Gay is the New NothingJonathan Mathias Lassiter I LGBTQ Rights I Analysis I May 28th, 2013
In San Francisco, I learned a lot about the intersections of race, sexual orientation, identity, and power. I moved to San Francisco in 2008 to begin my graduate studies in Clinical Psychology. I was excited about moving to "one of the most liberal cities in the US"-as I had heard it described by friends and colleagues. I had been told that people in San Francisco accepted everyone: people of color, same gender loving (SGL) people, immigrants. However, upon arrival in the city, I found that acceptance was not guaranteed or unconditional. My initial interactions with both SGL and heterosexual people in the city seemed to be colored by-well my color. Specifically, it seemed to me that I was consistently being regarded primarily as African American. No, not African American-which denotes ethnicity-but black. My skin color was black and that's how a lot of people I met in the city seemed to react to me. Regardless of my other personality characteristics or cultural identifiers, I was black first. My sexual orientation, spirituality, educational attainment all seemed to be secondary to my skin color. Now, I am not naïve of racism or white supremacy and I know it exists everywhere-even in the "most liberal" places. But I guess, I had let my guard down and expected more of a racially unburdened experience in San Francisco than in other cities known for their blatant prejudice. As I read that sentence back in my mind, it occurs to me that my vulnerability at that time is what probably made my experiences of racial bias in San Francisco feel more egregious to me than the outright discrimination I had experienced in my home state of Georgia. In Georgia, you know where you stand. People of color in this neighborhood beware; in this neighborhood you are welcomed. Yet, San Francisco projected an air of acceptance while implicitly engaging in various forms of bias-not the least being racial.
An illustration of the type of negative racially charged encounters I experienced in San Francisco can be found in my experience searching for an apartment upon my relocation. I will never forget the look of shock upon people's faces-people whom had conversed with me warmly via telephone about my prospects of renting an apartment from them-when they saw me in person. "Oh, you're Jonathan?" The clear emphasis on "you're" suggested that while they'd expected someone named Jonathan, they observed some salient divergence between their expectations and my appearance. Suddenly, landlords who by phone had encouraged my visit had other renters coming to view the apartment. Suddenly, they needed to get back to me, when before we had discussed me moving in right away if I liked the place. Suddenly, I was asked if I was sure I wanted to live in that particular neighborhood. No one ever came out and said, "I don't want to rent to an African American." But their consistent changes of heart, inflection and tone betrayed their bias every time. The experiences of microaggressions and implicit racial bias I experienced with both SGL and heterosexual white people while looking for housing in the San Francisco seemed to intensify when I found myself in places composed predominately of members of the so-called gay community1 (which is mostly portrayed as a monolithically white so-called community [Bérubé, 2001]). Maybe the actual microaggressions and discrimination were not harsher, but my sensitivity to them in the so-called gay community was keener. It hurt more because I expected more from a group whom I assumed had common experiences of hardships and triumphs.
The Castro, the notorious "gayborhood" of San Francisco, which served as a welcoming hub for many SGL people made me feel more like a foreigner than a neighbor. In the so-called gay community, I learned that there is a hierarchy with white men possessing the highest position, white women coming in a distant second, men of color third-with Black men at the lowest position, and women of color dead last. The promoted gay agenda and the so-called gay community by and large are a white male agenda and a white male community. My interests, my ideas, my needs as an African American SGL man were not incorporated in any real way. It seemed that I was only of interest to white members of the so-called gay community as a cultural commodity or means of sexual gratification. Unfortunately, my personal experiences in San Francisco were not out of the ordinary.
Other men of color and women of all colors have experienced discrimination within the walls of the so-called gay community. One African American woman expressed to a newspaper reporter that, "When you go to a bar, you get the feeling that the prices are being adjusted. It takes forever to get served, and the wait staff watches you like a hawk" (Glionna, 2007). The only nightclub, The Pendulum, which provided a specific place for African American SGL people to gather, was closed in 2005 and no others were created. Youth of color have reported being made to feel unwanted in the Castro as well. And it seems that African American youths face some of the most negative stereotypes and prejudice. Jovida Guevara-Ross, executive director of Community United Against Violence disclosed to the Los Angeles Times, "young blacks are dismissed as thugs, gang members who aren't welcome in the Castro" (Glionna, 2007). These accounts of racial discrimination in the so-called gay community are not unfounded. The San Francisco Human Rights Commission conducted a formal investigation and found that the owner of a popular bar in San Francisco, Badlands, consistently violated the civil rights of people of color through racially discriminatory admissions policies and hiring practices as far back as 2001 (McMillan, 2005). San Francisco's so-called gay community has had a long history of rejecting and debasing its members of color. It seems that African Americans are burdened with the brunt of the rejection, testifying to their relegation to the bottom of the social hierarchy in the so-called gay community.
