Respectability Politics is Well Intentioned, But Fails to Empower


Although there is obviously an aspect of prejudice in Respectability Politics, calling this tactic racist/sexist/et.c. prematurely stops the conversation and the logic behind both sides of the argument. You don't need well-reasoned arguments to explain someone else's character flaw, right? For instance, covering up the voices of people who have been abused by trans women (this specific example is used only because it makes the point clearer. Any and all marginalized groups can get this kind of treatment) is an attempt to alleviate the stigma surrounding the trans community. Additionally, it is very easy to see your own groups as 'the good guys.' If you know the idea that all trans women are sexual predators is false, it can be easy to start thinking that means no trans women are sexual predators. Through that lens, it seems reasonable to assume that anyone claiming otherwise is transphobic and lying. Therefore, I wish to examine why exactly Respectability Politics isn't a good tactic for empowering communities, as well as why someone else might think the opposite.

I use the LGBT+ and trans communities a lot here because I have a lot of experience with them as I am Ultra-Quadruple Queer!!! However, much of this is applicable to most, if not all, other marginalized communities. As used here, the term 'group in power' refers to people who belong to several overlapping groups that generally have greater power and status within a society. This includes, but is not limited to, the intersection of cisgender (those who identify with the gender they were assumed to be at birth), heterosexual, white, male, wealthy, and abled (not having a disability). The term cis-het(s) refers specifically to those who are both cisgender and heterosexual.

Main Content

I used to be in the camp that feels it's really shitty that a large portion of the LGBT+ community has been lumped in with the kinksters and considered deviant. I was thinking about that a few days ago while trying to find a dating app that was accepting of my polyamorous and genderqueer self. The only app that was even remotely tailored to that was GetFet, designed specifically for kinksters. At that point I stopped and asked myself, "why is it bad to be associated with kinksters?? Hell, I'm a kinkster!" So, I started going through all the reasons I have heard (and posed some of my own) as to why this association was bad.

Reason 1) It forces us to interact with people who have "tranny," "futa," "Lesbian Tamer," et.c. fetishes who see us only as sex objects.

This is a very legitimate worry. There are large sections of the kink community "dedicated" to us and just running into them, let alone being harassed by them is genuinely horrible. However, in every single demographic I can possibly think of there are people who are just as awful and discriminatory to us. Christians are a great example here. There are entire churches like Westborough Baptist dedicated to our eradication, but having our groups associated with being Christian wouldn't carry the same discriminatory weight. While that situation would share the premise of reason #2, it also shows that the social acceptance of the groups we are associated with matters.

Reason 2) It paints us all in one stroke. So much of our groups are mainly about love and identity, being labled a fetish completely ignores that.

Again, a very reasonable complaint. We aren't all the same, we aren't all about sex, and shouldn't be thought of as such. (A moment of silence for all the Asexuals who get interpreted as having a chastity kink) ... Though, I would like to point out that there's another, hidden, aspect to this reason. We tend to put the love aspect front and center because sex is seen as lesser, and debase. Because of this, the more we are associated with sex, the more we are thought of as dirty and wrong.

Reason 3) It reinforces the idea that we are all hyper-sexual predators. This especially hurts LGBT+ kids and parents who will face worse discrimination as people see them as sexually warped and perverted.

Like the first two, I understand why people are concerned about this. I think it is possible or even likely that not only could this happen, but that it happens already. However, being labeled 'a kink' only stereotypes us as predatory and hyper-sexual because kinksters are stereotyped that way. When we are associated with Kinksters we lose 'legitimacy' in the eyes of the majority of cis-hets. This is an underlying theme to all of the reasons. It doesn't only apply to this situation, almost any time two socially looked-down-upon groups intersect there are major contingencies on both sides that try to separate the two because discrimination spreads like cooties. No one wants to be at the bottom of the pecking order.

This is the basis of what is known as Respectability Politics. It is the process of appealing to the group in power by "putting our best face forward" so that the marginalized group in question can gain rights.

The main question that needs to be asked at this point is, "why appeal to the group in power?" There are two reasons.

First is that 'the group in power' often includes friends, family, and lovers. Being rejected or hurt by loved ones for something that we either cannot control, or feel is a significant part of who we are is devastating. The decision of whether to cut these loved ones off or attempt to mend the relationship is possibly one of the hardest decisions we are routinely forced to make. For those of us who choose to mend these fences, the argument that we are 'just like everybody else' is very easy to fall into.

