Don’t Forget Me

Sorry for the late post; Sunday and Monday really got away from me. However, it’s important to me to be consistent and reliable with my blog posts, so I figured it would be better to get this one in tonight, than to wait to post it tomorrow.

Anyway, before I left on vacation last week, I read my issue of Equality magazine, published by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). I’m a member and monthly partner of HRC so I make sure I take the time to read each quarter’s publication. This Spring’s issue included an interview with Elizabeth Warren who is running for a U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts. I have been interested in her campaign for several reasons but mostly because my fiancé lives in Massachusetts and because of the questions and challenges about her claim to Native American ancestry by her Republican opponent Scott Brown.

Warren has been a long-time proponent of equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community (one of the many reasons I like her and hope she wins the Senate seat in MA). Equality asked Warren to speak about what marriage equality in Massachusetts means to her and what its impact is. This was Warren’s response:

“It means we have some great families on our block. … It means that it’s both the profound statement and the simple statement. I love our block, and that’s how it should be. That’s what true marriage equality is about. I forget that some of the families in our neighborhood have two mommies and some have two daddies. And some have a mommy and a daddy and some have only one. … [emphasis added].” (p. 23)

Now, this is a great statement in many ways. Like I said earlier, I like Elizabeth Warren. I think her stances on consumer rights, LGBT equality, and many other issues are pretty much right in line with my own thinking. She’s someone I want to have in elected office in this country. I have faith in what she brings to the table; I think we need her voice. However, when I read this, I was immediately struck by the sentence that begins with the phrase “I forget.” She forgets that some of the families in her neighborhood are headed by same-gender couples? She forgets that some of them are gay fathers co-parenting and some are lesbian mother co-parents? She forgets this. Perhaps she means that it’s become so “normal,” such a part of her everyday life that she no longer notices it as odd or different or aberrant or even special. And that’s great if it’s true and I hope that one day, it’s such a part of everyday life, that LGBT people are so visible and so socially integrated, that it no longer resonates as special. Perhaps that’s what she was trying to say.

“I forget…” – that phrase is still problematic for me though. It reminds me of the many times that I have had White people tell me that they “forget” that I’m Black, that they no longer take notice of my racial identity, because I’m really just a person, a human being, just like them, so they can put my race aside and focus on what really matters – my humanity, the thing that makes us more alike than we are different. Often this forgetting is equated with fulfilling Martin Luther King’s dream that his four children would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. We might put this saying in the context of LGBT people by saying that we should judge people by the content of their character, not the nature of their sexual attractions and desires.

I’m all for not using race, sexuality, gender, faith, disability, or any other social identity as a means to judge someone’s worth, ability, value, or character. I am also in full support of the need to get know people as people by their character and integrity, beliefs, habits, dreams, goals, and potential. However, I refuse to believe that doing so means forgetting what may be defining aspects of someone’s identity as a member of a certain social group.

I don’t want my race to be forgotten and I don’t want my sexuality forgotten either. Who I am is tied in important ways to my social identities as African American and lesbian. As a Black lesbian, my experiences and beliefs and the way I move in the world, how the world perceives me, are very much about those social identities and several others. So you don’t do me any favors by forgetting that I am Black or by forgetting that I am a lesbian. You don’t fulfill King’s dream of judging me by the content of my character by forgetting that my character has been shaped by my experiences as a person with a race, gender, and sexuality that are marginalized in this society. Love doesn’t forget something that is so core to my existence in this world.

I don’t want Elizabeth Warren to forget that there are families on her block headed by same-gender couples. I want her to remember that and to remember what that means for how those families have to operate in their daily lives in ways that the heterosexual couples on her families don’t have to think about. The minute that Warren or anybody else forgets about other people’s sexuality or their race (or any other marginalized identity), their ability to effectively challenge heterosexual or racial privilege is compromised. Especially as a representative of the people in the U.S. Senate, I don’t just want Warren to remember those gay and lesbian couples and their families on her block and throughout the great commonwealth of Massachusetts; I need her to remember them. I need her to remember that the legislation she votes on will affect real people, people she knows and sees every day at the grocery store, as she walks her dogs, and on her way to the mailbox. I believe Warren is that kind of person, but saying that she forgets the sexuality of the people heading households on her block doesn’t inspire confidence in me.

Warren says toward the end of her interview with Equality magazine that the main lesson she learned growing up was “That we all had value and that when we recognize the humanity in others, we give voice to the humanity in ourselves” (p. 23). Agreed. Part of recognizing my humanity is remembering my sexuality and any other identity that shapes my experiences in this world. Re-membering, in the Hebrew sense of the word that one puts something back together again, doesn’t just recognize my whole humanity, it also allows those with privilege to re-member – to put back together again – how they have come to be who they are and how their social identities have shaped their experiences in the world. Whiteness and heterosexuality (and other privileged social identities) have gone unmarked in our society, allowing them to exist as the default option, as the norm, making it nearly impossible for people who carry those privileged identities to see the ways that their privilege has shaped their experiences. If you remember how that has happened for me on the wrong side of privilege, perhaps it will help you remember how that may have also happened for you as a beneficiary of privilege.

Maybe you think it shouldn’t be like that. Maybe you think we’d all be better off if we stopped noticing race, sexuality, gender, religion, or any other marker of difference. I would argue that it’s not the noticing that gives us grief, it’s the forgetting. Forgetting what has been put in the center, normalized, optimized, and privileged; forgetting what has been put on the margins, condemned, made aberrant, and undermined; forgetting, not noticing, has made diversity an ugly word instead of the beautiful gift that it is. So, do me a favor: When you see me, really see me, and remember all of what makes me who I am.

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5 thoughts on “Don’t Forget Me

  1. Agreed!

    I know that, in my experience, people “forgetting” my identity has seemed to have all sorts of insidious implications. As a femme, I’ve had several straight people tell me variations on the theme of, “You look so normal, I sometimes forget you’re a lesbian.” And they mean it as a compliment. They think it’s somehow to my credit that I look palatable to them, that I’m not “flaunting” my sexuality or “getting in their faces,” unlike those big scary butch dykes.

    But just because they draw the line between me and those big scary butch dykes, doesn’t mean I do. Butches are my friends. They’ve been my lovers. They’re certainly members of my community, and I don’t just consider myself an ally to them– I think my freedom of self-expression is intimately (in every sense of the word) bound up with theirs. Not to mention, when straight people say such a thing, they’re projecting their own anxieties onto my gender, and refusing to understand what my femininity means. They find my gender expression easier, and thus assume I’m trying to make myself more palatable for them. But I’m not– if anything, I’m trying to signal to those butch dykes that they want to compliment me for not being. So while straight people who compliment me in such a manner think they’re being liberal and open-minded for “forgetting” my queerness, they don’t realize that they’re actually participating in this oppressive act of erasure– not just of me and my experiences, but of the larger community in which I locate myself.

    So… yeah. I think “forgetting” doesn’t just do members of marginalized groups a disservice; I think it can actually be used to express virulent forms of prejudice, even as the speaker congratulates hirself for being so open-minded in hir forgetfulness.

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    1. Adrienne, thanks for your comment and sharing your experiences. I totally agree that it often conveys deep-seated prejudices as well. I can forget this aspect of you because you’re more like me than those other ppl in that group. Ugh!

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