The protest rallies in San Francisco and other parts of California after the passage of Proposition 8 in November 2008 may be the most vivid exemplification-in recent history-of the position African Americans, regardless of their sexual orientation and other individual differences, hold in the imaginations of many white and other non-African American members of the so-called gay community. People of all colors gathered to protest Proposition 8. But it was soon clear that these rallies were for white SGL people to vent their hurt and anger. As the result of the reckless and widespread dissemination of post-election polling data that inaccurately blamed religious African Americans for the passage of the proposition (Coates, 2009; Egan & Sherrill, 2009), African Americans who were participating in the protests were harassed and verbally accosted with racial epithets by non-African American protesters (Stone & Ward, 2011). So here, amidst these protests, African American individuals were cast primarily, and likely in many minds solely, as representatives of their race who, as such, were worthy of the protesters' ire. That behavior and those comments communicated evenly loudly to me as an African American SGL man that to many non-African American members of the so-called gay community, I am one thing: black. And because of that, I had no place in the so-called gay community. I had no right to march alongside them for justice. I was expected to repent and explain the perceived betrayal of all African American Californians for the passage of the ballot initiative. One Proposition 8 protester voiced that belief when he expressed, "To have the lack of support from the black community is very painful to us. Fifty years from now, I think the black community will be ashamed that they didn't support us" (Fernandez, 2008).
While I understand and empathize with the emotion behind that statement, the statement itself is very problematic. That statement exemplifies the implicit and ingrained sense of entitlement that many white members of the so-called gay community possess. How can one ask for the support of a community of people whom they actively reject? Furthermore, no one was asking why white gay organizations-whether in coalition with other groups or on their own-had not worked to remedy issues of concern to African American communities. I certainly did not see any white gay men or women coming into my neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point-the low-income, resource poor neighborhood in San Francisco whose residents were predominately African American. How many white members of the so-called gay community are ashamed for their lack of action in regards to helping low-income children of color receive a high quality and culturally affirming education? For not helping women of color access healthcare? For not speaking out against the prison industrial complex that disproportionately affects men of color? I am not suggesting that group 1 must help group 2 before group 2 assists group 1. Working towards freedom from oppression should not be a tit for tat negotiation. Yet, it is often the case that some groups are expected to be some sort of moral super beings who are allies to everyone but never aided in their times of need. White gays have invoked blackness in the service of their political needs (Stone & Ward, 2011), while ignoring the concerns of actual African American and other people of color in their so-called community. Social scientists have found that for Latino/a and African American SGL people, economic issues are of greater concern than marriage equality and rights for domestic partnerships (Battle, Pastrana, & Daniels, 2012; Battle, Pastrana, & Daniels, 2013). Yet, a survey of reports in major news outlets from Time Magazine to the New York Times to MSNBC would make one think that the biggest, and maybe only, concern of SGL people is marriage equality.
The negation of SGL people of color's concerns and rights by white members the so-called gay community is a national occurrence. From closure of African American-centric bars in Brooklyn and harassment of SGL youth of color in the West Village (Lombardi, 2006) to racial profiling in Chicago (Worley, 2011), people of color across the nation report being made to feel unsafe and unwanted by members of the so-called gay community in neighborhoods that are suppose to be safe spaces for SGL people. Even when SGL people of color are not harassed, they still report feeling objectified by white members of the so-called gay community. For example, researchers have found that white gay men regard SGL black men in the most hypersexual stereotypical manners such as aggressive macho thugs with large penises (McBride, 2005; Wilson, Valera, Ventuneac, Balan, Rowe, & Carballo-Die´guez, 2009). Given these dynamics, it is psychological study that such a group who overwhelmingly promotes an image of whiteness in public forums found it acceptable to co-opt the identity of a group which they have-at best ignored-and-at worst antagonized through overt and implicit means. Yet, in a world where whiteness-for SGL and straight people-is positioned at the top of the social hierarchy holding power, this type of co-opting finds widespread support.
