The Old Normal

Starting Pride month with some well-meaning complaints about some popular symbols of inclusivity

It’s the beginning of Pride month — it’s always seemed odd that Pride is in mid-summer, since we all know that Pride goes before the Fall — and I’m choosing to complain about two symbols of inclusiveness and acceptance: the new Pride flags, and indicating pronouns in online profiles.

This may seem at best unnecessary, and that’s because it is. Everything I’m talking about has been done with the best of intentions, and it is short-term help for a real problem. The equality movement has progressed to the point where people like me — white, middle class, comfortably conforming to the binary gender I was assigned at birth — can feel relatively safe and welcomed in most of the places we’d want to live and travel. But those benefits haven’t been distributed equally, and there are too many people who are still marginalized within an already-marginalized community.

Also, I don’t have any illusions that my opinions are going to change what other people are doing, and I don’t want it to. But as symbols become more ubiquitous, I think it’s important to keep in mind what exactly they mean and why they’re necessary. It feels like more people — and opportunistic companies — are treating them as completely positive, to the point where it’s becoming as innocuous as the “Have a Nice Day” smiley face. Innocuous quickly becomes meaningless, and hides the fact that these are short-term patches over a more systemic problem that we’re not doing a good job of addressing.

I’ll start with the flags, because it’s easier. One of them sucks, the more common one is all right. I got this post’s featured image above, the better flag, from this article on Quartz from 2018, which more concisely describes my whole problem with them as opposed to the default rainbow.

The one that just adds black and brown stripes is awful, in my opinion, because it’s not just clumsy, but actually goes counter to the whole purpose. The colors on the rainbow flag don’t represent races or ethnicities; the idea was universality, that everyone was included. Adding stripes just adds an asterisk: “everyone, and also non-white people.” It’s not really inclusive, because it implies that their race is the most significant part of their identities — I’m white but can find myself on the flag as is, but some people only get the one black stripe. Not to mention that skin color is a very sketchy way to imply inclusiveness, and it just raises questions about all the ethnicities that aren’t included. I hate it.

The one that adds the black and brown stripes, along with colors from the transgender flag, as chevrons on the side is much better. It acts as a reminder that everyone really does mean everyone. The rainbow flag — which, to be frank, has become most visibly associated with gay white men and occasionally white lesbians — is supposed to include a much broader spectrum of people than it has in the past. I think it’s good to have that visual reminder.

But that’s why it’s not just blandly positive. It’s a reminder that we’ve lost the way, and we’re forcing some people to fight the same battles all over again. I wasn’t a part of the gay rights movement in the 80s and early 90s — for the record, I wasn’t even in the closet yet, but instead was still convinced that it didn’t apply to me at all — but I do remember much of it. It’s kind of disgraceful to see so many of the exact same lazy, dehumanizing attacks on gay equality now being applied to transgender people. We should have been one and done, leaving the right-wing bigots itching for a culture war with no one left to marginalize and persecute.

In other words: the new Pride flag isn’t just a joyful symbol of acceptance. It’s a reminder that we didn’t get it right the last time, and we’re having to do it all over again.

Which leads to including pronouns, and why I don’t choose to list them, which is a little more complicated. Essentially, it comes down to the fact that I can choose whether to list them. Even when I was figuring out my orientation, I’ve never had any question about my own gender identity. I haven’t been misgendered since I was a toddler, and now I don’t particularly care what people call me — it would feel odd to me, but not offensive.

So for me to list “he/him” after my name would just feel performative and condescending. I don’t need to do it, so it seems ostentatious that I would act as if I do. The closest analogue I can think of would be if I had to constantly refer to “my same sex partner,” or say that I was “gay married.” And even that doesn’t compare, because identity is ten times more visible in most social situations than orientation is.

It’s like the end of Spartacus. Instead of shedding a single tear, I’d have been like, “I appreciate the solidarity and all, but I mean come on. None of y’all had to do all the bad-ass shit I’ve been doing this whole movie. Some of you guys literally just sat down.”

Now, I believe I understand the intent behind it: in short, it’s not about me at all. It’s intended to make naming your pronouns a non-issue, so that the people who are frequently misgendered don’t have to feel weird by indicating theirs. It’s working towards a world in which transgender people (and non-binary, and gender-fluid) aren’t having to live their entire lives as “transgender people” but just “people.”

But the issue I have is that by trying to normalize people indicating their pronouns, we’re inherently reinforcing this idea that “normal” is the goal. I feel like the better, longer-term situation is not to work towards a society where everyone feels normal, but where there’s nothing wrong with not being “normal.” Where differences aren’t ostracized, but just accepted in the usual flow of social interaction. If you want to clarify your gender to make things simpler, cool, but it’s no more inconvenient or alienating than acknowledging that you’re left-handed or wear eyeglasses.

To go back to my — admittedly insufficient — analogy, I personally don’t feel like it’d be progress if more people started referring to their “opposite-gender partner,” or saying they were “heterosexual married.” I feel like it’d be a lot simpler if, every time someone referred to my “wife,” I could just say, “husband,” and that was the end of it.

It’s fair to point out the most obvious problem with that: I’m working from built-in assumptions about what’s “normal” and what’s not, and working from the same assumption that the things that I take for granted are the same things that everyone takes for granted. But really, that’s my entire point. Essentially, I want everybody to have what I’ve got. I get to be comfortable in most situations, I never have to give a second thought to other people’s assumptions about my gender, and I almost never have to feel offended in the slightest when other people make assumptions about my orientation. That shouldn’t be some kind of privileged status; it should apply to everybody as the baseline.

I’m sure that because I’m still learning, there are other implications at play here: I’m still assuming a gender binary for most people, and still assuming that most people have a gender identity that matches the sex they were assigned at birth. I’m all for the expanding ideas of gender as performative construct and think it’s genuinely great that people are much more open-minded to it than when I was growing up. But at some point, it just comes down to language, and how it’s used as simplification/generalization. I feel like genuine diversity and inclusiveness doesn’t mean ignoring that bell curves exist, but just making sure that people are treated fairly no matter where they are on the curve.

It’s been bugging me for years that so much of popular social progressivism (at least the online version, that I come into contact with most often) is designed around activism, with little actual regard for “social engineering.” I’ve complained probably too many times about the word “privilege” being thrown around too casually, but I still believe it shows how we’re thinking about all of these ideas in the wrong way. The things I can take for granted should never be considered “special privileges,” but instead things that every person gets by default. I was under the impression that that was the entire point of the Pride flag.

Ultimately, we should normalize not trying to normalize everything, and stop thinking of “normal” as the end goal in the first place.