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26 January 2011, 9:00 am 14 Comments

Zack's Ramblings: I’m A Cisgender White Guy. Should I Be Sorry?

This post was submitted by Zack Rosen

This post was originally published under a different title on The Advocate’s blog.

Note: It is reductive, but for the purposes of this article “cisgender” means “not trans.”

***

At the end of this summer, I had the fortune to attend a sexual freedom conference in D.C. A point made frequently there was that inequality is not equal. Race, gender, and gender expression conspire to strip a person of their freedom just as much as any outside prejudice or hateful legislation. I enjoyed this conference and what I learned there. At one point, however, an extremely (and admittedly) butch Latino lesbian took a genuinely moving speech about her resulting personal struggles to a crescendo. That crescendo was ending a sentence with something about “fighting against the oppressive tyrannies of white men.” She paused then, as the entire room lit up with the kind of furious applause usually saved for a game-saving Steelers touchdown. I cheered too but didn’t feel good when I was doing it.

I am a white, cisgender gay man. I’m Ronald Reagan at a bathhouse, the queer equivalent of “The Man.” I am a freezer-burned vanilla Häagen-Dazs at the bottom of the Ben & Jerry’s case. The oppressive, dingy pigeon in the flamingo pen. Parties become less diverse the second I walk in.

Four years spent in queer media have taught me a fair amount about privilege, about the ways that my gay life is easier for reasons as basic as the color of my skin and the fact that my gender matches my biology. But the more I try to reconcile these privileges with my desire to create an equal queer world, the more I am left with one question: Can a nontrans, white gay man ever truly leave the comforts of his own identity without having to make frequent and loud apologies for the crimes of his ilk?

I realized pretty early on that I would probably never fit into the mainstream gay community for the mere fact that I prefer, say, Kate Bush over Madonna, David Byrne over Elton John. If something as basic as my chosen queer icon could make me uncomfortable in 90% of existing gay spaces, then I can only imagine how set apart a woman, trans person, or person of color must feel in the supposedly all-accepting gay universe. I am frequently called out for, at best, my excess of privilege and, at worst, the ways that people like me have disenfranchised the rest of the queer community through our existence and our actions. And I don’t think it’s fair for another person to label me an oppressor without the barest knowledge of what I have done in my life or what kind of person I actually am.

The aforementioned statement about white men undercuts the very point it is trying to make: In any community people should be proud of who they are. We should not be told that the color of our skin or what is between our legs makes us “less than” or should make us a viable target for another’s vitriol. Yet as a cisgender white guy who feels more comfortable outside of the mainstream, megaclubs-and-Abercrombie world than inside of it, it is frustrating that I must prove myself any time I take a foray out of my own identity. I end up having to do what no one of any identity should have to do: Apologize for what I am.

If things are going to get better, become as they should be, everyone should have a nuanced understanding of the ways that race and gender intersect with sexuality. All races and all genders. If cisgender people must always fear reprisal when talking about trans issues, if men are deemed too privileged to fit in with the lesbian community, how can there actually be a dialogue? The idea that men like me have marinated too long in their own excess to ever understand anyone else’s struggle propagates something harmful: the idea that gender is simply the lack of maleness, race a lack of whiteness, sexuality a lack of gayness. It takes a whole population interested in making a difference and cuts them out of the dialogue completely.

This is not an article about the ways I am disenfranchised for being white or biologically male. I know that the gay world traditionally and invisibly revolves around people like me and am not shallow enough to begrudge others their own spaces and struggles. But it would be nice to share my own thoughts about race and gender without fear of immediate chastisement for my ignorance.

For instance, I do not know what it is like to be trans, and I am scared to ask. I am scared to write articles on the subject because I will never know all the nuances of language and experience necessary to write do so without offending someone else. When I bring this up to my trans friends I am often told to research, to read a couple “Trans 101″ blogs for some basic knowledge to keep my ass covered.

But trans people are just that — people. It makes me uncomfortable to research them as I would a term paper or the purchase of a new oven when there are actual individuals, friends, that I can glean this knowledge from personally. Race and gender are especially thorny topics in any community, but at least in the queer community we are united by our supposedly “abhorrent” sexual and gender identities. I honestly and nonaggressively mean that I don’t know how to bridge gaps within the community when the very existence of these gaps disallows me from being able to enter the conversation as an equal.

