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I promised myself a little time to vent about the nigger “joke” I heard on Christmas, and then I would forgive and move on. At the close of the sentence, “bigger than a nigger’s lips,” my mind went spiraling. I was shocked that I heard what I heard. Five feet away from me? In mixed company on many accounts? How was the joke even relevant to the conversation? How, in 2013, do whites still make nigger “jokes”? I felt eyes dart in my direction. Oh, Eric — the Black guy — the professor — the one who does research on racism — the one who speaks openly about racism — oh, gosh.
I tried to play it cool. But, that all dissolved in a matter of minutes. Sitting in the car for the remainder of our time at the party was the only thing keeping me from vomiting. Or at least it felt as though I would, as nausea built from feeling trapped between politeness and my burning, screaming mind. I promised I would get over it by the next day, continuing to focus on racism as a system of oppression — not individual acts and attitudes.
But, in just seeing @StandForOurFlag, a defender of the Confederate flag, notify me that many in the US South continue to feel nostalgia for the confederacy (which lasted for four years) 150 years later because of something about liberty (give me a break), I cannot quickly get over the Christmas event. Two days later, I saw a Confederate flag waving proudly on my way to the mall. I tweeted about it, which is why I received the aforementioned response about liberty for (whites in) the South. Liberty?
In the spirit of one of my my 2013 resolutions (now one for 2014 because it is still a work in progress) — forgiveness — I had hoped to move on from the nigger “joke.” Black people, from capture, forced removal, enslavement, to Jim Crow, lynching, rape, to a continuing, yet subtler practice of racism today have been forgiving whites for a lot. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights movement leaders advocated for forgiveness even in the face of vehement racist hatred. It takes a huge, committed, faith-filled heart to forgive that. But, I have been trying. Something akin to “forgive the sinner, but not the sin” because racist individuals are simply a product of their racist society. It takes an evolved mind and spirit to be better than your upbringing, in my opinion. People can change — I have, and I have seen others become better, more compassionate, more open-minded, more understanding, and more critical of inequality and injustice.
I can think of something bigger than a nigger’s lips: a nigger’s heart. Still today, Black people and other people of color fight to make the US a better, more equal place — even with a continued willingness to work with white people where they are. Despite accusations of “playing the race card” and being hypersensitive, there is a great deal of patience afforded to whites without laying blame for this country’s racist past. We ask only to address today’s racism, which is a product of past racism. You cannot eradicate racial inequalities today without addressing the impact of centuries of enslavement, disenfranchisement, violence, and barriers to advancing and succeeding in life. You cannot tell a group of people who have never experienced full, equal citizenship in this nation to “get over” the very events and treatment that continues to constrain their lives.
So, I admit that alongside my forgiveness is a twinge of resentment. I have been asked again and again to forgive, even to forget, even to forgo recognizing bigotry when it occurs. But, I am sometimes automatically damned, accused, found guilty, punished simply because of my racial identity. I am asked to forgive those who refuse to forgive me for not being like them. How small is your heart (and your mind) if you automatically punish someone for being something you have decided is inferior or undesirable? So, we’ve got you beat there, racist white people! In this vein, we have the more open minds, we have the bigger, more forgiving hearts. We are able to simultaneously love this country and hate its ugliness in order to make it a better place.
I will keep forging ahead in my work to fight racism as a system, including racist treatment and attitudes. But, I think I have reached my capacity for forgiveness. Now approaching 30 years, I am beginning to feel heartache. I cannot forgive the murder of Trayvon Martin, nor that the State, which unfairly punishes those it should be protecting, that let his murderer free. I cannot forgive “oh, I didn’t know anyone would be offended,” and then be told celebrating the racist legacy of the South is a matter of liberty. I do not know that I can forgive the political sabotage driven by racism that has severely hindered President Obama’s important legacy in this nation.
My heart is big, but it would burst if I forgave any more without forgiveness in return.
A few weeks ago, I watched (and loved) the film, Gun Hill Road. One scene of the film hit me in the gut, hard. The film’s lead character, Vanessa Rodriquez (played by Harmony Santana), a young Latina transwoman, was coerced into having sex with a woman sex worker by her father, Enrique Rodriquez. Her father pressured her to do so in attempt to “cure” her gender identity, making her the heterosexual cisman he preferred as his child. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s a form of sexual violence!”
