A Lot of Girls in Chicago

I entered the Toyota Camry a confident gay man; I exited it a confidant man still, but one whose gayness had been put to the test.

“There are lots of things to do in Chicago,” my Uber driver said. “A lot of places. A lot of culture. A lot of girls.”

I forced a smile and put my iPhone down. I loved girls. But as someone who had just Googled “Justin Trudeau feminist hunk of my dreams”, I did not want to do girls.

My Uber driver, David, had a soft smile and drove with both hands on the wheel. He went to the University of Michigan to get his undergraduate degree in Pre-Dental Studies. When I told him I wanted to get my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, he listened with genuine interest as I talked about eating disorders and minority mental health. Looking back on the drive, I almost know I could have corrected him – actually, I’m attracted to men, for better or worse – and he most likely would have apologized before continuing our friendly conversation.

But there’s a chance he could have been homophobic, and I would have been trapped in the car of a random man in a city I knew almost nothing about. There’s a chance he could have given me a bad rating at the end of our Uber ride, one star for my unfortunate preference for penises (let’s face it, penises are just not that pretty.) There’s a chance he could have stopped talking, that the momentum of our conversation would have collapsed into a dead, stony silence.

So I said nothing. When he pulled up to the curb of my hotel, I thanked him for our fun, thoughtful talk. As I walked into the main lobby and saw him driving out, I wondered if he imagined me going to graduate school in Chicago, if he pondered whether I would do a lot of girls.

chicago may 2016 selfie thomas wow

As per tradition, a selfie. This one includes half my face, an Ariana Grande shout-out, and proof that I went to Chicago. It slays, I know.

I wonder if I should have spoken up. As a gay man – and as a peer educator, an Asian American, and an ally and advocate for intersectionality – I feel an intrinsic responsibility to correct heteronormative assumptions, to stand up for what I believe in. Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that “if you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” David might not have killed me by assuming I liked girls in a romantic way, but he did erase my gayness, an important part of my identity. And I had done nothing to stop him. Building on Hurston’s quote, Paulo Freire, in the first chapter of his book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, says that “the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed [is] to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.” If no one from the oppressed group speaks up, how will they survive? I recall many of the great social justice movements in American history, and while allies played an essential part in those, I question whether such monumental change would have occurred if not for the uprising of the oppressed themselves.

But should marginalized groups really bear the responsibility of enlightening others when they already hold the burden of surviving racism, homophobia, ableism, etc.? Speaking up can siphon your emotional resources. It can force you to disclose something about yourself you may feel uncomfortable sharing. When I find myself in an all-white or predominantly white classroom, and no one pays attention to minority individuals in my readings, I say something – and while I love doing that, I love doing other things too, like contributing comments about scientific methodology or concepts like compassion and empathy. Audre Lord puts it well in Sister Outside: Essays and Speeches, when she writes that “Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.” This expectation to represent and advocate for certain aspects of our identity we may not even feel in touch with marginalizes us further – it detracts from our self-compassion.

As a double minority, I find myself stretched even further. How much do I advocate for Asian Americans? How much do I advocate for queer people? Intersectionality complicates the equation, as does taking into account other silenced voices. How much do I advocate for men who have experienced disordered eating? Or Asian Americans who have experienced trauma? These questions weigh on me often: as someone who cares a lot about mental health in minority communities, I push myself and push myself to think: is this enough? Am I doing enough? Am I enough?

The bottom line when it comes to whether we have a responsibility to advocate, to speak up: it depends. As a future researcher, I want to give a clear cut answer, that you have to speak up in X circumstance or you never have to speak out if Y occurs. But it depends on a lot of factors. It depends on how much the oppressor is willing to listen and to admit wrongdoing, as well as how much they have already sought to educate themselves. It depends on whether you feel like speaking up will empower you or whether it will drain you, if you have the self-care strategies to handle the latter. It depends on whether you feel safe in that very moment.

When I think back on that Chicago Uber ride, I think about all the ways I could have responded to David’s statement. I could have said “what about boys? Are there any boys in Chicago? Particularly well-read, compassionate, feminist boys?” I could have said “well, is Ariana Grande one of those girls? Because I love her. Like, more than life.” I could have said “well, look, I’m not interested in girls because I’m gay. And if that doesn’t sit well with you, I’m going to step out of this car and find another ride.”

