Transcending Boundaries 2014 Keynote Address ‘Inclusion Is Not A Moonshot’

Below you’ll find my keynote address from Transcending Boundaries Conference 2014. The recording of the address didn’t work out, so I re-recorded it from my office. The text has been slightly modified to better suit print. 



Before I get going with the body of today’s address, I’d like to do a little exercise to help us look at how we think about inclusion in our community. And please, for the love of all that is decent in the world, don’t try to read too much into the order as I go, sometimes a list is just a list. Here are some common generalizations people have about people in the queer and LGBT community:

  • Bi people are often perceived as not “really” part of our community since there’s a perception that they can could always be with someone of the opposite sex
  • Cis gay men are seen as having so many societal advantages as to no longer be subjects of oppression and bigotry.
  • Lesbian and gay women are expected to cleave to hetero-normative gender expressions in their relationships, in the form of having a mandatory butch and fem partner
  • Trans* people are often portrayed as having one universal narrative of what it means to be transgender transsexual, or genderqueer.
  • Queer people are associated with being young and college educated.
  • Asexual people are all too often assumed to be simply inexperienced or afraid of sex
  • People make all sorts of presumptions about intersex people’s bodies
  • Polyamorous people are thought to be impulsive, flighty, or incapable of commitment.
  • People who engage in kink or BDSM practices are seen as unhealthy, prone to abuse, or inherently misogynistic.
  • When it comes to “questioning” people, there’s the belief that the “question” will always resolve in one of the preceding categories.
  • And of course, there’s a widespread belief that allies must have family or friends who are queer/LGBT or secretly have queer/LGBT leanings of their own.

OK, now here’s the question I want you to ask yourself: how closely did you pay attention to the points on that list that weren’t directly applicable to your life? Did you really listen to the others, or were you too caught up in waiting to hear what I was going to say about the demographic or issue closest to your own personal experience?

If you’re really being honest with yourself, did you pretty much just look for your piece of the pie?

Or do you really feel like you took in the whole list.

On that note, did you weigh the relative severity of each of the scenarios listed to see who I was putting forth as having things the worst or best?

It’s not fun to think about is it? It’s easy to find ourselves feeling terribly defensive in moments like these. Furthering the conversation around inclusion is incredibly important, especially now, when the future of our community is more uncertain than ever, but you can already see why it’s a conversation we really struggle to have.

Speaking of: I was asked to give this address fourteen months ago, and it has absolutely kicked my ass that whole time.

A big part of that is that I haven’t been able to escape the idea that maybe it’s just not appropriate for me to give this keynote. I love TBC, and I was immensely honored to be asked. But the truth is, having a cisgender white guy talk about inclusion at a queer conference just doesn’t seem like the best idea.

There’s no escaping the fact that by virtue of my being a cis white guy, I am perceived by many people in this room as an embodiment of an oppressive system that robs people of power and agency. And I’ve struggled in crafting it, given that I’m coming from an undeniable place of privilege, to address people who struggle against forces of disempowerment driven by the very privileges I carry through life.

After all, I found myself asking, what was there for me to say?

That as a broad community queer/LGBTQ people kinda suck at inclusion? I’m pretty sure most of you already know that. And over the last year of work on this topic I’ve thought about many ways to say it, so some of what I will have to say is about us, and some of it is about me.

I actually wrote a version of this address with as little of myself in it as possible. Objectively, it wasn’t a bad keynote, but it wasn’t the right one for me to give. I’m not a speechwriter, I’m a storyteller and an educator. Inclusion, as we’ll see is not a moonshot, and I’m not JFK, and both of those things are just going to have to be OK, because that’s what we’ve got to work with.

Speaking of JFK, I’m both a science and a history nerd so I was aware of Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in September of 1962. You may never have heard of the Rice University speech, but I’m sure you’ve heard this part of it:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard

Think about this: less than three months earlier John Glenn had become the first American to complete an orbit our planet, and here the President was giving the nation little over seven years to set foot on another world. America’s “moonshot” was monumental task that we’d pledged ourselves to.

