of course, is ‘if it walks a like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.’ If an historical figure has a close, same-sex relationship with a person and it looks like an intimate relationship, is viewed by others and by the people themselves as an intimate relationship, then it is safe to assume it IS an intimate relationship. This is just one example of social devaluation, the undermining of same-sex relationships in the past because of a lack of legal or social legitimacy.
But the nearer past also contains other examples of how this might happen. A personal example of this is a comment made to me once by a very senior manager in a healthcare organisation, who had accused me of lying about being off sick. I had had a GP sickness letter confirming my sickness, and had followed protocol by ringing up and asking when to bring this in on the day that sickness began, the day I had secured the sick note. I was told by an administrative colleague that it was ‘fine to bring it in the day you come back’ because I lived so far from my place of work and one of the reasons I wasn’t in work was because I wasn’t well enough to drive. When I arrived back at work I was told that I would not be paid for the sick time because I hadn’t got the ‘sick note.’ Producing it and my argument, I was accused of lying (about the illness, about the phonecall to the administrative colleague) and getting a sick note in retrospect. This is what the senior manager said. “We all know you people can’t be trusted.” She was, of course, referring to the fact that I was in a lesbian relationship. This was before 2005 and so I had little legal redress for her behaviour. I argued strongly and was told that she “would let me get away with it this time”. My anger was such that I could barely articulate it, and I left the organisation some time later after systematic bullying for which there was no redress because of social devaluation. I was deemed to deserve the ostracism and outright bullying I experienced because of my deviance. I use this personal example but am surrounded by others’ examples of similar experiences, most of which I will not share in a public forum because they are their own stories, not mine to expose.
However, when we consider how far we have come, in terms of legal protections, we cannot forget that we are, many of us, still compelled to be activists for equality simply because we still see this social devaluation around us. When lesbian characters in mainstream dramas are consistently killed off, this suggests that being a lesbian ultimately leads to an early death. When gay characters are only known by and through their sexual behaviours, this devalues gay identity and limits it to sex, suggesting that this is the most important thing about being gay, which in turn undervalues the complexity of gay culture. When bisexuality is either invisible or discounted as ‘confusion’ then social devaluation comes into play, as if there is some great authority stating that every individual must define themselves according to social norms and make a ‘choice’ to be something that society has given a particular value to. When trans* people experience violence daily, and experience constant negative press in the UK media, this reinforces the false idea that they are ‘other’ and somehow deserve what they get, which is the antithesis of an inclusive, egalitarian society. When women are still judged primarily on their appearance and their willingness to starve themselves to meet social ideals of body size, and men are encouraged to denigrate and sexualise women as part of ‘male culture’. When all of these things continue, we have no choice but to resist.
Like many others, I have experienced people dismissing the fight for LGBT+ equality. “You’ve got equality now,” they say, because we have equal marriage. Yet this is far from an equal society, and far from an equal experience. We are free now to join the normative form of marriage and spend huge amounts of money on a socially validating event to celebrate and legitimise our relationships, yet it is impossible to get a gender neutral passport or a gender neutral birth certificate. And raising these questions, these legitimate, socio-legal issues, still makes people uncomfortable, just as seeing the rainbow flag and being faced with LGBT+ people in public life still makes people uncomfortable.
How can we respond to this? By asking what it is that we ascribe value to in our social lives. And who ascribes that value. Pose these questions, and start to unpick from where we derive our social value and the validation of our identities. Who owns the media that represents us in these ways? Who channels the information that we view? Who challenges the rampant sexism that is still inextricably linked to the pervasive homophobia and unconscious bias in our social worlds, the discomfort with trans* identities or non-binary gender? Do we even challenge these things ourselves? Where does our power lie in resisting the social devaluation of ourselves and our identities? Perhaps when we examine these questions we can start to see how to make the change real, and pervasive, right here where it matters the most, in our day to day reality. Or at least, we can recognise the oppression we all experience, and the multiple dimensions and intersections of inequality, and start to look to each other to bring about change, learning the lessons of the past and defining a different kind of future.
Alys Einion, February 2018.
Alys Einion February 5th, 2018
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