But I didn’t say any of that. I could have said something; I could have done more. But he could have done more, too, by checking his assumptions, by educating himself. We can all do more. We are all privileged in some way. The question then, the one with no clear answer, the one we must each figure out for ourselves: how much doing – how much advocacy, speaking up, and service – is enough?

thomas presenting research chicago

Me presenting research in Chicago! Proof that I do more than fanboy Ariana Grande and write about my feelings.

Thoughts on any of the ideas presented in this post? I am growing and I am learning, so I would love to hear your perspectives. Hope you are all doing well.


Filed under Personal, Society

27 responses to “A Lot of Girls in Chicago

  1. Sora

    It’s worth considering your relationship with the person you’d like to educate as well. I’m all for the idea that “no one can know the impact they have, even and maybe especially on random strangers”, but reality is that the stuff you say to your friends / others who know you may be more likely to stick with them.

    • Very true, Sora! Great note that we should take into account people’s relationships with us and how that may affect discourse – not everyone is the same. You’re a fabulous writer and thinker and human and I hope you are doing well.

  2. “Proof I do more than fanboy” lol well I’m from Chicago and best I can do is say welcome and sorry for your driver. You should have just said “there are a lot of boys too” and see what her would have done

  3. I think you bring up a lot of good points. I also think it’s in these informal conversations that people can really be enlightened to what they say. This individual made the girls comment (also, girls not women…), but that doesn’t mean that they themselves identify as heterosexual. I think the hold that society places on everyone regardless of gender, race, or sexuality to be heteronormative, white, and masculine is strong. Even the most educated and social justice oriented people slip up because of how ingrained it is in the culture. All of that being said, I’ve always been an advocate for saying something if you can. Sometimes the perceived safety factor doesn’t give us an opportunity to do so, and we have to know that that’s okay too. 🙂

    • You bring up a lot of great points, especially about how the driver may not have been straight even if he made a heteronormative comment. It’s always great to test our own assumptions and to recognize that we all live in a society that espouses values based on heteronormativity, white supremacy, and masculinity. I appreciate your compassion when you write that everyone slips up and that that’s okay – it’s all about forgiving yourself while always trying to do better. Thank you for your thoughtful comment and for stopping by this blog!

  4. I love how in all your posts however casual or anecdotal they start, the end always leave me so thoughtful. You’re right, it’s really hard to measure a respectful but effective amount of advocacy. Personally, I’m really shy and quiet in real life so I tend to not speak my mind. But I do believe in the importance of doing so. Anyway, yet another thought provoking piece, Thomas! And hope you enjoyed your birthday last week by eating your favorite foods and jamming to lot of Ariana (and possibly singing along louder than usual)!

    • I agree Summer, it’s a difficult balance to strike and I doubt there’s a perfect one – but it’s always important to strive to improve and become better allies and humans overall. Thank you for stopping by and for your kind comment! And yes, during my birthday week I did eat great food, and of course, I jammed to tons of Ariana (#BuyIntoYouOniTunes). Hope you are well!

  5. Alexis

    That’s so cool that you went to Chicago to present a poster! It’ll definitely look good on your resume for grad school 🙂

    You raise very valid points in this post about whether or not you should speak up in cases like this. Do you try and educate people about topics they are ignorant of/don’t consider or do you stay quiet in case it is ill-received and you have to face the consequences? There are definitely times where I wished I had spoken up to fight against the cis-gender heteronormative patriarchy (did I miss anything there? hahaha) that defines society, and there are also times where I have spoken up and no one cared enough to be receptive to the idea that not everyone fits into nice little categories that don’t extend beyond what’s considered “normal.” BUT, it is nice when someone who doesn’t know much about LGBTQ+/gender identities says that it gives them something to think about and that they want to research it more to better understand it ^.^ Anyways….back to your point, I do feel like even if you weren’t able to speak up in person, there is always social media to turn towards to educate the masses about the many prejudices that minority groups still face and encourage discussion about it.

    Whew, sorry, didn’t mean to write a whole block of text.

