Emotional Labour

Picking up where I left off in this series of 4 Ways Christians Burden Queer People, I wanted to talk about another burden queer people disproportionately carry in the church: emotional labour.

If the first burden was “1. Telling us how to speak instead of listening to what we say,” the second burden Christians place on queer people is

2. Demanding we make ourselves understood instead of taking on yourself the responsibility of understanding us.

Specifically, the church burdens queer people by expecting us to do an inordinate amount of emotional labour while leaders who wield power typically take contrastingly little responsibility for doing their own emotional labour. A far more Christlike model would be for people holding power to steward their privilege well by taking on themselves the majority of emotional labour, freeing up those with less headspace to enjoy a lighter mental load.

The phrase “emotional labour” carries quite a broad semantic range of slightly different meanings, and, as always, the best way to understand the nuance of a word is to invest time into listening to how it’s used in a particular context… but for the purpose of this reflection, I’ll use it to broadly refer to activities that require the depletion of mental/emotional resources, especially in a disproportionate way that affects one party more than another and might even be invisible to others.

The invisibility itself is one of the factors that makes this burden particularly heavy: I genuinely believe that if most people realised how much labour they were demanding of us in certain interactions, they’d dial it back a notch, show more empathy, or take on some of that emotional labour themselves. But the problem is, it’s really hard to see what an interaction is costing someone, especially if you don’t share their lived experience.

Sometimes it’s so hard to see the cost of emotional labour that even the person paying that cost themselves isn’t aware of it. This has been my norm for so much of my life that it’s only in recent years that I’ve even begun to realise that I am performing emotional labour, and that this exertion isn’t usually matched by the people I’m interacting with. For me it didn’t feel like doing ‘extra’ labour – it just felt like ‘interaction’ because that’s what all my interactions had felt like to some degree. It’s only in recent years that I’ve been able to experience spaces where I don’t have to perform emotional labour (including, but not limited to, catching up with a group of friends who all share my experience of same-sex attraction). Just like a near-sighted person trying on a pair of glasses for the first time realises how hard they’ve been straining their eyes to see until that moment, I’m only realising in retrospect how much emotional labour most interactions cost me by default now that I’ve discovered what non-laborious interactions feel like.

To flesh things out, here’s one example of interactions that disproportionately cost me emotional labour (I’ll post a second example of a more public/collective scenario later). Like last time, I do really want to emphasise that many of the people contributing to these burdens are well-intentioned people whom I love and admire – so this isn’t a finger-pointing exercise. Rather, it’s an attempt to show what many of these interactions feel like on ‘the other side,’ to make invisible burdens more visible, and to bridge the gap of understanding different experiences. In most cases, these interactions are good things that I welcome, and the point isn’t that people have harmed me by requiring emotional labour, but that the exertion of emotional labour is a constant experience that often goes unnoticed and uncompensated.

The exertion of emotional labour is a constant experience that often goes unnoticed and uncompensated.

Here’s one example of what emotional labour looks like in a ‘normal’ conversation. A while back, a ministry leader friend was trying to understand my experience a bit more by asking questions about why I feel so comfortable using the word ‘gay’ and why I feel the need to talk so much about my experience of sexuality when he—a heterosexual man—doesn’t feel the need to broadcast his orientation every time he meets someone. I knew he was asking in good faith with a relational commitment to understanding me better, so I did my best to engage the conversation. But despite using all the tools in my toolbox and making what I thought were persuasive arguments, he still didn’t get it. I tried to point out that heterosexual people signpost their orientation constantly when they refer to their spouse/family/kids [real or desired] and that most of the time they didn’t even need to say the words out loud because they can rely on people always assuming their orientation correctly (unlike us!). I tried explaining the differences. But after some repetitive back-and-forth, I realised how much this conversation was costing me.

In the moment, it depleted my emotional resources and left me feeling drained, frustrated, and down for the rest of the day. Perhaps more significantly, it took a relational toll on me: it’s not that I held anything against this friend personally (I still felt throughout the whole conversation that he was committed to our friendship and that he loves me–and I do really love him too), but rather the cost came from the sense of widening ‘experiential divide’ I felt between us. See, every time I have to explain my world to someone else and they still don’t get it, it deepens the sense that I cannot be understood. That I am incoherent to people with majority experiences. That despite working tirelessly to find the words to translate my world into his language and bearing the costs of “translation exhaustion,” being truly seen remains an elusive dream. At the very least, being seen is something that I must constantly work for.

Now, again, notice that my friend did nothing wrong in this interaction! This is a committed friend just loving me the best way he knows how. But that’s just the thing, even those committed to us sometimes don’t realise how much emotional labour we have to exert to simply exist in relationship. And that’s part of what makes it invisible, lonely, and exhausting.

But there are several things majority people can start doing to relieve some of these burdens and shoulder a greater share of the emotional load themselves. For example, you can:

  • Take more ownership of educating yourself first. Read that book we recommended, listen to a podcast, try googling the question before coming to these conversations and expecting us to explain things to you. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy. I know everyone’s too busy and tired to add another book to the list, but that’s the point of emotional labour—it’s laborious. If it’s not costing you resources, then chances are your friends with minority experiences are going to be the ones doing all the labour for you instead.
  • Acknowledge the cost. Emotional labour is an inevitability, and the goal isn’t to eliminate it but to offer appropriate compensation and sensitivity. This could mean creating a suitable space for a draining conversation rather than springing it on us in a chaotic environment like after church. (“Hey, I wanted to pick your brains about ____ that I’ve been thinking through after reading that book you recommended. Can I take you out for coffee to chat more about it? When would be a good time that you’d have the headspace for a conversation like that?”)

    [In some cases, especially in professional settings, acknowledging the cost will involve offering appropriate compensation. If you’re asking a same-sex attracted Christian to basically do consultation work for you and you have no prior personal relationship with them, don’t assume they owe you free consultation services, even if they’re in paid ministry roles. By all means, invite us to share our expertise/speak into your pastoral dilemmas/speak to your youth group–we have lots to offer!–but consider honouring our work by offering a contribution that recognises the years of labour that went into it.]
  • Shift the burden of understanding onto yourself. Instead of making it my job to persuade you of my perspective, make it your responsibility to understand me. If, after several rounds of back-and-forth, you still can’t understand why my perspective makes sense to me, acknowledge that it’s likely that you’re still missing something despite my repeated explanation. This takes the pressure off us feeling like we are inadequate for not being able to change your perspective. Also, it’s intrinsic to minority experiences that minority people are always the ones used to seeing the world two ways—it’s the people with majority experiences that struggle to learn a second way of seeing the world. So, have the humility to acknowledge that if there’s a gap in understanding, it likely means there’s more you could be doing.
  • Offer an easy out. This is especially necessary if you can sense the conversation is starting to deplete us or become frustrating. As well as making it easy for us to tap out of the conversation when we need to, an ideal response would include a spoken resolve to do further emotional labour in your own time so you can come back better equipped. (“I can imagine these conversations are pretty draining for you, especially when I’m not able to understand you properly. We can stop talking about this now if you’d like, but I’d love to keep learning in my own time – is there a podcast or article you’d recommend on this topic?”)

Of course, experiences can also cost us significant emotional labour even when we aren’t personally interacting. In fact, it’s often those ‘relationally anonymous’ moments when we can’t have a personal conversation, like in a church service or a public talk, that take the biggest toll. In part 2 I’ll share another example of emotional labour in a public setting.

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