How to discuss issues of politics, gender, and sexuality (3/3)

By: Danielle Lefebvre, Rob Clifton, Rebecca Frederick, and the GSA2 Subcommittee

Disclaimer: A full discussion of these issues is not possible in a single, short essay. In this article, we provide an overview of some of the main ideas that can help you begin to have these types of conversations. We encourage you to keep researching and learning!

This article will provide a critical perspective on how to approach (de)constructive conversations about difficult topics such as politics, gender, and sexuality. First, we must discern whether there can be any productive conversation to begin with. If not, you should feel no obligation to interact with the person(s). Your safety, rights, and dignity, along with the safety, rights and dignity of others are of paramount importance and non-negotiable. 

To begin, constructivism states that people’s understanding of the world is shaped by social processes and experiences. Deconstructivism involves breaking down our assumptions and power. Using both is a great way to have productive, (de)constructive conversations! 

It is also critical to consider the following questions: do my beliefs argue against the rights and existence of certain people and/or communities? Do my beliefs condemn their existence? If the answer to any of these prompts is “yes”, it is important to reflect and understand the harm these beliefs cause. Yes, there exists freedom of expression, but this freedom does not legitimate expressions of hate. Do not be surprised if people are harmed by expressions of such beliefs. Do not expect others to “hear you out” or empathize. Understand that people who are different from you desire the same things as you – such as safety, happiness, and the right to exist. Reciprocate the same respect that you wish others to have for you. 

What do we bring to the conversation?

Something to consider in these discussions is positionality and reflexivity. Positionality refers to the social and political context that creates one’s identity in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, etc. It is how one’s identity influences and biases their own understanding of and outlook on the world. Reflexivity is the examination of oneself and how our own experiences, context, and biases may affect interactions with others.

When having conversations, recognize that there are multiple people with multiple worldviews involved, and this will influence the conversation. Consider: where and when did they grow up? What do they value? How might this influence their position? These types of questions will guide you in understanding someone’s orientation to a particular belief. This does not excuse or justify perspectives that deny the existence and rights of certain peoples. Rather, this can help in approaching conversations so that they can be (de)constructive and safe. Also, be careful not to make assumptions about a person’s beliefs based on their culture. Simply try to understand where the other person is coming from.

Similarly, engaging in self-reflection about your own positionality is helpful. What is your background? How has your context influenced your perspectives? Deconstructing hegemonic (dominant) perspectives and how these manifest in conversations will be discussed later, but it is important to start thinking about.

Often, these discussions can quickly turn into an “Us vs. Them” narrative, rather than an “Us and Them” narrative. “Us vs. Them” implies divisiveness, as though people cannot cooperate. There are, of course, situations where cooperation may be difficult or impossible (e.g., when someone denies the existence of trans people).

Consider who is “Us”? Who is “Them”? Who is speaking alters the meaning of this phrase. If an ally or non-member of a marginalized community refers to themselves as “Us” and the community as “Them”, this can “otherize” the community and further deny their access to opportunities, autonomy, and political or social engagement.

If an individual who is part of a marginalized community refers to themselves as “Us” and allies and non-members as “Them”, such a mentality may posit a different meaning. Queer spaces, women’s centres, and Black spaces, for example, exist because people in those communities do not always feel safe or welcome in a predominantly white, cisnormative, heteronormative society. By saying “Us” and “Them”, it gives a space for them to exist, and provides security and community.

So, by thinking of this as “Us and Them”, this may be more conducive to conversations and opportunities to learn. There is tremendous value in having diversity, dissimilarities, and distinctiveness, as it helps establish our unique identities and communities. Allow people to exist, love and celebrate their identities and communities. And celebrate these identities within yourself.

How can we deconstruct hegemonic structures?

You may be wondering: how do I reflect upon my own perspectives? How can I deconstruct internalized hegemonic values and structures? How do these things come up in conversations? How can I challenge them to avoid doing harm?

