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PR stunts, virtue signalling and growth

Taking stock of life at the beginning of a new semester is a good mark on how I’m growing as a person. On one hand, I weigh how likely it is that I’ll be able to find someone who wants to sleep with me. On the other hand, I’m reminded of my transition into The Man; a white, straight, soon-to-be-educated, upper-middle-class cis-gendered male. I won the privilege lottery. Generally, my focus is on the sex thing, but that’s slowly shifting. 

Read that last paragraph again, if you dare. Read some of my other writing for the Dalhousie Gazette (this is me officially warning you).

Okay, I know you’re not going to do any of that but I hope you see my point. I am not a professor, I am a buffoon. 

Every year in early June since I can remember, there’s been some member of school administration (usually a presumably-cis person), sitting us down in an auditorium and telling us stories about the violence and discrimination queer people face. 

I was much more excited about the fact that this was time out of my class than I was to learn about the Stonewall Riots. By the time I graduated high school, I felt pretty confident that I knew the important parts of the story and could write off the day. 

That’s the way it went for about 19 years of my life. Then something finally broke through. 

Homophobia in the workplace

The organization I work for (which the Gazette chose not to name — I remain an employee and subject to discipline) has a very homophobic past and had been actively working to eradicate LGBTQ2S+ people from its ranks for many years. Thankfully, the leadership is working to right that historic wrong. Part of that effort is putting members from oppressed groups in front of us and having them tell their stories. 

A very old member of my organization, a very important fella, told us what it was like being a gay man in the 1980s within this organization. It was horrendous but sadly, mostly stuff I’d heard before. 

The major difference was this time he didn’t have to pad his language and wasn’t speaking for anybody else (unlike those school officials). It was much more impactful. 

The leader of our organization recently gave a public apology to members, something I’d always dismissed as too little, too late.

The presenter broke down into tears during the apology, how much it meant to him and how deeply relieved he felt to hear it. It gave legitimacy to his struggle. It was an effort to right a horrendous wrong. 

I thought it was a PR stunt. 

PR or a change of heart?

In the Q&A period, I asked the man about this as politely as I could. I’m sure I still sounded like a jerk. He explained that yes, it absolutely could be a PR stunt. But, the fact that it was a PR stunt that worked, hopefully, meant real change would follow. 

A friend of mine shared a similar perspective. She was talking about white straight cis male students, most of whom came from privileged backgrounds. She lamented the lack of empathy these men had. She felt these men were so used to having the system backing them up that they forgot not everyone experienced the world the way they did. 

It’s easy to write off the presentations we get for pride, Black History and other months as PR stunts. Often they are and if that’s the end of the discussion for you, then I’m not going to be able to change your mind. 

But, if you want to genuinely learn something, I cannot encourage you enough to seek out genuine lived experiences. Experiences that have something in common with your own (athletics, art, discipline, whatever). You’ll see the difference, I’m sure of it. 

When straight cis school administrations give speeches because bosses tell them to, it falls flat. It will never be as cohesive or powerful as hearing it from a person of a marginalized group speaking for themselves. 

Considering the LGBTQ2S+ experience

The more that I find myself thinking, talking or learning about the LGBTQ2S+ experience, the more important it becomes to me to better understand. It’s hard to give a damn about something if it’s the same recycled information, uninterested presenters or other forms of virtue signalling. 

Maybe I’m virtue signalling right now. I don’t know. I don’t think so. Investigate marginalized stories yourself. Research to learn if one of your favourite historical figures might have been queer (Frederick The Great, Florence Nightingale and Julius Caesar are good places to start). Read some of Sappho’s poetry.   

My biggest recommendation, the best for last, is to read I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson. It’s an incredible coming-of-age story about a set of twins (one of whom is a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community). 

Find stories that interest you, and take the opportunity to expand your taste and your understanding of the things you enjoy. Honestly, it’s a billion times more fascinating than the same presentation about Pierre Trudeau’s “No place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation” speech (bless him) you’ve already seen 10 times.

Cover image: The bisexual flag. Magenta for same sex, blue for opposite sex and the natural purple overlap for attraction despite sex. Along with experiences of other members of the LGBTQ2S+ community, the experiences of bisexual folks remain supressed behind campaigns that many organizations use as virtue signalling. This must change. (Mandy King)


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