Oh, wait… that happened to me. When I was 17, just a week shy of my 18th birthday, a family member guilted me into being with a sex worker. I identified as bisexual then, so the pressure was on to finally give sex with a woman a try – of course, with the implied intention to “cure” me of my sexual attraction to men. I resisted, saying I was not interested, and did not want my first sexual experience to be with a sex worker in a hotel room.
Eventually, I caved to the pressure. The sex worker arrived and explained that for the amount of money I had, she could only provide an erotic dance. I was uncomfortable and wanted her to leave immediately. While she danced, I asked how business was, and she asked how school was coming. Ten minutes later, she was gone and I was both relieved and disgusted.
I later came out as gay, and now identify as queer. And, fortunately, my family has come around to accepting me as a whole human being. But, I will live with the memory of being coerced into any sort of sexual activity with a woman for life. So, too, will every other instance in which I was asked an inappropriate question about my sex life or relationships, or been subject to comments that aimed to shame me for being a sexually active queer man. “You don’t take it up the butt, do you?” “I hope you are using condoms. You can die from AIDS” “Which one of you is the woman in the relationship?”
Sexual Violence Against LGBTQ People
As a scholar, my perspective – informed by my research and personal experiences – has shifted to see sexual violence as the sexualized manifestation of any system of oppression, not merely of sexism or misogyny. In the ugly racist history of the US, Black people and other people of color have been raped, lynched and castrated, sterilized, and exotified; we have been demonized as jezebels, savages, whores, and temptresses.
Homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia, too, are regularly expressed in sexualized ways. The subtle and explicit shaming of LGBT people for existing, being sexual, and having loving relationships is widespread. Transwomen are harassed on the streets by police who assume that they are sex workers. Manufactured lesbian sexuality is exploited for cis, heterosexual men’s desires, while authentic lesbian relationships remain invisible or stigmatized. Lesbians are subject to “corrective rape” in South Africa (and worldwide), while gay men are punished with extreme violence, including rape, for being gay. Even as the US has become more tolerant of LGBT people and same-gender relationships (that mirror the acceptable, heteronormative and cisnormative standard), queer sexuality remains demonized, despised, and closeted.
Ironically, queer people are punished, sometimes through sexual violence, because of our sexualities. While the cis heterosexual dominated society is obsessed with our sex lives and our sexual desires, we are the ones who are seen as perverts.
When news first broke about the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizations spoke out about the injustice. Some even signed onto calls demanding that Zimmerman be tried for the murder. Now, after the not-guilty verdict, which has freed Zimmerman of any responsibility and thus punishment for taking Martin’s life, even more LGBT organizations have voiced their outrage. Indeed, advocating for justice is the right thing to do.
Trayvon’s Murder As An LGBT Issue
But, is this really something that we should expect of organizations that advocate for equality on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression? Or, as the Queerty article asked of its readers, “Should the LGBT community care about the George Zimmerman trial verdict?“
When I first saw the headline, I thought the answer was obvious — yes! And, other LGBT media were focusing on the organizations that were demanding justice; so, it seemed the question did not even need to be posed. I skimmed the article and then the comments to see if the obvious “yes” and the reasons for it were articulated by others. Fortunately, most of the readers at least said yes, though largely because they could empathize with the injustice in this case as LGBT people.
Admittedly, I was underwhelmed by this response. It felt as though LGBT people — at least the few people answering Queerty’s inquiry — cared about the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin to the extent that they were able to envision fearing such violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. I had hoped to see some recognition that this racial injustice affects the lives of LGBT people of color — that that was enough for the entire LGBT community to be concerned that some of its members’ rights have been threatened.
However, I read an op-ed in The Advocate this morning, which help me understand this sort of empathy (which I would better understand outside of this very divisive case). Michelle Garcia, the magazine’s commentary editor, wrote a piece that connects the so-called gay panic defense to the not-guilty verdict Zimmerman received. In the former, there have been cases of anti-LGBT murders wherein the heterosexual murderer argues that he (typically) was momentarily insane because of a sexual advance made by the gay or transgender victim. In a way, they feared for their safety (in line with the stereotype of gay rapists), and thus defended themselves. Zimmerman’s defense for pursuing and killing Martin was that he feared for his and others’ safety. Because the stereotype of young Black men as violent criminals exists, eliciting real fear in whites, it seemed to be enough to justify taking Martin’s life, and letting Zimmerman (and his racial biases) walk free.