For instance, I like a lot of queer musicians. If I write about a band I like that is made up of white men, I wait for the inevitable frustration that I am writing about yet another group of white men. No matter how many times I might have written about the alternatives, artists like Kele Okereke or Nomi Ruiz, J.D. Samson or Shunda K, the idea that I might also support artists who fit the same identity category as me, whose lives were probably hard but not as hard as others’, means that I’ve set things back. No one wants me to begin every article with a screed about “some of my best friends being ___,” but the assumption that this is not true exists every time I open my mouth or touch fingers to keyboard.

Let’s go back, then, to the woman at the sexual freedom conference. What should I have done? Raise my hand and apologize? I don’t think that I, personally and knowingly, had done anything to this woman that I should be sorry for. Do I fight back, respond with bile that white men have feelings too and that we don’t like being denigrated in public? I don’t think it would have gone well.

I want to ask how I can help and how I can change without having to atone for crimes I did not commit. I might never be considered an ally again after writing this article, but if I come out of this with some answers, I’ll consider the whole thing worthwhile.


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14 Comments »

  • James said:

    This is an interesting piece, expressing some very common frustrations.

    It’s redundant perhaps to even call your posing of the question of “how can I help” a problematic one because it’s one in which the answer would provide a means of distancing yourself from the privilege granted to you by society because of your race, sex and gender. I feel like your discomfort in that situation is a healthy one and one you should more revel in than try to eliminate, which is maybe what you’re doing by writing this post.

    This person at this conference was expressing the frustrations that she felt with the inevitable hierarchies created by identity and its interaction with culture, economy, etc., the real manifestations identity takes in our lived realities. The “white man” she scorned and incited rebellion from is not a white man in particular but more the idea of the white man and the perceptions people project onto groups who fit that archetype.

    Nobody can fully inhabit an identity because it is always already something outside of themselves signifying what it is that is inside of themselves longing to be articulated. Though that idea is two-fold, and therefore you’re read as a certain way by others because of signifiers and then become the way you are read, which is part of what I think this blog is all about, rebelling against a corporatized and mainstream representation that dictates people’s impressions of what it means to be queer.

    You don’t have to revel in pity because of the privilege allotted to you by your categorical identity, but maybe use this experience as a reminder of the ways that identities are just as capable of tearing us apart from one another as they are agents of community. And maybe not to be so self righteous in your own interpretation of your identity and the implications for others inhabiting that theoretical space.

    (note: I don’t know if I believe all of this, mostly just musing)

  • Jake said:

    Promoting diversity and the battle against prejudice in this day and age are about accepting that EVERYONE is different. This may sound obvious, but it started out, well-intentioned, as trying to promote everyone being the same. Then it moved (and many are still stuck in this mode today) to respecting a faction someone is perceived to belong to, such as their race, sexual identity, gender identity, etc. Today, we have begun to realize that in order for any kind of true harmony, we have to respect that each individual is indeed their OWN person.

    I am white (if such a blanket statement really must be applied) and I will not apologize for being white. I, as an individual, am not oppressing anyone for being a person of color. I would not make the ludicrous statement against anyone who is straight for oppressing me simply for their characteristic of being straight. I base my opinion of them based on their ACTIONS as an INDIVIDUAL. In Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, he warned against exactly this kind of rhetoric, for he says that to blanketly distrust white men is indeed a step backwards. For “they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.” It is shameful and detrimental to the struggle for universal equality and happiness that this woman would make such an incredibly ignorant statement.

  • Alex said:

    Do you need to apologise? Not for just being white, or male, or cis (you still need to apologise when you fuck up, which is going to happen). But –

    People have a right to be angry and feel hurt, because many have been hurt. Hurt by the system, hurt by asshole white/male/whatever people, and hurt by well-intentioned white/male/whatever people. As long as the majority of people are clueless (at best – dangerous at worst), you are going to have to sometimes defer to people in other marginalised communities, and you are sometimes going to have to justify yourself. Being given the benefit of the doubt is a privilege that gets given pretty freely to white people and to men, but in cases like these you’re going to have to earn it. It doesn’t feel good to have your intentions questioned, but compared to how many marginalised people have to defer to white men on a daily basis, it’s really not that bad.

