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On Straddling Privilege in the Margins

Updated: Jan 3, 2022

By our very nature, marginalized groups become a priority only through intentional efforts. Dominating organic social affinities are invariably a relationship between our environmental and cultural conditioning and the world time which we exist. Today: they favour whiteness, man-ness, cis-ness, straight-ness (yes, yes, yes, we get... Do we though?).

It is within activist circles that the notion of affirmative action or equity is structured. We turn our internal organizing outward to a deleterious and scornful world in the hopes that, yes, marginalized groups become a priority. I knew being gay was evil because I had a Christian pastor whisper it was the devil’s doing in one ear and my father articulating disgust in the other. The actual phenomenon, my gayness, was as pure and fundamental to me as the color of my eyes. It was them who chose to see it as the color of shit. I only saw dark amber pools of molasses.

So, we organize.

So, we persist.

So, we generate a way of prioritizing the margins in a world that prioritizes everything but.

But, in the endeavor of framing and understanding ourselves as distinct and unique from the oppressors’ gaze, we lose a vital fluidity in self-identity. So often, we are doing deep interrogations of all the parts of ourselves in order to cast off the imprints of imperialist cis-hetero-normative white supremacy. Yes, there is tenacity and a mountain of courage in being able to name that I am a gay-Arab-immigrant-Canadian-Lebanese-Artist-Educator (phew!). Holding those seemingly contradictory parts of myself in one place would have been a miracle to 14-year-old Makram. So, I do hold them with dignity as the journey to gain them was, and is, unendingly difficult. I still go to bed sometimes thinking “am I doing something wrong?” – an echo of my pastor/mom/dad/the protester on the side of the street claiming the LGBT militia is taking over. Or “maybe as an Arab I am less evolved...” Yikes.

Yet, within all of this, I am beginning to find it an uneven handed analysis if I am only to honor the parts of myself that are marginalized.

As soon as I began surrounding myself with affirmative action and equity seeking groups, I must admit that a profound sense of seduction to spin with the spools of marginalization took effect. So, it becomes all the more integral that I recognize the allure of being marginalized while also sitting truthfully in the experiences of oppression that I, and others like myself, face. And in that endeavor, I propose that it is vital that I look at the parts of myself deeply privileged.

This is what I mean “on straddling privilege in the margins.”

A friend of mine recently posted a research-project seeking people to share their experiences with fatness in relation to clothing. I reached out with interest and my friend, appropriately responded that this was for fat-identified people and that someone like me probably doesn’t fit the bill.

What my friend didn’t realize is that I have a deep and on-going relationship with fatness and my body. Before I was 22, I was fat and over the past seven years, I have undergone a radical transformation of how I perceive and understand my body – and certainly: a radical transformation of how my body is perceived and understood. For much of my life, I lived with the dehumanizing impacts of fat-phobia. Truly, everything from “try that Subway diet” to “being fat is ugly on anyone” were normal comments that surrounded my younger self. Fat-phobia begets deep body dysmorphia which most certainly doesn’t go away if you "lose weight". For all intents and purposes, today my body has dimensions that have a lot of social mobility in many spaces, most certainly in gay-men spaces. I have experienced feelings of rejection, scorn and undesirability transform into affirmation, attractiveness, and sexual and sensual appeal. I have had to psychologically transform my spatial and interpersonal behavior because where I used to be read as “aw, that’s just cute Makram,” I now take space as an able-bodied, fit, masculine presenting man.

This is very strange to talk about. It is difficult not in the sense of loss of privilege, but in the sense of awkwardly naming privilege without being boastful. I am doing this in the hopes of reckoning with the parts of myself that are indeed privileged and naming it to socially locate myself with more nuance.

But more to the point, between how I’m read and how I’m perceived and the lived reality of a body like mine, I continue to feel the impacts of body dysmorphia. If I derail off my daily salad-with-a-bit-of-meat lunch for more than two days, I begin to feel intense self policing, self shaming, and a fucked-up belief that my body has gained an unfathomable amount of fat.

There are so many layers of problematic with that statement that I can’t even begin to unpack it here.

And as I decode and unlearn my internalized fat-phobia, taking my leadership from incredible fat activists, I can reckon that I intellectually understand the problems with my “fear of gaining the weight back,” but also feel entirely powerless to affectively change the feeling. Even as I’m writing this, I’m afraid the gay men who I know are low-key thinking “he thinks he’s fit now?” And it’s vital to name that these judgments and castings of fat-phobic sin are only more dehumanizing to people who are moving through the world with fat and large bodies.

That small exchange with my friend has snowballed into an investigation how I move with these parts of self. I’m thinking of all the ways I move with privilege and how I might continue to reproduce the internalized defenses which my experiences with marginalization begot. Is the Makram that grew up in southern Alberta as a closeted gay-fat-Arab-Immigrant boy the same Makram that lives in Toronto today? In what ways do those formative experiences, where my brain was literally in development, inform the character I am now. How far can I depart from them? Being an able bodied, fit, gay man living and working in Toronto (or even in parts of Edmonton prior to being here) is certainly an enormous departure from my formative years. But they’re called formative for a reason. Those years shaped my world views and, in some effect, carved out my destiny. The affinities I have, the repulsions I hold, the values I carry, and the ethics I pursue – these are all informed by how that small child experienced his world. And somewhere between beginning my life in Lebanon, speaking and thinking in Arabic and English, growing up in Southern Alberta, and finding myself here today: I find that I not easily socially located.

Or, perhaps, more clearly: I find that I am more complexly socially located than I’ve felt I’ve been able to articulate as I organize against systems of oppression.

I understand the danger of downplaying marginalization. Abuse is normalized to the abused. And my intention is not to downplay mine or anyone's experience of oppression. But my hope is precisely to recognize that I can hold my experiences of marginalization with authenticity and non-extraneousness, while also reckoning with the ways those experiences grow and evolve, perhaps into territories of privilege. However, a fundamental value I hold with my activism and art making is honesty.

It feels obvious, but honesty isn’t always upheld. I feel a deep sense of inauthenticity with rallies, political debate, education, and social organizing. To a large measure, I understand the necessity of it: it’s a performance – and sometimes political rhetoric and absolutes are instrumental in mobilizing social movements. But, deeply, I will advocate that truth and honesty are the most long-lasting pathways to liberation. And in pursuit of that is where my argument may be found in this essay. The more authentically we can hold all the parts of ourselves, that we can articulate oppression, that we can dissuade the seduction of marginalization, that we can voice and respond to our evolving privileges, then: the more steadfastly change will come.

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