I’m writing this in the Dr. King library in downtown San Jose. I think it’s a pretty appropriate place to get all of my thoughts out here. This library is both a city library and a college library, sitting on the edge of San Jose State University‘s campus, so there’s a mixture of students and non-students in here everyday. Being in this kind of environment is condusive to what I want to say and also a nice in-real-life metaphor for how my thought process is going right now.
There is so much about gender and sexuality that I know nothing about. I’m not trying to flaunt my own ignorance or anything; on the contrary, it frustrates me to be uninformed, especially on topics that it seems like everyone is talking about. It doesn’t make me feel so great if I can’t participate in conversations with my friends because I’m lacking in knowledge. I don’t want to feel left out or feel like an idiot and, especially regarding topics surrounding people’s identity, I don’t want to accidentally say something offensive. I take extra care when I delve into discussions like these because as much as I want to educate myself, I don’t want to disrespect the humanity of anyone while doing so.
I know exactly how this goes because I’ve been on the other side of this situation. When people come to me with questions about blackness or racism or whatever, I’m careful to engage because I want to protect myself from the potential harm their ignorance may bring upon me. I know that our education system and society as a whole is not set up to educate people on things that divert from “the norm.” I understand my white friends may truly just not get it. I’m sympathetic to that, to a point. I don’t mind partaking in respectful conversation that comes from a place of genuine desire of knowledge and to do better, but I’m still careful because I know, intentional or not, their ignorance puts them in a place where they could start saying something harmful. Their willingness to learn won’t negate that hurt. So I’m careful. And when the roles are reversed and I’m the one who needs to learn, I’m careful. I take care of that vulnerability because I know it well.
I know it’s no one’s job to educate me, and I’m thankful for the friends and people that are willing to help me learn. I am so thankful for the internet in so many ways, but particularly for this piece, I’m thankful that it allows for more attainability for learning. There’s just an insurmountable amount of resources available so easily, and I think that’s easy to take for granted. Academia can be exclusive and so boundlessly recursive that it becomes inaccessible to people that aren’t predisposed to it, so the internet is a great resource for anyone to learn just about anything.
For me, it wasn’t until I got to college that I learned to love learning. I loved being a student. I loved having the opportunity to have vast amounts of knowledge and information available to me. I loved learning about something new and going out to learn more about it, gathering information and gaining context about the subject. If I wanted to learn more about something, I would head to the library, or speak to a professor who’d spent most of their life studying said thing, or hop on Google Scholar or other online academic databases. I would read scholarly articles and dissertations and theses and reports and textbooks and research papers. I’d seek out a person more qualified than me to help me learn about something or get them to lead me to the exact right book or website that gave me the information I sought.
I got entrenched in academia, but I remembered to take everything I read with a grain of salt. One of the most important lessons I learned in school was to think for myself. I appreciated scientific research, but was able to keep in mind that academia is not without its flaws. It’s exclusionary. It tends to ignore people of color and favors people of higher socioeconomic class. Academic publications are held as gospel and dissenting opinions aren’t considered valid unless they meet certain standards that academia itself sets. This critique was important to me because it taught me to not to believe everything I read.
I started using Tumblr I think my sophomore year of school at the request (read: gentle bullying) of friends. It had a bunch of Harry Potter stuff so, clearly, I had no choice. It was just nice to take a break from real life and look at funny stuff online, so I mainly used it for that. About a year later, I think around the same time I got into Twitter, I started noticing a tonal shift in my Tumblr dashboard as I used it more frequently and followed more people. There were a lot more long form posts about so many different things and it often got to be overwhelming. Sometimes I would delve into these blocks of text and come out on the other side completely confused. There were so many words and phrases and entire concepts I was unfamiliar with. So, I did what I was used to doing when I didn’t understand something and researched it. A lot of the terminology I saw in these Tumblr theses couldn’t be found elsewhere. Sources would just refer back to other people’s blogs. People would cite sources that redirected back to themselves.
Initially, this kind of thing turned me off. It made me distrustful of the discussions that went on on Tumblr that linked back to another Tumblr account. It seemed very echo-chamber like and people would take it a step further, formulating their own arguments based on another person’s unsourced information. I was always skeptical of posts like that, especially because I couldn’t understand a lot of what was being said. I just resolved that these kinds of things were just not for me and I stopped making an effort to understand.
These kinds of posts only started growing with more and more frequency, and were almost always about gender and sexuality. I would casually read some of the material, if only to keep up to date with what people on Tumblr were talking about. And as time went on, more and more of these jargon-riddled text posts popped up. Gender and sexual identities were introduced to me every other day and I honestly couldn’t keep up. I learned about the difference between sexual and romantic attraction and the dual identity people had including the two. People wrote novel-length posts about how their attraction to specific personality traits meant they were under the umbrella of “queerness.” A big one I saw was people coming out as sapiosexual, which apparently means sexually attracted to people who are smart. After this became a popular topic, another portion of Tumblr labelled that sexuality as ableist because it effectively excluded people who have developmental disorders and learning disabilities, and classist because it barred people who couldn’t afford to go to college. The response by the sapiosexual community was that that argument was oppressive because the sexual attraction didn’t have to be toward academic intelligence, just intense and passionate knowledge about something.
So here we had a group of people claiming to be a certain sexuality, another group calling them out, and the original group then claiming they were being oppressed. This kind of circular logic is so common on Tumblr and I honestly just didn’t have the time or patience for it, so I left. I miss sharing funny gifs with my friends, but it’s honestly not worth the headache.
