“REMAIN STANDING IF YOU ARE…”
The keynote speaker was engaging and inspiring, so when she asked us all to stand up for a privilege-demonstration activity, we stood. “Remain standing,” she said, “if you are viewed as a person of European descent.” I remained standing.
The discomfort that I felt as a white person standing was the point, and I did not mind recognizing my white privilege via physical embodiment. Many people of color sat down. Other people of color, those with light skin tones or racially ambiguous features, shifted hesitantly between standing and sitting, unsure of how they were read by others and what this activity expected of them. This was not a binary question, yet it required a binary disclosure in a public setting.
“Remain standing,” the speaker said, “if you are heterosexual.” Now it was my turn to hesitate, bend my knees slightly, not know whether to stand or sit. Like many people, my sexual identity is much more complicated than can be captured by a heterosexual-or-not binary distinction. Like most people, my identity is unique in many ways, including some identity facets I would not choose to disclose on the spot to a room filled with colleagues, strangers, and friends.
Forced disclosure of sexual orientation in a physical space is inconsiderate to and dismissive of those who are not ready or willing to disclose their sexual orientation. Imagine a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer person standing in that room who had not yet come out to some of their friends or colleagues who were also in that room. They would be faced with two options, neither good: remain standing and be read falsely as heterosexual, or sit down, and come out before they are ready, and not on their own terms. Forced disclosure of marginalized identities in physical spaces is never okay. This goes far beyond sexual orientation and race: it is never okay to ask people to self-identify as trans, non-binary, low-SES, disabled, or as a member of any other marginalized group when there is no feasible and inconspicuous way to opt out of the activity beforehand.
In this essay, I argue against forced disclosure of marginalized identities in physical spaces. A long history of research, including my own, has found that people make careful decisions about how to disclose marginalized aspects of their identities in different contexts; yet in classrooms, workshops, and professional academic settings, activities aimed at highlighting diversity and inclusion sometimes require people to reveal sensitive parts of their personal identities. Importantly, whether or not to disclose one’s identity should always be a choice. In addition to the opening vignette, I describe two examples in which I’ve witnessed forced disclosures taking place. I end with three guidelines for how to more respectfully and inclusively engage with diverse identities among groups of colleagues or students.
“GO STAND IN YOUR IDENTITY CORNER”
At the beginning of my PhD program, I was forced (i.e., not given an inconspicuous opportunity to opt out of) into a similar activity on campus in which “identity signs” were placed around the room: “gender,” “ethnicity,” “class,” “sexual orientation,” “ability status,” etc. Each of us was required to go and stand next to the sign representing “the category most salient to our identity.” The obvious critique of this activity, vocalized at the time by my queer friends of color, is that it erases intersectional identities. Related to this essay’s argument, this activity was another instance of forced disclosure of marginalized identities in a physical space. As someone with several concealable stigmatized identities, I had no good option of where in the room to stand. Many of my friends felt the same. Afterwards, a small group of us used the signs for our own opt-in intersectional version of the activity.
“PLEASE STATE YOUR NAME AND PRONOUNS”
A third example of forced identity disclosure is the current trend of asking students and colleagues to provide their gender pronouns upon introduction to groups of new people, what this article calls “pronoun privilege.” Asking pronouns is often commended as a best practice in inclusivity for trans and non-binary people, and it is true that for many people, sharing pronouns is incredibly important and validating. However, there is an important group of people for whom sharing pronouns is an unwanted and uncomfortable disclosure: those who are questioning their gender, early in transition, and/or not yet ready to disclose their gender pronouns to a large group of strangers. Similar to the example with sexual orientation above, consider the example of a trans student who has not yet come out as trans or taken steps to transition. Asking this person to disclose their gender pronouns to a group of strangers, or putting forth such practices as the norm, forces them to either 1) use the pronouns associated with their previous gender, thus invalidating their transition, or 2) come out to everyone as trans before they are ready to do so. Not only is this uncomfortable, it is also unsafe in many settings.
Activities in which people are forced to disclose marginalized identities in physical spaces are generally conducted with the best of intentions. The activity in my first vignette was meant to raise awareness of the privileged identities that some people hold, while showing that others have made it far in academic settings despite holding multiple marginalized identities. The second activity was intended to foster awareness of diversity and build community among incoming graduate students. However, there are many ways to accomplish these types of goals without forced disclosure of marginalized identities in physical settings. Educators, speakers, and workshop organizers should strive to include diversity activities, particularly those that demonstrate privilege, in their programming. As a step forward, I propose three guidelines to remove the forced aspect of identity disclosure:
1. OPT IN, NOT PARTICIPATION BY DEFAULT OR OPT OUT. When you begin an activity that requires disclosure, make the activity “opt in” rather than requiring people to participate by default or to opt out. Simply stating “you may leave the room if you do not wish to participate” is not good enough, because it makes those who wish to opt out especially conspicuous. In the first example, had the keynote speaker taken an opt-in approach and asked for those with privilege to stand up and recognize their privilege, myself and several others would have done so. In the second example, the entire activity should have been explained in advance, and been optional to attend. Regarding stating one’s pronouns, an instructor or workshop leader can say something like, “If you’d like us to use a particular gendered pronoun for you, please feel free to state that. If you’re not comfortable sharing with the whole group but would like me to use a particular gendered pronoun for you, please feel free to let me know one-to-one afterwards.” Preferred pronouns can also be optionally, privately disclosed on a written form, rather than verbally.
2. AWARENESS OF IDENTITY CHANGE. People often think of identities as unchanging and binary; for example, a facilitator of a diversity workshop may think that each workshop participant will either be LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer), or not. This is untrue. I use LGBTQ identities as an example, but this is also true for many other marginalized identities, such as class and disability. A person who is in the process of realizing their LGBTQ identity and coming out as LGBTQ is going to approach their identity very differently than someone who has embraced their LGBTQ identity for many years. Many people’s sexualities and genders shift and are fluid over time. Further, within LGBTQ, each of these identities is very different, and many people hold multiple of these identities (e.g., a lesbian trans woman). Thus, any type of activity that attempts to use LGBTQ as a simple, binary category is bound to fail. Instead of categorizing, listen to the people in the room and their needs.
3. UNDERSTAND INVISIBLE DIVERSITY. Many people hold diverse identities that you may not be able to see just by looking at them. A few examples are some transgender and non-binary people, some people with disabilities, some people of color, and some people with low-SES. Do not assume that just because someone does not “look” like they have marginalized identities, that they are out of place in a diversity event or workshop. They may choose to disclose their marginalized identity to you and the group if they feel safe doing so, but under no circumstance should they be forced to disclose their marginalized identity through group activities. For example, recognize that due to safety concerns, many transgender people may not feel safe disclosing their trans identity. Regardless of what people choose to disclose or not, they still belong.
I hope these guidelines are helpful for people considering how to approach understanding others’ identities in academic and workshop settings. Thanks for reading!
Note: In June 2019 I wrote a follow-up article to this one, co-authored with Lee Airton: Making space for them, her, him, and ‘prefer not to disclose’ in group settings: Why pronoun-sharing is important but must remain optional