During a conversation with a friend, we came upon the question of whether one needs to be LGBT+ to represent the LGBT+ community. Their immediate response was: “What do you mean by represent?” I had to admit I didn’t really know. The concept of representation is more nuanced than it would seemingly appear.
Representation can be defined in two ways: speaking or acting on behalf of someone or something (like, for example, legal representation), and describing or portraying someone or something in a particular way (as in “the representation of women in the media”). At face value, neither of these makes it immediately obvious why one would have to be LGBT+ to represent the LGBT+ community.
To take the first definition, we could make the analogy that lawyers are not criminals yet still represent them successfully in court. That system works because they have spent years studying the law, reading and learning through precedent, and so honing their representation skills. If we were to continue the analogy, a cisgender heterosexual person who has spent years reading about LGBT+ issues should be just as appropriate to represent the LGBT+ community as a lawyer is to represent a criminal.
But there is a difference between representing a group and knowing what is in their heads and hearts. It requires more than evidence, is more a matter of personal empathy than knowing how to reach the best outcome for a client. Let’s be honest, humans are fundamentally selfish. We are always going to fight harder for rights when we will be personally effected. In a heteronormative ‘cis-tem’, a heterosexual cisgender person has an enormous amount of privilege. This means they are not they are not best suited to represent, fight for the rights and voice the issues of people who are not privileged.
For example, the campaign for gender-neutral toilets would make life easier for transgender people, be they of binary gender or not. A cisgender person can do their research and understand why gendered toilets can pose problems for transgender people, they can read the statistics about trans-related violence in gendered toilets, and they can sympathise.
But what they can’t do is empathise. They know in theory that transgender people can feel and be unsafe in certain situations. They have never experienced the feeling of walking into the bathroom, heart pounding, wondering every single time whether someone is going to say something to you, whether you are going to be misgendered, whether you are going to be physically hurt, with the knowledge that these possibilities are very much real.
Similarly, they have never felt the shame and humiliation of being disowned by their parents simply for the genders of the people in their hearts or in their beds, if they can even imagine that feeling. They can fight for LGBT+ rights and know why they are necessary but they never have truly felt, and never can truly feel, the same way as an LGBT+ person. And that takes a very important motivation and source of strength out of the fight: personal investment.
The other definition of ‘representation’, that of portrayal, has a lot to do with visibility. LGBT+ people want the rest of the world to know we are here, we are real, we are people too, and what is the most obvious way to be seen? To have representatives who are members of our community, who can be our literal faces and voices. If our representatives aren’t LGBT+ themselves, they may be able represent us to a certain extent in the legal sense, but can they represent us in relation to our visibility, or portrayal? People are seeing and hearing a cisgender heterosexual person, not an LGBT+ person.
It’s not all about why non-LGBT+ people shouldn’t represent LGBT+ people: it is about why LGBT+ people should. We can take control of our own rights and destinies, influence society in a way that will benefit us and future people like us. Just like the civil rights movement was started by people of colour, LGBT+ needs can be and should be represented by LGBT+ people.
If we are sick of the cis-supremacist heteronormative systems in place and want to make our voices heard, we have the power with our non-cisgender and non-heterosexual identities to make the difference. So let’s not leave it up to those who aren’t LGBT+ to do it for us.
Jas Rainbow (GR. Comment Contributor)