The truth is, our society does not value differences. Our society values conformity. Our society values “normal.” And “normal” in the United States means “in the majority.”
Therefore, when marginalized communities push for acceptance within this rigid social structure, the rhetoric they adopt is usually “we are just like you!” This tactic is assimilation, pushing for a seat at a table already stacked full with people who generally look, act and think in accordance with what society deems acceptable.
While this can be an effective tactic for many members of an oppressed community, the inevitable long-term result is that some people will never fit inside socially approved boxes and will get left behind. Worse still, those left behind face even more marginalization than they did before, as it is usually in the early-assimilators’ best interests to play up the differences between themselves and the stragglers.
This is especially apparent within the gay rights movement. Most historians attribute the birth of this movement to a single event: the Stonewall riots.
The Stonewall Inn was a bar in New York City that was popular with the LGBTQ+ community in the 1960s. Police would frequently harass patrons of the bar, particularly those who were more noticeably queer. After a particularly brutal attack by some officers, a riot broke out that lasted several days, led primarily by trans women of color.
But this event represented more than just a few nights of chaos. Stonewall meant that straight people could no longer ignore the mistreatment of the queer community. It meant that a few queer people were granted a seat at the table.
Here’s what should have happened next: the first people given a voice — primarily “straight-passing” white gay men and women — should have highlighted the contributions of the queer people of color whose blood and tears made this opportunity possible and demanded just treatment for the entire queer community.
But unsurprisingly, none of that happened.
Instead, the straight-passing white gay men and women donned “respectable” clothing and came to the table ready to talk about the issues that directly affected them, issues such as AIDS, gay marriage and the right to serve in the military. They argued passionately but respectfully against their straight oppressors for men who love men and women who love women to be treated no different from men and women who love each other.
And in the process, they turned their backs on the communities who didn’t fit as neatly into the box they were stepping into: gay people who didn’t feel comfortable looking or acting “straight,” gay men and women of color and trans people of all races and abilities.
Society would never have allowed such people a seat at the table after regarding them as dangerous and perverted for so long. It would have required too great a paradigm shift.
Even now, as our society finally begins to give the trans community a voice, the beneficiaries are primarily white trans people and exclusively binary trans people. It is true that we could one day see a law guaranteeing the right for trans men and women to use the correct restroom, and it would certainly be a mark of progress. But such a law would not protect gender nonconforming people who have no interest in appearing male or female.
Why should people on the margins of society have to put themselves through the emotional torture of forcing themselves into a box they don’t belong in — just so that people with all the power can feel more comfortable? Why can’t we create a society that serves everybody?
That is the difference between equal rights and true liberation. Equal rights guarantees that everyone is treated just as white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied men and women are treated. But that is not who everyone is. That is not how everyone wants to live. True justice is a society that values people for who they are, not how well they can pretend to be somebody else.