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24 August 2009, 9:00 am 15 Comments

Thoughts on Race in the Gay Community


This piece was submitted by TNG reader, J. Clarence Flanders.

Photo courtesy of Bogotron

Photo courtesy of Bogotron

Recently, actor and activist Doug Spearman, most famously known for his role as Chance on Patrick Ian-Polk’s Noah’s Arc, wrote a piece for the Human Rights Campaign, where he articulates what he sees as a prevalent racism within the gay community.

The fallout from Spearman’s piece, which was copied and pasted and cropped across the web, is indicative of how contentious this issue is within the gay community. Like many other essays dealing on the subject, it sparked a heated debate from both sides. This debate is not without merit, as it has become increasingly clear that if the gay community does want to move forward, this discussion must happen, and frankly it’s long overdue.

So exactly what is on the table? This is what Spearman said in his piece that really frazzled many readers, and likely sparked much of the anger:

People tend to believe that racism, on all sides of the color lines, is something that stops at the gates of the LGBT community. As though at the entrance to the various Boys Towns around the country you were required to check your ideas about Blacks, Asians, Jews, Arabs, etc… The way cowboys were required to turn over their guns when they walked into a saloon in the Old West. It just doesn’t happen that way. In fact, I think it’s worse now than it was when I came out in l980. Back then the bars felt a lot more friendly, prejudice was a dirty word, and the kids of the 1960’s and early 70’s – those that had created the gay movement – were still on the dance floors of America elbow to elbow with the people who’d marched in Vietnam protests and Black Power parades, and had been active participants in the original Civil Rights Movement. Those were the grownups who were standing at the bar when I got there. They welcomed me. But they’re gone. That spirit seems to have evaporated. Not everywhere and not for everyone, but enough so that if you’re over the age of thirty-five you would notice.

Spearman’s recollection of the past is to a certain point more idealistic than it actually was. Interracial relations on the platonic level in the gay community have always been a touchy subject. For example, in his memoir, Mississippi Sissy, Kevin Sessums, contributing editor to Allure magazine, discusses how the gay bars he used to visit when he was in college were heavily segregated. Whites stayed on one side, and Blacks on the other, and rarely did the two ever meet. (Until Sessums had sex with one of the star Black football players, that is.) Despite being marginalized by the mainstream society, the racist and privileged ideology of the time slithered into the gay community like it did everywhere else.

However, it is also true that the gay community was much more egalitarian than mainstream heterosexual society, especially as a political/activist community began to take form in the late 70′s and 80′s. The Gay Rights Movement brought people together who shared a common cause; there was something to fight — besides each other. Regardless of ethnicity, gays were all grouped together by the mainstream heterosexual culture. It was a great “a-ha” moment, but clearly one that was rather short lived.

During those decades of civil unrest there was a visible Black presence in mainstream queer culture, something we have not seen a lot of recently. In the groundbreaking film, Boys in the Band, there was an African-American main character. This was indicative of the many diverse family-like relationships gay men had to form, because they were outcast everywhere else. Sylvester was a artist known around the country. Audre Lorde was banging on the door of established feminism. And the Village People were, well, the Village People.

It was an era of activism, where no matter who you were you felt the sense to get up and say something, and felt free to express yourself the way you wanted.

However, when the party died that feeling of freedom died with it.

The AIDS epidemic in the 80′s brought the community together, because no one else was going to help us besides ourselves. However, it also took many lives and changed its face. That, coupled with the the socio-economic rift we see take place in the ’80s under President Reagan, caused the unraveling of much of the cohesiveness of decades prior. Whites largely moved up the economic ladder. Conversely, Blacks either stayed in place or fell down. We started living different lives; the shared experience of being homosexual was not enough to hold us together. Towards the end of the 80′s, we see a completely different image of interracial relations in the gay community. For example, in Jennie Levington’s documentary, Paris Is Burning, we see how external variables like class, wealth and income, education, and race shaped this new gay community.

Today, we know that there is a huge disparity between how the gay community is depicted in magazines, television shows, movies, pornography, etc., and of whom it’s actually composed.