    • Wonderful comment, Alexis, I appreciate it so much! I love the positivity in what you write – that even if there are some people who may not respond to what you say, there will be others who listen and try to improve themselves. And social media is a fabulous platform for often marginalized individuals to speak up. I feel like sometimes we spend so much time disparaging social media (of course there are bad parts to it, as with anything) but it does give us the opportunity to have discourses such as these in healthful, respectful ways. Please do not apologize for long comments, I love whole blocks of texts from you. Hope you are doing well!

  6. Rick

    There is alsothe chance that he could have been gay too and assumed you like girls just to have a chat topic and was too shy to say he’s attracted to you.

    • You are right that he could have been gay, Rick! I should not have assumed he was straight just because he made a heteronormative comment. Hope you are doing well and that your travels are excellent.

  7. Your experience kind of reminds of when people say subtly sexist comments and those are the ones that are most hurtful because people don’t realize they are sexist but I never know if I should just let it go or say something or call them out and by the time I’m done deciding they’ve already moved on to another topic LOL my struggles..

    • Maddie

      I think about this a lot too. Are unconsciously sexist/homophobic/racist/fill-in-the-blank comments worse than comments meant to be discriminatory? An unconsciously discriminatory comment suggests that the person doesn’t know how disrespectful they’re being, but making an effort to say something that’s discriminatroy means that the person knows that what they’re saying is offensive, and does it on purpose to try to get a rise out of whoever it’s aimed at. Hmm…

      • I think sometimes the people who say discriminatory do it just to anger people and I don’t know whether to think that they actually believe it or not.

  8. Oh the poster thing – when my husband got into the psychology department as a student then as a staff member, I could not get my head around people taking posters and sticking them up and standing in front of them. But I do understand now it’s a thing. If someone’s going to a conference, I just assume they’re going to network or give a paper, unless I stop to think and question my assumptions. Oh … I see where I’m going there …

    I think we have to choose our battles. I question and try to turn things around, from my position of “privilege” as a cis white straight person (but a woman, so …). I think you can’t be “on” all the time, you have to have time just to be you. He could have said “girls and boys”, maybe he’s kicking himself for not having done so even now. If he’d said something vile, I would have challenged him, but I’d have let that go. Maybe that’s wrong, but fighting against stuff all the time might lose you strength for the big battles.

  9. It’s a tricky situation, isn’t it? I’ve been in similar situations to an extent; sometimes I’ve heard people say ignorant or narrow-minded things but instead of speaking up I’ve let it slide. I think, honestly, you’re not obligated to “sacrifice” your comfort or your happiness or whatever to educate others. At least not 100% of the time. Sometimes you’re too tired to do so, mentally tired I mean.

    Also, guess what? Our library has The Full Spectrum so I borrowed it and read your story first 😀 Well done, Thomas. Written with as your usual graceful honesty. I know you are, but it bears repeating: you should be proud of all you’ve achieved, academically, physically and mentally ❤

    • That’s totally true, that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your comfort and/or happiness to educate those around you – otherwise, oppressed groups would be doing that all day long and running themselves into the ground even more. Those in positions of power should use their privileges to educate themselves. Thank you for this thoughtful comment and for reading my piece in The Full Spectrum; our e-friendship means the world to me. (:

  10. This is something I struggle with a lot, though most of my troubles stem from a ridiculous fear of having people not like me. Apathy I can deal with, but flat out dislike I can’t deal with. Part of that is because I fear what people might do to me if they dislike me. Like you said about your driver – maybe he would have been a good guy and listened and apologized for the assumption, or maybe he would have done something bad. I always assume the something bad. I never said anything to a teacher who said something ridiculous because I didn’t want to risk them lowering my grade. I didn’t want employers to fire me or not give me as much work as before. I didn’t want colleagues to have any reason to make my life miserable. I didn’t want my boyfriend’s family to go out of there way to make me miserable or say I wasn’t allowed over anymore. I didn’t want to say something to a stranger because what if I run into that person again someday and they remember me and something bad happens because of it?

