"And then he told me that I'm cute, for an Asian."
I'd just met the guy who said this to me. It was a Tuesday night, when many a gay at Oxford go to club Baby Love for its weekly GLBT night. Though he was then a stranger, we had one obvious thing in common, beyond our sexuality: We're both people of color. But that was more than enough for us to strike up a friendship. Gay men are eager to scoot over and offer their own a seat at the table. This stranger and I knew, however, that being white is a big help.
Right now you're slapping your head, asking, "Seriously? In one of the most enduring outsider communities, there's an inside and an outside?" That's right, you can hear in a club in what doesn't seem like 2014 that you're cute, for an Asian. Stories like this aren't rare. But they're little discussed when the gay community itself is talking about tolerance.
One way to make this plain, and maybe even a bit painful, is that I, for instance, never had to "come out" as black. No need to remind anyone how my skin color can produce pain for us all, but for me, racism wasn't really a problem until graduate school, when I finally conjured up enough courage to get involved in the gay community. It's not that those of us who are double outsiders aren't noticed by those who take center stage in the main gay narrative. It's that when we are, we're usually disregarded. We're there. We're just not that important. In other words, we're cute, for an Asian. The next chapter of the gay rights movement is to hold itself to its own standard of inclusion, however tenuous it may be.
How to do that? First, ask the right questions: How could a community that's built partly on the shared experiences of isolation and narrow-mindedness be blind to similar behavior? I have my doubts that the spirit of exclusion within the gay community is malicious. The importance of compassion isn't lost on your average gay man, who most likely endured quite a bit of awkwardness and self-consciousness on coming out.
The big issue is privilege.
I get that my being male is an advantage, and an unearned one. I don't worry about hitting my head on a big chunk of glass ceiling, for instance, though it's not like I did anything to earn the perks so often afforded men. (I should mention that privilege isn't the same as guilt. Gender isn't something that anyone has a say in, so feeling guilty about it doesn't make too much sense.) Moreover, I'm happy that sexuality is far less of a hurdle than it used to be, thanks to the fact that it's now framed largely in terms of freedom and rights, not merely awareness and pride. I also get that my being black is a disadvantage, and will probably continue to be one.
I get it.
But it's galling that something as superficial as race remains something of a shortcoming in a community that understands the importance of inclusion, or ought to. On his own experiences as a gay, black writer, James Baldwin said to his white audience:
You give me this advantage. Whereas you never had to look at me — because you have sealed me away along with sin and hell and death — my life was in your hands, and I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me.
Those who craft our society's central plot are privileged such that they don't have to think about the supporting cast. And Baldwin called them out on it.
This isn't to wax poetic about race, though. It's a broader perception problem. In many ways gays are viewed as a monolith as much by themselves as they are by others. Take Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, for instance: It shines a light on teenagers who are bullied because they're gay, assuring them through gay adults' own stories that life is worth living. But for all of the ink that's been spilled on the project, its message is lost on some gay men:
[Others] have noted that privilege does play a large and unspoken role in many of the [It Gets Better] project's narratives; especially for GLBT folks who are also facing other forms of oppression, leaving their home towns and entering an accepting GLBT community may be much harder and more complicated than it looks. [The Atlantic]
I realize, of course, that the project can't remedy every social ill, and that it's a hard-fought victory toward a wider acceptance of gays. However, a win for gays, on the whole, shouldn't twist the fact that even within our own diverse enclave, some gays are still losing. For someone who's bisexual or older or overweight or transgender, exclusion isn't unusual. The takeaway point: It hasn't gotten better for a lot of GLBT folks.
But some programs are bringing attention to this. The "We Got Your Back" project provides a platform to start "conversations about the importance of inclusion within [the GLBT] community," particularly by addressing biphobia, transphobia, and racism. Still, this isn't the victim Olympics, seeing what group has it worse. It's about being mindful of our actions, because a movement in which some people aren't heard, in which many stories are flattened into one, misses the point. Identity isn't clear-cut. But, certainly, it's intersectional. English novelist Zadie Smith describes people as having "complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives." It's through this wider lens that we should view gays. Or, we should all check our privilege. No one would question the fact that gay rights have made great strides. For a mature movement, however, they're not where they should be because the community is fractured.
We GLBT outcasts could build our own table, but it'd be better to see that privilege doesn't in fact trump respect. On Baldwin's relationship to race, critic F.W. Dupee explained:
[Baldwin] wears his color as Hester Prynne did her scarlet letter, proudly. Believing himself to have been branded as different from and inferior to the white majority, he will make a virtue of his situation. He will be different, and in his own way better. [The New York Review of Books]
We all have more than one scarlet letter. We should wear them, proudly.
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