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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).
I have been thinking about Miley Cyrus a bit lately.
I never thought I would start off a post that way — particularly one about queer sexuality and queer people. She … I don’t even know what to call it… at MTV’s Video Music Awards a few weeks ago. And, became the talk of the town once more, this time swinging in nude on a wrecking ball. When I finally saw the video for that single, “Wrecking Ball,” I was so disappointed. Such a lovely, heartfelt song; in no way had I imagined seeing her naked, especially not sexually licking other construction equipment. It just seemed unnecessary. And, really, unnecessarily vulgar. Must every video be an opportunity to sell sex?
I depart there from the conversations about Miley Cyrus and her public and private sex lives. (I’m late, anyhow.) But, I am intrigued by the conversations that speak more broadly about sexuality, gender, and empowerment. Yes, Miley Cyrus is just one woman in our sexist, sex-obsessed, sex-negative society — even within the music and entertainment industry that suffers from those same characteristics. (Really, just look at Rihanna’s new video…) Good; let’s think sociologically!
But, what troubles me is we have not walked away from these conversations with any clear answers. Is Miley Cyrus a sexually-empowered feminist icon? Or, is she yet another pawn of the music industry? Apparently, the line between one’s sexual objectification and one’s sexual empowerment is too thin. Fuck. That is a really disturbing revelation.
Queer Sexual Empowerment
In deluding myself that there is a clear distinction, I am able to come up with clear examples of women’s sexual empowerment. It’s women who refuse to hide that they are sexual, want sex, and like sex. Right? It’s “girl groups” like Destiny’s Child, TLC, and Salt ‘n Pepa, right? It’s older women artists and actors who refuse to cave to the expectations that they should cover up, stop having sex, or just disappear completely, yes?
My thought process eventually turned to queer sexuality — including, but not limited to, gay men’s sexual empowerment. My mind drew a blank. What would queer sexual empowerment look like? In some ways, merely existing as queer people, especially as sexual and loving queer people, is a political act. Fuck you homophobia. We exist.
For some, that empowerment entails a more heightened expression of queer sexuality. Yes, gay pride regularly reflects the very public display of queer sexuality. We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re scantly clad. I have to remind the prude in me that homophobes and transphobes dismiss queer people whether we are dressed in gender normative ways or donning a rainbow boa, 6-inch-heels, and 5 o’clock shadow. So, while I do not personally embrace the joy of public queer sex and sexuality in this way, I refuse to rain on fellow queer folks’ parade.
But, I do grow tired of the conflation of gay with gay sex. I suppose the final straw was seeing yet another men’s sports team gone nude for a calendar to raise money for an LGBT-related cause. First, this story implies that all of the players are cisgender and heterosexual. It also ticks me off because — duh! — white muscular cis masculine men without disabilities are always sexy. The pervasive sexualization of these kinds of bodies in the context of queer pride has gotten to the point that it no longer registers as empowerment, at least in my opinion. These kinds of bodies are now used for more than sexual desire — ranging from political LGBT events, to businesses’ advertisements to LGBT communities, to any general nod that something is queer. That’s not empowerment.
Even if that was empowerment, when do queer people like me get to be sexually empowered? Why do brown queer bodies still serve the taboo sexual desires of white audiences? Why are fat queer bodies only celebrated in subcultures within LGBT communities, while otherwise invisible or used to repulse or for humor? And, what about gender expression — can I be sexy, sexually desired, and sexually empowered while defying society’s expectations for male-bodied individuals?
As an aside, I think that being sexual or having sex in public is only one way to be sexually empowered. Yes, I do believe queer people should have the freedom to be sexual beings in their public, everyday lives without worrying about threatening cis heterosexuals. But, not everyone wants that. Speaking for myself, I would feel more sexually empowered if I could be a loving, whole person in public. I hate being on guard during the few times my partner and I even hold hands in public. I hate having to monitor how I interact with other men — especially cis heterosexual men, especially other queer men. Even how I interact with people with whom I do not want to or actually have sex with is constrained because of the disempowering force of homophobia.
