First, I want to offer congratulations to you on your recent piece, Dear White Gays, going viral. I’m damned happy it did. Your message is one that desperately needs to be heard, and to put it simply, I absolutely couldn’t agree with your broader points any more.
Admittedly, though, I’m writing this letter to share a bit more than congratulations. You see, I think you got one of the details wrong – like, really, really wrong. But before we get to all that, let me reemphasize that I don’t want to take anything away from your core message; in fact, what I truly want is to ensure that it resonates with those who most need to hear it, namely, white gay men. Unfortunately, I’m genuinely afraid one small paragraph has the potential to derail the conversation, and as a card carrying White Gay™, I want to bring it to your attention while still offering my unending support and endorsement of the rest of your piece. The paragraph in question? This one:
At the end of the day, if you are a white male, gay or not, you retain so much privilege. 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. (You know what I’m talking about. Those “anonymous” torsos on Grindr, Jack’d and Adam4Adam show very familiar heterosexual faces to the public.) The difference is that the black women with whom you think you align so well, whose language you use and stereotypical mannerisms you adopt, cannot hide their blackness and womanhood to protect themselves the way that you can hide your homosexuality. We have no place to hide, or means to do it even if we desired them.
There are undoubtedly elements of truth in that first sentence – truths I understand will be tough for some white gay men to accept – but we gotta have a talk about the rest.
When I read that paragraph, I couldn’t help but think the picture it presents is colored by a significant misunderstanding of gay male reality, specifically that masculine-presenting* white gay men are the norm. I can’t say that misunderstanding is surprising given our own PR: several of the most prominent LGBTQ organizations offer a highly conformist image of what it means to be a gay man today, and at least one element of that heteronormative caricature is masculine presentation.
The real truth, however, is that not all of us are able to fly under the gaydar, and the number of us who can’t is hardly as small as some would have you believe. Your assertion that white gay men “…can hide [their] homosexuality” reduces homosexuality to a mere activity, one you seem to regard as somehow detached from the personhood of the actual homosexuals involved – individual homosexuals who occupy a place somewhere within a wide spectrum of gender non-conformance, and whose everyday outcomes are significantly influenced by where they fall on that scale. So, while I’ll agree that technically we can hide our homosexuality insofar as we can avoid marching in parades, wearing rainbow tees, and engaging in actual homosexual acts in public, not all of us can hide our nature. For those of us who aren’t masculine-presenting, it’s impossible to conceal who we are, even were we to take every effort to appear straight. In a society that unthinkingly equates perceived femininity in men as homosexual, those of us with feminine tendencies are automatically clocked as gay. It may take a few seconds longer to discern than your Blackness and Femaleness, but our Gayness is equally detectable – and make no mistake about it, we are treated accordingly.
Those of us who can’t pass are typically bullied from an early age, often before our peers even completely grasp what homosexuality is, and long before we ourselves fully understand our orientation. Some of us are forced by “concerned” parents into dangerous therapy conducted by disreputable practitioners or pastors – therapy meant to “fix” us, but that only manages to amplify an oppressive self-loathing from which we may never escape. Others of us are physically abused, molested, and/or kicked out of our homes, betrayed by the very people entrusted to love us. Many of us are so traumatized by our childhoods – childhoods where our only crime was not being able to hide who we were – that by the time we reach young adulthood, we’re leading lives so riddled with self-hatred that we’re on a path to our own destruction, engaging in compulsive or risky sexual practices, suffering from eating disorders, and abusing drugs and alcohol at an alarming rate. That is, if we’re fortunate enough to make it out alive: LGBTQ youth are 4-6 times more likely than their cishet counterparts to attempt suicide even as they do their best to hide their difference by not disclosing it to family and friends.
And that’s just what we face as kids.
If we have the privilege of surviving that, we can still anticipate ongoing street harassment, discrimination, sexual assault, police brutality, and violence aimed at us even in situations where we don’t openly “advertise” our gayness.
To be clear, these outcomes are the result of us being perceived as gay; for those of us who cannot effectively hide our orientation, any assertion that we can protect ourselves from this abuse is, pardon the colloquialism, disrespectful as fuck.
So, when I – and I imagine many of my white gay male counterparts – read that paragraph, you’re going to have to excuse us if we momentarily disengage from your broader points to ask, “what the hell just happened?” Because if I’m going to be real with you, when I hit that part of your piece, I felt like I’d just been sucker punched: I was “Yes, Yes, Yes’ing” along with you the entire time, and then bam - that just came out of left field. It instantly foregrounded a lifetime’s worth of bullshit I’ve heard about me and those like me from people who know nothing of our lived experiences. And, I’ll admit, in that moment it would have been very easy for every other valid point you made to be completely lost.
Luckily for me – and I mean that sincerely because I think your message has value – your points weren’t lost on me and I truly hope they’re not lost on others. I still agree with much of what you said, but, if I’m being honest, I couldn’t bring myself to share your piece, I didn’t give it the thumbs up when it started making the rounds on social media, and it made me stew a little … okay, maybe more than a little. But that’s why I’m writing this note today: you have a great, insightful voice and one I hope to hear a lot more of in the future – just maybe with a slightly more nuanced understanding of our reality should you engage with us again. I hope you’ll take this message in the same open spirit I took yours and that we can all continue on the path to greater understanding of each other.
Love and peace,
* As I use the phrases masculine-presenting and gender conformance/gender non-conformance frequently throughout this message, I think it’s important I clarify that these should not be understood as theater – as some presentation one chooses from in the morning prior to going out in the world. The best analogue I can come up with is Butler’s concept of performativity. Also, any references to masculine and feminine are intended to be representative of traditional, commonplace understandings of those concepts/behaviors (you know the ones I’m talking about) rather than any beliefs I hold about what is actually masculine or feminine — or even their very existence. Lastly, I understand there are a number of straight men who are also not masculine-presenting – I can’t really speak to their experience, and since your message wasn’t addressed to them, I thought it best not to muddy the waters by attempting to speculate.