Of all shapes, sizes, colors, genders and religions, I have a favor to ask of you. I ask it on my behalf, on behalf of others, and most of all, on your behalf. It is kind of a small favor, but one that seems practically Sisyphean, since so few of us make any headway with it. When it looks like we are, it is most likely something else entirely in disguise: the diminishing of the other rather than holding them up. It is understandable, we are under siege, many of us from many directions, so doing this thing, again, this tiny thing, is both paramount and paralyzing.
Too often when we relate our experiences, among ourselves, or to others, we always couch it in terms of “I could have had it worse,” or “I know it’s not as bad as for others” as if our oppression, our individual traumas are both somehow less deserving and erasing of the experiences of our disenfranchised siblings. In doing so we aid in our maltreatment and that of those we suggest have it harder. We turn our liberation into a matter of scales for issues that it is difficult and often inappropriate to.
Take, for instance, the way I share my trauma. For a year I was sexually assaulted at least once a week on the bus. At first just a little, but as the year went on, more and more, because as a trans woman I was afraid to speak out. My timidity encouraged more than just the first couple of men. This was terrifying as a woman in general and specifically because I am trans. Twice one of them reached for more than they counted on. One time the man was merely embarrassed and moved. The other time, however, he looked at me disgusted and I was truly worried he would murder me, or at least beat me. This was groping, this was assault, my body touched without permission, my agency removed.
Yet any time I have relayed this story in the past I have pointed out that at least I was not raped, as if I should be grateful for that. No one should have to feel grateful for that. Yes, being raped would be worse, but my communicating that makes my experience better implies that what I went through was acceptable, it was not. In a way I was telling people that since it was not rape, it was not sexual assault, which it certainly was.
Sexual assault is just the first, and easiest example. How often have any of us heard a black friend relay the discrimination they experienced but continue with another person of color’s experiences as more intense, so at least they did not have it that bad?. Or a queer person who relays a group of young men yelling “fag” at them and saying they are at least happy they were not gay bashed? I have never heard it, but I would be not be surprised to learn of a young Jewish person telling someone that as bad as Antisemitism can be in America, that at least it is not the Holocaust. This is how badly we belittle ourselves.
And we have to stop. We need to take our stories and believe that our trauma is real, if for nothing else than to heal from it. We also have to do it, however, because we need to be able to own it, completely when we display it to our oppressors, be they willing or failed allies and say “here, this happened to me and it is not OK!”
It is not OK that women are still viewed first in how men can derive enjoyment from us. It is not OK that black, brown, and red Americans have to prove that they are somehow not the criminals that white America wants to paint them in order do get jobs, housing, and care. It is not OK that religious minorities are harassed, daily in a country whose first rule is not to do that. None of it is OK, but we are hard pressed to show that when we say what happened to us is.