    I think being an ally means taking responsibility for your own shit. It frequently means doing your own legwork, because the members of the communities you want to ally with might not have the resources to hold your hand through it. I also think it means really accepting that ignorance is no excuse, and that making mistakes is better than doing nothing.

    If you want to write about race or gender, do it. If you’re not confident you’re not going to get accurately called out (there are always going to be jerks on the internet, and people who aren’t going to bother looking up your writing history before flaming, so let’s forget them for the moment), then do some more research. Research is not a dirty word. Or learn how to ask questions respectfully.

  • Alex said:

    Both the article and a previous comment mention the idea that “I am not personally oppressing anyone”. If you are white, you are and continue to receive privilege, privilege that you have done nothing to deserve, and privilege that reinforces the marginalisation of people of colour. You benefit from the oppression of others, entirely independent of your actions. Because of how systematic oppression works, merely “not doing anything actively oppressive” is not enough to wash your hands of it. How do you divest yourself of unearned privilege? How do you extend privilege to people who don’t have it?

    These are obviously very hard questions, and things which are very hard to put into practice in daily life. I certainly cannot claim to fulfill them, but until I can, I remain partially complicit with the system.

  • Ethan said:

    You’re a person; the Latina is a person. I feel sorry that you ever attended anything where racist blame mongers applaud aggression against white men. I also find it disturbing that you claim to make any party less diverse upon entry. You are just as much a facet of diversity as the next person. As a fellow white male, I am Italian and Jewish by descent and upbringing. Maybe you’re a WASP and could sting me with your big stinger as I fling a motza ball into your spaghetti. It’s all good. Just not really interested in hateful blame mongers and people who have to alter their gender. You’re either a guy or a girl. If it doesn’t feel right, it deal with the brian, not the crotch.

    Flipping the world upside down is not how one makes it better. “White men” built the world. The world succeeded under the direction of a protestant work ethic and home order. Sure, lots was held under and kept down. But the way to honor people who love the same gender is not by assigning them or anyone else special rights or privileges based on their category.

    I was offered admission into a 10 slot PhD program, told I could “have” teh sexual orientation spot. The rest were for “people of color.” Oh, but there was also a white male slot–but it was taken. I said No Thanks. It was aprestigious program; but surely that will soon not be the case–since they are “hiring” based on anything but merit. Then again, what passes for academia these days might just allow this program to ascend in its ranking since it is “diverse.”

    Spare me the insanity.

  • mim said:

    To be honest, I think that that knowing that we’re part of the problem and let go of the frustrations is the best thing to do. I don’t mean apologising here, but acually dig deep anddeal with ourselves. I’m going trough a lot of this myself, since I was really homophobic as a tween and then had to deal with that when gay people actually started to appear in my immediate reality and when I began to accept my own sexuality. The same has happened recently as I used to have what I realise were some really ignorant and tranphobic sentiments (in alla well meaning, but what difference does it make?)just last year. But then I joined the local LGBT alliance and met real trans people, and just recently a person I recoginzed from high school came out in public as trans, and the experiences that she described hit me like a sledgehammer to the head.

    Point is, we don’t want to think of ourselves as the enemy, but in fact not having experienced what it’s like to be trans or gay or a woman means that we have a much weaker defence against general stupidity on the subject, and so it’s rather improbable that some of it hasn’t sunk in. This isn’t about you or me, but about the people who are actually harmed by it, and they are the ones that should lead the fight. The only thing we can do is to keep humble, work on ourselves and help out if it’s needed at the moment.

  • Joseph T said:

    This is a great post first; with some good questions raised and I think the fact you were in that room, asking yourself these questions, and came back to post this speaks volumes.

    The above comment from James makes some excellent points.

    I think you can write about gender, sexuality and race if you are researching the topic and coming to the discussion with a mind for asking thoughtful questions.

    As a white gay male though, you and I have to recognize the privileges we have and work in solidarity with others.

