Personalized Debate and the Difficulty of Building Coalitions

By Dr. Shanara R. Reid-Brinkley

Question for DSRB: Here is the gist of the question – I’m a gay, white, economically privileged male but don’t want to have to speak about being gay to win a ballot in a debate round that requires me to speak about my personal experience. How can gay people have an honest engagement around personal experience without having to out themselves for the sake of the ballot?

This is a great question and I am honored that you came out to me to ask it. I’m a lesbian and so considering the intersections between race, gender, class and sexuality have been critical to my interpretation of non-traditional debate and exclusion within the community. I may push a few buttons in this conversation. But, I do so to get you to think about your own social positioning, not to attack, demean or debate you about your concerns. I think you have every right to be concerned about coming out in the debate space and the potential ramifications associated with such a choice. This does not mean I think you should stay closeted, but I don’t think you should ever be forced to announce yourself before you are ready. You might be ready to disclose your status to people in the community that you trust but may not be ready to discuss it on the public competitive stage of the debate round. That’s ok! Only you can determine when you feel strong enough to become a public advocate around gay issues. So. I hope the thoughts I offer here will help you find a way of engaging that makes you feel empowered and safe.

First, the assumption that you are “rich, white, and heterosexual” may be erroneous in fact, but correct in the context of representation. In other words, what they are really attempting to discuss is how your body signifies in the American social imagination. In other words, despite the fact that you experience ostracism or discrimination because you are gay, if people you encounter don’t read you as gay, then you have the privilege of passing. Which means you are only dis-priveleged if people know your sexuality status. This does not mean that you don’t face dis-privelege, just that your body may read as straight, male, and economically privileged which means that you receive those privileges interacting in society on a day to day basis. Now, here’s the contrast. For many, their subjugated status is marked BY their bodies. One cannot remove blackness or gender from their bodies if their bodies are marked as such.[1] So, if I enter a room of majority, white and male bodies, the difference that my body makes is an announcement to that social body, before I have ever spoken a word. The fact that you have the choice to announce yourself (not necessarily the choice to be gay) positions you differently in the power relations of the body and the signification of difference attached to it. Notice I say that you are differently positioned, not that any other oppression is more important or significant than yours. Instead, my point is that you want the fact that you experience subjugation to be a free pass from not being accused of being part of an oppressive class. You must consider your social location and its attendant privileges. Simultaneously, your experience with subjugation should be a tool to build coalitions. But, you must navigate both positionalities. Having and not having privilege. Your body, your social location signifies privilege whether you want it to or not, and that has real material privileges that you must be able to recognize and respond to if you want to help reshape the world. Don’t run from your privilege, use it! That’s what you were doing when you decided to run race centric affirmatives. But, just because you are open-minded enough to discuss race, does not mean that you don’t still have a lot to learn about how power and privilege function.

You make a few assumptions about the use of personal experience in debate that I want to question. Most of the students who use personal experience in debate are not doing so to just win the round. The students of color (and their allies) that make race centric arguments are not just talking about their personal experience to win a ballot. There are way more easy ways to win a ballot than to make yourself vulnerable by discussing your personal experience. Their use of personal experience is a choice to share, to offer those who have never encountered the issues they face an opportunity to put names to the faces of real people facing real problems. Debate encourages us to remain disconnected from the subject matter and makes it easier to ignore the cries of the disenfranchised. That you assume they are asking you to engage personally just to win the debate is incorrect. Instead, they are asking you to open yourself up to honest engagement which requires that you make yourself vulnerable too. It is out of that space of vulnerability that real empathy across difference can be built. This is not about individual debate rounds, its about the very nature of the debate community. When they ask you to invest yourself personally, they are asking you to join hands and put your body on the line, just like they do every time they step foot in the hostile environment of national debate tournaments.

So, how can gay people respond without having to out themselves? You don’t have to out your sexual orientation to speak from your social location. Be able to not only recognize your privilege, but how it functions to disenfranchise others, and begin building a means to counter that privilege that will give you access to coalition building with the other students. The reason you feel “accused” in these debates is because you don’t like being identified with the oppressors and so your “gayness” offers a means for you to avoid that status. But remember, you can be both privileged and subordinated simultaneously which is why we need very nuanced analysis of the interactions of power relations. If you engage from this position of both/and, it will open up many possibilities for engaging these issues that will make you feel like you are part of the solution to the problem of exclusion in debate. Your question demonstrates that you are grappling with these issues, and right now that is good enough. Continue the process that you have clearly already started. And, thank you for engaging rather than turning your back on these important conversations. I hope what I have said here gives you some food for thought. And, I hope that if you find any part of my comments frustrating, that you will embrace that feeling, because that is the sweet spot, the area of intrapersonal reflection where the important work on the self is done. Keep working.

[1] Although, racial passing for those who are light enough does happen, more so in the past than now. And, people may style their bodies to perform different genders. Just wanted to offer those two qualifications.