I was recently told of a man who, in an effort to understand what his good friend was going through, pretended to be a gay man for a year. During a conversation about the subject, I discovered that I have an unpopular opinion on the subject.
There is a difference between the firsthand (being LGBTQ+) and secondhand (pretending to be LGBTQ+) experience. Pretending is a lot different than being no matter what the situation.
In the case of the “pretend gay,” while he dealt with many of the social consequences of coming out, there is a lot more to being LGBTQ+ than the coming out experience. It’s a lifestyle deeply affected by various phobias and a serious lack of privilege—things that a “pretend gay” doesn’t have to deal with.
Internally, he knew that it was just an experiment. Thus, the social consequences didn’t affect him nearly as much. As he was pretending to be gay, he was pretending not to have the right to marry in all 50 states. However, he was certainly not too bothered by the lack of marriage equality because he still technically had the right to marry who he pleased where he pleased. Similarly, while a cis-person can try to place themselves in my shoes as a Black queer person of trans experience at the end of the day they will never know what it’s like to wake up every day for 20 years hating themselves and their body, saving $6000 to correct part of the issue, and having to stab themselves in the leg every 2 weeks for the rest of their life. Nor will they ever understand the serious amounts of body/genital dysphoria many people of trans experience go through. They will not understand how those factors tie into the way real people of trans experience interact with the world—the way many are careful about the smallest of details because they could “give away the secret”—and how certain things affect their daily being. As someone merely pretending to be of trans experience, a cis-person would only have the opportunity to experience how harsh people can be. But that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg.
It isn’t the Oppression Olympics (aka the “who has it worse” game), but a legitimate perspective that I feel is extremely relevant. It’s not about how I have it “worse” as a Black queer person of trans experience than others do as White, heterosexual, cisgender people. It’s about the fact that no matter what those people do, they will NEVER understand what it’s like to walk a day in my shoes. And while his efforts to become an empathetic ally are respectable, he will NEVER know what it’s like to walk a day in his lesbian friend’s shoes. He may now understand “the struggle” to some degree, but does he really understand what it means to be rejected by your family after internally battling with your sexuality and/or gender identity for years (a common reality for many LGBTQ+ people)?
So while it’s cool that the man placed himself in the position of his lesbian friend as a way to understand what she was going through, at the end of the day her experience as a lesbian and opinions on the matter are STILL more valid and important than his. Why? Because she is ACTUALLY a lesbian and thus deals with all the issues that ACTUAL LGBTQ+ people do on a very regular basis—including, but not limited to, forms of constant discrimination, internalized oppression, social rights, and issues of lifelong invisibility.