    “I don’t think that I, personally and knowingly, had done anything to this woman that I should be sorry for. Do I fight back, respond with bile that white men have feelings too and that we don’t like being denigrated in public? I don’t think it would have gone well.”
    As to these questions, no you do not fight back because many straight and gay white men have worked against other communitites with no thought to their feelings.

  • gina said:

    “If cisgender people must always fear reprisal when talking about trans issues”

    No, if there’s a genuine dialog and discussion, and if that involves actually listening to trans people instead of dismissing their concerns or explaining their lives to them, there should be no fear… unless you’re afraid of us (and then you need to ask yourself what that’s really about). My reality is, there are precious few conversations between gay non-trans men and, say, trans women (which I am) that don’t have a serious power imbalance to them. It’s very hard to tell a non-trans person your concerns when all you hear back is… “well, my trans friends say this, and my trans friends say that, and because I have trans friends that means I’m hooked into the trans community and my opinions about that community are, therefore, as valid as yours (a trans person’s) are.” If you had a straight person use that tack towards you when speaking about gay people you’d pretty quickly think they’re an ass.

    That is what most conversations between trans people and gay men sound like to trans people. Now, you can either believe that and listen and start learning from there, or you can continue along the same path of ‘poor misunderstood me… the ally who no one appreciates.’

    “when there are actual individuals, friends, that I can glean this knowledge from personally.”

    Yes, but who are these individuals? I assume they’re chosen by you. Are they only trans people you met in a gay bar or at a drag event? (I’m using a chiched example) That might be one very narrow part of the trans community but please don’t try to extrapolate what you’ve heard them say into instant global expertise. The problem being, we all hear what we want to hear and quote who we want to quote. I have heard gay men “explain” certain trans issues in such a way which truly makes me wonder if they talking about themselves and their own issues or about trans people. There’s nothing wrong with gleaning, but what you learn should not preclude you from further listening. Moreover, please don’t fall into the hole of: minimal gleaning followed by a whole bunch of talking about “you people”… be honest, that is what so much of self-proclaimed allies do.

    “the very existence of these gaps disallows me from being able to enter the conversation as an equal.”

    No, you won’t be an equal when you’re talking about trans issues, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be a participant and a vital part of the conversation, especially if you honestly try to expand your understanding in the process. Where we (all) get into problems is when people are supposedly having interchange and asking questions when what they’re really doing is making a pre-digested speech. No thank you, I’ve heard enough of those.

  • DR said:

    This is where you have to fight back, quite frankly. Personally, I am not interested in being a member of any population which would even suggest I daily apologize for the twist of fate which made me a white, gay man. Not gonna happen.

    I saw a lot of this when I was in grad school (it’s the reason I left and pursued other interests). A young German student was daily berated and insulted for refusing to apologize for what happened in Nazi Germany. Nothing she said helped; these pseudo-intellectual thugs drove a bright, foreign student out of the program with their constant harassment.

    The same students/activists who criticize you are the ones posting on blogs and running the conference circuit talking about how America needs to become more aware of race and gender and sexuality issues, yet as you note, they want to eliminate ours, or at least make us apologize for them.

    I don’t know what your answer is, but mine is simple. If that’s how they feel, I will devote my time and energy to people who will not ask me to apologize for who I am.

  • gina said:

    “I am not interested in being a member of any population which would even suggest I daily apologize”

    DR, Could you please be specific, who is asking you to apologize for who you are? Names please, not “them.”

  • DR said:

    Gina:

    I’m not going to point fingers because that’s unnecessary. Naming names and websites only causes trouble, and I’m sure that’s not why Zack started this discussion, and I’ll not derail the comments section to do that.

    Having been around the block and pushing 40, I’ve heard and read enough people sniping about “white privilege” or “white man’s burden” to last me a lifetime. For example, if the person Zach mentioned at the beginning of this post were organizing a local group, I’d stay far away from her and her rhetoric.

    If that’s not good enough for you, so be it. As my comment was meant to show solidarity with a fellow white gay man who feels as though the progressive movement forces him to apologize for simply being who he is, I’m not interested in turning this into anything else.

