The Indignity of Permission

The savage and cruel attack in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida has left so many of us with great holes in our hearts and aching chasms in our souls. None more so, of course, than the friends, family and community of the LGBTQ and Latino populations of that area. Others, though separated by great distance, also weep and stagger, as we feel connected to those communities, to those struggles, or to those we know who are more connected. For me, it was a gnawing sadness but not a keening agony. A world away, and a straight white male, I was mournful but unbowed. Until today, when a sudden fresh wound tore open a gaping sadness and roaring fury within me.

One of my professions is pet-sitter. It’s a small job but an important one; for many people their pets sit only inches below their children and partners in the list of most precious things in the world. Today I began working for a new client leaving his cat behind for a long weekend. As I got ready to begin, I looked through the submitted documentation to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. In the “Notes” section I saw something I had skimmed over originally. It said “Carer must be comfortable caring for a pet of a same-sex couple.”

It was like somebody punched me in the stomach.

I like in Sydney, in the area known as the inner west, which is one of the most LGBTQ-friendly places in the entire country. I had met P: he was in charge of pet wrangling and worked the more forgiving hours. I probably would never have met J or seen the two of them together. I wouldn’t enter any room but the kitchen and the laundry. I would be in and out of their lives in four short days, and stopping on those days for just half an hour to put down food and water for their pet cat.

But there’s always a chance, you see. A slim but non-zero chance. Because people’s lives aren’t invisible. There are photos. Phone calls. Exchanges. The quiet, soft languages of love, a million miles from the big excitement of a wedding or anniversary but with all their own power for their quotidian ubiquity. The very blood and oxygen of what makes love. And if I’d seen those things, there was always a chance. A chance that I might have made a comment. A little snide remark, a rude joke or slightly smug reaction. I might have pursed my lips or made a little tut sound. I might have muttered something under my breath or moved to cover an insulting sticker on my car. I might have done the job then requested not to do it again. Far worse, I could have done the job poorly, in the way that carelessness creeps in when disdain lurks behind.

But even if not that, all those other indignities, all those other insults, those tiresome attacks, the micro-aggressions, they themselves have their own violence and cruelty. An ability to hurt that is a million miles from the terrible violence of a massacre, but with all their own power for their quotidian ubiquity. And seeing it here, in my world, touched me in a way nothing from the Pulse shooting yet had, made all of that death and all that hate so much more real. The totality of that hate was reflected so perfectly in the assuredness that even in this most casual of tasks and briefest of intersections, these clients knew they had to ask permission. To explain. To beg upon the tolerance of others, lest they cause offence. To plead for the right to exist.

It was the final ultimate indignity that tore my nerves to pieces, and I wept.

Why is this here? Why talk of this on a page about making gaming safe for women? Because as more and more voices have called for gaming to be a place that welcomes all, the push back has been strong and violent. And one of the classic distraction tactics has to been to label our efforts as “virtue signalling”, as if we do this work solely to appear saintly to others, to store up social status through meaningless signals, as if the rainbow flag is like a fetish worn to show one is part of the correct and holy tribe. Hand in hand with this is the assertion that such flag-waving and signifying is pointless or unnecessary. After all, the sentiment goes, one should just assume everyone is generally nice and easy going, shouldn’t one? Why bend over backwards to list all the people who are welcome? Why treat women and gay people and other minorities as special? Why give them their own days, their own spaces, their own cons, their own permissions? Isn’t that treating them differently, thus defeating the very intent of equality?

This is the darkest madness, the most insulting vituperation, cloaked in sickly false concern. The ludicrous belief that tolerance is a mainstream value, that the crowd is welcoming.

Because I guarantee you in those such spaces, in the general space of society, at the game store, the game club, the game table – at YOUR table – people have wondered if they needed to ask permission. They may indeed have asked out loud. Because they need to know. They need to know if they can call their partner on the phone, if they can kiss them goodbye at the door, if they can hold hands when they roll a saving throw, if they can laugh about the other stealing the bedclothes or thrill in plans for a weekend away or talk about getting married or having kids or going to the mardi-gras, if they can just do all the tiny things that make up love and life, all so powerful in their quotidian ubiquity…they have thought about all those things and they have wondered…

Will that be okay?

Or will they be met with some pursed lips and shaken heads and little tut noises? Some off-colur jokes or snide remarks or smug reactions? Perhaps somebody might not say anything but might not come back to the table next time. Perhaps words would be spoken between sessions and then the gay person isn’t invited back again. Maybe the campaign dwindles out. People don’t quite meet your eye, don’t smile all the way to their dimples, don’t hug you quite as tightly in the bar after the dungeon crawl. Maybe now you’re forever out because you existed, and you didn’t ask permission to do so.

If you are, like me, a straight white man, you cannot imagine the weariness of having to ask permission to exist. And the reason we fly our flags and raise our voices is not to signal to the tribe that we are saintly, but to remove this last burden. If we say it before they have to ask, we can do one small thing for those who are excluded: we can take away the terrible indignity of having to ask permission.

And this applies to the MESSAGE, because women are kept away by a thousand little attacks just as surely as LGBTQ people, just as surely as people of different races, religions and skin colours. The mainstream is not tolerant; it is a mass of the mode, of the most visible, and if you do not meet the most common configuration you will always fear to exist, and you will, therefore, need to ask permission lest you offend. We cannot always stop the bullets, or the hate. Those feel like vast, intractable things. We can only barely chip away at cruel laws and inhuman separation and incessant harassment and pernicious slander, and that makes us feel weak. We will keep trying to do those things, of course, but there are also small things we can do with great love. If nothing else, let us do the smallest of things, the cheapest of things, that thing that costs nothing at all but for those who fit the mode to swallow their goddamn pride. Let us, for once, then, remove that smallest but most barbed of indignities. Let us make sure that out our tables, our clubs, our stores and our cons, nobody needs to face the indignity of permission.