Fellow White Feminists: Don’t Get Defensive, Get Motivated!

Women’s March on Washington demonstrations were held worldwide on January 21, and in some ways they were very successful (there were more people in DC for the March than for Donald Trump’s inauguration as President the day before, for starters). The event was a rallying cry, a way of saying NO, we are not okay with a pussy-grabbing, reproductive rights-denying, healthcare-repealing, walking ad for rape culture running the show, we do NOT support him, and we will fight him and everything his administration stands for. It was, I believe, only the beginning of a series of demonstrations against the threats to democracy, human rights, and the planet that Trump’s administration represents, demonstrations that I hope will translate into the kinds of concrete actions that right-wing conservative grassroots movements have already shown to be effective: attending “town hall” meetings on important issues. Telephoning (not e-mailing) representatives and lawmakers frequently and continuously and making sure they know what we want. Voting in congressional, provincial, state, and municipal elections. Organizing. Getting shit done and making life difficult for those who do not protect the rights and interests of the people they represent/work for. Onward!

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As we do move forward, however, we, as feminists (and now I’m specifically talking to white, cis feminists) need to take into account the criticisms made by multiple groups of marginalized** women (including women of colour, Indigenous women, trans* women, women with disabilities, homeless women, and sex workers) who, in large or small ways, experienced exclusion and oppression at the Marches. Examples of this kind of exclusion/oppression include white women telling women of colour that they were being too “divisive” when they pointed out that 53% of white women in America voted for Donald Trump, or when white women did not recognize that Indigenous women drumming, dancing, or wearing traditional dress at the Marches were enacting important and sacred parts of a living culture, not a quaint museum piece, or when the organizers of the Vancouver March excluded representatives from Black Lives Matter Vancouver from participating on the organizing committee or speaking at the event (and then removing a thread discussing this exclusion from their Facebook page), or when a white woman on the way to the march in DC tried to block a black woman from entering a crowded train by physically putting her hands on her (and then loudly complaining about the black woman, who needed to go to work and managed to squeeze into the train that obviously DID have room for her after all, throughout the whole ride and making her cry [I read about this incident in a social media thread but am unable to locate the original thread so cannot give the woman credit for her story]).

My point is that white, cis-hetero feminists don’t have a great track record when it comes to the marginalized women whose support we have historically depended on. Though the feminist movements of yore have improved the lives of women in North America through the years, it has often made these gains at the expense of, or to the exclusion of, non-white women (for example, the suffragettes did not demand the vote for ALL women, just WHITE women). Conditions improved for white women long before they began to improve for our marginalized sisters, and the gaps that still exist between my privileges and their positions in society are actually downright embarrassing in a political culture that prides itself on equality.

It’s not really surprising to me that many women from traditionally marginalized communities have decided that enough is enough. They have declared their intent to participate only in feminist movements that are truly intersectional, that recognize the complex webs of privileges and oppressions that are experienced by different women in DIFFERENT ways, rather than support a white feminism that continues to pretend that the interests and experiences of white, cis-hetero women are the norm from which all other needs and experiences deviate. These women are angry, and rightfully so, and it seems we white women can’t take it.

I’ve heard it said that women of colour, for example, are being “divisive” by demanding their rights be addressed, when what we need right now is “unity”. Bullshit. If women of colour have to ignore their legitimate grievances, but white women don’t have to change anything about OUR behaviour or goals, that’s not “unity”, that’s erasure and oppression.

I’ve heard it said that we are facing an unprecedented evil, and that the movement to defeat sexist, fascist Trump-ism in the U.S. and abroad is too important to be derailed by infighting. Damn rights. That’s why white women need to suck it up, confront our issues, and stand in solidarity with our sisters. WE’RE the ones being the problem, not them. Our cause is vital. We cannot allow it to fail because our feelings were hurt when it was pointed out to us that we are not the perfect saviors we thought we were.

I’ve heard it said that the anger being expressed by some marginalized women will “scare away” people getting involved in activism for the first time. I don’t necessarily agree with first-timers being chastised for “not being there before”, because everyone has to start somewhere, but generally speaking, white women are just going to have to grow a thicker skin. Bottom line: if you can’t handle righteous anger, you are not ready for the revolution. Besides, if inequality doesn’t make YOU angry too, what the hell are you marching for?

