Respect – not respectability
Observing various discourses accompanying Pride, one particular current caught my attention. For want of a better phrasing, I shall call this a politics of respectability. In essence, this involves appeals along the lines of being “just like us”. That is, the LGBTQ+ community only want what heterosexuals already have — marriage — because they are just like heterosexuals, other than the object of their sexual orientation. It is an appeal to normativeness, to bourgeois respectability, a plea for acceptance of “sameness”.
What’s wrong with that, you might ask? To me, it is asking the oppressed to prove themselves worthy to their oppressors, to accommodate to structures of oppression, rather than transcending them. Of course, I am in support of marriage equality. That is a worthy goal in itself. However, to appeal to respectability is to begin bargaining about what is acceptable.
We see this in the conversations: the commentators who are “OK” with marriage equality, and a certain type of LGBTQ+ — the type that doesn’t challenge gender norms, that doesn’t “flaunt” their sexuality, that are, basically, invisible and thus “OK”. Gender-conforming lesbians and gay men are cool, but masculine lesbians or effeminate men are problematic; drag queens, “flamboyant” LGBTQ+ and trans are particularly problematic — the “wrong” kind of LGBTQ+.
Further, it is to benefit only a small percentage of LGBTQ+ for whom marriage is the apex of the struggle, leaving behind struggles that will benefit far more LGBTQ+; indeed, that would benefit all people through the dissolution of the structures of oppression that are the racialised and gendered notions of bourgeois respectability. Quite frankly, traditional marriage is not the only way of expressing one’s sexuality — of living, of being a family — and we should not seek to make it the default for anyone, be they heterosexual or other.
Rather than pushing for acceptance through the politics of respectability, far better to push for respect. And I mean respect here in the sense of Erich Fromm’s thoughtful discussion on the matter: respect “...denotes, in accordance with the root of the word (respicere = to look at) the ability to see a person as he is, to be aware of his unique individuality. Respect means the concern that the other person should grow and unfold as he is. Respect, thus, implies the absence of exploitation. I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me. If I love the other person, I feel one with him or her, but with him as he is, not as I need him to be as an object for my use.” Importantly, Fromm also notes that a precondition for respecting the other is to respect oneself in the first place.
Pride, limited to appeals of being “just like us” in terms of marriage and family values, would be to put itself at the mercy of an oppressive system that will force its members into a new straitjacket — yes, they may now have equality, but only in a very narrow sense would they have freedom, subject to what the oppressor considers “respectable”, that is, passable enough to heterosexist norms. It is to go from one closet to a slightly larger one.
Of course, this politics of respectability is not limited to the LGBTQ+ and sexuality more generally. We see it also when it comes to non-Whites and women seeking to “pass” to be “accepted” as “respectable enough”. And even then, they are still subject to microaggressions and discrimination, no matter how hard they seek assimilation and acceptance. And even meagre rights, once won, are never guaranteed but subject to the changing whims and needs of the oppressor — they must be constantly guarded and defended lest they be lost again.
How many Black Bermudians face the pressure to hide their true selves in the workplace, especially in white-collar jobs where Whites, local or foreign, dominate — be it in numbers or power? What pressure is there to dress, speak and carry oneself in, if not an approximation of Whiteness, then at least in a way that minimises reaction from Whiteness? How many women feel pressure to dress and behave in line with social expectations of what is respectable for women? The degree to which this is an internalisation or enforced in various real ways is, in this sense, immaterial.
Let us not kid ourselves into thinking that these norms of respectability are neutral or universal. They are norms reflective of power in our society — they are aspects of the patriarchal and White supremacist class system that is our island beyond the superficial cloak of legislative equality. To paraphrase a Haitian saying: “Constitutions are made of paper, but bayonets are made of iron.”
As long as we limit ourselves to the politics of respectability, we limit ourselves to the benevolence of an oppressive system and fail to allow our individual and collective, authentic self-development. It is to subject ourselves to constant surveillance to the terms of an oppressive respectability, with all the psychological and physical health consequences that the stress of constant vigilance, of self-censorship, of self-policing entails. What we need, as individuals and as a people, is to challenge the very notions of respectability in all its myriad forms — of bourgeois morality around marriage and sex, of behaviour and dress, and in how it demands our submission, be it around sexuality, race or gender.
It is time for us to dispose of respectability and instead embrace a culture and practice of respect. This is what is meant by emancipating ourselves from mental slavery in all its forms.
• Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University