By Ashley Yates, @brownblaze
LGBTQIA community, can we talk? We need to talk.
Can you remember the first time you heard a term that helped you place yourself more firmly in the world of belonging? The first time you found a word that helped you understand yourself and your experiences a little better? Or maybe you are one of the lucky few people on the planet that never experienced internal confusion (raise your hands and tell us your secret!) but still needed language that helped communicate your experiences to the world, as most of us do. Think back to when you first found that comfort that affirmed via language there were other people like you in the world. Was it a personal quest that lead you there? Or did community members help you navigate towards finding words that fit? No matter how you got there, at some point in time all of us found words that helped us find comfort in our identities - words that deepened our sense of interconnectedness and helped us form and find community.
For me, that is the strength, beauty and if I’m being entirely honest, the entire purpose of self-identification with “labels”. Self identification should ease the effort required to move through a world that’s not quite built for you. The labels we adopt should feel empowering and to me, that means building community. Unlike various lenses imposed on us that usually serve to “other” us, the language we use for ourselves usually serves as an complement to our existences, a tie that binds us to others, shows that we’re more alike than dissimilar, that we have more to gain being in community than outside of it.
But recently I haven’t exactly felt that way.
When Janelle Monae recently broke the internet with her beautiful emotion picture “Dirty Computer”, I was absolutely thrilled. I’ve been a fan of Janelle’s since at least 2006, before her first major EP, even before black and white suits became her “camo”. And certainly before she started sliding allusions to her queerness into her music, whether via the character Cindi Mayweather or other subtle measures, like naming a song after famous lesbian astronaut Sally Ride. Listening to the Dirty Computer album felt like a beautiful uncovering of the person that had been peeking out for years, a full on stare into Janelle’s journey of discovery, self-identification and the ultimate decision to share parts of herself with the masses. Coupled with the emotion picture, a beautiful visually ode to queerness party, the release of Janelle’s newest album felt not only personally exciting for me as a longtime fan, but culturally important in this moment in time.
And while the response to Janelle Monae’s proclamation felt mostly celebratory for the community at large, within the queer community there was another conversation happening, one that felt markedly less fun. As mainstream media outlets clamored over each other to define pansexuality for the masses (often through an unfair contrasting with bisexuality rooted in a misinformed understanding) our community held our own competition.
The teams: pansexual vs bisexual.
What should have felt like an awesome inclusive homecoming celebration, instead felt like a tense beginning to a pick-up game, each team lined up, preened and ready to show the world why they were the most befitting squad for Janelle to “join”. Instead of celebrating how monumental it is to have a Black talented woman at the top of her game embrace visibility, that seemed to take a backseat to identity politic Olympics. I watched as people who claim either bisexual or pansexual tossed half definitions around and distorted each other’s identities. I watched as the voices that that reminded people of the overlap between our communities were quieted by the sea of people rushing to claim expertise that said otherwise. For several days straight writers were somehow offered more space to define our experiences than people actually within the LGBT community, causing the gap between understanding and lived reality to widen.
As a facilitator, shared agreements are an extremely important tool to me. Without basic understandings of how we wish to relate to each other, I know we often tend to highlight the places we feel unseen or unheard before anything else. While it’s important to raise our voices when left out, sometimes we get so used to having to assert ourselves to be accounted, we forget to grant others that same space. One agreement I ask of every room I facilitate that helps smooth this dynamic is to “look for places of connection before places of disconnection”. In other words, I ask everyone to find the ways we are similar or where we agree before spending time on the places where we are dissimilar or disagree. I feel like that’s where we’ve been remiss in this most recent public discussion of Bisexuality vs. Pansexual. In our determination to be seen, we’ve forgotten to look for each other. If we had, the conversation sparked by Janelle Monae’s self identification might display the beautiful power we all experienced the first time we found words that helped us see ourselves and each other more clearly. If we start looking for those places that made us feel connected first maybe we’ll start to see ourselves even more - in each other. Isn’t that the point?