by Christian Emmanuel Castaing
I once assumed that I, a Queer Latino male, would be “safe” in one of the largest and oldest LGBT organizations in the nation. No one could make me an outsider this time.However, I was sexually harassed out of my fellowship and my assumptions of safety. I didn’t even last four weeks.
As a low-income queer person of color, I have my share of knowledge about being an outsider in an intolerant world. Being chased by boys with knives was a cakewalk, one of the many facts of life I was prepared to deal with. But, sexual harassment in the offices of a top LGBT organization was something for which I was completely unprepared. When I first secured my fellowship, I was elated. The long-term plans of creating a queer people of color organization on the west coast, of proposing intersectional policies in education, healthcare, economic reforms, and of preserving the history of QTPOC through the arts seemed closer to me. Most of all, I imagined gaining exposure to the work of other outsiders,like myself, and mentorship from the relentless warriors who paved the way before me.
Instead of mentorship or even the assignment of work (let alone any explanation of what my duties would be), I sat in a cramped closed-door office with six other interns and listened to my supervisor, “J,” brag about his favorite porn, the naughty things he yearned to do to Anderson Cooper, and the explicit details of erotic fan fiction he authored. For two weeks, I foolishly hoped that as long as the subject of conversation wasn’t focused on me, I could look the other way. According to J, my silence was a red carpet invitation; his attention and comments soon imposed themselves upon my sexuality, my partner, our partnership, and our bodies. We were alone, the door was shut, and I had just announced that I was leaving for lunch with my partner.
He replied, “Are you going to lunch, or are you really going to go have sex in an alleyway?”
This was just one of the many statements that flourished under J’s twisted definition of a “sex positive space.” More than just this one statement, three weeks of this behavior stunned me. Without any provocation, J felt comfortable enough to rummage around and interrogate the private lives of his interns. I left the room, mortified. Later that night, three weeks of J’s unwelcomed interrogations took its toll.
“I don’t want to go back there! I never want to go back there!” These thoughts emerged as sobs as I vulnerably confided in people I loved over the phone.
With their support, my sobs deepened into roars.
I confronted J and he promised me that the office culture would not be changed, as he considered this atmosphere to be “liberating.” He cited his past experiences as a facilitator of sex positivity workshops as currency to justify his office environment. I went numb; what he labeled liberating felt invasive and contradictory. By structuring the workplace to his definition of “sex positivity” (without the consent of any intern), he dictated that sex-positivity was only expressed through favored pornography, men he objectified and wished to fuck, and the extent of his sexual imagination. In other words, what J did was tailor the workplace to the definition he subscribed to, silencing others who express themselves differently or who actively choose to keep their sexual lives outside of the office. J then leaned over and apologized because I did not “fit into the office environment.”
There was an investigation into the formal complaint that I lodged against him. Although the investigation substantiated my claims, the process of healing fell on my shoulders alone. This LGBT organization, one that proclaimed to “speak for the marginalized,” wouldn’t help me. It appeared that they would do everything to avoid a lawsuit. In a matter of weeks, I received a pithy form letter from the Executive Director telling me that “necessary steps” were underway. As I distanced myself from this experience, I ran into one of the other interns who informed me that J was back in the office. Apparently,“necessary steps” meant nothing had actually changed; J kept his promise. Like the kids in high school who ended their jokes with “no-homo,”J now edited his behavior with, “not in a sexually harassing way, or course.”
For J, the pain he caused and the seriousness of the investigation ended with a joke. His joke. Rather than attempt to claim responsibility for his invasive actions, he walked away, comfortable enough to forego any self-reflection and sexually harass the interns left in his office. What I had witnessed was the contradictory nature of top LGBT interest groups and their unethical leadership.
Some contradictions in LGBT organizations and leadership need accounting for. If the saying “the revolution won’t be televised” is true, top LGBT organizations are already unethical as they accept financial endorsement from shady companies (companies that manufacture drones, and alcohol companies that keep our populations addicted). With these finances, top LGBT organizations have pursued symbolic policies rather than basic resources and protections for our most vulnerable. The first hand experiences I have had with top LGBT organizations demonstrates their unethical practices in the behavior of their leadership, specifically their lack of accountability to their supposed population.
How dare you or your mission statement proclaim to speak for marginalized communities when, in actuality, you’re developing your career and using your personal definitions of “sex positivity,” “social justice,” and “human rights” to SPEAK OVER the needs of those you claim to speak for? How dare you call yourself an activist when you capitalize on unearned privileges to state “It Gets Better,” while reinforcing a system of “Us” and “Them”? How dare you capitalize on a movement, take the most space, and use the most resources to satisfy your desires over the needs of others?
The contradictions in our organizations and within any leader are vast. Keeping a movement that has turned its back on its least protected members demands that we reclaim the movement and hold it responsible. Our leadership cannot avoid being held responsible for unethical behavior, and we should not be afraid to hold them accountable. No, the revolution will not be televised, nor will corporations or war machines sponsor it.
The organizations that claim to speak for you while avoiding accountability for their behavior will only use you.
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Christian Emmanuel Castaing is a political science senior at Grinnell College, Iowa. He is the first in his family to attend college for which he secured his own funding. Originally from San Francisco, Christian has changed city policy as it relates to tracking, reporting, and responding to hate crimes. An emerging writer, he is influenced by the potential of utilizing democratic practices to reclaim one’s humanity.