I suppose, like cis women’s sexual empowerment, the bounds of queer sexual empowerment are difficult to define. For queer people, it is their sexual relationships, behaviors, and desires that are the primary targets of homophobic and biphobic hatred. Sex is often used to evoke panic around trans* issues. To embrace one’s sexuality as a queer person in this homo-, bi-, and transphobic society is a political act. But, only to an extent, it seems. We have gained political ground by convincing the cis straight dominated society that we can be in loving, monogamous relationships, and thus deserve access to marriage and other important institutions. Don’t worry, all of that kinky public sexuality stuff is just a phase until we are ready to have real relationships.In a way, I worry the sexual empowerment of cis heterosexual women and of queer people is not 100% on their terms. A cis woman’s public expression of being a sexual person is valued if it gets heterosexual men off. The flip side of that is that women’s sexuality serves as a source of power — sometimes their sole source of power in this misogynistic society of ours. Queer people’s sexualities are acceptable to the extent that cis heterosexual people do not have to witness it. We gain power by presenting ourselves as “Good As You.”
Empowerment on the dominant group’s terms… that’s not empowerment. Ugh.
For one obvious reason, disadvantaged groups are often called “minorities” — the groups are smaller in size than another group. In this sense, people of color (or racial and ethnic minorities) and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (or sexual minorities) are numerical minorities. However, these groups, as well as women, are also minorities by virtue of having less power in society than their majority counterparts: whites, heterosexuals, and men. Unfortunately, this latter point is often forgotten; look, for example, at the hope that racial equality will be realized once people of color outnumber whites in the US. Indeed, the history of Apartheid in South Africa serves as evidence that a group’s minority status in terms of power is not the mere product of being a numerical minority.
Minority Status: The Roles Of Size And Power
The size of a minority group is an important component that plays a role in shaping the experiences of minority group members. In particular, by virtue being a member of a smaller group, minority group members theoretically have a lower chance of seeing other minority group members across various contexts. Whereas non-Hispanic whites make up two-thirds of the US population, white people have the greatest chance of any racial or ethnic group of seeing other white individuals at work, the grocery store, church, on the street, at the doctor’s office, and so forth. In these terms, women and men have roughly the same chance of seeing other women and men, respectively.
However, the unequal allocation of power, resources, and opportunities also plays a role in shaping minority and majority group members’ experiences. In terms of gender, despite slightly outnumbering men in the US, women are often underrepresented in many contexts. Take as a very important example the US Congress: there are 76 congress women in the US House of Representatives (compared to 362 men), and 17 in the US Senate (compared to 83 men). Do the math. Women make up roughly 50 percent of the US population, yet only 17 percent of congresspeople are women! Though 10 percent of congresspeople in the House are Black, not a single member of the US Senate is Black. Indeed, other factors play roles in the outcomes of elections, including — I add emphatically — prejudice and discrimination. But, it is safe to say that something other than a numbers game is at play when there is such a stark underrepresentation of women and people of color in one of the most important institutions in this country.
Representation: Why Group Composition Matters
There are a host of reasons why the extent to which a subgroup is represented matters. Continuing with the example of the gender and racial and ethnic composition of the US Congress, it is important to note that the House and Senate, with their underrepresentation of women and people of color, is making important decisions that impact the lives of every person in the US. So, two groups that consists primarily of white middle-class heterosexual men — many whom are only interested in the needs and desires of other white wealthy heterosexual men — are making decisions right at this moment on behalf of people of color, working-class and poor people, LGBT people, women, and other disadvantaged groups. In fact, the leadership of every organization and institution in the US — most which are also dominated by white heterosexual middle-class men — is making decisions as I write this post that impacts the lives of every person of every race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and class-standing. Indeed, the decisions these individuals are making has great influence in guaranteeing that the next generation of leaders will also be white middle-class heterosexual men.