  • AB said:

    The back and forth in this comment section is exhausting and it’s weird to see “white guys” be self-conscious and then defensive about being “white guys”. Alex in the comments mentioned that even if you as a white guy are not actively trying to oppress or marginalize anyone, you still benefit from privilege in many ways, which reinforces the marginalization of non-white, non cis-males. One of those privileges is not having to think about being white or being male, for instance — which as this article shows, is confusing and exhausting. If you look like a cis-male and look white, that’s a lot going for you right away most of the time — until you walk into a room full of activists who think about how identity impacts their life and comment on the role of white men throughout history. How often do you think about being a white guy and how often are you ridiculed for who you are? The Latina lesbian probably experiences ridicule for who she appears to be more often than a white guy for who he appears to be — and that is just thinking of ridicule, not privilege — the benefits that just happen to fall your way that you don’t realize. America has treated women and people of color, not to mention lesbians, poorly and that’s just a fact. There was the whole issue of VA vs. Loving, the need for the Voting Rights Act, the long litany of woes that I don’t need to repeat. It sucks to think about that fact, but pretending everyone is like you and experiences the world like you — the idea that we should all be color blind because we’re “all human”, etc — erases the experiences of different people who continue to be very different. There is still a lot of pain that people of color experience and I think an ally could sometimes hear about this pain when it is expressed as anger, as long as it’s only occasionally and not unfair. I am a lesbian (of color), and it’s something that I think about every day — especially when I walk the halls of Congress and so many of the Hill staffers are white guys and so many of the members of Congress are disproportionately straight white men. It’s not their fault, but they just have more power and they just happen to be white men. As the demographics of the United States continue to change, I think more Caucasian people will be having to think about how they are “white” and I hope that it doesn’t turn into malice toward “non-white” people for making them think about it. In the same way that you feel different from straight people, maybe that can translate into empathy for how women, people of color feel? I guess a model could be how there was cross-over between women’s suffrage and abolitionism… We need gay white guys to support women of color just as much as we need straight people to support lesbians. I’m almost about to apologize for her anger, which seems odd, but I hope you continue to hang out with “brown lesbians” and she didn’t scare you away from them categorically. ha.

  • Another Jeremy said:

    If ever I want to ask myself why I do not embrace “gay culture,” I need only come to this website and read some of these ridiculous comments. Here is a newsflash. Most oppression of minority groups and women in this country has been leveled by white men. This does not mean that every white man is responsible for every instance of discrimination against each of these groups, but to claim to be blind to these issues (which are not hindrances to you) while remaining indignant about the privileges that are inherent with your and race and gender and making yourselves out to be the victims is banal and intellectually lazy.

    White folks built society? And a poor German girl was rooted out of her school because she wouldn’t admit that she was responsible for what the Nazis did before she was born. Right. I guess that puts the rest of us in our places. Who knew white people endured such horrible burdens and oppressions. How dare anyone have a perspective that lays blame at the feet of the ever-aggrieved white male. And Lord knows we need more solidarity amongst gay white men.

    The hard truth is that the “gay community” is not diverse at all. This does not mean there is no diversity amongst the LGBT populace, but the “gay community” is not at all representative of the homosexual populace. It’s great if you’re a white boy with blue eyes, but if you’re not white and if you’re not a man you can forget about it. It is by far more sexist and racist then the straight community and many of the posts on this website make me embarrassed to call myself gay if only for fear of being associated with this idiocy.

    The woman did not ask the author to apologize for being a white man. She pointed out that most intolerance toward her has come from white men. They’re the ones who control the power structure in this country. Is that such a scandalous statement? Maybe she wasn’t asking you to be ashamed of being white. Maybe she was asking you to use the advantages he has to make things better for everyone else. Isn’t that exactly what the gay movement is doing with heterosexual people? I think it’s extremely important to hear perspectives from homosexuals who are not white men. Unfortunately when they speak up they often get silenced and called hate mongers. Go visit the post called Why Am I Not Attracted to Black Men. It’s very interesting how prejudice is perceived by those who are not victims of it. Where is this same indignation when people criticize Christians for blocking gay rights legislation? Are you asking them to apologize for being heterosexual and for believing in God?

    This article is imperceptive and hypocritical.

  • Me said:

    I agree with DR. Racism is racism. I’m sorry, but innocent white people do not need to be made to feel guilty for being born into their race. Hypocrisy is never justified, and it completely works to undermine the goals of the civil rights movement.

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