What do you think your life would be like without homophobia, racism, or sexism? This might sound like a utopian impossibility, the asking of the question a mere philosophical exercise. But it’s the question that Ilan Meyer and his colleagues posed in their new study, “‘We’d Be Free’: Narratives of Life Without Homophobia, Racism, or Sexism,” which was published this past September in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy. Fifty-seven adult sexual minority women and men responded to this question, and their narratives were examined for common themes – a method of psychological research referred to as a content analysis. The goal of this study, of course, wasn’t just to pose a hypothetical but unrealistic scenario – it was to identify some of the less tangible and difficult-to-measure stressors that sexual minorities experience. By asking about life without oppression, hopefully we can better understand life WITH oppression.
So what would my life be like without homophobia, racism, or sexism? I could be more affectionate with my partner in public. And I’m not talking about inappropriate PDAs – I’d just like to be able to hold her hand, or give her a hug, without it being weird. I wouldn’t have to deal with the crazy-making experience of determining whether an act of homophobia or sexism just occurred, or whether I’m just reading into it too much. I wouldn’t have to deal with the equally crazy-making experience of asking myself whether I hurt someone because my own internalized racism, sexism, or homophobia leaked out in an inappropriate way. I’d have a more diverse array of friends, colleagues, and neighbors. I’d probably have a closer relationship with my partner’s family, and they’d be a bigger part of my daughter’s life. I wouldn’t have to think about whether the space I’m entering is friendly or hostile to LGBTQ people. I wouldn’t have had to go through an internally turbulent coming-out process. I’d probably feel like I could move through the world without having to fear the judgments of others. I wouldn’t have to take so many precautions to prevent being victimized. Going to church (or any place of worship) would be a spiritual experience, rather than an uncomfortable one. I could live authentically and unapologetically – and celebrate the fact that others are living the same way.
And yet, as much as I dream of a world where oppression no longer exists, I feel like these experiences have made me a stronger person. As a woman and as someone who has been in relationships with both men and women, I’ve had so many experiences that have been stressful, upsetting, and in some cases traumatic. But these experiences have tested the limits of my strength and my character, and at this point in my life I feel confident, capable, and resilient most of the time – largely because of those experiences. As heretical as this might sound, I think there’s a part of me that’s actually grateful for what I’ve had to go through, and for the fact that I came out the other side stronger. Adversity builds character, they say. Moreover, adversity builds community – when you’re a member of an oppressed group, you tend to band together for support and to fight back.
So do my experiences match the findings from the study? Three themes emerged in the narratives of the participants:
(a) Access to possibilities and opportunities was deprived because of homophobia, racism, and sexism;
(b) Safety and acceptance were challenged because of homophobia, racism, and sexism; and
(c) Despite this, experiencing homophobia, racism, and sexism created a sense of “positive marginality” – in other words, strength and community were born out of the experience of oppression.
So here’s the million-dollar question: What do you think YOUR life would be like without homophobia, racism, or sexism?