"Power is the capacity to define people in or out of existence" (Helms, 2008, p. 1). And the propagation of "gay is the new black" is a display of that power. To be fair, this phrase is not a new one. It is also not solely a machination of white SGL people; there are people of color who have taken up this mantra as well. In fact, Bayard Rustin, an African American pacifist that orchestrated the 1963 March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, may be the first person to highlight the similarities of the struggles for SGL people's rights and civil rights for African Americans in an essay he wrote in 1986. However, the current tenor of this assertion is more of a comparison with hierarchal undertones than relatedness. It renders all African Americans heterosexual-and often homophobic-and all SGL people white. "Gay is the new black" is a flawed strategy that invokes hierarchies of oppression. The naivety of the slogan is that it fails to realize all oppression is oppression and that by equating one's hardships with another's minimizes the experiences of that comparison group-thus, the very comparison is an oppressive act. This phrase privileges whiteness and white gay people, thereby redefining them in the image of their choosing and African Americans are redefined out of our existence. People of color-SGL and heterosexual-are either ignorantly or blithely promoting this co-optation of identity when they exclaim "gay is the new black!" The phrase renders obscure and in some cases attempts to erase the ongoing racist, economic, educational, judicial, housing, and healthcare discrimination against African Americans. These issues are relegated to the back seat, while the matrimonial concerns of the so-called gay community ride upfront.
Also in the backseat are people who are not gay-identified like lesbians, bisexuals, two-spirit, and other non-gay identified SGL people of all colors. For many who hear the refrain, "gay is the new black," it conjures the stereotypical image of a middle class white gay man. Thus the experiences and concerns of women, bisexuals, two-spirit, and non-gay identified SGL people of all colors are assumed under one umbrella and their uniqueness is traded for expediency of phrase and a catchy sound bite. Many SGL people do not identify with the word gay for various reasons-whether political or person. The word gay alienates many SGL people who do not want to be identified with hackneyed images of rainbows, nightclubs, and generic gay clone consumerism that are often ascribed to the term. For many SGL people-of color and otherwise-labels of any sort are considered confining and ill-suited descriptors. So "gay is the new black" leaves them out of the picture too.
The phrase also renders invisible the rich history and power of SGL people in and outside the so-called gay community by identifying SGL people as "new" victims when the oppression of SGL people of all colors has been taking place for centuries. SGL people have existed openly in several civilizations long before Stonewall. They have had lifelong romantic relationships with each other and have raised families and have been leaders in their communities long before Proposition 8 or the African American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s existed. Oppression thrives off forgetfulness. Audre Lorde (1984) insightfully spoke of "historical amnesia that keeps us working to invent the wheel every time we have to go to the store for bread" (p. 117). "Gay is the new black" robs the so-called gay community of its legacy-which is part of its power-and cast marriage rights as the most significant issue of a heterogeneous group who is still struggling for freedom from discrimination in the workplace, in schools, in their communities, and families. The so-called gay community went from struggling for liberation to demanding integration. Legislation that would benefit a larger proportion of SGL people, such as the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA) that addresses workplace discrimination against SGL people and people of diverse gender identities, receive limited media attention in comparison to marriage equality. Likewise, mental health issues like suicide among SGL youths are promoted much less in media outlets compared to marriage campaigns. One of the original strengths of the so-called gay community was the unashamed ownership of its deviance from whitewashed, Puritanical societal norms. Early SGL rights groups resisted lazy race comparison and erasure (Stone & Ward, 2011). Today, that has been loss. Other more broad reaching health and political issues take a backseat to the securing of rights that help certain members of the so-called gay community further their assimilation into the mainstream of upstanding, white American citizens.
Baldwin stated in The Fire Next Time, "An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought" (1993, p. 81). I assert an assumed identity can never be effective for it cracks under pressure and one is always exposed and foiled. The so-called gay community in its struggle for equal rights-although all too often marriage equality is the only right highlighted-must develop and recognize its own identity without trying to cast itself into a role that is already occupied. As an African American SGL man in the tradition of Lorde, Baldwin, and West, I am invested in freedom from oppression for all. I am not interested in poorly thought out talking points or slogans. Real change begins with the person that seeks it. In order to find its identity and have any chance at achieving real equality, the so-called gay community must first look into the mirror and address the ways in which it is complicit in perpetuating prejudice and discrimination for others. It is the perpetrator of prejudice and discrimination that suffers more than the target. The so-called gay community-which is composed of people of various colors, ages, ability statuses, religions, political beliefs, socioeconomic statuses, etcetera regardless of its whitewashed middle class image-will never accomplish true liberation but implode on itself until it begins to embrace its diversity. The so-called gay community's acceptance of all the diverse people within the so-called gay community is inextricably tied to the larger society's acceptance of the so-called gay community as a whole. Until the so-called gay community can see my blackness and my sister's almond shaped eyes and not view it as a threat or something to be co-opted, until it can disagree without othering and oppressing, it will never be able to discover or recognize its own identity and live in its truth. The so-called gay community may gain national marriage rights but it won't gain liberation. It will just integrate into a burning house of a heteronormative market obsessed existence that affirms its desire for inclusion without full acceptance.
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