    Some of those concerns are legitimate and some are probably just excuses, but they still keep me from speaking up most of the time. I want to be braver. I want to open people’s eyes to things because I know some of them honestly don’t realize what they’ve said wrong – like how I used to say “That’s so gay” until I went to my first Gay Straight Alliance meeting when I was 15 and realized I was equating being gay with being stupid. As soon as someone pointed out what I was doing, I was horrified and stopped. I’m sure that’s true of other people, too. But like you said, how can you tell those people from the ones who will just turn around and say even more obnoxious things?

    I don’t know the answers, even just for myself, but if you ever do come up with a “say X in this situation but Y is this other situation” rule, please let me know. 😀

    • Good point. It’s hard to be brave. I remember turning red every time I put my hand up in English class.

      It’s good to care what people think, but it’s also important to speak out without draining yourself or jeopardizing yourself.

      I don’t blush as much any more. Other people do have power, but over time, you realize that you have power, too. When I was in my first year of medical school, one of the doctors pulled me over and said, about my classmates, “You see how they’re not sure of themselves, how they hesitate when they talk? That’s all going to change.” And it did.

      There’s no rule of thumb, but after a while, you realize that usually nothing bad happens when you respectfully express yourself. You feel better, and sometimes people even thank you. Other times, you realize it’s a waste of breath to talk to some people, so you walk away (i.e. most of the Internet).

      It’s a marathon, not a sprint. None of us will speak up 100 percent of the time, because then we’d never get anything else done. Good luck to all of us trying to make the world a better place.

  11. If it makes you feel more hots for our Prime Minister, he raised the pride flag today on parliament; the first time ever in Canadian History. That’s something.

    • Replying to this late but Justin Trudeau is so bae, even if he does have problematic views of the environment and a few other shortcomings. Also did you see the pictures of him jogging today? I almost fainted from heatstroke.

  12. I’m with Audre Lorde on this. If there were one thought I’d hold on to, it’s that the choice is one’s own every time. No one is obligated to educate, to represent, or even to resist being misunderstood or stereotyped . And because it’s impossible to fulfill mutually exclusive imperatives – do I err on the side of safety? of dignity? of engagement? of preserving my energy? – you get to make your choice on the fly, evaluate in the rear view mirror, and move on. I’m in favor of preserving energy, personally, and although there are times I’ve corrected people, I’ve almost always regretted it because they didn’t welcome it and I’m horribly conflict averse. This obv does not apply to conversations in which the other is curious, open, signalling deeper engagement.

  13. Amy

    Great post, Thomas! I really didn’t get into the advocacy scene until after I started college. After joining the APA Student Assembly at my school, I became acquainted with so many upperclassmen who were well-educated in and advocated for the Asian Pacific American community. I personally love learning more about the historical and current issues that plague not only the communities that I identify with, but other communities who are struggling as well. Being an advocate for these communities– my own and others’– is very fulfilling; however, as you did mention in your own post, advocacy can be very draining and, at times, frustrating.

    There are times when I feel it is unfair that the oppressed minority should be tasked with educating the oppressive majority. After all, why is that my job? How can they not notice the micro-aggressions?

    However, to answer your question— “How much doing is enough?”— is tricky. Technically, I don’t think it’ll ever be enough, at least not until the evils we advocate against are completely eradicated. But I don’t think this means that our efforts are fruitless, nor should this discourage us from speaking up for what we believe in. I think part of successful advocacy is understanding when and where speaking up will be effective. When and where will taking a stand make a difference?

    In your particular scenario, despite the guilt you may feel about staying quiet, I definitely think that other instances where you’ve voiced your opinions far outweigh your inaction. Thank you for writing about this! I really enjoyed learning more about your personal relationship with advocacy.

    P.S. I LOVED that you quoted Zora Neale Hurston ❤ Ugh she’s so great.

  14. A really interesting, inspiring post, Thomas. It’s so hard to know when to speak up, especially if it has the potential to risk your own safety. But then.. if nobody ever spoke up where would we be?

    • Thanks so much for reading, Becky! From growing up and from reading some of these comments, I feel like it’s not any marginalized person’s responsibility to speak up, but they can if they feel safe and empowered in doing so – the majority group should take it upon themselves to educate one another as well as themselves. Hope you are doing well.

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