I need you to take a leap with me.
Leap into the shoes of someone who has walked through their life knowing that being gay, being bi, lesbian, or pan, or that being non-binary, gender non-conforming, or trans — that being different, different from straight, different from cisgender — is wrong.
Maybe it’s a big leap for you (into the past, or into a mindset you’ve never occupied). Maybe it’s not a leap at all (maybe it’s where you were yesterday, or where you are right now, and reading this is your leap).
Have you leapt? Are you in the air?
Good. We’ll land softly together soon, I promise, but first hang tight.
For most of your life, maybe for your entire life, you’ve thought terrible things about queer people. You haven’t just thought these things, you’ve known them.
You’ve known that queer people were wrong, that they were twisted, sick, evil, confused, broken, mislead, or sinful.
And maybe you’ve acted on that knowledge.
You’ve treated queer people terribly, like they were less — less deserving of your love, less deserving of your kindness, decency, or respect. Like they were less than human.
Now, at some point, for the first time in your life, these feelings, this knowing, and these actions were all confronted. Maybe it was some big current event, maybe the tugging feeling of a changing tide, or maybe a real person in your life, coming to you, coming out to you.
You love this person who came out to you, care about them, care how they feel, and want them to feel safe. Or maybe you just care about people in general. You love your neighbor, you believe in humanity, you want what’s best for people, and you’re hearing more and more about all these people being a way that you have known was wrong.
So now you’re faced with a dissonance you’ve never encountered. You see a fork in a road you didn’t even realize you were walking down: on the right is continue as is, change nothing, double down; on the left is explore an entirely new world, change everything, and toss out your past beliefs.
Which road do you take?
As much of an empathic superhero as you might be, knowing that you’re reading my words, on this site, I know that I’ve already likely stretched this illusion too thin.
I know what road you take. We’re back on the ground now, in our own shoes, the leap is leapt.
You take the road to the left, right? You choose to accept this person, or these people, and toss out the prejudice you had been taught. Obviously.
I mean, what kind of monster would take the road to the right? Choosing to continue believing that this person they love, or these real people around them, expressing their real selves, are wrong, or aren’t deserving of love and respect.
Well, a lot of people would take that road. Obviously. They’re taking it every day. And as easy it is to think of them as monsters, it’s exactly that kind of thinking that’s driving them down that road.
Why A Lot of People Don’t Affirm Their LGBTQ+ Loved Ones, or in General
If someone has spent their entire life thinking LGBTQ+ people are wrong, hating them, being terrible to them, or holding any other attitude that we (the enlightened, the accepting, the woke) might describe as evil, they haven’t just been entrenched in a habit; they’ve built up an internal system of accountability — an ethic.
This internal system of accountability is the part that we tend to overlook, or haven’t noticed at all. It’s difficult to think of people we see as doing terrible things as having “ethics,” because we forget about how subjective the idea of “ethics” is.
If you do something that you know is wrong, you likely feel guilty afterward. If you hurt someone you care about, you likely feel terrible. If you realize that, in hindsight, you were bad, you likely feel a sense of shame.
These are feelings that all good-hearted, well-intended, caring people experience. And they are the very feelings that are preventing a lot of those exact same people from being accepting of LGBTQ+ communities.
This certainly doesn’t apply to the people who do bad things for bad reasons (e.g., the hypothetical people who want to see others suffer, and enjoy that, and are driven by that — pain is their goal).
This only applies to people who do bad things for “good” reasons. People who say things like “I want to accept LGBTQ people, but…” or “I would never want to hurt anyone, but…” — and then say some unaccepting or hurtful thing.
Think about that person whose shoes you were just in. They’ve spent most of their life doing things that they are now learning might be wrong. They’ve spent most of their life hurting people they care about, or caring about people they didn’t realize (until recently) they were hurting. And they are realizing now, for the first time in this (massive) regard, that they were bad — or at least they’re being told they are.
They’re hearing that what they were doing might not have been for “the greater good,” but foundational to a greater harm.