I find this take (and this one) convincing. The very laws (i.e., Stand Your Ground) that let white murderers of innocent Black people walk free could let heterosexual or cisgender murderers of innocent lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender walk free. In fact, prior to such broad self-defense laws, and without drawing directly upon them now that they exist, there are several of such murderers who do walk free because of the “gay panic” or “trans panic” defense. Courts and juries have sympathized with privileged people who momentarily felt unsafe (often because they stereotyped an LGBT person as a sexual predator), while offering no justice for their victims — people who live in daily fear of anti-LGBT discrimination and violence their entire lives.
A(nother) Call For Coalition-Building
As such, the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin is an LGBT issue… is a feminist issue… is a human rights issue. In the past few weeks, LGBT people have celebrated major advancements toward sexual and gender equality. In that same time frame, the hard-fought rights of people of color and women have been attacked and, in some cases, successfully eliminated. These setbacks hurt lesbian, bisexual, and transwomen, and LGBT people of color. Thus, they are setbacks for all LGBT people, and all people of color, and all women. And, pessimistically speaking, they are a signal to the LGBT movement that bigots never retire, even as discrimination and violence are outlawed. The very rights we finally secure today may be undermined in a few decades.
This is yet another reminder that single-issue politics are less effective, at least in the long-run. We cannot afford to have white feminists focusing exclusively on the slow reversal of Roe v. Wade, while white gay men continue to blindly celebrate marriage equality, while heterosexual, cisgender people of color exclusively mourn the recent string of racial injustices (Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, Baby Veronica, Zimmerman’s acquittal, etc.). That is, while women of color, LBT and queer women, and LGBT people of color are exhausted by trying to keep up with all of these issues, and trying to explain to others how they are fundamentally linked. Simply put, we are overdue for successful coalition-building. For, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Dr. King).
New York City’s unpopular, but supposedly “effective” crime-reducing program, “Stop, Question, and Frisk” or (“Stop-and-Frisk” for short), was ruled unconstitutional on Tuesday. The program entails the following: “a police officer who reasonably suspects a person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a felony or a Penal Law misdemeanor, stops and questions that person, and, if the officer reasonably suspects he or she is in danger of physical injury, frisks the person stopped for weapons.”
The judge, Shira A. Scheindlin of Federal District Court in Manhattan, ruled that NYC police officers were systematically stopping people with little cause for suspicion. (In this particular case, police officers were stopping individuals thought to be trespassing on a Bronx apartment complex property.) In reviewing police training, she further noted that this evidence “strengthens the conclusion that the N.Y.P.D.’s inaccurate training has taught officers the following lesson: Stop and question first, develop reasonable suspicion later.”
“Because any member of the public could conceivably find herself outside a TAP building in the Bronx, the public at large has a liberty and dignity interest in bringing an end to the practice of unconstitutional stops at issue in this case,” the judge wrote.
In a way, this is exactly what NYC major Michael Bloomberg and other advocates of the “stop-and-frisk” program call for. In exchange for the universal possibility of being stopped by a police officer, residents of NYC see a significant reduction in crime and gun possession. While there have been notable declines in the crime rate (but few seizures of guns), many have argued that this purported exchange is not enjoyed universally. Rather, an overwhelming majority of those stopped by police over the past two years were Black and Latino men. Judge Scheindlin took note of one role of race (and racism) in her decision:
As a person exits a building, the ruling said, “the police suddenly materialize, stop the person, demand identification, and question the person about where he or she is coming from and what he or she is doing.”
The decision continued: “Attempts at explanation are met with hostility; especially if the person is a young black man, he is frisked, which often involves an invasive search of his pockets; in some cases the officers then detain the person in a police van.”
Many civil rights and anti-racist activists have criticized the “stop-and-frisk” program due to the overrepresentation of men of color in police stops. Indeed, in practice, the program is a form of institutional discrimination — in this case, as disparate impact discrimination. That is, while the program does not target a particular disadvantaged group — men of color — by design, it does, in practice, disproportionately burden them.
Typically, disparate impact discrimination is deemed otherwise innocent in terms of intention or bias; these are merely programs or policies that have been unfair in practice. Yet “stop-and-frisk” actually operates as a legal door for racial profiling by both those unintentionally and those intentionally targeting Black and Latino men. Some say the racial and ethnic imbalance is merely a product of geography: greater surveillance of predominantly black and brown areas of the city (this, of course, is problematic, too!). In light of stories of being stopped many times in one’s life, others suggest the “stop-and-frisk” program legally allows police to use one’s blackness/brownness as suspect. “You’re Black/Latino, so you must be up to no good!”
