When confronting systems of oppression, it is important for those who represent marginalized identities to know the tactics of the oppressor. These tactics are often not obvious. The subtle ones are, of course, the most dangerous to confront. One of these tactics is often known as “respectability politics.” When an oppressed group reacts in a disruptive manner to a policy, action or presence it deems unjust, the oppressor seizes upon this reaction as an example of why the oppressed group does not “deserve” the removal of the oppression. It is an infantilizing and impossible technique that “raises the bar” for good behavior as unrealistically high as the oppressor deems fit to set it. At a minimum, oppressive figures make pleas for civility and decorum, as if either of these two concepts should be prized over justice and freedom.
The battle back and forth on how best to confront this disarming technique has raged in marginalized communities for ages. Does a group attempt to rise to the occasion and prove the oppressor wrong, demonstrating itself as deserving of the changes it agitates for? Or does it make its anger and sorrow explicitly clear, feeling itself too locked out of the system and the oppressor too unreliable to guarantee concessions?
This might all feel a bit abstract and remote, but these concerns manifest themselves in tropes and themes that those who fight for social justice navigate every day: the “gays shoving ‘x’ down everyone’s throats,” the “angry black woman” and the “lazy, entitled poor.” People who are already beaten down have to prove themselves saints and emphasize their lack of will to threaten the dominant order to prove themselves as deserving of basic human rights.
I have recently begun circulating a petition on this campus to encourage the Food and Drug Administration to reconsider its 12-month celibacy mandated exclusively on men who have sex with men, as it isn’t evidence-based and is flagrantly discriminatory. In my endeavor to spread awareness and make changes with this ban, I’ve sympathized with both sides of the respectability politics argument. People expressed concern that I would somehow hurt the Red Cross and other blood drive groups’ donation efforts if I voiced concern about my discrimination. I’m not blind to the consequences of my actions. The United States is in a blood shortage, and we cannot take actions lightly when they might affect the safety of the blood supply or disincentivize people from donation. But I was angry and indignant that somehow I was expected to keep my mouth shut to avoid rocking the boat. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the challenges of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policies in the U.S. military, policies that many advised should remain in place to prevent the U.S. armed forces from falling apart at the seams due to decreased unit cohesion or some such horse manure. Several years later, service members can express their queer identities and the armed forces are as robust as ever (depressingly enough). In these two situations, there’s an assumption that one person’s rights are not as important as somebody maybe possibly getting hurt, even if the scientific facts don’t back that hypothetical scenario up.
On the other hand, however, I wrestled with the impulse to correct another queer man about their way of addressing the problem. I opened up the Flat Hat last week to witness an article trumpeting that “Red Cross Policy” was the culprit in the blood ban. As someone who had just left a meeting with the campus Red Cross executive board, this concerned me, to say the least. But was it my place to police how this person was expressing their anger and sorrow from an experience that they had at a Red Cross blood drive? Would it do more good in the long run for me to correct this person? Was I being a miniature version of the people who told me not to rock the boat? I’m still not sure, exactly, but I hope writing this article can explain some of the conflicting feelings I have experienced on the subject.
For the record, the ban on sexually active men who have sex with men donating blood for at least 12 months from their last sexual encounter is a federal one set by the FDA, and all agencies that collect blood must obey it, though they can certainly agitate for the FDA to change it. I strongly recommend that you, dear reader, go call them and tell them to do so. Hopefully you will be hearing more about the petition soon. I am proud to say all kinds of campus organizations, including Lambda, HOPE, Red Cross, and more will be on board with its message. And it’s still going to pack a punch. That’s the tightrope that we must walk.
Email John Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org.