A few weeks ago, I listened to a show whose guest was Virgie Tovar, a renowned fat activist of color. I was very struck by how she answered when asked about her criteria for showing interest in men on dating sites. It took my breath away with how clear it was. For Tovar, men who share pics of themselves giving TED talks (why are they taking up more space instead of passing the mic. And honestly, ugh to TED talks), sitting in front of fancy meals at expensive restaurants, or participating in daring adventure sports are all an automatic no.
I LOVE THAT.
When asked to elaborate, Tovar said something I will hold onto. She said that when people first start dating, there is a natural instinct to hold back on the “negative” (loaded word) qualities we embody. Then, as we relax into intimacy, these qualities naturally emerge in one way or another. Tovar used disability as her example. At this point, the abled partner might say something like “You are too needy, and I didn’t realize it would be so hard to do things with you.” The implication, of course, is that the disability is holding the abled person back.
According to Tovar, wealthy, educated, privileged people have just as many needs. It is just that those needs are already being met, or have been met at the relevant points in their lives. So they can indulge in the fiction that they have no major needs which might hamper a developing relationship. And by extension, the type of pics mentioned above are a means of exhibiting one’s access to resources. By not recognizing or acknowledging this truth, such people can cause a lot of harm to potential partners.
Tovar expressed that she has little interest in cultivating closeness with people who are messy in this way, and I am forever transformed by her articulating her stance. In many ways, lots of us already practice some less articulate version of her ethos, but we may not recognize that we do it. I, for example, do not readily seek close ties with socially relevant people in the Desi community, or in our town. I find many of them harmful for the same reasons Tovar laid out. And my family has sustained a fair bit of damage from them. I also don’t go out of my way to belong to groups that center ideals I find harmful–unexamined biases re: race, immigration, gender, thinness, etc etc are no longer forces I wish to have in my inner circles. But of course, as many do, I struggle with how to live my values, and it is a constant process of listening to my own internal responses, and trusting myself enough to know when to pack it in and move on. Processing the aftermath in safety is also important to me.
I will add that I take seriously my refusal to uphold saviorist projects as well. So for example, autism organizations that don’t have majority autistic leadership. It’s been a journey, but I’ve learned to spot the warning signs more quickly. Any scenario where the work is seen as an opportunity for people to practice charity on others, where the agenda, and the calls to action are not coming from grassroots leaders who are themselves from that group–those are a no for me.
It is very easy, when we become surer about those limits, for people to say we are rigid or unkind. I no longer wish to place value on such criticism. People draw boundaries against kids like mine all the damn time. But the idea that we would do the same is somehow weep inducing. Historically, people have been so accustomed to families like mine begging for acceptance, any shifting of this imbalance causes discomfort. But I cannot afford to sit in that deep pause with people who don’t welcome change.
In friendships, in dating, I think it is very life saving to have similar standards. R’s close circle is almost entirely neuroqueer. With one another, they can be entirely themselves, and their hard won knowledge of how to live in an intersectional way is very precious to witness. It helps me see why straight (and etc) people ways of doing things should not be the default. And it is a valuable way to understand how boundaries work– how it is important for me to wait for an invitation, which they may not wish to give, and that’s not a terrible thing. They aren’t doing it to be cruel, as privileged people often do. They are doing it to maintain the safety of their spaces.
A lot of times, when people perceive that marginalized folks are doing their own discreet gatekeeping, there is a tendency to want to push one’s way in. “We’re all a little bit autistic.” “I’m so OCD, I can’t sleep if the kitchen isn’t clean.” “I love and admire your culture, so let me wear your clothing.” There are so many examples.
One such example I read last year was a very specific call out of how suburban, white Christian groups seek to work with the unhoused in inner cities. The author wrote about the fact that there are invariably already Black and brown organizers doing this work, and the respectful thing to do would be to contribute financially to their existing efforts, and to ask what the best way to serve under Black and brown leaders might be, then actually listen and follow through.
Not only did the author describe how this humility rarely happens, they also indicted largely white churches as being unsafe even for white people. So part of what draws them to inner city efforts is the respect, love, and non-toxic ways of communicating which these organizers strive to employ in their work. Yet, instead of taking those lessons back to their suburban churches, the newbies end up infiltrating, trying to take over, and diluting the strength of the organization. Without ever acknowledging the underlying emotional drives of needing a different type of guide to living, and wanting to use the “needy” to build their own characters. It is colonizer behavior, and it is why people need to understand their messiness, and stop sliming everywhere this way.
We have all done this cringey stuff. And we can all stop. But if we don’t want to stop, there is no point gasping in outrage when oppressed groups keep us far away from their safe spaces.