Many years ago, when I was a baby activist, I was involved in a bisexual activist community group. Inspired by other community groups who applied a more intersectional (I didn’t know that word then) approach than our white, cisgender, able-bodied dominant group did, I wanted to add a memo to the poster for one of our social events. It went something like this: “People of all colours, genders, ages, and abilities are welcome!” A couple of people were on board and we tried to tweak the wording (in French, because we were in Montreal) with the knowledge we had at the time. One member with a voice that carried – in the social sense, and incidentally an older cis guy – scowled at us and strongly suggested we just write: “Everyone welcome.” The others, weary of arguments and tired of playing with words, agreed.
At the time, I didn’t have the words to express why it was important to be more explicit than that. I just had a gut feeling. I felt like when I was a child and teen, unable to argue against the seeming rational discourse of older men in my family, no matter how racist or sexist they were, but knowing deep in my guts that they were wrong.
Over the years, I’ve read and listened to the experiences of people whose experiences are not my own. For example, a disability and poverty activist who I consider to be a leather sister has written much about inclusion or lack thereof in leather circuits. Many BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) have blogged and tweeted explanations about what it’s like to not know when one is truly included. This led me to reflect on my own prior experience as a woman and being put on my place more than once by men who felt I should have known I wasn’t included even when it wasn’t stated because, “logic”. And now, as a trans person/androgyne, I often question whether someone like me is genuinely welcome at events that don’t specify “trans folk welcome”.
What it boils down to for me is this: if the society you live in renders people that look like you invisible, it’s hard to feel included by default. When you don’t see yourself in depictions of the “default” human being, it’s hard to feel like you are even considered to be human. When people don’t explicitly mention “your kind”, it’s hard to know whether you’re even on their radar.
So unless an event includes a welcome statement that is worded to show that organizers are aware of the existance and are welcoming of the presence of people like you, you’re left wondering whether your presence will genuinely be welcome. You wonder whether people will give each other meaningful glances like: “What are THEY doing here? What made them think they belong here?”
Same goes for dating profiles. When people say they are “open to everyone”, that doesn’t tell the reader who this person considers to be human enough to be included in that everyone. Heck, it doesn’t tell us whether they know we exist.
In an ideal world, this wouldn’t be a question. Everyone would mean everyone. But we’re not in an ideal world. So while we continue to strive for that, those of us who want to make sure people on the margins know they are actively included should be as explicit as we can. Without resorting to tokenism, let’s listen to what helps people feel genuinely welcome and appreciated in a space. Let’s not assume that “everyone welcome” says anything beyond “whoever is deemed normal by mainstream social standards is welcome”.
And most of all, let’s go beyond mere words and follow through with our actions. Let’s not assume that people will just trust that they will feel welcome just because the sign explicitly said they are. Let’s listen to what people need and accept that trust takes a long time to build.