Being polite in shitty company
Simon Williamson lives with his husband in heteronormatively-assimilative fashion in Athens, after a year of surviving rural Georgia.
South Africa, whence I hail, and whence I write this, is a fairly bizarre place. It largely parallels the American South in many key ways, but the repair job is much newer, the anger more raw, and the wounds less cauterized.
I use the word bizarre because in white South African circles, it is impolite to attack racism, because its ideas are so commonplace. In any given group of white South Africans in 2015, most members will have spent their formative years under apartheid, or before the constitution took effect in 1997. And those years were some of the most complicated in the lives of white South Africans, where entrenched racial privilege was dismantled (justifiably: less than 9 percent of the South African population is white), and a group of people who thought their way of living was normal clung to the idea that any functioning society must resemble what they were used to.
Naturally, privileged people began to find targets for apparent societal failings, which, over time, made it perfectly acceptable in white South African circles, including liberal ones, to espouse outwardly racist sentiments. This was different from apartheid, during which liberals could abhor the system while reaping its benefits. Racism is socially acceptable in many white circles (#NotAllWhitePeople), so long as you don’t use slurs.
So why the lengthy introduction to this column?
Because it is incredibly important we don’t become these people.
We have entered an age where my demographic, white gay men in urban envi- ronments, hold more privilege than in days past, and it means we have more conversations about LGBT things in non-LGBT company, from “why do you guys have to get married?” to “which one is the girl?” to “why do you have to be so gay in public,” to “when did you get your gay voice?” None of this nonsense should ever be given a free pass—when we stop picking away at it, we make these ideas acceptable in polite company, which in turn means that we’re being rude for standing up for ourselves.
And it applies too when we spend time with our own people. From “no fats, no femmes” to “I just don’t find black people attractive” to transphobia, we should reject this sort of talk at every opportunity. The less we fight back against intolerance in our own community, the harder it will become to do so one day in the future. It is about time we stop allowing ridiculous ideas about masculinity to pervade our way of living, or let others’ religious qualms override our own ideas about relationships and parenting without pushing back, whether it be rude to do so in company or not.
It is much easier to write pissy columns about strangers saying stupid things, which results in very little pushback. But we shouldn’t renounce the right to point out specific instances of anti-LGBT stereotypes, or push back against homophobia because of some “good manners” diktat.
I have seen with my own eyes how polite company has declared some pretty awful things to be socially acceptable.