Even if police stops were equally burdensome for every racial group (and police were evenly hostile to “suspicious” people), the experience of being stopped, questioned, and searched by police is fundamentally racialized. Given the history of racism, including racist violence and harassment by police or by others yet ignored by police, no white person can ever fully experience the feelings of anger, humiliation, and powerlessness that follow being targeted by police as a person of color.
Further, programs like this one, Arizona’s “show-me-your-papers” law that unfairly targets Latina/o people, among others are just the tip of the racist iceberg of the US criminal justice system. From interaction with the police, to arrest, to court, to prison, racial inequality exists at every step and every facet of law enforcement and criminal justice. Unfortunately, the narrow view of the law cannot handle the reality that racism shapes the core and operation of every social system and institution, including law enforcement.
Legalized Homophobia And Transphobia
It may have come as a surprise to some that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) groups joined the chorus of anti-racist and civil rights organizations that rallied against the “stop-and-frisk” program. Beyond advocating for racial equality, these groups took issue with the disproportionate number of LGBT people of color who have been stopped by police. Often, young Black and Latino LGBT people are stopped as suspects for sexual crimes (e.g., public sex, sex work). In these stops, many are sexually harassed or assaulted by police.
Parallel to blackness and brownness as suspect, LGBT people are legally targeted through the “stop-and-frisk” program often because of their gender expression. LGBT people, especially transgender and gender non-conforming people, are deemed suspicious because their “appearance transgresses gender norms embraced by mainstream society.” It turns out that stops based on suspicion of sexual crimes has already been deemed illegal, again by the same judge:
In 2010, in a decision dripping with outrage, US District Judge Shira Scheindlin held New York City in contempt for failing to end enforcement of loitering laws held unconstitutional decades before. One of the laws at issue was the “loitering for sex” statute that Lambda Legal had succeeded in getting struck down in 1983 by New York’s highest court, shortly after it threw out the state’s sodomy law.
“The human toll, of course, has been borne by the tens of thousands of individuals who have, at once, had their constitutional rights violated and been swept into the penal system,” Scheindlin wrote. “More disturbing still, it appears that the laws — which target panhandling, remaining in a bus or train station, and ‘cruising’ for sex — have been enforced particularly against the poor and gay men.”
Missing The Complex Reality Of Discrimination Today
The above discussion points to the inability for the law, in its present state, to fully appreciate the complex reality of discrimination today. One challenge is to prove that a law or program — instances of institutional discrimination — disproportionately affect a particular group (without just cause). This sidesteps the matter of proving biased or prejudiced intentions, a matter central to cases of unfair treatment; however, the narrow view of the law fails to account for the systemic, wide-reaching influence of systems of oppression such as racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Indeed, it can be argued that discrimination within one institution (e.g., criminal justice) mutually reinforces discrimination in other systems (e.g., education). The true challenge, then, is proving when discrimination is not at play, at least indirectly.
The other important matter that is systematically overlooked is the simultaneous, interconnected operation of multiple systems of oppression. “Stop-and-frisk” reflects the practice of both racism and homophobia/transphobia by police and the criminal justice system. What, on the surface, appears to be a matter of racial inequality has turned out to disproportionately affect Black and Latina/o queer people. Another instance of legalized discrimination, the US military’s “Don’ Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, had its greatest effect on Black women. And, given the greater number of Black same-gender couples who have children, Black LGBT people hold a greater share of the burden created by laws that prohibit or hinder same-gender marriage and adoption.
Of course, greater attention should be paid to the reality that some people are victimized by multiple forms of discrimination (e.g., racist and sexist discrimination). Yet, discrimination cases that pursue such claims are ultimately less successful in court, probably because the court is unable to apprehend this level of complexity.
The days of explicit, unapologetic racist discrimination are (mostly) gone, and great progress has been made toward equality for LGBT people. Yet, the task remains to better understand prejudice and discrimination in the new millennium. There is a great deal of complexity to discrimination that we consistently miss when attending to the discriminatory actions of a few bigoted apples. We will never achieve full equality, whether in opportunities or outcomes, without an appropriately comprehensive understanding of what discrimination is, how it operates, and how to prevent it.