One of the problems I noticed immediately was that people jumped to being oppressed so quickly. I wasn’t convinced that any of these sexualities based on specific things like a person’s intelligence were real things, and it wasn’t just because there was no actual evidence about them existing other than taking a stranger’s word for it online. It was a culmination of everything; the loose definitions being shady to begin with, the blind reinforcement, the ferocity with which people jumped at the chance to call someone a bigot, the unwillingness to engage in constructive conversation about it, the dismissal of someone’s doubt and automatic assigning them as being oppressive. I honestly can’t remember when this kind of thing started happening, or if it was already a thing when I joined Tumblr, but it’s just not something I want to be a part of.
I don’t think I’m an academic purist or anything. I have seen very insightful and informative analysis happen online before. And I don’t have any quantifiable evidence that discussions in real life are more valid than they are online. Personally, I feel like I’m a lot more eloquent and my thoughts come out a lot more coherent when I write than when I speak, so I get that there are people who would rather have important conversations online than in person. But the pitfall about that is it’s so easy for misinformation to circulate. Social media currency comes in likes and faves and notes, and since gender and sexuality is “in” now, that’s an easy topic to use to launch your internet fame. People with huge masses of followers spout unchecked rhetoric and it quickly spreads and eventually becomes accepted, regardless of if it’s true or not.
There’s a weird epidemic of people online wanting to be oppressed. Don’t ask me why. I can’t imagine why somebody would want to be on the other side of violent, hateful, potentially lethal vitriol because they want fit in. One of my favorite things that Tumblr poked fun at was a group of white fraternity and sorority members holding up signs with their respective stereotypes and their personal example that negated that. It was a perfect example of how non-marginalized people are trying to capitalize on oppression in a very peculiar way. I think what happens is people that are part of a privileged group see marginalized people talking about their problems and instead of actively listening and understanding, they decide that those problems aren’t that bad because they also have problems.
As hilarious as it is to point this out, this is also pretty dangerous I think. It serves to dilute the actual issues that oppressed people have. The purpose is to equate these false issues with real ones, and neutralize them. It attempts to silence those who are voicing their frustration and anger with how they’re treated.
The term “queer” has gone from being a slur used against gay people to meaning…anything. I remember the “straight queer” Tumblr post making the rounds right around the time I decided I had to leave that site. There’s people that claim they’re “transethnic,” meaning that they identify as a different race or ethnicity than they are. People subscribe to these words crafted solely to carve their own personal niche inside of actual oppression because they fell left out. They’re taking real terms and identities and twisting them and bastardizing them to make it so they’re included. Or they take real concepts and re-assign them incorrect meanings that are widely circulated and suspect. Any criticism is met with hive-minded attacks which both shuts down the possibility of effective discussion and conflates the falsities with actual information.
Informational material about gender and sexuality is scarce and the important works that exist aren’t always easy to access for everyone. There’s college classes on gender and sexuality, but not everyone goes to college. And even if you’re in college, unless you’re majoring in something related or have a personal interest in the subject, chances are you wouldn’t take it. There’s academic journals about it, but those aren’t always available to everyone. The easiest way to learn about LGBT stuff for most is online, which can be a double-edged sword. There are some really great resources about gender and sexuality online, but there are just as many dubitable ones.
The reason I brought up my own ignorance about this is because I know from personal experience how difficult it is to sort through the information online. While I still remain skeptical about the “discourse” I read on Tumblr, I sometimes have a hard time differentiating what I’ve read on there from verified information. It’s hard to sift through the duplicity and get to things that are real, and I’m frustrated that it’s taking this long for me to learn about something I find personally important. I’m used to doing research, and I’m used to having to work hard to find answers, but what I’m not used to is having to verify everything I read to make sure I haven’t been tricked by a 14 year old Tumblr blogger with 100 thousand followers who made a popular post misidentifying what non-binary means.
A lot of the stuff online is bullshit, and I think it’s important to keep that in mind. I think if you stay on Tumblr too long, it’s possible for your critical analysis to be warped. A hive mind exists there in more ways than one and every time I go back, I’m reminded of it. There is such a prevalent culture of attacking people that it discourages learning. I’m not defending people who expect random people on the internet to be their teachers, or saying that you owe anyone your time and knowledge. You don’t. And I understand there are people who use the excuse of research as a front to abuse others, pretending they want to know more so they can use the information to mock or hurt. But mutually respectful communication seems unattainable in this regard on that platform. If you don’t already know about something, asking about it is seen as an outright attack. Your lack of knowledge about the subject means you are actively oppressing them. Asking for clarity means you’re the enemy.
I want to learn. I love being a student and I try to do my best at being informed. The internet shouldn’t be making that harder, especially when this is becoming such a hot topic. I feel like the prevalence of inaccuracies and outright lies surrounding discussion about gender identity and sexuality online is making actual information on the topic inaccessible. Because so many sources are erroneous, this makes things like academic journals and other published materials a more appealing place for accuracy. I won’t repeat the downfalls of academic writing and research, but unfortunately it seems like the most precise place to get truthful information, and it’s unfortunate because it’s so easy for the number of brilliant people who know what they’re talking about are being drowned out by those who don’t.
The internet is supposed to make things easier. Learning shouldn’t be this hard.