I get it. The Women’s March on Washington felt good (I wasn’t able to go, but still, it felt good). It felt hopeful. It felt like we were on the right side of history. No one likes to feel uncomfortable or, *gasp!*, guilty about something that may not have been their actual, personal, individual fault (after all, YOU didn’t vote for Trump or harass an African American woman the train, right?). Why did these Other women need to come along and kill your buzz? It’s not fair!

Now, before you cry “Not all white women!”, remember that it doesn’t f*cking matter if not ALL white women. Any feminist movement that allows ANY white woman to treat a woman of colour as less-than, any movement that excludes non-white, non-cis women from its organizing committees and speakers lists, is not part of the solution, it’s just another part of the problem (a more subtle, insidious part).

If you don’t want to feel guilty about something YOU personally didn’t do, don’t. I don’t feel guilty and I don’t feel the need to be defensive. I do feel a bit sheepish about my ignorance, and I do feel a new sense of responsibility to see and listen to and, if necessary, speak up for my sisters. I do feel unsure about how to do this, and I’m worried that I will make mistakes, and I know for a fact there are going to be times when I will fail. But I’m not going to let that stop me from trying, and I’m not going to let that stop me from being hopeful that I have the capacity to make a difference. I want equality. I am being shown the way by women who have never had the privileges I enjoy. If anything, I feel humbled and motivated.

Equality begins at home. Equality begins inside the movement. Let’s do better.

Let’s do this.

 

** I use the term “marginalized” as a shorthand blanket term to refer to various groups of women because these women have traditionally been silenced and pushed to the margins of both feminist movements and society at large. I do NOT mean to infer that any of these women represent a “niche” issue or “special interest” (or that their concerns are in any way less “legitimate”), only that they have not enjoyed the visibility and amplification of white feminists.

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#BlackLivesMatter and there’s no good reason not to agree

blacklivesmatter

For what it’s worth, this very white blogger (and her very white blog) believe that Black Lives Matter.

This is to say that the lives of black people (for example, the black people currently being fatally shot by police officers in staggering numbers south of the border) matter. They have worth. Extra-judicial killings of young black men by police officers (who come to police attention for matters as small as a broken taillight or “fitting a description”) are murder, and the reason these killings are indefensibly wrong is because black people are human beings, and their lives are worth EXACTLY the same as mine.

But wait a minute, many people are saying, don’t ALL lives matter? Don’t police officers’ lives matter? What about LGBTQ lives? Don’t Syrian refugee lives matter? Don’t children’s lives matter, and the lives of veterans or people with cancer or people living on the streets?

Of course they do. And I encourage you to promote the cause(s) of any lives that are important to you (and to get your OWN slogan instead of appropriating this one). Black Lives Matter isn’t about all lives, it is about specifically black lives, because this is a movement started specifically by black people, to deal with an issue that is specifically affecting black people.

What I don’t understand is why so many white people (generally good people who one would assume understand that killing innocent black people is wrong) aren’t okay with the idea that Black Lives Matter and instead insist on undermining this important and urgent movement by obstinately protesting that “All Lives Matter”.

Why so reactionary? Why so either/or, as if human worth is in finite supply, and granting it to black people takes it away from someone else?

We seem to be so uncomfortable with the idea that black lives might pull focus, just for a moment, that it’s like we aren’t even reading the English language properly anymore. Where in the sentence “Black lives matter” does it suggest that other lives don’t matter? Where does it suggest that if black lives matter, then police officers’ lives don’t? Where does it say, “Black lives matter MORE” or that “ONLY black lives matter”? It doesn’t. It doesn’t. Literally, the only thing that the statement “Black lives matter” says is that black lives matter. That’s it. If you aren’t okay with black people, who are literally DYING, asserting that their own lives matter, then you have a serious problem, and you need to ask yourself why you are against the idea that the value of a black person’s life is the same as the value of yours.

There are quite a few analogies going around on social media, and I don’t mean to trivialize the issue in any way, but they can be very helpful in illustrating this point.