Many of Spearman’s critics have said that the Black gay community has itself to blame for the less than outstanding presence of Black gay characters in gay media, for example, by not challenging the stereotypes enough within the heterosexual Black community — in particular the stereotypes and ideology of the Black Church. The argument, apparently, is that if Black gay organizations and activists like Spearman did more and got more men that are on “down low” to come out of the closet and be open about their sexuality, gay media would instinctively become more diverse and representative.

However, there is already an established Black gay community: Black Gay Pride celebrations take place all over the country; there are family outings, beach parties, Balls, sporting events, and much more. Despite all of this, the gay media has not been as reflective as we would be led to believe.

There is undoubtedly a “gay problem” within the Black community, but as we all know, there is also a “gay problem” within the White community. Anti-gay organizations like the Family Research Council, Americans for Truth, Church of Latter-Day Saints, Westboro Baptist Church and more are led by White Americans and campaign against gay rights across the country, regardless of the color of anyone’s skin, and have at their disposal far more resources than your average Southern Baptist Black minister. However, to combat this, gay media and gay advocacy groups have done a fantastic job over the years presenting positive images of gay people to counter the negative imagery and stereotypes, to the point that they have shifted the perception of what it means to be gay in the mainstream. Gay and White, that is.

Some have argued that it is Black gay people who have chosen to remove themselves from the equation by not going the extra mile and reaching out. Such a position comes across as highly narcissistic, and one that fails to take into consideration the variables on the ground. Many do in fact reach out, and for many who do the response is unwelcoming, whether on the micro level (two individuals at a bar), or on the macro level (the gay community as a whole).

We have to realize that if the gay community, and organizations such as HRC, come across as unwelcoming to everyone who does not fit the mold, that will turn people off. And right now that’s what’s happening. The attitude that we should leave the “Black problem” to the Black gays is, well, to put it nicely not very constructive, if the stated goal is to further gay rights and not just White gay rights. As we learned from Prop 8, when we do not work together to combat the rhetoric and ideology from the various demographics we all suffer the consequences.

The sad truth is doing the right thing in this instance is relatively easy, and has been for some time. By seriously committing to highlighting the diversity that exists within our community, and has always been a part of it, we can change the mentality out there that says that the mainstream gay community is only welcoming to a certain demographic. And by inviting queer people of various backgrounds and subcultures to the table, we can finally start to put this issue behind us.

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  • Stephen said:

    Powerful. Thanks for posting this. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Kyle said:

    In my humble opinion, the solution will not arise until we move our various communities’ socializing away from the bars and to somewhere else. The bars are primarily venues for finding hook-ups, and if there’s one thing that cannot be dictated, it is the kinds of people one finds attractive (if taste were truly malleable, wouldn’t we all become straight, or at least bi?). By socializing only in the bars, the communities are set up for an automatic FAIL, because everyone there is looking for sex, and all other concerns—e.g., activism, rights, community service, etc.—are secondary at best.

    As for where we should socialize, I’m open to suggestions. This city seems to have no queer venues other than the bars.

  • Mark h said:

    One correction — Southern Baptists are mostly white. The National Baptist Convention is the largest African-American Baptist denomination.

    As far as race and the gay community goes, I have noticed a lot of self-selected segregation between blacks and whites, but not much hostility any more than I have with Asians, Hispanics or any other group. I think it’s probably more a matter of culture and sexual mating patterns than anything else — you go to Town to pick up a twink, not a leather daddy. But that doesn’t mean we all can’t get along otherwise. :)

    But perhaps one solution would be to at least stop having separate, competing Pride parades. Anyone know how these originated, why they continue, and whether anyone has (in DC, for instance) tried to combine them together?