The following resource is helpful for self-reflection: https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/diversity/social-justice/understanding-race-and-privilege

The following is Peggy McIntosh’s essay on self-reflection and white privilege. It contains important statements to consider: https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf

Our university, like many others, is a Western educational institution situated on Indigenous land. Many who dictate academia, curriculums, and methods of teaching do not honour Indigenous ways, but instead promulgate Colonialism and solely advocate for white, settler, Christian perspectives. This is further shown through institutional whiteness that is reproduced through lack of diversity in staff, scholarly works presented, and theoretical perspectives. We therefore need to decolonize ourselves and institutions by including Indigenous ways as part of the approaches taught, rather than solely focusing on current hegemonic perspectives (i.e., white, European, Christian theories and historical figures). Decolonization is the process of undoing colonialism, and honouring and incorporating Indigenous ways. For this to occur, the experiences and teachings of Indigenous peoples must also be learned and taught. This means allowing them space to speak and experience themselves fully. It means learning more about – but not appropriating – Indigenous cultures and ways of knowing and being.

How do colonial attitudes manifest in conversations? Consider: do I perpetuate stereotypes about Indigenous peoples? How do I act/react (both externally and internally) when Indigenous topics are brought up? How do I talk about certain things (e.g., “owning” land)?

Educate yourself on the history of colonization and decolonization. Research the history of where you live, learn about the Indigenous folks that live(d) there, learn about their traditions, challenge stereotypes, explore gender and sexual diversity in Indigenous cultures, and support Indigenous activists, creators, academics, teachers, and healers. 

The following resource discusses holistic Indigenous ways of knowing and being: https://opentextbc.ca/indigenizationfrontlineworkers/chapter/indigenous-ways-of-knowing-and-being/#:~:text=Indigenous%20worldviews%20see%20the%20whole,family%2C%20communities%2C%20nations).

The following explores the process of decolonization for many Indigenous peoples: https://www.sjsu.edu/people/marcos.pizarro/maestros/Laenui.pdf

The following articles illuminate what non-Indigenous folks can do to decolonize themselves:

As the GSA Gender and Sexuality Alliance Subcommittee, we also want to discuss cis-heteronormativity. “Cis” refers to cisgender people (people whose assigned sex at birth aligns with their gender). Cisgender people experience privilege over transgender people (people whose assigned sex at birth does not align with their gender). Heteronormativity refers to the assumption that heterosexuality (attraction to people of the “opposite” “sex”) is natural, normal, and superior. Heteronormativity assumes everyone is heterosexual.  Cis-heteronormativity therefore refers to the assumption that cisgender, heterosexual people are the norm.

If you are heterosexual and/or cisgender, you may want to reflect on the following questions: do I react negatively to someone who is not heterosexual or cisgender? Do I condemn them for this? Do I wish they wouldn’t talk about it all the time?

Educate yourself on the history of the 2SLGBTQ+ (Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and all gender and sexually diverse identities) community. And support 2SLGBTQ+ activists, creators, and academics! Check out our article, Pride is a Riot, for more information!

The following are important resources to check out:

When we deconstruct certain structures and reflect on our own and others’ identities, it is important to consider intersectionality. People are not only “gay” or “Black”, for example; they have multiple, intersecting identities. A person can experience multiple forms of discrimination in various ways. For example, a Black transgender woman will experience discrimination vey differently than a white transgender woman. Keep this in mind as you continue to learn and explore.

What do I do if there is conflict or disagreement?

(De)constructive conversations lead to change. They allow us, and others, to consider mistakes, avoid making said mistakes in the future, and increase (self-)awareness. In order for us to learn, we may come into contact with conflict or disagreement – possibly when someone points out our mistake(s).

Instead of reacting defensively, try to listen with an open mind. People are not implying you are a bad person; they are using this error as a learning moment. It may feel uncomfortable, but these conversations can be catalysts. It can lead to discovery and new perspectives. Similarly, if you feel safe and able to draw attention to someone else’s mistake, you might be the catalyst for change!

How do we bring up mistakes in a (de)constructive way?

It is important from the get-go to set up these conversations to be just that: conversations. If any party enters the conversation believing it to be a debate or an argument that will end with a clear “winner”, then it will likely be an unhealthy conversation. Furthermore, some topics are not up for debate, such as a person’s existence or rights.

Debate assumes that there is right and wrong. Those involved can become argumentative, hostile, and insulting. Debate cannot occur when there are clear right and wrong positions (e.g., saying “transgender women are not women” is wrong). Discussion, on the other hand, is more collaborative. It involves understanding and listening to another’s perspective.

In conversations, a person, or yourself, may say something offensive. So, what do we do about it?

