This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the past several years: how people could or should be educated regarding experiences they don’t understand.
My first personal experiences with started in the early 1990s when I found that monosexuals (hetero- and homosexual persons alike) had questions about bisexuality, often conflating it with polyamory. I’d actually been told on multiple occasions that it’s not possible to be bi (or pansexual, polysexual, omnisexual, etc) while in a committed monogamous relationship. Again, people were (and still are) stating that interaction dictates orientation, rather than the other way around. As I became involved with Paganism and Neopagaism in general as well as Wicca in particular, I found that once again I had to educate people about the details of these faiths. Then, as I began embracing the fact that I was transgender, the need to educate others arose again.
In all three of these examples, persons within the questioned communities have had various attitudes toward answering questions. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus, but a significant proportion says something along the lines of, “We do not exist to educate you. Educate yourselves.” This can be very problematic.
The information on the Internet about being transgender, as an example, is very different now than it was when I first began researching the topic in 2008. Fortunately, I found sites that had reliable information. Eventually I found forms of community within various segments of the trans communities. We could share information, and I could then take that information and share it accordingly, respecting privacy boundaries of course.
Recently, various articles regarding “teaching moments” came up in my Facebook news feed. One from Everyday Feminism upholds the idea that “[we are] not your teachable moment[s],” while another on Huffington Post said the opposite. Shortly before beginning this blog post, I saw an article about a Christian woman who decided to wear a hijab for Lent to experience what Muslim women experience. Many of the comments were along the lines of, “If she’d just listened to Muslim women, she wouldn’t have to appropriate our culture to do this.” Part of the frustration is that at the end of Lent, she can remove the hijab and end her experiment. For Muslim women, the Islamaphobia persists all year, year after year.
I’ve heard similar comments from trans persons, say when a cisgender man decides to wear a dress in public to see what we trans women face. Invariably, his actions are criticized because he didn’t listen to our stories.
Then we have to tell our stories.
Can we really have it both ways? Can we really complain about how no one takes us seriously even as we tell them we won’t educate them. They then try to educate themselves, including trying to walk in our shoes, and they still come under fire. This feels somewhat hypocritical to me.
That said, I understand that not all persons can do the educating. I choose to be an educator, speaking of my experiences as a a genderqueer trans woman, as well as being a monogamous panromantic pansexual and a Christian-Wiccan. But, I have the privilege of living in an area where it is less dangerous for my status as a trans person to be known. In other parts of the state or country, it could be a very different story. There’s also the fact that I am able to tell my story. Not all persons have the ability to do this. For me to say that all of us need to be educators would be, among other things, ableist.
My point is, when people try to educate themselves, let’s give them some credit. Then, rather than hold them in contempt for “not listening” to the stories that might not even be getting told, let’s refer them to stories that we know to be reliable.