A bad one liner about Justin Bieber caused me to face my own internalized ignorance.
The year was 2014.
The “joke” was, “Justin Bieber looks like a lesbian.”
When I read it I immediately cracked up. I wasn’t familiar with the comedian that made the joke and I had no strong feelings about Justin Bieber or lesbians but he did look exactly like a lesbian I knew from one of my core science classes.
I made the one liner my Facebook status, and shortly after I received this reply, “ what does a lesbian look like?”
The girl who made the comment had already unfriended me by the time I tried responding to her comment. We were not friends in real life but I knew her from around campus and I thought she was cool. She had asked to take my photo for a project once and had told me I reminded her of Queen Latifah, which is funny retrospectively because I look much more like Queen Latifah now than I did then. Even though the look I was going for on that day was more, “Lisa Bonet from A Different World”, I always appreciated the compliment.
I’ll admit, at first I didn’t know what to make of her comment. I thought maybe her point was that lesbians come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Or maybe the issue was implying that there was something inherently masculine about being a lesbian. What I knew for sure was that she was calling me out on saying something at worst, bigoted and at least, just very stupid.
I deleted the status. Without context, it was dumb and I did not know the girl from my science class well enough to joke with her about looking like Justin Bieber. I’m sure she heard it all the time anyway.
The reality is this: I did not know many queer people in real life at the time. I knew people who folks speculated were gay — I was even good friends with some of them, but confirmation had never been offered and I never requested it. A hair dresser I went to on Georgia Avenue was the only adult lesbian I knew at the time. She occasionally opened up to me about some of her struggles which were specific to her sexuality. There was a trans woman who worked in the shop too, though I didn’t come to know her. Years later I saw her picture on a bus stop poster for an LGBTQ campaign and thought, “wow, small world.”
Those were the only LGBTQ people I knew at the time. Small world, indeed.
I wish the girl who commented on my Justin Bieber status hadn’t unfriended me but I get why she did. I unfriend and unfollow people for saying stupid shit all the time. Still, I’m glad she called me out. She is part of the reason I began to seek out more queer content online, which at the very least has helped me to not say anything too stupid when friends have come out to me later in life.
The world that I grew up in was microscopic. I have experienced bigotry first hand and never want to make someone else feel that way, intentionally or unintentionally. When she called me out, she forced me to expand my world. I can take being called a lot of negative things, but I never want “ignorant” to be one of them.
It remains true that most of the queer people I know are from the internet, though a couple of people I knew as a kid have come out. It’s cringe worthy to think of anything ignorant I might have said to them when we were growing up — while they were holding close to the chest a piece of themselves the may not have understood or simply were not willing to share with the world yet.
I have children and I also often do work that involves interacting with kids. I can’t afford to be ignorant. Following a non-binary person online for years kept me from looking stupid when I met a non-binary 8th grade last year. I had no idea what non-binary was 6 years ago. Had I met that same student, I might have acted confused when asked to call them “they” (instead of he or she), which, to a 13 year old might have read as me invalidating their existence, instead of just being an idiot.
The human experience is an increasingly expansive and beautiful thing. All of our worlds are expanding as they are shrinking. What I mean by this is that as the internet makes information more accessible, we begin to realize how much we didn’t even know we didn’t know. People from the margins, all of the margins, are telling their stories, often for free (though you should give money, when appropriate). Be willing to admit you were wrong or that you don’t know something and then show up and listen. Learn. Let your world expand.