In defense of wannabes

People who identify outside their societal group are the real multiculturalists.

By Carol Lloyd

Published July 3, 1997 4:04PM (EDT)

the word "husband" cast a spell of silence upon the small group loitering on the grassy field.

"Is that some kind of green card thing?" one woman asked quizzically.

"No," I answered, surveying their dumbstruck expressions.

I had been playing Frisbee with the "Ultimate Queers" for over a year. Nobody ever asked me about my personal life. Every once in a while I was engaged in a subtle us-them dialogue in which the "them" (heterosexuals) were implicitly far away. Usually, though, they seemed to treat me with good-humored disinterest, as though their sharply honed gaydar could spot a squirrely straight girl a mile away. More importantly, they tolerated my atrocious forehand and tendency to forget what team I was on. Broadcasting my status as a married woman had seemed altogether inappropriate -- implying that I was worried that people would get "the wrong idea." Now various people -- staring up into the blue sky, avoiding eye contact -- began to tease me.

"Oh, one of those who doesn't wear a wedding ring so that girls will flirt with her. Ah an impostor in our midst. We understand."

I felt like a slug inching its way across a salt lake. As soon as the conversation shifted, I slunk away, leaving a slimy trail of self-consciousness. What would they think of me? Had I really done something in bad form? Why was it so difficult to explain myself? Which part of me was trying to pass, which part was just plain ignorant about the proper protocol?

Behind my mortification lurked an uneasiness with my kindred feelings for gay culture. I usually tried to explain them to myself in terms of my bisexuality, but in truth my credentials in this area are rather suspect. Still, I knew it was uncool to identify with a group to which I did not belong. For a society that flaunts its multiculturalism, we have a dark view of people who step out of their category -- be it racial, class, sexual or religious.

There are many terms for transgressors like us, almost all of them disdainful: wannabes, fag hags, Oreos, wiggers, perpetrators, coconuts. If we feel too passionately aligned with a group that has less power than our own, then we are accused of "not earning our allegiance," "co-opting the voice of the oppressed" and "indulging in cultural appropriation." If we identify with a group that has more power than our own, then we are "self-hating," "social-climbers" or, worst of all, "traitors."

Indubitably, these criticisms contain their measure of truth. Many members of dominant groups are loath to own up to their elevated privileges; it is easier and sweeter to project your soul into the role of the morally unassailable underdog. And, on the other side, the Uncle Toms who uphold racist conventions that damage blacks, the "self-hating Jews" who casually characterize their brethren as money-grubbing opportunists, the anti-feminists who gain points with the male establishment by condemning women's rights have vivid and unseemly roles in our national history. But none of these types diminish those people who are drawn to another culture for all the right reasons: because it fills them with a spirit of hope, clarity, will and understanding, because it tells a story that they recognize, all appearances to the contrary, as partially their own.

It is a romantic notion, now deeply out of fashion, that feelings can bind people across the gorge of identity. In the academy, scholars are now expected to expose the evil of those naive times when white female abolitionists claimed to feel the subjugation of their "colored sisters," or when Scottish men who identified as Native Americans spoke to Congress on their tribe's behalf. But haven't all social justice movements been helped (and yes, sometimes hindered) by outsiders who cast their fate with a group to which they did not belong? The prevailing credo that one must only speak for one's own is understandable, but it subtly works against fellow feeling, discouraging the importance of creating an identity based on what moves us rather than our societal category. Behind the dismissal of secular Jews who join Hindu ashrams and change their name to "Caroona," or revulsion at men who profess lofty feminist ideals, looms a belief in behavioral orthodoxy as stymied and puritanical as 1950s gender roles.

I ask a friend who has often expressed suspicion about individuals who "want to be something they're not" why so many deride such people. "We see some rich kid take on the trappings of gang culture to be cool and they make a mockery of what the real gang kids are going through," she says. Though I'm sure there's plenty of cases where such a cynical pursuit of hipness would aptly describe ghetto chic, there is also the possibility that such cultural affectations -- however unconvincing -- spring from a real interior experience. Why should we suspect the white suburban kid who falls in love with hip-hop music of any more or less sincerity than a Vietnamese immigrant who falls in love with Shakespeare?

When my 12-year-old niece returned from a sleepaway summer camp attended mostly by African-Americans, she beamed as she announced that after successfully learning to dance the "worm" her campmates had dubbed her "reverse Oreo." She was basking in her friends' generous acknowledgment that 1) there was a bridge between them and 2) somehow she had helped cross it. For an adult to express such overt pride about entering into a different culture would be considered not only embarrassing but probably a little tasteless.

Yet everyday it seems I encounter more examples of individuals who identify with another group despite the social stigma around doing so. A gay white man who sings lead in a reggae band -- talking, dressing and smoking the part of the Rastafarian -- confesses that he is viewed with intense hostility by audience members who accuse him of being a "fake." A Jewish woman who has devoted much of her life to Central American issues explains that she often finds herself apologizing when people take her for the daughter of a Sandinista rather than a Holocaust survivor. Sometimes such idiosyncratic allegiances seem to run in families, as with two Latino brothers I know: One identifies himself as white, expressing little interest in Latin food, language or culture, while his brother is an active member of the Black Muslims.

A week after my "outing," I stepped onto the green grass and gingerly made my way toward the circling atom of bodies and Frisbees. They treated me with their usual benign neglect and soon I was screaming and sweating in the pack. Then one woman who had not been present the week before ran up to me and asked, "You're straight, right?"

"Yes but and ..." I said, then stopped, unable to find the words.

She shot me a wicked smile. "Is that why you're so confused about whether you're playing offense or defense?"

"You know," I cried, tossing the Frisbee decisively to my opponent, "you may be on to something."

Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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