Forget diversity, we need to learn to expect and embrace ‘heterogeneity’
- Published: 17 November 2013
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If we wish to challenge all forms of sexism and marginalization in the straight male-centric mainstream world, as well as the various forms of exclusion that arise within our feminist and queer/LGBTQIA+ movements, then a good place to start would be to reject the stereotypes and assumptions that we project onto other people. In other words, as we move through the world or within a specific setting, we must learn to expect that people will not all be the same. We must expect to encounter people who will be exceptional, and whose behaviors and opinions will surprise us. In short, we have to learn to expect heterogeneity, writes Julia Serano.
20 November 2013
I have purposefully chosen to use the word “heterogeneity” rather than “diversity” here. Within feminist, queer, and social justice movements, diversity is something that is routinely touted, albeit only within certain pre-defined parameters.
Usually, when people talk about “striving for diversity,” they are rather specifically talking about displaying a mix of people of different races, ethnicities, religions, classes, genders, sexual orientations, ages, and/or abilities. In other words, these are the handful of different traits that “count” toward imparting diversity onto an organization or movement.
While I most certainly believe that achieving diversity in these regards is important, what concerns me is that these are not the only traits that exist. People also vary in our childhoods, families, geographies, customs, educations, occupations, personalities, use of language, style of dress, tastes, interests, beliefs, experiences, obstacles, and aspirations.
These latter traits are usually not considered as falling under the rubric of diversity. So when people talk about wanting to bring “diversity” to their organizations and movements, it often seems as though they’re imagining a nice and neat picture of a group of people who on the surface all look different from one another, but yet all behave in the same manner, hold the same opinions, and share the same mutual experiences and perspectives. That is not diversity, it is merely fantasy.
It is this quest for “diversity,” but not true heterogeneity, that leads to the problem of tokenism.
For instance, there are many times in which I am the only trans woman within a given feminist or queer space. In and of itself, this would not be such a bad thing provided that people recognized heterogeneity—both the fact that my experiences and the obstacles I face as a trans woman will lead me to differ from the non-trans-woman majority in certain ways, but also that I will differ from other trans women in many ways as well.
Sadly, I am often not seen as different in these ways. In some instances, people will expect me to behave as a “stereotypical” trans woman. Since the stereotypes people harbor about trans women are often quite disparaging, this can create innumerable difficulties for me in the space.
Other times, people will be excited to have me in their space because they view my presence as adding “diversity.” But then if I bring up trans woman–specific perspectives or issues, my concerns are sometimes deemed as being “outside the scope” of the space or organization, or my opinions may even be mischaracterized as “divisive.” In other words, the assumption is that everyone in the space must conform to a homogeneous set of views and perspectives, despite any superficial appearance of “diversity.”
I have heard countless similar stories over the years: feminist organizations that want to be inclusive to disabled people, but who don’t want to hear complaints about how their space is not accessible; queer organizations who want to brag about their age diversity, but who don’t want to hear complaints about how the anti-homelessness policies in their local gay neighborhood impact queer youth living on the streets.
We simply cannot expect people to differ in their gender, sexual orientation, race, class, ability, and age without also expecting them to differ from us in countless other ways—especially with regards to their perspectives, issues, needs, and concerns.
Diversity has become a “buzz word,” an oversimplified ideal.
We should instead embrace heterogeneity—the fact that people in the population at large, and within our own movements and communities, will invariably differ with regards to every possible trait. Heterogeneity is messy and complicated, but we must come to expect it.
Any group or organization can become somewhat homogeneous over time, but this tendency seems to be amplified in feminist and queer settings. One likely reason for this is that we envision ourselves as existing in opposition to the dominant mainstream.
Because we are constantly reacting (or perhaps in some cases overreacting) to straight male–centric norms that are pervasive throughout society, we are especially inclined to create subcultures with an inverted set of norms. This explains why we so frequently try to reverse many of the sexist double standards that we face, rather than simply eliminating them.
As a result, some people within feminist and queer movements actively denounce or look down upon gender conformity, feminine dress, heterosexual relationships, monogamy, and/or vanilla sex, while praising contrarian (and supposedly more revolutionary) ways of being. It’s as though we are trying to conquer sexism by creating some kind of Bizarro World, where heteronormative and patriarchal norms have all been reversed.
Sometimes the norms we invent are not necessarily inversions of sexist double standards, but they are norms nevertheless. I’ve been in particular segments of the queer community where it seemed as though everybody was dressed similarly, sported the same haircut, enjoyed the same genres of music, and found the exact same people attractive. It’s almost as if some of us take the word “homo” a little bit too seriously.
