Monday, August 1, 2011

White men are sacred, the rest of us not so much*

Perhaps one of the best explanations for the ways in which white male privilege is nurtured and sustained by white supremacy (and the structures of racism that surround us) I have ever heard is that white men are sacred. Although, not in the way that all beings and all of nature are sacred. Rather, in the way that white men are sacred and the rest of us less so.

The lesson came from the one graduate school professor I encountered who ever dared utter the word “racism.” She, out of some 30 all-white professors St. Edward’s University put me in front of over the course of two graduate programs, was the least liked by her peers and the Jesuit institution that upheld their collective (and sacred) whiteness. In one statement, this professor articulated what was simultaneously the most perturbing and the most logical explanation for the world of racism I have struggled to make sense of since childhood.

Through the lens of (white) feminism, I understood that capitalist, as well as sociocultural and religious (both of which arguably serve capitalist purposes) institutions sustain and require the throne on which white men sit. Through women of color feminisms I learned that these same institutions create a hierarchy of privilege that is not entirely linear. For instance, as white women celebrated the victory of entering the workforce, women of color were not only already working, but now had more white women’s homes and children to tend to.

Yet the sanctity of white maleness is not irrevocable. White gay men’s argument that they are “second-class citizens” is a perfect example. White gay men appear to be, by virtue of being gay, less sacred than their heterosexual identifying (not necessarily practicing) counterparts. Although, they are certainly more sacred than someone like me.

And so, with years of attempting to make sense of the LGBT movement’s inability and unwillingness to be inclusive of the L’s, the B’s, the T’s, the non-white, and so on, successively, I turn to this professor’s logic: white men are sacred, the rest of us not so much.

Understanding how the LGBT movement simultaneously erases those not white and male from its history, and maintains us at the margins of its present, is a daunting task. [Note: I must recognize that there have been some selective, at times strange, nods to people of color.] The fact that primarily white men lead the LGBT movement today defies any practical logic I can conjure. The idea is absurd simply by looking at our communities demographically. Even strategically, it makes no sense to sustain a mostly white male leadership structure at a time when conservatives court communities of color against LGBT rights by insisting that all things LGBT are white, middle-to-upper class, and male. And yet, look around.

I have been in countless spaces in which queer folks of color argue against the LGBT Agenda (known also as Gay Inc.), insisting that its priorities are inconsistent with those of LGBT people of color. I disagree.

I believe that marriage equality, the dismantling of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), and the passing of a (trans-inclusive!) Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), to name a few, is in fact relevant for communities of color. Certainly, I continue to believe marriage is a capitalist, sexist and racist structure; I am not in favor of enhancing the military industrial complex and further enabling U.S. imperialism and ongoing global massacring; and, fighting for ENDA implies people 1) have or can attain a job, and 2) can be safeguarded from nuanced institutional discrimination. With all these contradictions, assessing the ways in which queer communities of color are further disenfranchised and harmed by the absence of marriage equality, the existence of DADT and the lack of employment nondiscrimination policies, tell me these issues are relevant and a priority to people of color as well. That said, I understand how our communities contest these issues as our priorities, particularly when compared to issues such as healthcare, housing and immigration. Gay, Inc. does an exceptional job at making "its" issues irrelevant to our daily lives.

When marriage equality is defended through public examples of affluent white male couplehood, I find myself making leaps of faith to believe marriage equality is about people of color— especially people of color who partner with people of color. In 2004, conservatives in Texas pushed for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. Arguing in favor of what was known as Prop 2, anti-LGBT advocates strategically described marriage equality as something privileged white gay men wanted. In turn, the LGBT leadership of Texas reinforced this image by offering mostly all white couples in their messaging. The occasional appearance of a person of color happened when their significant other was white. I never saw a couple in which both were people of color. Apparently we are as common as unicorns or hot summers in San Francisco.

In 2008, the fight against Prop 8 showed that even in *ahem* liberal California, marriage equality is a white gay male issue. Conservatives made the argument to communities of color, and LGBT leadership again reiterated this through its “No On 8” campaign. And yet, what came after November 4, 2008, was perhaps the most telling.

Angry that people of color had taken away their right to marry, white gay men took to the streets, the blogosphere and traditional media to make their anger known.  Dan Savage even called it “Black Homophobia.”

And so it was, in 2008, white gay men came out of the racism closet, and openly articulated what the LGBT movement quietly nurtures.

While Dan Savage and Andrew Sullivan blamed communities of color for taking away their right to marry, I was left with a choice. Either I agreed and blindly and uncritically denounced my communities, or I contested such arguments as racist and untrue. I chose the latter.

What I once believed to be reluctance toward inclusion, I now understand as simple logic. On its own accord, the LGBT movement is not a women’s movement, a bisexual movement, a transgender movement, a people of color movement, and so on. It is, from what I have witnessed first hand and from the inside, a movement that aims to reinstate the rights and privileges that white gay men lost by virtue of being gay. The LGBT movement –unceasingly breaking the hearts of so many of us– is for the sacred, the rest of us not so much.

California’s fight against Prop 8 illustrated the LGBT movement’s relationship to people of color: we are either the conduit or the barrier to a movement aimed at reinstating the privileges of white gay men. And while some of us consequentially benefit from the LGBT movement’s progress, by looking at its leadership, messaging and strategies, one might not know these benefits were intentional.

Luckily, queer people of color, my trans sisters, brothers and those who identify as both and/or neither, those who are bi, and those who fall under none of these (often) rigid categories, are not leaving the LGBT movement to its own accord. Not only do we belong at the table, we insist on building a new one.

*No white men were harmed in the writing of this post. White male privilege, however, hopefully was. 

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