But all the things they’ve been doing are wrong only if it’s true that LGBTQ+ people should be treated otherwise.
They should feel bad about all the hurt they’ve caused only if it wasn’t imposed for righteous reasons, for the greater good, for the protection and wellness of those who were feeling hurt.
They should feel bad about themselves, and ashamed of their past selves, only if they were wrong for what they did, believed, and said.
These only if clauses are core to everything I’m trying to say here. They’re central to the point I’m trying to make. They’re where the “choice” gets more complicated.
This paints a very different picture of the choice between moving forward down the Road of Affirmation or the Road of Rejection.
In this picture, the Road of Rejection is actually a road of affirmation: affirmation of one’s past self, one’s past behavior, the pain they’ve caused as justified, the hurt they’ve inflicted as being for the greater good; the affirmation of one’s self as a good person.
And the Road of Affirmation is actually a road of rejection: rejection of one’s sense of self as a a caring person, a person who wouldn’t do evil things, who wouldn’t hurt innocent people they care about; the rejection of one’s self as a “good person.”
For someone who has spent their life causing queer people pain, choosing to change paths and affirm them removes all the excuses for their actions. Choosing to affirm is tantamount to fessing up to a life of crime.
That’s where we come in.
How We Make it Hard for People to Choose the Road of Affirmation
“But Sam,” you protest,. “I’m no bigot. I’ve chosen the road of accepting and affirming LGBTQ people. Anyone is welcome to join me,” you explain. Or “I’m queer myself. How in the world am I implicated in that person’s garbage?”
The same way I am.
We’ve created a view of social justice where those on the outside, people who don’t hold the beliefs we hold and see things how we see them, see us as judge, jury, and executioner. And like the punitive criminal justice system that permeates our society, we don’t believe in restoration, transformation, or rehabilitation — we only pay lip service to those ideas, at least in the eyes of those looking on.
To the person above, the person who isn’t accepting or inclusive, the way we operate looks a lot like the following: if they’re seen as breaking one of our laws, we sentence them in a court of public opinion, incarcerate them in the moments of their past behaviors, beliefs, and words, and throw away the key.
We don’t seek to understand someone’s case, or presume them innocent until proven guilty. We don’t make room for people to grow or transform from their past self. We don’t offer them compassion, but instead withhold from them the love that they were withholding from others — an eye for an eye.
That’s not all of us social justice people, of course.
I don’t even think it’s most of us, by any stretch. I don’t think it’s what social justice is all about, and it’s certainly not the social justice that I — or any of my personal friends, colleagues, or comrades — work to enact in our world every day.
But it’s also not a complete mischaracterization of a lot of what happens in the name of social justice. To the eyes on the outside, we have become a punitive movement. Maybe we always were, to some degree or another. And the feeling of truth in that sentiment, on the inside and outside, seems like it’s increasing every day.
If we are the self-styled sentencers, the conundrum of the two roads I described above only gets more confounding. Not only does someone need to be willing to see themself as accountable for past crimes, but they will know that we are waiting with the handcuffs.
In this way, instead of providing a carrot of compassion, we’re wielding a stick of social shame.
We’re discouraging them from taking their own leap, the terrifying step beyond their comforting explanations into a world where they have to reckon with their sins.
We’re discouraging them by setting the bar even higher than that: they don’t only need to reckon with themselves, but be ready for the punishment we’re meting out.
Meanwhile, we’re indirectly encouraging them to stay on a road where at least they can accept themselves, feeling justified in their past actions instead of seeing them as wrong-doing, and only be guilty in our eyes. We’re batting people back into their oppressive beliefs.
By denouncing these people as guilty, and indirectly encouraging them to double down on their oppressive beliefs, we’ve sacrificed our innocence in these crimes. In this way, we’ve become accomplices.
A Different Road for Us
If any of the above is resonating with you, or if you can see that these forces might be influencing the people in your life whom you hope to help change or grow, what can you do about all of this?