If someone has said something offensive, consider if it is a “calling out” or a “calling in” moment. “Calling out” is when a person says something that is unacceptable and/or dangerous, and you need to draw immediate attention to it. “Calling in” is when the possibility for further exploration and collaboration exists. It could be that you – or who you are speaking with – are unclear of someone’s intentions or need clarification about where they stand. Both are valid and have their places.

A helpful document on “calling out” vs. “calling in” can be found here: http://www.racialequityvtnea.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Interrupting-Bias_-Calling-Out-vs.-Calling-In-REVISED-Aug-2018-1.pdf

A helpful resource on interest-based conflict resolution can be found here: https://www.pathwayscoaching.net/blog-articles-1/2009/11/20/understanding-the-interest-based-relational-approach-to-conf.html

What do we do if the conversation turns south?

If everyone is respectful, then a conversation should not turn unsafe. But we cannot control what other people do, so there is a possibility for things to go south.

Your safety is the main priority. If you feel unsafe, you do not need to have a conversation with the other person(s). Do what is necessary for you to feel secure. This could be simply changing the topic, or could be escalated to physically removing yourself from the situation and asking for assistance.
The following are potential resources that may be useful in situations where safety is a concern: 

Conclusion

Understand and normalize that it is difficult to (de)constructively broach topics on politics, sexuality, and gender in conversations. This article is just to get you to start reflecting on privilege and how you act in conversations, and is by no means an exhaustive account.

If you have offended someone, listen to their explanation if they provide one. Pursue your own learning and educate yourself. Do not dismiss their concerns, do not over-apologize or over-explain yourself (this will make it about you), acknowledge the mistake, move on, and continue to learn and reflect. Know that they felt comfortable enough and trusted you enough to tell you. It is not an attack – it is a learning moment. If you consider yourself an ally, this is your chance to step up.

If someone offends you, and if you feel safe and able, speaking to the individual about why the action was offensive could be helpful. If you do not feel comfortable, or if you are simply tired of explaining to people that their actions are offensive, you are not a bad person nor a bad member of your community. These conversations can be difficult and exhausting, so show yourself compassion and understanding.

Keep in mind that there are things we all desire and deserve, as the very foundation of our existence: safety, happiness, respect, connection, support. And we can all give these things to each other.

So let’s work on this together!

About this Pride article series:

Happy Calgary Pride 2020 from the GSA2! As Calgary Pride week 2020 kicks off, we want to acknowledge that Pride is not simply a diversity event that happens once a year. For this reason, we want to bring light to the continuous efforts that are necessary to protect our rights to love, be loved, and be whoever we want to be. It is also important to acknowledge where pride started and whose efforts we are building on.

We stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and embrace and celebrate that Pride was and continues to be a protest led by Black and Brown trans women. Furthermore, we acknowledge Indigenous sovereignty and the importance of supporting Indigenous led efforts to decolonize our communities. Queer and trans Black, Brown, Indigenous and people of colour experience disproportionate discrimination and targeted acts of violence in our communities. The GSA2 and its members are proud to co-exist with our racialized kinfolk and recognize that queer and institutional spaces, like universities, often do not foster inclusion, justice or reconciliation. Therefore, we call upon all GSA members, queer or not, to meaningfully engage with our communities and speak honestly of the harms we have all contributed to. We encourage you to read the three articles that we have put together with some history on why pride is still a riot, some advice on how to go about discussing these issues, and some actions that you can take in the classroom:

  1. Challenging Unjust Systems: Pride is a Riot by: Pedrom Nasiri and Sean Bristowe
  2. How to create an inclusive classroom as a graduate lecturer or TA by: GSA2 Subcommittee
  3. How to discuss issues of politics, gender, and sexuality by: Danielle Lefebvre, Rob Clifton, Rebecca Frederick, and the GSA2 Subcommittee

Who is the GSA2? We are the Gender and Sexuality Alliance of the Graduate Students’ Association. The GSA2 serves the 2SLGBTQIAP+ (Two-Spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, agender, asexual, aromantic, pansexual and all gender and sexually diverse identities) and allies graduate student body at the University of Calgary. Through education and networking events, the committee works to increase the visibility of gender and sexual minorities within the university and the broader 2SLGBTQIAP+ community of Calgary. We are committed to providing a friendly, safe and welcoming environment for all, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ability, body size, professional experience and education, socioeconomic status, religion or other lived realities. Please reach out to us at gsa2.gsa@ucalgary.ca if you would like to learn more or if you have any questions.

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