The following decade saw a series of clear milestones laid out and achieved as we raced to go from from cramming someone into the nosecone of a ballistic missile to traveling to the moon. And on July 24th 1969, Apollo 11 returned to earth carrying the first humans to have set foot on celestial body.

The moment Apollo 11 splashed down in the ocean, everyone who would follow after in the pursuit of a goal were pretty screwed. President Kennedy and the people behind the space program had created impossibly big shoes to fill, and from there on out we’ve been trying to. After all, how many times have we heard “how is it that we can put a man on the moon but not… whatever?”

You’re probably wondering what the point of that little history lesson was.

You see, one side effect of stressing out about this address, was that ideas about inclusion would pop into my head at random times. For me, random times pretty much meant in the shower or falling asleep. I have significant OCD, and became somewhat obsessed with the idea that the perfect thought would occur to me, and I’d forget it. So I got a waterproof case for my phone for the shower-driven ideas, and kept a notepad by my bed. “Inclusion is not a moonshot” was one of the more puzzling thoughts my fatigue addled brain put out there at four AM. But for some reason, I found myself unable to dismiss it come morning. The process of trying to figure it out helped shape my understanding of how we as a community all too often fall short when it comes to inclusion.

Before I was a sex and kink educator, or an LGBT activist for that matter, I was a product designer. The methodological approach to problem solving that got us to the moon makes sense to that part of my brain. Identify a problem, break it down into manageable chunks, complete steps A to Z, and voila, you’ve landed on the moon. It’s a good way to address many problems, and it’s useful for everything from interplanetary travel to grocery shopping.

What it isn’t good at is dealing with soft, squishy, human problems. The moonshot model can’t describe love, or how to create art, and when push comes to shove, it doesn’t do very well when it comes to building community either.

And we really try.

When it comes to being inclusive, we persistently follow a top-down, systematic approach to being better at this whole thing. It does a pretty awesome job of making privileged people feel less guilty about their privilege, but that’s about it.

This is the way of thinking that says “if we put a trans* person on our board then we’re inclusive” or “it’s not our fault that people of color just aren’t interested in our community” or to be personal for a moment “we’ve never had a cis guy give one of our keynotes and figured it was time.” The underlying idea is that leadership decisions can effectively bring about organic change to a whole community or demographic, and on the balance it just doesn’t work.

I’m not trying to say that way of doing things never leads to positive outcomes, it absolutely does, and it sure beats the living hell out of not doing anything at all. But when change comes, it does so because of the strength and determination of a few dedicated individuals who carve out a place for themselves and hold space for more people like them.

I have the utmost respect for those folks, but I also feel sorry for them. Down that road lies burnout and bitterness for too many, and even more tragically, it’s not unheard of for the departure of one or two critical people in a community to render it no longer as comfortable or safe for the those they were holding space for. In time those people drift away, rendering all the hard work that went into giving them a voice or a place in the community for naught.

Screw all of that, we can to do better.

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Not So ‘Queer’ After All

I don’t make a habit of reposting my Bilerico blogging here on NFABS, because I don’t want this blog to become a feed for my Bilerico work. That said, this post both fits well with NFABS’ general themes, and with my new commitment to greater openness. This post originally appeared on The Bilerico Project on 9/26/12

Not So ‘Queer’ After All 

Early this year, not long after becoming a regular contributor for The Bilerico Project, I wrote a post on the controversial subject of the reclaimed word “queer” as a personal identity.

At the time, I laid out the arguments for why I felt “queer” was the right word for who I was and how I lived my life. I’m not only someone whose partners are of the same gender, but also someone who is polyamorous, kinky, and who rejects the very narrow confines of who the gay world, and media in particular, sometimes try to say “gay” people are.