This sense that we should all dress and act in a rather uniform fashion creates an insider/outsider mindset, where some people are deemed “bona fide queers,” or “liberated women,” while others are deemed less worthy or merely dupes of the hetero-patriarchy. Such norms are not only exclusionary, but they represent a brand new set of stereotypes that queer folks and feminists are now expected to live up to, and for which they may be marginalized if they fail to do so.
In feminist and queer movements, we often decry essentialism. We tend to pounce on anyone who claims that women are naturally programmed to behave in particular ways, or that a particular queer subgroup shares the same underlying genetic, hormonal, or neurological condition.
Why do we despise essentialism so much? Well, because it creates the false impression that we are one big homogeneous group who all share the same set of traits, and who are entirely distinct from the dominant group. In doing this, essentialism props up the hierarchies that marginalize us, and imparts stigma onto individuals who fail to live up to the homogenizing expectations that have been placed on the group.
So it is profoundly ironic that many of the same people who are fast and loose with accusations of “essentialism” routinely create and enforce an entirely new set of stereotypes that they expect other feminists or queer folks to conform to.
Perhaps nowhere is our reluctance toward embracing heterogeneity more evident than in the way that the concept of “safe space” plays out in feminist and queer settings.
While I most certainly believe that we can and should create spaces free of sexism and marginalization—that is, double standard–free spaces—I have found that in practice, the idea of “safe space” routinely devolves into a euphemism for “same space,” one in which we expect all inhabitants to conform to our homogeneous notions about the group. When we believe that people must meet our requirement of uniformity, then we will be more likely to marginalize any person in the space whose presence surprises or disturbs us.
The straight male–centric mainstream polices atypical individuals by deriding them as unnatural, abnormal, or immoral. In feminist and queer circles—where our focus is on challenging sexism and marginalization—we police our borders by accusing atypical individuals of being our oppressors.
In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, bell hooks describes how white women who dominate feminist spaces often accuse feminists of color of being too “angry,” and will mischaracterize their critiques as attacks. In Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America, 1967–75, Alice Echols chronicles how feminists of that time period who brought up issues of class and lesbianism within the movement were often accused of being “male-identified” and of seeking to sabotage feminism.
And as I discuss elsewhere in my book Excluded, in queer spaces (where cisgender gay and lesbian folks dominate), transgender, bisexual, and femme folks have repeatedly been accused of “reinforcing” the gender system, and of leveraging male, heterosexual, and/or “passing” privilege over others.
It is patently unreasonable and unfair to expect each marginalized subgroup who shows up in a particular feminist or queer space to have to justify their presence, prove that they pose no threat, and petition for their own inclusion. Rather, it should be incumbent upon each of us to expect to experience difference within our organizations, movements, and communities.
We must learn to expect the unexpected, to expect the exceptional. We must expect to encounter people who are different from us and refrain from viewing them as suspicious, or depicting them as being our oppressors. And rather than simply complaining about essentialism, we should look at the broader picture and challenge all stereotypes, all forms of homogenization.
This is an edited excerpt from Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive by Julia Serano. Reprinted with the publisher’s permission. Published by Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.
Julia Serano is is a true Renaissance woman: a writer, performer, activist, musician, and biologist. She is best known for her book Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity (Seal Press), a collection of personal essays that reveal how misogyny frames popular assumptions about femininity, and shapes many of the myths and misconceptions people have about transsexual women. Since its publication in 2007, Whipping Girl has garnered rave reviews and has been used as teaching materials in gender studies, queer/LGBTQ studies, psychology and human sexuality courses in colleges and graduate schools across North America.
Julia’s second full-length book, Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive, has just been published by Seal Press (October, 2013) and has quickly garnered considerable praise and interest.
Julia’s other writings have appeared in numerous anthologies (including Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, Transfeminist Perspectives: in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies, Best Sex Writing 2013, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, and Word Warriors: 30 Leaders in the Women’s Spoken Word Movement), and in feminist, queer, and pop culture magazines and websites (such as The Advocate, Bitch, AlterNet.org, Out, Ms. Magazine blog, Feministing.com, Velvetpark, and make/shift). Her articles and essays tackle a broad range of topics, including feminism, queer/LGBTQIA+, and trans activism, sexism, sexualization, media stereotypes, psychiatric depictions of gender and sexual minorities, the “nature versus nurture” debate, bisexuality, femininity and femme politics.
Visit her website juliaserano.com for more information.