For example, “Bob Deserves Food”:

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I’ve seen other people compare All Lives Matter to, for example, protesting a breast cancer fundraiser because “ALL Cancers Matter”, or crashing someone’s funeral to chastise their grieving family for prioritizing the recognition of their loved one (“ALL Dead People Matter!”) You can pretty much take your pick of analogies, but at the end of the day, we need to acknowledge that there are countless situations where one group of people or one set of issues takes momentary focus, and when these movements aren’t aimed at a specifically non-white or non-heteronormative population, no one would ever dream of being offended by them. No one scolded Terry Fox–“Hey dude, ALL diseases matter.” No one chastises seniors advocacy groups for being “ageist”, no one goes after churches for not teaching the beliefs of all the other religions too. That would clearly be ridiculous, right?

And as for those folks who don’t believe we still have a race problem in (North) American society, I have this question (posed in the video below by activist and educator Jane Elliot) to ask you: would you like to be treated the way society treats black people?

I have thought a lot about whether or not I should be blogging about this movement, and I ultimately decided to use my white voice to talk to other white people about something tragically and vitally important. I am white. Black lives matter. There is nothing incongruous about this for me, nor should there be. If we are willing, dignity and justice are in infinite supply. Acknowledging that black people deserve these things as much as I do takes absolutely nothing from me.

P.S. Black Lives Matter has an excellent website. If you want to find out more about what the movement is and what it isn’t, what it says and what it doesn’t, what it means and what it doesn’t mean, please visit blacklivesmatter.com and let the learning start!

Dear Orlando, I don’t know what to say

I very very much believe that there is nothing I could say that would not sound trite in the wake of the massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando this past weekend.

Offer my prayers? I am not religious.

Offer my thoughts? I think about a thousand things a day, so many of these thoughts are hopes for a better world and I’m frankly not sure my thoughts do a damn thing.

Offer my words? As I said already, trite. I’m a straight white cis Canadian who has no idea, and I mean NO IDEA how it feels to be LGBT, never mind how it must feel to be LGBT when, in this day and age and in this part of the world, someone can just walk into a gay nightclub (one of those few places where LGBT people are supposed to be able to feel totally free and safe to be themselves) and murder people by the dozen. I don’t know what that feels like.

I don’t know what it feels like to be in danger because of the way I love, speak, move, dress, or act. I don’t know what it feels like to have to choose between being myself or being accepted by my family, my faith, or my community. I don’t know what it feels like to have to second-guess every move I make in public because it might not be safe–can I kiss my partner? Can I hold their hand? Can I wear these clothes or get this haircut? Will this person say hateful things to me? Will that person punch me in the street? Will this employer give me a job? Will that social worker think I’m a pervert? Will this business serve me? Will that person beat me to death? Will that person shoot me? Will anyone protect me?

Hatred and violence don’t just spring up from nowhere. They are encouraged by politicians, by religious leaders, by cultural norms that squeeze masculinity and femininity into narrow and outdated categories and severely punish anyone who doesn’t fit in. When we laugh at a homophobic joke or just ignore it when yet another trans* woman of colour is found murdered or tut-tut when another gay teen commits suicide without DOING anything to stop it, when we ban trans* people from bathrooms and imply that they are rapists or pedophiles, when we try to prevent children from learning about LGBT people as if making children aware of the existence of 10% of our population is akin to forcing kids to learn about some kind of lewd sex act, we contribute to this hate. We might not shout the slur, throw the punch, or pull the trigger, but we don’t do a hell of a lot to discourage those who do.

So there’s nothing I can say to my LGBT friends, or to the victims of Orlando, except that I have no f*cking clue what you’re going through. And I don’t want to know, and I have the privilege of not having to. It’s all so absurdly unfair and to say that I’m sorry that it happened and that it never never never should have happened doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Meme from bustle.com

Meme from bustle.com

Humanity, Recognition, and Interiority

Illustration from NatalieDee.com

Illustration from NatalieDee.com

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I were in the car together and I asked him who he “talks” to–you know, who he’s traditionally turned to when he was upset, or his heart was broken, or things in general just weren’t going well. My husband and I have a very communicative relationship and we talk all the time (on our first date I was impressed by his excellent conversation), but he certainly doesn’t psychologically “dump” on me the way I sometimes do on him, and the way my sisters and childhood best friend and I have long “talked out” our disappointments, problems, and fears.

To my surprise and discomfort, he said he doesn’t, or at least not with any regularity.