  • Flip Cub said:

    I appreciate this article being posted. As a gay Filipino guy, I’ve struggled with acceptance issues all my life, and it only got worse when I came out of the closet and realized that the gentrification of homosexuality meant that I would never fit the mold of the all-American muscle stud alternately clothed in Abercrombie & Fitch or leather. As a high school punk in the 1980s, I always looked up to other gay men because of their ability to thrive against adversity and what I thought was an acceptance of people who are “different”. How ironic then that some of the most blatant discrimination I’ve felt in my life has come from within the gay community itself. No doubt we’ve all come across someone with a policy for “no fats, fems, trolls, Asains [sic] or blacks”. And all of this justified by a simple statement: “It’s just my preference.” I always want to punch guys when I hear them say that. It’s the weakest, lamest excuse ever. Worse yet is the perpetuation of the “gaysians” stereotype, a particularly repulsive brand of effeminate gay Asian that hyper-masculine white guys hold in contempt.

    I have no problem with guys not being attracted to me for whatever reason (hey, I gots preferences, too, I get it), but I don’t like having my ethnic background associated with negativity carte blanche.

    It’s interesting to see the dynamics of racism vary from city to city. I lived in Atlanta for 10 years, and there was a lot more acceptance for gay black guys there although still a lot of self-segregation. I live in San Francisco now where Asians are the more dominant minority group (I don’t know if we can even be considered minorities here!) so obviously there’s less racism for us here. But it’s still a problem and something that I rarely ever see the gay community tackle with any bluntness.

    I don’t agree that the bar scene is really the problem. I personally love bars (yeah, I’m a drunk), but I think race is inextricably tied into our own acceptance as gay people. Hopefully as we come to terms with our sexuality and become comfortable in our skin, we can become comfortable with other’s skin, too.

  • Kyle said:

    @Flip Cub, et al.—this does bring up an important question, even if it is a little bit off topic (since the original post, imho, was about community building and activism)—namely, is it racist to only be attracted to, for instance, white guys, or black guys, or Asians? If it is racist, does that imply that the attraction can be changed? (In other words, a guy only into white guys can make himself become attracted to black guys, Asians, etc.) If the attraction cannot be changed, if it is hard-wired into his psyche, then he isn’t culpable. But if he is culpable, it would be because the attraction can be changed, broadened, and he is failing to do so. And if a guy’s attraction toward a particular race/ethnicity can be broadened to include more or all races and ethnicities, then can it also be changed and broadened for a wider age range? How about somatotypes? In other words, if a guy can make himself become attracted to more and more ethnicities, can he also broaden the range of attraction to include people of various ages and body shapes?

    I believe that if he cannot, he wouldn’t be culpable. If he can, and doesn’t then he is simply cheating himself of a wider range of potential partners.

    But why stop there? If a person can make himself become attracted to people of various races/ethnicities, various ages and various somatotypes, then why could he not broaden his attraction to various genders? What are the limits of our ability to make ourselves attracted to more and more people?

    I ask these questions in all seriousness because we need to answer them. If one cannot change what attracts him, then he is not culpable for brushing off an unwanted advance. And that would in turn make many cries of racism in the bars specious. (Remember, I maintain that the purpose of the gay bars and clubs is for hooking up. They are nothing more than hunting grounds for sexual encounters.) But if he can “broaden his horizons,” then he is culpable, and he is only cheating himself from a much broader range of sexual encounters and potential partners.

    What do you all think?

  • Ed said:

    Medical science had proven that no one is “hard wired” to be attracted to any one type of person (sexual orientation aside). Attraction and preference are based on arbitrary and subjective beauty standards. The argument then becomes circular. The public wants to see X-type of person, so that is what businesses feature. feature. Because media outlets primarily feature X-type of person, that is what people buy and say they prefer.

    Think of this in the context of another “ism.” Is anyone hard-wired to only be attracted to twinks? Gay publications and porn are inundated with waifish-looking young men. Super buff guys that were around in the 80s and 90s have given way to guys who look good in Thom Browne suits and skinny pants (is that trend over yet?). As those things change so does the gay community’s idea of “hot.”

    A hot guy is a hot guy is a hot guy. The irony of making distinctions based on race is that while some guys complain about how much they want to be in a relationship, it’s never dawned on them that they are alone because their soul mate might come in a wrapping that doesn’t fit his “preference.”

