Tuesday, October 11, 2011

GLBT People as Servants

This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky.

There is an ongoing trope of GBLTQ people as servants, adjutants and otherwise assistants in the life of straight people. I say trope because we see this a lot on TV and in books, but really trope is inaccurate because this is one of those that has bled out a lot into real life as well – and it's deeply problematic.

In fiction we see a lot of side-kicks, a lot of side-characters, mentors, advisers – always there to lend a hand and support to a straight protagonist. And this leaks – ye gods does it leak – into the real world. Not just with so many GBLTQ people being unable to find a depiction of themselves centre stage – but also in how we're often treated.

Just look at the GBF trope. I don't really have to say more about it since I've already ranted about it a lot – but again, we are treated as accessories, servants adjutants to other people's lives.

But this extends further into our own families – especially the Gay Uncle/Lesbian Aunt meme. In fact, this has become so prevalent that evolutionary psychologists (yes, they do like to bring the fuckery, they do) have even latched onto it.

This whole trope/ideal eternally presents GBLTQ relatives as part of a larger family – extended family who come in and support the core. The uncle/aunt who is always there to help out, to babysit to support the straight relatives.


Sounds pretty benign, right? And I've pretty much been cast as this for a while with some of my cousins. And much of the time I appreciate it – especially with the background of mothers-in-laws who disapprove most strongly of their grandchildren being left in the care of *gasp* gay men! Their faith in me in the face of such vileness was and is warming.

Of course, it's considerably less warming when kids are dropped on my doorstep with no warning on a Friday night. Or it's assumed I'll look after kids/houses/pets/elderly relatives/teenagers/creeping death mould without actually consulting me.

So why is it an unpleasant trope? Partially because it is, again, service but part of it is the devaluation of our own families. GBLTQ people are presented as the fringes of other people's families – the support staff, the outer ring, never as the core of their own families. We're the siblings, the aunts and uncles, we're the cousins and the close friends and closer neighbors – but we're not placed at the heart if our own families so much as we placed as supporting staff in other people's families. Again, we're additions in other people's lives rather than the centre of our own.

Ultimately all of these tropes – from sidekick to GBF to the uncle/aunt to the mentor stem from an idea that we need to support straight folks rather than put ourselves centre stage. And there's many reasons for this – but I think no small part of that is that nasty nasty nasty gratitude ideal coming up again. The idea that we owe people for not hating us and how we, well, quite often fawn over people for not attacking us or loathing us.

Why do I accept being a no-notice, no-planned babysitter and general support staff for my cousins? Because I'm grateful they reject the idea that I'm a paedophile. Seriously –  grateful because they don't think I'm a child molester? That's pretty pathetic really. But it's a pattern – my firm retains me as an openly gay lawyer and I put up with being the firm doormat. A friend is willing to call being gay awesome and cool, so I play GBF pet to them.

Because that's part of it as well – in exchange for this quasi-acceptance, in gratitude for the lack of hate, we often put up with a lot of homophobia as well. Being the family uncle/aunt and being willing to police ourselves or “not flaunt” for their comfort. Being the GBF and putting up with being the pet – so many times we tolerate things because of this quasi-positivity.

And I think it's also down to how we view homophobia and transphobia. (Or, for that matter, all isms). There's the prevailing sense that if you're not beating someone while screaming slurs, that it cannot be prejudice. But it is – treating someone as less, as a servant, as a fetish, as a pet, as a supporting cast or just as less important or less fully a person is still homophobia and transphobia. And, as such, are still not ok.