The second reason to appeal to the group in power is that the they have the ability to grant rights. At first glance this seems like the modus operandi (the typical way of doing things) for many successful civil rights movements. After all Martin Luther King Jr. didn't ever become president, and white lawmakers were largely the ones who signed anti-discriminatory rules into law. Similarly, Gandhi's method of non-violent protest was meant to try and reach the souls of his oppressors and one of the reasons it worked was because of the backlash after the violence of British rule was exposed. I am not currently prepared to argue whether or not respectability politics truly played a role in either of those specific cases. For this argument it is sufficient to look only at the fact that the group in power changed policy in favor of the oppressed groups. I argue that while 'winning' rights can significantly improve quality of life for marginalized groups, it fails to sufficiently empower us.

American culture holds dear the idea that understanding each other is what will lead to the destruction of prejudice. And although it is rarely voiced and likely subconscious, the converse of that is also held to be true. "If we cannot understand each other than my prejudice is justified because you are unreasonable." Respectability Politics has internalized this. It strives to make marginalized groups similar to the group in power, both by encouraging assimilation where applicable, and attempting to hide the existence of those who simply are not like the group in power. Because Respectability Politics doesn't challenge the assumption that similarity and common ground is necessary for respect, it retains the group in power's authority to decide which marginalized groups are and are not acceptable.

The granting of rights divides our groups because of this. As Dr. Tahir Maqvi said in his lecture on the lasting effects of colonization, being granted rights based on our identity intensifies our attachment to our identities and creates rifts between differing ones. This significantly reduces our chance to change power dynamics because most of our strength lies in mass movements. The practice of including other groups by default in one's activism directly empowers all the marginalized groups involved. This practice won't spread our resources thin because it actively pools resources between groups and pulls new people in.

A good friend told me a while ago that gaining the right to marriage didn't matter because it could just be taken away again. I didn't really understand what he meant then, but now I think I do. As long as we are not the ones who decide what rights we have, we will always be oppressed. I like to say that "Monarchy is fun as long as you're friends with the king," and I believe that this also applies to every other power structure.

In the current American democracy only two parties have any hope of being elected, and both of them are almost entirely white cis-het wealthy men. No matter which party is in control the group in power stays in power. The Republicans actively campaign on the promise that they won't give us rights. The Democrats generally support those of our groups they find appealing or worthy. When our friends, the Democrats, control things, life gets better for some of us. When the Republicans are in control, we suffer. Putting our best efforts into keeping the Democrats in control and appealing to these allies makes sense. But it doesn't empower us. We remain at their mercy. As a consequence, those of us who aren't visible (asexuals, aromantics, genderqueers), are misunderstood (our neurodivergent, drug addicted, and polyamorous folx), or just plain don't appeal to them (the ugly, the fat, the incarcerated, the sex workers) get shafted every time.

The problem with allowing the group in power to define our rights and needs becomes obvious in the context of the medicalization of being trans and/or gender non-conforming. Eric Caselles is a trans man and in his paper Dismantling the Transgender Brain he examines an "...exemplary neuroscientific research paper on transgender brains..."(page 2). He finds that the paper discards without examination any expansive notions of gender and instead interprets their data from a strictly binary perspective. They did this despite the fact that theories of non-binary gender systems could just as easily have been supported by their data. He then situates it in the context of transness being considered a disorder or a disease.

Caselles highlights the crux of the issue on page 21. He writes, "The fact that researchers in the Hahn et al. paper could write from an authority or expert position about transgender people in ways that completely ignored voices from the trans community made me feel a mixture of anger, sadness and frustration as I engaged with their study," (Caselles p21). Scientific research is seen as our best, most politically neutral method of finding knowledge. The thinking goes that since it uses empirical methods, the race, gender, sexual orientation, et.c. of the researchers involved doesn't matter. However, people are inherently subjective beings. Therefore, the way data recording is set up, and how that data is interpreted can wildly skew results. In fact, scientific authority means that marginalized groups routinely have to appeal to a 'higher authority' in white, cis-het dominated academia in order to prove our lived experiences matter. Respectability Politics is often the process of appealing to that authority.

Structural violence cannot be cured without destroying most of the established structures. No matter how favorably we are looked upon by those in power, the current power imbalance will remain. We cannot settle for asking permission, and the ability to live as we wish is not something that warrants forgiveness. Power is relative, it is measured in imbalance. Many within the groups in power will resist our true empowerment because equality requires groups in power to lose that power. We therefore can't rely on convincing them to 'give up their power' either.

New laws such as FOSTA are putting sex workers (many of which are LGBT+ especially trans) in huge amounts of danger as they are further criminalized. The general reaction has been to point out that it doesn't just impact sex workers and that it harms the rest of us too. While that is a true point, it shouldn't be necessary. It is enough that people are being unjustly* hurt. At this point, neutrality and separate struggle is not a luxury we can afford. We either march together, or die alone.

*I add 'unjustly' here because I feel that self defence should not be looked down upon, although I am still considering what exactly might constitute 'just harm'

Some good reading and well-deserved credits!