    I grew up in the suburbs of the 4th largest city in the US, and my tastes trend toward the urbane (not “urban”). There are men of every race who have similar interests, educational backgrounds, and core values, and they come in every shape, size and age imaginable. Physical attraction is important, but ask yourself, why are you attracted to the people you find attractive? Why is it that you “prefer” to date one race, and only have friends who are the same race? Why is it you got along great with that guy you were chatting with online, you thought he seemed super-cool, but then you found out he was one of them and stopped talking to him, why?

    How much stock are you putting in skin color as opposed to compatibility?

  • Flip Cub said:

    I agree that we aren’t hard-wired to be attracted to certain types of people, but I also don’t blame people for having preferences. It’s not the preferences that bother me, but rather when we allow our preferences to beget prejudices and in turn allow our prejudices to discriminate against other people. One of the points I was driving at was that an entire race gets stereotyped with being unattractive and hence doesn’t count or disappears. I didn’t mean to take away from the original article’s focus on community building by ranting about sexual preferences, but I do feel that it is a source of alienation that I feel from the gay white community. And it does influence how I choose to participate in the larger sphere of the gay community.

  • Kyle said:

    First, I’d like to say for the record that my first LTR (5 years) was with a white man, the second (5 years) with a filipino, and the third (2.5 years) with a mixed race man (black & asian). I do believe when it comes to race/ethnicity, I’m fairly broad in my preferences. That being said, I cannot say the same for such things as, for instance, somatotype. I cannot find the obese man attractive. I generally do not find many older men attractive. I do think that this is hard-wired, not determined by the media, and not something I can change any easier than I can change prefering males over females.

    That being said, my responsibility, IMHO, is not to let my sexual attractions dictate whom I treat with respect. I should be able to be respectful to people of all genders, ages, races, and somatotypes, and choose how I treat them solely based on their behaviors and attitudes.

  • Kyle said:

    Arg, this is the downside of the interwebz—thoughts get published before I’ve completed them sometimes. Anyway, my point was that I do believe in others, a preference for particular ethnicities/races may very well be hard-wired, and that therefore they are not culpable for turning down someone’s advances. I think many people have turned rebuffs of sexual advances into evidences of racism.

  • Flip Cub said:

    Kyle said: “I think many people have turned rebuffs of sexual advances into evidences of racism.”

    This is a fair statement, and certainly I can see where someone’s bitterness over rejection would result in chalking it up (unfairly) to racism. But what I was going for in my original post was more about attitudes and comments that direct hostility towards people of a different race and perpetuating insulting stereotypes in the disguise of one’s preference in partners.

    Make no mistake about it– be with whoever you want to be with. I’m not in the business of dictating who you should be attracted to. I’m one picky bitch myself. If you’re not attracted to me– fine. But don’t call me a “gaysian” and try to explain to me that you can’t be attracted to me because I’m ethnically predisposed to being too effeminate, trashy and/or nerdy. And yes, I do think that attitudes like this prevail enough that they affect how different races treat each other within the gay community.

    Here’s a link to a more structured movement towards eradicating “sexual racism”: http://www.sexualracismsux.com/. Believe it or not, I’m not quite this hardcore in my beliefs, but there’s a common denominator in treating each other with respect.

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  • John said:

    some moved up some moved down. sorry weak as water. my mother dropped me off at the tender age of 24 days. by 6th grade I had a college reading comprehension level. No one cared. nothing happened. despite this I still pushed got a BSCS eventually made 80k (pre “dot com bust” a whole lie in itself) and went to bars where either I didnt get glares not too many kindly looks. or worse got looks that said didnt I see the SIGN over the door. I wont even begin to describe the kind friendly “bear” bunch tho I will say this I used to think they only acted like they had gunracks and conf flags sadly it seems they actually do. now. we have separate “prides” on both coasts. Growing up I had 5 years in the hood. 4 in the burbs with an irish catholic. at 43 all alone and pretty bitter the dream is dead. go on tell me Im being negative I dont care.

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