This past week, I read a few very interesting articles which touched on intersectionalism as well as the idea of being allies. The first piece is a blistering reality check for some gay white men that was published in Time, “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture.” Don’t let the title confuse you – it’s not an attack on gay white men as a whole, but a certain trend in gay white male culture to perform minstrel acts in front of their black female allies. It’s an extension – I believe – of a general indifference or confusion about race issues that plague a lot of the white gay male community. But this fascination with black culture isn’t just something that white gay men have – all white people look to black culture for a lot of what’s considered cool, authentic, real, and interesting.
In the piece, the author, Sierra Mannie writes of how offensive it is to see men with privilege emulate women, claiming “blackness and womanhood” without having to actually shoulder any of the racism or sexism attached. And she has a point – while some gay white men like to adopt a mutilated version of Black English Vernacular or swipe cultural tropes (real or imagined), there is an inherent privilege gay white men have that they can’t shake off – and though gay men (of all races) are victims of hate crimes and they suffer discrimination, it’s not really comparable to sexism or racism – not better or worse, just incomparable. So I understand her offense to the play acting that goes on in so many gay bars across America –
As she writes,
“In all of the ways that your gender and race give you so much, in those exact same ways, our gender and race work against our prosperity. To claim that you’re a minority woman just for the sake of laughs, and to say that the things allowed her or the things enjoyed by her are done better by you isn’t cute or funny. First of all, it’s aggravating as hell. Second, it’s damaging and perpetuating of yet another set of aggressions against us… Claiming our identity for what’s sweet without ever having to taste its sour is not. Breathing fire behind ugly stereotypes that reduce black females to loud caricatures for you to emulate isn’t, either.”
I wrote a while ago about Shirley Q. Liquor – a popular drag queen that is a cornucopia of racial prejudice and stereotypes. When I saw a performance of Shirley Q. Liquor at a gay bar, the largely white audience lapped it up, loving every minute of it, and by the end of her act, many in the audience were trying out their own versions of Shirley Q. Liquor.
So, as an ally, I listened with open ears to Mannie’s article, because I’ve probably been guilty of what she’s talking about as well. Many have responded to Mannie’s words with hostility – and I still don’t get the angry reaction to Mannie’s piece. Many point out that a lot of what Mannie was talking about goes on in black gay male culture as well as drag culture – I won’t comment on black gay male culture, because I’m not a gay black man. And though I’m not a drag queen, I myself have often found the misogyny in a lot of drag acts problematic (not to mention the transphobia, as well).
But what many are inferring from Mannie’s piece is that she participating in the Oppression Olympics – you know that game, the one where one person says he has it far worse than you because of “X” and another person wants the Gold, so he’ll say he suffers because of “Y.” This game of One-upmanship isn’t helpful nor productive, but I didn’t get much of that with Mannie’s piece. She didn’t deny that gay men are discriminated against, writing ” What is extremely unfairly denied you because of your sexuality could float back to you, if no one knew that you preferred the romantic and sexual company of men over women. ” Marriage equality aside, Mannie is right – white male privilege carries a lot currency, and it does benefit us – while gay men are oppressed because of their sexuality, they’re not oppressed because of their race or gender (unless they’re trans). And the tropes that gay men cherry pick of their amusement are often the same kinds of tropes used to denigrate, infantalize, or discriminate against black women. It’s a reductive way to look at a group of people, and even though I cringed at parts when thinking about my own behavior, I appreciated Mannie’s piece.
The other article I thought about, a lot was a really beautifully-written article for the Advocate, “Thanksgiving With a Transgender Child.” It is a touching read about a family’s acceptance and love of their transgender daughter who was just a small child. It speaks to the growing awareness of trans children, and how we must work to be inclusive of trans issues at the earliest age possible. The author, Frank Lowe, wrote a lovely piece about this kid, but then momentarily blundered with this line: “honest to God, I wouldn’t have known she wasn’t a girl if I wasn’t told differently (not that it matters, but she was very convincing).” It gave me a quick pause, almost as if I was walking with confidence down the street, and then stumbled a bit, tripping slightly on a crack in the pavement. He quickly rallied and ended the piece beautifully.
In the comments section, a reader thoughtfully pointed how that his word choice was problematic and she suggested that he read up on trans children issues before writing his next piece. She specifically had issue with his use of the word “convincing” which I did as well when reading the piece. Her tone was respectful, yet, she was immediately accused of “professional outrage” and “attacking” the author by other readers, who simply wanted to laud Lowe’s piece without pointing out the subtle bit of micoaggression. One reader went as far as insisting that trans folks should thank Lowe and be grateful that he was tolerant of the little girl, instead of pointing out some of the problematic word choices of the article.
Again, as with Mannie’s piece, I read Lowe’s piece and knew that I’ve said some equally (if not more) awkward things about trans issues. For example, when explaining trans to a friend, I stupidly explained it as “someone who was born a man or a woman, and then decided to become the opposite sex.” I explained this, believing that I’m an ally. Thankfully I repeated this ass-backwards definition of trans to someone far more educated on these issues than I, and was quickly called out on my nonsense and schooled.
What both pieces got me thinking about was being an ally – and the responsibilities that come with it, one of them being to listen. Lots of folks think that because they’re on the right side of a social issue, they are somehow immune from criticism and error – it’s not all that different from the “Some of my best friends are black” escape clause that never works. As allies, a big part of our job is to let the members of the communities we’re supporting lead – meaning we leave it to them to shape the discourse and the discussion – it’s not ours to reclaim. As a gay white man, I’m constantly rolling my eyes when straight folks presume to talk for us, because they inevitably get it wrong.
And I took the same approach with Mannie’s article as well as the reader who critiqued Lowe’s piece – after the initial bloom of shame and discomfort at having my privilege being called out (trust me – like every other white gay man on the planet, when confronted with my privilege, I also say things like “gay white men are murdered because they’re gay” “gay white teens are bullied in schools” “gay white men are fired for being gay”) I took stock and read what they wrote. Hopefully next time I fall back on the “girl, you so crazy” bit I’ll stop and remember what this play acting really is doing to my audience.