Can the disadvantaged all just get along?

In July 1995, the Martlet reported that a UVic student had filed a harassment complaint against the university over an exercise that the socially conservative Alberta Report magazine called a “lesbian conversion.” The exercise? For women to pair up and walk hand-in-hand around campus in order to observe and later analyze homophobia. But for one student, it was too much.

This story happened in teacher Michéle Pujol’s classroom. Some might consider this discomfort strange today, seven years later — but it still happens.

The student in this story quit part way through the exercise and complained to Pujol, who told her that non-participation was perfectly acceptable — it still met the requirement of observing discomfort and apprehension. Students who did not participate were advised to write about why they did not want to, thereby fulfilling their participation grade without coming into conflict with whatever values they held on the issue.

This was apparently not good enough, and the student went ahead with the harassment complaint. In an interview with Alberta Report, the student had said that she was a left-wing socialist and “sympathetic to all marginalized groups” — yet, the student felt she was entering into lesbian studies and not feminist studies.

Of course, as a 23-year-old gay guy, I’m not exactly the most qualified person to say what feminist theory is or isn’t. But I do know that there is significance to understanding how equality and discrimination work. That’s what this exercise was about, and I think it was successful.

The thing is, this wasn’t that long ago. I started with Pujol’s experience because it is due to the efforts by people like Pujol that we can look back on this sort of divisiveness and find it out of place and out of touch. What gets me is how people who are disadvantaged in society can still find a way to separate themselves from others who are similarly disadvantaged.

I’m trying to make sense of how vehemently many in the black community in America are distancing their own experience from that of those seeking marriage equality. It seems everyone wants to be unique, and every community wants to be individual, but how can there be real progress for the disadvantaged when the one trait they all share — victimhood — is dismissed and downplayed?

In many parts of the world, we have come a long way from getting weird about boys or girls holding hands. But there are still differences that people play up, and the consequences of playing up our divisions are nothing new.

It shouldn’t matter that sexuality is brought up in feminist studies. It shouldn’t matter that civil rights for the LGBT community are compared to the civil rights movement of African Americans. It shouldn’t matter that everyone has pride in their own communities. It matters when something that could be shared by everyone — like real progress, real equality or strength through unity — is instead being carved up out of some misguided idea that one community’s marginalization is more authentic than another’s. I don’t think it’s a matter of pride. I think this is the narcissism of small differences. And we all suffer for that.

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