My first impulse upon hearing this was sadness; I felt that my fun and social and considerate husband was somehow missing something important in his life. But TC says he doesn’t always need to “talk out” the way I do. His friendships aren’t built using all of the same blocks as mine (verbal sharing of Costco-sized amounts of psychological/emotional weight is not the only way to maintain strong bonds, as it turns out), and his emotional needs are, quite simply, different from mine.

So now my feeling is weirdness and discomfort. Intellectually, I accept that different humans are different. But it’s weird. Weird because for me talking (and, by extension, writing) is almost a medical necessity–I’m fairly convinced that if I didn’t share whatever is on my mind at some point, even good happy very exciting things, they would fester and eventually choke me. Discomfort because apparently it’s not the same for TC, and I don’t know how to process that. How can a need that is so significant and vital to me be almost non-existent in another person, especially a person that I usually feel so emotionally in tune with?

It’s especially discomfiting because despite my attempts to curb my natural self-interest, I sometimes have a hard time remembering that other people have inner lives, and that their inner lives are just as deep and rich and important as mine. For me, talking (or writing) is a huge part of the expression of my inner life–it’s how I remind the world, and myself, that I’m here. But some people don’t feel the need to prove the existence of their inner lives, or instead find other ways to express them. And I am so wrapped up in my own perception (one that sees through the lens of my inner life) that I fear I am sometimes in danger of assuming that an absence of expression (in a language I readily understand) equals an absence of interiority.

Recognizing the interiority of others is incredibly important. Not only does it make us better partners, family members, and friends, this recognition is vital to the way we treat each other as human beings. Many an injustice has been perpetrated against specific “other” groups of people by using the excuse, “They just don’t feel the way we do.” For examples of this excuse in action, we could look to former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland’s statement that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner” in the Vietnam war documentary Hearts and Minds, or Voltaire’s many and virulent assertions that the Jewish people, due to some inherent racial shortcoming, do not possess the capacity for generosity, decency, or hospitality (as you can imagine, Voltaire’s opinions on this subject gained a lot of traction with infamous anti-Semites like Adolf Hitler and continue to be quoted with glee in extremist fanatic corners of the Internet). When we present others as lacking interiority, we present them as “sham” people–hollow pretenders who deserve our hatred and prejudice–rather than as people whose experiences and pain are as legitimate as ours.

Humane treatment of others requires us not only to recognize the interiority of others as legitimate, but also to assume interiority even when it is not, or cannot, be expressed. Failing to do this has, historically, had serious implications for our treatment of non-verbal and/or non-communicative people, including the mentally ill, people with cognitive or other medical disabilities that prevent traditional communication, and infants. Did you know that as late as the mid-1980s (in the U.S. at least, but likely in Canada too), doctors erroneously believed that infants could not feel pain, and serious surgeries were routinely performed on babies without anesthesia? Apparently, their cries, grimaces, and physical attempts to push away painful stimuli were considered merely “reflexes” and though infants were given a muscle relaxant to prevent these “reflexes” from getting in the surgeons’ way, they were awake and aware for every excruciating moment of their medical procedures. If someone did this to an adult, it would be the very definition of torture, but because babies cannot verbally communicate their pain they way we do, it was assumed they couldn’t feel the way we do either.

It should be common sense to us that any human being, when cut with a scalpel for example, would feel pain. Our reason should tell us that this is the case regardless of the age, gender, race, religion, class or culture of the person involved. The problem, however, is that despite the earth being peopled for tens of thousands of years with folks whose biology, physiology, and psychology have remained relatively constant, the definition of who qualified as “human” has, until very recently, only included adult white males. Children were not human beings. Women were not human beings. People of colour were not human beings. Because these marginalized people were not considered “human”, it was assumed they did not have the same rich interior life as a white man (Freud, for example, despite the fact that most of his patients were women, did not actually believe women possessed complex psychology and so his theories were actually written exclusively for/about men). This lack of perceived interior life was then used to defend the inhumane and demeaning treatment women, children, and people of colour received (though of course a white woman or child would have been and usually still is a lot better off than a person of colour). It’s worth considering whether or not the fact that these “non-human” people weren’t usually ALLOWED to express themselves has anything to do with the perception that they had nothing to express, and the ways in which prejudice (and the mistreatment it engenders) is self-perpetuating.

