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