As marginalised people push for social acceptance, respect, and equal rights, one common theme that comes up again and again in resistance is the idea that people need to ‘get it.’ People just want to learn, they say, they just want to be educated, and they come demanding information to help them ‘get it.’ This is often done with the best and most honest of intentions in mind; these people really do want to help, and they think they can help and are helping with this attempt to ‘get it.’ Once they learn, after all, they can go on to educate other people, spreading a big warm happy fuzzy chain of ‘getting it’ that will lead to full social equality.
I always feel that this falls short of the mark, because we don’t need to get things to respect them, and basing acceptance on the need to comprehend or understand something is inherently flawed. This came up recently in a lively discussion with friends about open relationships. The range of opinions and experiences went from people in active open relationships who loved them to people who were radically opposed to them after damaging personal experiences. When asked for my opinion, I said I didn’t really have one; I know they are a thing people do, and as far as I am concerned, if everyone’s a consenting adult and all information is on the table and there are no troubling power dynamics and no harm is being caused, what people do is not my business.
It’s not my place to judge open relationships, in other words. But, someone pressed me, did I ‘get them’? I failed to see how that was relevant, I responded, because the question here isn’t whether I personally understand them1, but whether I can be aware of them and respect them. I don’t need to ‘get’ open relationships any more than a cis person needs to ‘get’ what it means to be trans or I need to ‘get’ what it’s like to be a woman of colour.
In other words, if I haven’t experienced something, I don’t need to demand that people who do experience it explain what it’s like in order for me to support them. So much experiental knowledge is impossible to convey; I cannot explain what it is like to be genderqueer, for example, although I can certainly try. I often struggle for words in the end because I don’t know how to articulate something that is inside of me, that is part of me, that is simply part of the construct of my mind and body. Likewise, a gay man can’t really explain what it’s like to be gay, other than to say ‘I like men.’
This thing, with the getting and the respecting, sometimes seems to be at the roots of a lot of conversations that go horribly wrong. The person who demands understanding about something that is hard to understand is going to be as frustrated as the person trying to articulate that something cannot be understood unless it’s an experience. And what many people seem to miss in these conversations is that when you are demanding that you need to ‘get’ something to be on board with it, you’re singling it out as abnormal and weird. You are actually demanding a justification for its existence, not supporting someone whom you’re claiming to want to work in solidarity with.
You’re saying that your support for someone’s existence is contingent on that person’s ability to articulate a defense for that existence. And you’re reinforcing the idea that social approval is required for full inclusion. That someone cannot, for example, hope to be safe as a trans youth unless society ‘gets’ what it means to be a trans youth. Rather than just accepting that yes, some youth are trans, and that should be respected, and resources should be available to help them.
It is frustrating to learn that an experience cannot be summed up in a tidy package for you. That a queer woman cannot explain how or why she is queer or what queerness is like. That a trans man cannot justify his existence as trans, just that he knows he is transgender. That a nonbinary couple in an open relationship can’t express how their relationship works in a way that satisfies you, because their relationship works on a deep emotional level that cannot be summarily put forward in words. It just works for them.
That doesn’t mean you need to ‘get it.’ Nor does it mean it would work for you.
There’s a key difference between being curious about something because you think it might describe you and you want to learn more, wondering if perhaps it applies to you and your experiences, and needing to have curiosity satisfied before you are willing to support people. I love talking to people who are gender questioning and want to know more about my experiences as a genderqueer person, and I try to answer their questions as best I can, although I’m not always articulate as I would like to be. But I don’t feel the need to justify my existence to people who are asking me about it primarily for the purpose of determining whether they want to support me.
That battle has already been lost. I don’t need to get you to support you any more than you need to understand me to support me. I don’t need to comprehend something for it to be allowed to exist, although if it causes harm, I’m most certainly going to learn about it and comment on it.
- For the record, I do; they actually make perfect sense to me, because the idea that one person should be another person’s everything is troubling and flawed. Some people may prefer the open model to have all their relationship needs met, and some people may actually find it deeply beneficial. ↩