Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Who the Fuck Says "Gay is the new black!"?

Thanks to a couple of diligent and brilliant LGBTQ leaders from the W&M student body, I stumbled across this article on facebook—a brief, and in my opinion, precariously surface-level analysis of the intersection of race and sexuality under President Obama. Because I, let’s say, stumbled over several of Mr. Granderson’s statements, I thought I’d parse them out a bit—and would love to hear what the rest of you think.

Before I say anything else, I should acknowledge that discussions of race, particularly when race intersects with another marginalized culture or group, tend to be eggshell-tiptoeing sorts of debates. I don’t go out of my way to step on toes, but Mr. Granderson’s article felt a bit like a stiletto stabbing into my own, so I’d like to at least stir up his shallow thought-pool a bit. And of course, any such discussion is invariably dependent on personal experience—just as it is with sexuality, one person’s capacity to understand or empathize with a greater ‘group’ sort of experience or consciousness is limited to what they’ve come to understand on an individual level. It seems self-evident that my experience as a gay male is vastly different from the next queen’s, or that my consciousness as a white male will, again, not mirror that of a black (gay) male (or female, or trans, for that matter).

But here’s where my first hitch hits. Perhaps employed as the backbone of his argument, Mr. Granderson contends that “Despite the catchiness of the slogan, gay is not the new black.” I begin with this because I’ve heard the retort used increasingly frequently against the allegedly white GLBTQ majority. And I don’t mean to say that the movement isn’t—at least in the public eye—dominated by whites, but that his claims are directed, perhaps unfairly, against a stereotypical understanding of the movement, and against whites as a homogenous group—something I think he’d be reluctant to accept from the reverse. My issue, however, stems from the fact that I’ve never heard someone make such an outlandish claim, or for that matter, even subtly presuppose that the gay movement is comparable to the civil rights movement for/by African-Americans.

He goes on to remark, in a rather flip manner, that “Not to split hairs, but for most blacks, the n-word trumps the f-word.” Here we come upon another of my stumbling blocks. Mr. Granderson pretty much makes my argument for me—by claiming that one word ‘trumps’ another on the oppression hierarchy. My question is this: why must there be some violently delineated totem pole of marginalization? It all becomes a petty, stick-your-tongue-out sort of game of “my identity is more subjugated than yours!” Let’s leave such antics to the playground, because in the broader scope of civil rights—for everyone, not simply for some—this tactic is more of a speedbump than anything else. Neither word—nigger or faggot, for let’s not be politically correct here without reason—is a pleasant one to hear when inappropriately wielded. I call myself a faggot frequently, but this doesn’t mean I want to hear some belligerent and probably closeted frat boy hurl it at me, just before he hurls all over his too-expensive shoes (and believe me, that’s not metaphor—that’s plenty of experience speaking). Words—even those we think of as ‘hate speech’—have only as much power as their context creates for them. In any case, there’s little gain in clarifying that one hateful and bigoted insult is ‘better’ than the other.

My problem with each of these remarks comes to the same head; that Mr. Granderson implies that racialized issues are intrinsically more substantive than sexualized issues. For starters, I’d be hard-pressed to agree that this is the case, even if the two ‘topics’ could be entirely and objectively kept separate. But more importantly (and one would assume, even more personally significant to a gay black male writer like Mr. Granderson), race and sexuality cannot be divided. Most of us will recall the catchphrase of Intro to Women’s Studies: “Gender, race, and class are intersecting categories of identity” (or something to that effect). Sexuality isn’t always included in this grocery list, but should be. I don’t live my life in compartmentalized experiences—one day, for example, I don’t decide I’ll live ‘whitely’—and then the next, perhaps, I’ll be one-hundred percent gay, or the following one, I’ll view myself, and be viewed by others, only as a member of the lower-class. So when Mr. Granderson attempts to discuss gayness and blackness as invariably separate spheres of experience, he makes the most fatal of mistakes—oppression simply does not function that way. And thus, his unspoken attempt to glorify black oppression over GLBTQ oppression (isn’t it silly—to glorify oppression?) becomes a moot point. That hierarchy blurs and bleeds until we can no longer focus on one segment without seeing traces of the others. Because this is getting long, I’ll move on—for now.

“While those who were at Stonewall talk about the fear of being arrested by police 40 years ago, blacks talked about the fear of dying at the hands of police and not having their bodies found or murder investigated.”

Ah, that trump card again? We fall back to his original claim—that (all) white members of the GLBTQ are wielding the Paris/Perez Hilton-style slogan that ‘gay is the new black!’ Insert neon-orange Mystic Tan and gum-popping here. Where is it that Mr. Granderson keeps hearing white gays equate GLBTQ oppression with centuries of black enslavement, lynching, the civil rights movement of the past century, and so forth? I think any queen who tried to say as much would be laughed right off the stage, or out of a job (especially considering one of the media personalities he targets is hot-topic/high profile lesbian Rachel Maddow). These experiences are not comparable, because no one in their right mind would see anything but the most basic of similarities between racial and sexual oppressions (again assuming we can think of them in even the most hazily separate way)—similarities in the sense that the movement for equality for all individuals is an ongoing one, and that violence, subjugation, and the systematic denial of rights has been dandily extended to both racial and sexual minorities in their historical struggle against oppression. But they are not the same—again, this seems a bit self-evident, at least to me.