I also wrote about the fact that while I didn’t see having trans men partners as inherently contrary to someone identifying as “gay”, the widespread and destructive transphobia I often see within the gay community made me reluctant to embrace the word as my own. 

When I wrote that post in January, I’d been identifying as “queer” for many years, and didn’t really expect that I’d be writing this one less than a year later.

 You see, I find myself feeling as if I can’t continue to identify as “queer” anymore.

Before I get to my own situation though, I want to briefly address the use of “queer” as an umbrella community term. Talking about the “queer community” as an alternative to saying “gay community” or “LGBT community” has never really sat all that well with me. Sure, the alphabet soup of letters such as LGBTQQAI can get incredibly cumbersome, but the whole point of a reclaimed word is that people make the choice to reclaim it forthemselves, not have it thrust upon them in the manner of their oppressors. If you don’t like the word “queer” you certainly shouldn’t have to have it used to describe you.

Personally, I’m a fan of GSM or GSRM to describe our community more than any other acronym I’ve seen lately. It stands for Gender & Sexual Minorities or Gender, Sexual & Relationship Minorities, and has a deliberate catch-all quality that I appreciate.

But it isn’t the advent of a new term that has me felling the need to let go of my queer identity. As far as I know there isn’t yet a term for a someone who fits within the GSRM umbrella, and I’m not eager to invent one.

Rather, the issue is that I have come to find “queer” a less inclusive word than either it once was, or I once perceived it to be. I’ve always been a bit of an anomaly as a cis man who ID’s as queer, particularly as a cis queer guy who is primarily interested in same-sex relationships. Which isn’t to say I haven’t met others, I’m not a special snowflake.

But I’ve noticed more and more that queer spaces are not open to me as a cis guy, Many organizations, parties, etc, that identify as being queer-focused are formally or unofficially only open to cis women, trans women and trans men. An interesting corollary to this is that when I’ve been in open queer space, people have tended to assume I’m trans*, and are sometimes taken aback to discover otherwise. This has, at times, let to some ugly situations, with there being a perception of deceit on my part, or of me as a cis guy intruding on, and compromising the feeling of safety of queer space, even if that space hasn’t been formally designated as not open to cis men.

Words and labels are slippery things, that’s what makes them so powerful, and yet so potentially contentious. I understand that I could choose to continue to ID as queer and no one can stop me. But I also recognize that labels serve a valuable purpose, and if the broader definition within our community, or at least my little corner of it, of “queer” has becoming something I’m not, it makes little sense for me to continue using it.

On a selfish note, it’s painful to be told “this thing that is like you, isn’t open to you.” To be completely clear: I’m not saying that anyone has to include me in anything, or that my experience is somehow unique or particularly onerous. And yes, I do acknowledge that an expectation of inclusion on my part can be chalked up to my own white-cis-male privilege. But if the definition of what it means to be queer has evolved in a way that doesn’t include cis men, my point still holds that it is a poor descriptor for me to continue using.

Which of course, leaves me in a bind. The reasons that “gay” doesn’t work for me don’t magically vanish just because “queer” doesn’t either. If we’re only interested in the question of who I seek sexual and romantic intimacy with, the overly clinical “homoflexible” could conceivably work. But for me that may be a descriptor, but not really a coherent identity. Likewise, “a GSRM” makes my orientation sound like an expensive Japanese motorcycle rather than a way to navigate the complex waters of self-identity.

For now I’ll explore and try to make my own road. There will probably be times when “queer” is the most useful shorthand, and others when “homoflexible,” or “gay” might be. Hopefully in time I’ll find a new place of comfort with one of these words, or someone will invent a new one entirely.

I call “not it!”


As an aside, the multifaceted topic of self-identified “women’s spaces,” such as the Boston-based group MOB, that are open to trans men as well as trans women and cis women could easily be a post in itself, but it’s one I’m completely unqualified to write. I hope someone else will do so, maybe as a guest post for us one of these days.