The fact that the Western world eventually (and begrudgingly) extended the title of humanity to the poor, women, children, people of colour, and people with disabilities isn’t too much to pat ourselves on the back about. Recognition of our shared humanity was not given out of beneficence–it was wrested from the hands of the status quo by marginalized people (or, in the case of those who could not speak for themselves, by their passionate advocates) after long, difficult, exhausting, often violent, sometimes deadly struggles. And serious injustices continue in the present day, although slightly less overtly. At the same time, some formally very marginalized groups have gone on to oppress others in turn (white feminists, for instance, have frequently been accused of throwing women of colour under the bus to further the aims of a feminism they find more palatable). We aren’t done yet–we still fail at recognizing others’ humanity in so many ways.

I’d like to believe that most of us aren’t monsters. But many of us find it difficult to see the world through another person’s eyes. Most of us, for example, probably grew up believing that gender binaries were pretty simple and set. Boys were boys and girls were girls and though boys could be “girly” and girls could be “tomboys”, everyone seemed to agree on who was who and what was what, just as we agree the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. But we were wrong. Gender is NOT that simple, and not that set. We know this because it turns out that for people who are transgender, our assumptions didn’t add up. We know this because trans* people have TOLD us this is so, and TOLD us who they are. And yet, for some reason, many of us believe the reality of others is something we can have an opinion on, or that we need to agree with in order for it to exist. As if trans* people do not have a legitimate enough inner life to KNOW who they are, and to KNOW whether or not the gender they were assigned at birth (based on their physical characteristics) was correct. As if trans* people do not feel as threatened and humiliated as a cis-gender person would feel if they were forced by society into using the wrong gender’s bathroom. As if the countless indignities experienced (and recounted) by trans* people don’t exist, simply because we’ve never experienced them ourselves.

These attitudes are just plain silly. I’ve never had cancer (and hopefully never will), but that doesn’t mean cancer doesn’t exist, or that cancer patients are either lying or simply “confused” about their condition or the pain they’re in. We shouldn’t need to experience something first hand to accept that it is real, and to extend support wherever support is requested. Unfortunately, our inability to acknowledge and respect the interiority of others isn’t just silly. It’s dangerous, and it causes pain and suffering. Trans* women are raped and murdered at alarming rates. Gay teens kill themselves at alarming rates. African American men are shot and killed by police at alarming rates. Women are sexually assaulted at alarming rates (and then repeatedly asked if they are sure an assault is what really happened, if they are sure they didn’t want to have sex with their rapist). Even children, for whom we often claim we would sacrifice anything, are commonly treated by adults as if they are possessions, not persons; empty vessels for their parents’ or governments’ ideology, rather than thinking beings in their own right.

At the end of the day, it comes down to respect, whether it’s respect for the inner experience of your friend or loved one, or respect for the inner experience of a stranger, even a stranger whose culture, experience, orientation, and existence in the world is completely different from yours. Respect for those who have told us who they are and what they need, and also respect for those who haven’t, either because they lack the ability or because they simply don’t want to. An interior life can be just that–interior. Hidden. The red cells flowing through the artery, under the skin. No one owes us proof that they bleed and hurt just as we do, and the world would be a much better place if we could offer our respect without demanding to see the scars.

[Note–the debate about whether or not the recognition of an interior life can/should reasonably be extended to animals is taken up in J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals, and though the book itself reaches no particular conclusions it is a great addition to the discussion.]

Fair is fair: why straight cis people don’t need a “Pride” event

World Pride 2014, Toronto

World Pride 2014, Toronto

Last weekend I came across this troublesome little gem on social media, relating to fake posters for a “Straight White Guy Festival” which were plastered around an Ohio town (during the lead up to the community’s Gay Pride events). “Everyone welcome,” the fake flyers read, “Come help us celebrate our enjoyment of being straight white and male.” The author of the post, Sean Brown,  seems to think the stunt was not only funny but a legitimate shot at “leftists” whose only interests lie in protecting minority groups:

While it may be true that straight white men don’t face the same struggles as gay people do, the fact that they’re not allowed to celebrate their own sexuality in the same manner out of fear of offending someone is reprehensible. Everyone has the right to be proud of who they are, regardless of the color of their skin or who they choose to have sex with. It’s apparent whoever created this flyer did so to point out the hypocrisy in this debate.