And again, he comes off as dangerously insensitive by suggesting that members of the GLBTQ community do not fear for their bodily health or even for their lives on a daily basis—even in a country as supposedly progressive as the United States. Lest we forget, beyond our Uncle-Sam-centric vantage point, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death in eight nations. This is not to mention the innumerable crimes perpetrated against LGBTQ Americans—most famously and violently, of course, against people like Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena, and Gwen Araujo, but just take a look at the Wikipedia article on ‘violence against LGBT people’ and you’ll see there’s no dearth of fear to be had in our beloved country. Is forty years of the gay movement comparable to the four hundred years of black oppression he cites in his article? No. But it’s not as though sexual ‘deviance’ erupted with free love and Stonewall—GLBTQ oppression (though not, perhaps, termed or identified in that way) didn’t just fall off the turnip truck! And considering how many cases of homophobic violence are directed against racial minorities—our aforementioned Gwen Araujo among them—such violence is not to be taken lightly, or to be dismissed as ‘less significant’ in the wider view. Any instance of violence committed against someone for their identificatory leanings—chosen or not, visible or unseen—should be decried.

“This lack of perspective is only going to alienate a black community that is still very proud of Obama and is hypersensitive about any criticism of him, especially given he's been in office barely six months. If blacks are less accepting of gays than other racial groups -- and that is certainly debatable -- then the parade of gay people calling Obama a "disappointment" on television is counterproductive in gaining acceptance, to say the least. And the fact that the loudest critics are mostly white doesn't help matters either.”

Here’s Mr. Granderson’s other crooked crutch. His anger against the ‘gay white media’ seemingly erupts from his discomfort with the fact that they’re criticizing President Obama’s handling of LGBTQ issues. This anger has two major foundational fault lines: first, Mr. Granderson once again holds up a sort of white ‘straw man’ intended to functionally represent all white members of the GLBTQ community/movement. In launching his attack, he selects a small minority of Obama’s critics and extends his frustration with them to a much wider group. If I said the same thing—if perhaps, I said that the black community was less amenable to non-heterosexual identities (which he makes a comment about in the above quote, in a sort of knee-jerk way)—my use of a black ‘straw-man’ would be unthinkable. I don’t find his similar tactic at all helpful, and certainly not any more appropriate, just because of his justifiable discomfort with a history of scapegoating.

Secondly, and centrally, his entire article rests on the assumption that the gay ‘white’ media is targeting Obama’s handling of GLBTQ issues (here, he cites the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and a recent reception for GLBTQ leaders at the White House) because of his blackness. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but President Obama was elected to represent all citizens of this country, and thus stands in for all of us. If someone criticizes his policies, they’re criticizing his decision-making as our president—this should not, though it does not necessarily play out this way, have anything to do with his race. Obviously, I don’t mean to imply that his race is a non-issue; I, along with so many others, was profoundly proud to see our nation (one I had been increasingly disillusioned with, after four years under Pubic W. Bush) elect its first black president. And I sincerely hope that his time in office will bring about positive changes in the racial climate of this country (and not just between blacks and whites, but between everyone—obviously, immigration is also a huge issue right now). But this does not prohibit his citizens—I should say, as per Mr. Granderson’s line of though—his white citizens—from taking issues with his actions as president. He isn’t given a get-out-of-jail-free card simply because his election was historic; he doesn’t solely represent African-Americans, and thus, they are not the only citizens legitimately able to praise or jeer what he does as president. What Mr. Granderson seems to suggest is that we all keep our mouths shut until the celebration is over; that until the black community is finished being ‘hypersensitive’ to criticism of Obama (and I doubt that the entire black community of this country is wholly satisfied with him as president—that’s naively idealistic), people just shouldn’t criticize him. I find that to be a preposterous argument, that only holds up under the most shallowly-defined and hyper-politically correct lenses. Just as I would with any other president, I’ll say if I’m unhappy with President Obama’s choices—so far, I think he’s doing a pretty bang up job (though of course I have my issues, too). But I will not keep silent just to ensure that he has his honeymoon period in the White House—that’s not what he was elected for, and I doubt Obama himself would want that sort of preferential treatment.

Mr. Granderson ends with this statement: “Hearing that race matters in the gay community may not be comforting to hear, but that doesn't make it any less true.”
I can agree with him on this much; race does matter—despite the faddish yearning to claim we’re in some sort of utopian/dystopian post-race, post-gender, post-sexuality world, it just isn’t true. Race does matter, and yes, I’m sure it does make some whites cringe at the thought that they may have to look race in the face—cringe to think of their white privilege bubbling down the drain. But we have to consider these issues on a more complex level; race matters in the gay community, but likewise, sexuality matters in the black community, the white community, the latino community, etc. As do gender, class, able-bodiedness, and a plethora of other identity categories—all of these overlap, and Mr. Granderson’s simplistic attempt to level the playing field does nothing but create further gaps of understanding. He erases, as it were, the rough edges of incredibly intricate webs of political and ideological powerplay and experience. I don’t mean my response to sound bitterly retaliatory, but I find myself increasingly frustrated by these lame arguments that dumb down tough topics in order to sound more ‘innovative’ or forceful, or simply latch on to the nearest political hot button. I should also say that this dinky blog post by no means expressed everything as eloquently as I’d like to, but I figured I would get it out before I lost it. Stretch the thinking chops a bit. So what are your thoughts?

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