Homosexuality isn’t just a white thing, Josh Friedberg writes, and it’s up to us to challenge the stereotypes that continue to misinform and generalize.
This is a revised and updated version of a post originally published on the blog Stuff White People Do and the college newspaper the Earlham Word in 2010.
When you think of a gay man, what race and class do you associate with that image?
In 2001, World War II historian Allan Bérubé published an essay examining the perception of gay men and the consequences thereof. Bérubé wrote that when asked versions of the above question, his students invariably perceived gay men as “white and well-to-do.”
“In the United States today,” Bérubé wrote, “the dominant image of the typical gay man is a white man who is financially better off than most everyone else.”
Despite progress in gay rights, over ten years after the publication of Bérubé’s essay, “How Gay Stays White, and What Kind of White it Stays,” some things haven’t changed. Regardless of exceptions, the majority of people, at least in the U.S., still perceive gay men as white and wealthy. While this image stays ingrained for overt homophobes who believe gays are demanding “special rights,” the stereotype also permeates gay culture as well.
Bérubé examined how the image of gays as monolithically privileged manifested itself, in attempts to assimilate gays into mainstream society and in the curtailing of gay rights. He also examined what he called the “selling” of gay whiteness in order to garner favor from corporate and governmental authorities, as well as the use of “race analogies” that compare sexual marginalization to racial marginalization.
In the 1990s, politicians voted against gay rights measures, including in the battle over gays in the military, and then defended their votes by claiming that gays already have privilege — an idea which only makes sense if you conceive of gays as homogeneously white and wealthy.
And today, organizations like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) still sell the image of assimilation to try to prove that LGBT people are “just like everybody else.” Such efforts include the HRC’s Buying for Equality guide, which encourages consumers to support gay-friendly corporations.
To be sure, this sounds like a good idea, but the HRC has given awards to companies with documented histories of racist practices — like Abercrombie — thereby separating sexual oppression from racial or class-based oppression.
This example points to a larger problem: such an assimilationist ethic, which ignores the overlap between race, class, and sexuality, has resulted in the marginalization of gay people of color from activist discourse on gay rights.
To be fair, in academia unprecedented numbers of gay and lesbian professors of color have gained prominence in the academy over the last two decades, so that certainly is progress.
But before Proposition 8 passed in 2008, banning gay marriage in California, gay and lesbian activists of color noted how racial discrimination within anti-prop 8 organizations silenced their ideas. As Kai Wright noted in an article for ColorLines magazine, these activists foresaw the passing of Prop 8 and tried to institute changes in the assimilationist strategies used to attempt to gain votes, but to no avail.
And today, the selling of gays as white and wealthy continues.
A few years ago Dwight A. McBride, a gay black professor who is currently a dean at Northwestern University, published an essay on “the gay marketplace of desire.” McBride described how pornography, print media, online dating services, and other institutions largely cater to white male consumers, often by using racist stereotypes about various gay men of color.
This is undoubtedly still the case; one look through a mainstream gay publication or website will confirm that.
And egregious race analogies continue as well: after Prop 8, one such magazine, The Advocate, published a story declaring on the cover that “Gay is the New Black.” The story’s author did not interview or mention a single gay black person and posed gay rights and black rights as comparable.
The problem with these analogies is that only those with white privilege and/or heterosexual privilege can compare racial marginalization to sexual marginalization. In particular, gay people of color can’t say that their oppression is like racial oppression OR sexual oppression, because they already are racially AND sexually oppressed.
Simply put, in such an analogy the existence of black gays and lesbians, for example, is not accounted for, but the existence of those marginalized by both race and sexuality arguably negates the entire validity of such a trivializing comparison.
In addition, the myth that gay men are homogeneously white and wealthy yields a number of other myths. One is that some people of color have called homosexuality “a white thing,” dismissing the idea that gay men–as well as lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people–people exist in their communities.
Another is the myth that gay people (across race and gender) are uniformly privileged—which could hold true if you’re talking about race and class privilege among white and upper-class gay folks. But such a myth ignores the rights that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people have long been denied, ones that heterosexuals can take for granted, including the rights to marry, to not face employment discrimination based around sexuality or gender identity, or to know that hate crimes against you can be treated as hate crimes, whether in terms of punishment or prevention.
So here’s what I’m asking all of us to do — challenge the stereotypes that are so prevalent, acknowledge race and class along with sexuality and gender identity, and help break down how gay stays white.
In his groundbreaking essay, Allan Bérubé asked, “How does the category ‘gay man’ become white? What are the whitening practices that perpetuate this stereotype, often without awareness or comment by gay white men?”
Bérubé’s death in 2007 should not leave such questions unexplored. We must educate ourselves, learning about racism and classism in addition to homophobia, sexism, and other types of oppression.
We must learn that ignoring or separating any type of oppression from another is a result of privileged ignorance, and it will remain so as long as gay stays white.