True equality is not achieved by stifling others in order to uplift a minority group. It’s done by treating everybody exactly the same way, even if it means some people may get offended.

I hope Mr. Brown won’t mind being offended if a leftist who is interested in protecting the rights of minority groups calls his bullshit bullshit.

It’s bullshit. And this is why:

Straight, cis-gendered people like me get to celebrate and be proud of their sexuality everyday. We can marry whoever we want to and no one can say boo. We can arrange to adopt or foster a child without the extended birth family (who aren’t interested in caring for the child anyways) pulling out at the last minute because they don’t want the baby to be cared for by a gay couple. Western media constantly celebrates heterosexuality by using overtly heterosexual imagery to promote products and a “desirable” lifestyle (anyone seen a beer commercial in the last 20 years?). At home, at school, at work, our lives have been easier in every way imaginable because we were not born queer, or bi, or trans*. I’m sure if you asked an LGTB person, they’d probably take the lifetime of acceptance straight cis people currently enjoy over a pride party once a year. We don’t need a party celebrating our good fortune. Every single day we aren’t discriminated against is our party.

Funnily enough, I’m not shocked that the post’s author could acknowledge this privilege and still think that “treating everyone exactly the same way” vis-à-vis pride events for privileged people is a legitimate position. I remember once thinking the same way about a variety of issues surrounding equality (granted, I was in high school at the time, but still, it’s all part of the learning process). Why couldn’t someone formally celebrate being white/straight/middle-class, etc., I wondered. Fair is fair after all.

Here’s the thing (which I won’t have to tell you if you are interested and active in issues of racial, sexual, economic, or gender equality): fair is only fair if everyone starts from the same place and has had the same advantages.

Let’s say 10 people are running a 100 m race. 9 of these people are “straight white (cis) males”. The 10th runner is gay, a person of colour, and/or not a cis-male. All of the runners are required to start at the start line at the sound of the gun, and run 100 m to the finish line. Fair is fair, right?

Except perhaps the 10th runner was not able to attend track practice in the months before the race because the locker room atmosphere (which included their 9 competitors) was not a safe space to be. Perhaps the 10th runner did not receive adequate training during their formative years because they were overlooked by coaches throughout their life–overlooked for reasons that had nothing to do with their running ability. Perhaps for weeks prior to the race, the 10th runner was subjected to nightly death threats, and a daily barrage of “news” items and opinion pieces constantly questioning whether Runner 10 should have the right to run the race at all, or whether they even belong in polite society.

The other 9 runners, meanwhile, have been supported throughout their training by each other, by their coaches, and by society at large and are on equal footing with one another. As the competitors take their marks, one of the 9 runners gives the 10th runner a shove, completely breaking their focus as the race is about to begin. The race officials pretend not to notice because, you know, that 10th runner, always being sensitive about something, can’t ever take a joke, right?

The gun goes off. All 10 runners sprint towards the finish. Perhaps the 10th runner has managed to train on their own with the support of a close group of friends and allies and they manage to put in a decent showing. Perhaps the 10th runner has been mostly on their own and the stress of the conditions under which they’ve had to compete have taken their toll. Either way, can we really say the race was fair? Of course not.

And given that the race was not fair, can we really say that it’s tasteful for the 9 “straight white male” runners to celebrate the superiority of their circumstances? Of course not. (And don’t even get me started on the qualifiers “white” and “male” in terms of the privilege being fêted in this prank–they just add further insult to, well, insult. And injury.)

But if the 10th runner wants to party with their friends? Absolutely. They deserve as much, don’t you think?

So Sean Brown finds straight white guys “not being able to celebrate their sexuality…for fear of offending someone” to be “reprehensible”. What I find reprehensible is celebrating privilege achieved at the expense of another human being’s rights and dignity. And I don’t find my position hypocritical in the least.

Besides, are Pride events really that exclusionary? Unless you’re there to be hurtful or spread homophobia, the answer is usually no. If you’ve ever been to a Pride you’ll probably notice that people of all sexualities, genders, races, and economic backgrounds are in on the party. Even straight white guys.