The path to reckoning for someone who has inflicted pain is long and winding. Some folks may never make it out. This is important to realize, to know, and to remind yourself of when you feel like you’re bouncing up against a brick wall.
Also, what I’m going to describe as things we can do all require time, energy, emotional bandwidth, and investment in other ways. How you show up in whatever “debate” in question, the identities you hold (and whether they’re targeted or dominant), your threshold for patience, and your interest in genuinely seeing this person change and grow are also all germane.
Sometimes it’s just not going to be reasonable, appealing, or feel possible for you to do what I’m about to describe. That’s okay.
None of the steps below are easy, and they’re all likely to result in at least some internal friction, and friction between you and your social justice buds.
That all said, there are plenty of things we can do to help guide people along the path of acceptance, instead of building “Do Not Enter” signs at the trailhead.
First, it will help if we can find in ourselves a point of empathy.
We can remember our own journeys along that path, if we’ve made them. Remember unlearning the oppressive beliefs that we internalized, remember the mistakes we’ve made, and the hurt we’ve caused, both to ourselves and others. And use all of this as a compass of empathy when we see others starting down the path.
We need to take a moment to get a sense of where we really are in regard to this issue. And instead of focusing on the differences between how we see it and how the person we’re talking to sees it, pay special attention to the similarities, or the parts of their story you can most “see where they’re coming from” about.
Next, we’ll need to recognize the ways Social Justice Dogma is showing up for us in ways that aren’t helping our goals
In what I like to affectionately refer to as “social justice land,” a world I’ve lived in for over a decade, we’ve been told that…
- “We that shouldn’t offer sympathy or compassion to oppressors, or those who disagree with our cause.” If everything above is true, one of the crucial ways we can help this person let go of their oppressive beliefs is with our sympathies.
- “If we associate with oppressors, or people who disagree with our cause, we’re just as bad as they are.” If we’re going to be there for this person, we need to have some comfort with this guilt by association, and be ready to fold them into our little circle, even if it’s just a circle that holds you and them.
- “It’s not our job to help oppressors, or people who disagree with our cause, or a good use of our emotional labor.” In order to be part of this person’s positive change, we need to be willing to do some work for and with them.
Finally, we’ll have to make the tough choice.
Undergirding all three of those social justice dogma tenets is the righteous sentiment of “they don’t deserve you.” And, you know what, I couldn’t agree more.
Someone who has spent their life believing terrible things about broad swaths of the human population, and acting on those beliefs in ways that has caused suffering, misery, pain, and death does not deserve you. They haven’t earned your respect, your time, your kindness, your sympathies, or your love.
They don’t deserve you, and that’s exactly why they need you.
Christian Picciolini is a former white supremacist “skinhead” who is dedicating himself to helping other white supremacists leave that life behind. When asked what it took for him to start down a different path, he said that for him, and for hundreds of other former Neo-Nazis, the one thing that did it was they “received compassion from someone who they least deserved it from, when they least deserved it.”
The person who is deciding between letting go of oppressive beliefs or holding onto them is facing a tough choice. And when we encounter that person in our life, in our work, or in our activism, we’re faced with a different, but no less difficult choice.
The choice for us is do we allow ourselves to see where someone is coming from, let go of any dogmatic principles we hold that get in our way, and offer them compassion they don’t deserve, but need.
We won’t always get it right (I don’t). And it might feel like a huge leap (it is). But here’s the thing: ultimately, in the big picture, this isn’t only about them, it’s about us.
It’s easy to think about this as a sacrifice we’re making for them, while overlooking the ways that by choosing not to offer compassion we might be sacrificing our true, deep-down values. That is, it’s easy to miss how that choice is undermining our goals and the vision we have for our community, or the world.
Doing what feels good isn’t necessarily doing good. When we look back at our past selves in the future, it’ll be really clear to us when we were doing what felt good, but caused harm, instead of what was actually good.
Hopefully someone will be there for us to help us reckon with the harm we might have caused when we’re ready to face it.
In the meantime, I’ll be trying to be there for the people who don’t deserve me, but need me right now.