Empathy. One simple word with a complexity hidden behind its seven letters. The Cambridge Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”. To me, the word is also the answer to so many questions related to inclusion, equity, and belonging. At least, it is what I have tried to explain beneath the surface in my writing, speeches, and other engagement opportunities.
You might think: “Yes, it is pretty easy, and I already knew that, so just tell me something new.” But here is the tricky part: if you are aware of the answer, why aren’t you using your empathy to make the changes for a more inclusive world? Although this may sound like a warning or a reproach, it’s more of a rhetorical question. My recommendation is to ponder if we are really being empathetic to people who are different from us, who come from different places in the journey of life, toward those who face systemic barriers and are members of minority communities.
As an active member of the queer communities and for working with diversity and inclusion, I have been frequently asked about how people can be considered better allies to 2SLGBTQIA+ communities. My possible answers are always summarized by the combination of empathy, commitment, and educating ourselves. I keep including myself in my reply because I might not be considered an ally to some groups due to my silence and my posture on some subjects that are crucial to them. It is pretty common to notice that when we look closely at certain details and pay attention to the intersectionality of those identities.
You should also notice that allyship isn’t a checklist that gives you the title of an ally if you check a few items. It doesn’t matter if you have a rainbow flag or know the importance of using pronouns if you cross your arms and do nothing to stop the inequities lived by 2SLGBTQIA+ communities. You have to work and deserve to not be seen only as an ally, but as a co-conspirator. It is pretty much similar to what the American political activist and professor Angela Davis said about the fight against racism. In Davis’ quote “In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist,” we are being told to leave our centered comfort zone and to stand up against the historical and contemporary injustices to Black people and people of color.
Davis’ statement is a direct call for empathy, for putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and taking action. Another good example explaining the importance of being empathic comes from the American diversity educator Jane Elliott, who has been asking in several events if the present White people audience would like to be treated in the same way that the society treats Black people in the US. Have you imagined yourself experiencing all of those challenges imposed on some people due to their own identities? Because you have to know that just saying, “but I don’t have prejudice”, isn’t enough.
Other steps towards effective inclusion should be taken by everyone or we will never change the reality for those who are living under the oppressive system. We could try an exercise and adapt Davis’ quote and Elliott’s question for 2SLGBTQIA+ inclusion as the intersectional profiles of trans and queer people have more chances to hit more complex systemic barriers. The 2SLGBTQIAphobia doesn’t give a truce, and the fight for the very basic right to exist happens in our daily lives and in front of many eyes. If you don’t see it, you are probably looking in a different direction.
Despite the many advances in queer rights in Canada over the past few years, other regions of the globe are walking backwards and approving oppressive legislation that targets 2SLGBTQIA+ communities and youth. Currently, some legislative projects in the United States and the United Kingdom are examples of intolerance against 2SLGBTQIA+ communities, particularly towards trans people. This conservative movement is reaping civil rights, producing violence, and creating fear, whose effect may spread its influence elsewhere. It is already hard in more than 70 countries where being queer is considered a crime (some with capital punishment), and some known safe places aren’t safe anymore.
That is why with all the above, having rainbows and sharing pronouns aren’t enough as it could be seen as individual rainbow washing. We deserve more. Our communities deserve more. Try to imagine yourself in someone’s rainbow shoes and be the change. We need you to walk alongside us and fight with us. As a cis-queer man, I do this movement to be with my other acronym fellows in the daily battle against the prejudice and (unconscious) biases. Empathy without action doesn’t change realities.
Now I am talking more explicitly about empathy with commitment, which is the second word from my summary list. I am here today with this freedom to live and write about 2SLGBTQIA+ inclusion because prior to the Stonewall riots (a series of confrontations that took place in New York City in 1969 between police and gay rights activists which transformed the gay liberation movement), trans and queer activists made many efforts, and transmitting their legacy to future generations is my duty as well. It is the idea of being a co-conspirator, working alongside minority groups and supporting them with meaningful engagement.
At this point, my third tip of educating ourselves is indispensable because we will learn about why and how we are fighting. The Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire once said that “Education does not change the world. Education changes people. People change the world.” We have to delve deeper into the historical context and power relations that oppress certain identities and communities, like black trans femmes who lead the sad victims’ statistics of reported violence. Without knowing these kinds of facts, we cannot direct our common efforts to remove systemic barriers.
From now on, you and I are in a moment in our lives that we cannot return. It isn’t an option anymore. I encourage you to walk with me, with us on this journey and to reflect on the South African theologian Desmond Tutu’s quote: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Practicing our empathy, continuing our learning process, and demonstrating our commitment to 2SLGBTQIA+ inclusion must be part of our daily routine, even during some relaxing and enjoyable vacations because inequities don’t take time off.