I loved the series of RuPaul quotes in the June/July issue of MetroSource NY. My favorite was his comment aimed at people who complain that drag queens are holding back the advancement of the gay community by misrepresenting gays; he says, “Bitch, we ain’t trying to represent you. We’re just doing our thing…How about you represent yourself and we’ll represent ourselves?” This is a great statement on the politics of drag, but more than that, it goes straight to the heart of larger issues of stereotyping vs. understanding.
There is an overwhelming tendency everywhere these days to sift through the masses by throwing everyone we meet and observe into some kind of pre-defined category. Then, more often than not, we decide whether to like or dislike, include or exclude, accept or reject this person based on our understanding of the category we’ve just assigned them. Not only do too many people lack a healthy willingness to revise their initial impressions of others, but for each successive revision they might afford someone, their evaluation is still based on shallow categorical definitions of what somebody can be. And yet, contrary to linguistic convention, people are not types. It’s time we moved beyond pre-definition.
One example that I find particularly salient considering the source of the quote that got me started on this subject in the first place is the issue of (bi)sexual identification. Gayness is becoming increasingly accepted, but the bulk of the population perceives a clear polarization in straight versus gay. Even those who recognize bisexuality as real and legitimate will frequently assume the term denotes a more-or-less clear 50/50 split and dismiss anyone who admits to new or evolving feelings of homo- or heterosexuality as a cunning opportunist (at worst) or clueless dilettante (at best) who will soon revert to their “original” straight or gay identity, perhaps leaving a couple broken hearts in the wake of their little game. Doubtless there are those who fit such a description—but that doesn’t make it okay to dismiss a person as “one of them” before at least engaging that person in an open conversation about how they experience sexuality or otherwise making an individualized assessment rooted in a fine attention to nuance.
It is this kind of attention to the nuances and individuality of others that we need to develop in regards to all aspects of being and character. In doing so, and thereby giving people a real chance to represent themselves in the way RuPaul defiantly suggests, we would also begin to cultivate a wider sympathy for, and appreciation of, others. (And since some of the most obnoxious and anti-social behavior patterns are bred of continued misunderstanding, discrimination and exclusion, a greater number of people would likely develop sociable traits we can all appreciate more easily.)
What I’m talking about is something broader than learning acceptance in the way we’ve so far been pursuing it, along the lines of anti-discrimination and protected classes. Racism, classism, sexism—no matter how many isms we come up with, those are limiting categories too. Identifying disadvantaged groups has allowed us to make progress toward a more open and accepting outlook, but this tactic also encourages us to measure whether each person we meet fits into an ism-ized group as a first step to determining the degree of sympathy to afford that person. Now it’s time to take what we’ve learned and move onto the next step. We need only listen to RuPaul: represent yourself, and let others do the same.