Don't "Just Ask Questions" - Build Relationships

There are sensitive ways to learn about difficult topics. Use them.

When I was a young, recently-out little gay, I didn’t know much about the LGBTQIA+ community. I had a lot of questions, and no obvious way to learn what I wanted to know. Coming out as an adult (I was 27) is a bit like going through the wardrobe into Narnia: there is a whole new world to explore - wondrous, different, and sometimes even scary. How should you act in a gay bar? What’s the proper way to wear a leather harness? What’s a “bear”, and where can I find one? I had a lot to learn, particularly about then non-G letters in the queer alphabet. I knew a bit about being gay, but nothing about being lesbian and less than nothing about being transgender.

I had trans acquaintances before I came out, but I didn’t really have trans friends. I soon started volunteering for SpeakOUT Boston, though, a volunteer speakers bureau for sexuality and gender minority people. We would visit schools, companies, and non-profits and talk about our lives as queer folk, then take questions from the audience. We told them they could ask any question they wanted without anxiety or judgment, but that we might not answer their question, depending on their level of comfort. It provided a safe, honest, and direct way to address many people’s questions about the queer community, and I think the organizations we visited learned a lot.

I learned a lot too. I did a number of visits for SpeakOUT alongside a trans woman who became one of my first trans friends. She spoke openly about her experience of coming into her trans identity, and the discrimination she had received for doing so - as well as stories of love and support from those closest to her. I remember going to dinner with her after one such visit, and since we had developed a relationship, I asked if I might take the opportunity to ask some questions of my own. She extremely graciously said yes and, tentatively and with as much respect as I knew how to give, I asked the questions which had arisen for me about being trans.

This exchange was transformative for me. I came away from it with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of transness. I am extremely grateful to my friend that she was willing to engage with me in that discussion, and delve into some difficult areas. It worked because we knew each other, trusted each other, liked each other, and had both been vulnerable in front of each other. It worked because we both agreed to enter into the conversation. It worked because my friend wanted to open up about her life, in order to help me understand and appreciate her more. It was consensual, mutual, respectful, honest, private, and dignified.

Throwing a bomb on Twitter is none of these. When Richard Dawkins, or any other public figure, chucks out half-baked observations about racial and trans identity on Twitter, they aren’t engaging in anything like the sort of good-faith dialogue my friend and I had with each other. Addressing a politically incendiary topic in a broad-brush way on a public platform is not a responsible call for public debate. It is not a valuable contribution. It doesn’t move any discussion forward, deepen any relationships, or show respect for individuals affected by the issue. It just incites bigots and dismays those most affected.

This is why so many of us are angry when high-profile people act in this way. It is not that we don’t support their freedom of speech, or want to shut down legitimate, good faith discussions about difficult topics. It’s that if you wanted to have a good faith discussion about these topics, you would not do it over Twitter with your almost 3 million followers: you’d build relationships with people in the communities most affected, develop trust and respect between you, and ask if you might pose some questions.