So, in a big way, what a group produces is shaped by the composition of the group. Since individuals can only truly speak from their own experiences, the contributions of women and people of color systematically excluded from important decision-making processes. But, the composition of a group also shapes the interactions among the groups’ members. For example, a recent study on the gender composition of small groups found that the presence of fewer women is associated with less contribution from women group members:
When voting by majority decision, women deferred speaking if outnumbered by men in a group. However, when voting unanimously, the researchers found that women were much more vocal , suggesting that consensus building was empowering for outnumbered women. The researchers also found that groups arrived at different decisions when women did participate. These findings, however, are not simply limited to business settings.
In this case, when women are underrepresented in a group, especially where reaching a consensus is the primary goal of the group, they are less likely to contribute to group decision-making. And, the group loses out on what could be a unique contribution and voice not offered by male group members. Because so many important, powerful groups include few or no women, the contribution of women is systematically excluded in important decision-making. I would say the most shameful of these exclusions is the absence of women in important conversations about women’s health (e.g., contraception for women!).
Unfortunately, it seems that the challenges that arise from being a member of a minority group are sometimes exacerbated when one is also in the numerical minority in a group. I would suggest one factor that contributes to women’s underparticipation in groups that are dominated by men is the stress associated with being the token woman. Social scientists, including professors Cate Taylor , Pamela Braboy Jackson, and Peggy Thoits, in Sociology at Indiana University, have examined the stressfulness (and resultant problems for health) of being “the only X” or token in groups and organizations that are heavily white and/or male. The uneasiness one may experience as the token woman, token Latino person, or token lesbian, can contain so many different concerns and feelings, ranging from the discomfort of always being evaluated as a woman, Latina, or lesbian, to the discomfort of feeling that one is perceived as speaking on behalf of their entire group, to feeling that one has to contribute the perspective of a member of one’s group. I can think of many discussions where I have been overwhelmed by anxiety that stemmed from being the only person of color or queer person present or, more often, from feeling the urgent need to interject that the group has systematically overlooked the importance of race, sexuality, and/or gender.
The importance of representation extends beyond small groups and decision-making processes. The visibility of minorities in the media is an extremely important arena of representation, one that has been extensively studied and debated. For example, each year the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) analyzes the representation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in film and television each year. The positive portrayal of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, same-gender couples, interracial couples, working-class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and so on is crucial so that people are aware of diversity, but also appreciate and celebrate that diversity.
Specifically for the members of minority groups, seeing oneself reflected in the media is crucial, particularly in the face of prejudice, discrimination, and the constant barrage of invalidating comments and actions. In fact, there was a recent study featured in the media this summer that finds evidence of a self-esteem boosting effect of television for white boys, but self-esteem damaging effects for white girls, black girls, and black boys. One primary reason? White boys see lots of white boys and men in the shows they watch. And, not just that, but they regularly see these characters and actors in positive, powerful, and central roles. This is less so the case for other kids.
Though less frequent for members of minority groups, to see a face or body that looks like your own is powerful in its effect to simply validate you as a worthy human being. I can think of the range of emotions I saw or heard about in people of color, especially Black Americans, when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008. Some had tears streaming down their faces simply because they were overwhelmed with joy, hope, and likely some sense of relief. I am not ashamed to admit that I get this feeling in terms of race and ethnicity in the media, but also sexuality. To not only see LGBT people on my television screen — again, I emphasize positive portrayals — but to see them loved by others, or in love, is sometimes emotionally overwhelming because these images are new to me. I am disappointed, however, that I have to feel such joy just to see someone who looks like me — a joy whites, men, heterosexuals, and other privileged groups do not experience because their representation is the norm and, as a result, their presence is treated as the default.
Though things have changed, and are continuing to change, there is still much work to be done until we stop seeing systematic underrepresentation and hearing about “the First African-American X” or “the First Woman to Y.”
Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people exist. Black same-gender couples exist. Black heterosexual and cisgender allies to the LGBT community exist. However, the way that race and sexual orientation, race and gender identity, race and bi/homophobia, and race and transphobia are talked about, it almost seems as if LGBT and Black are mutually exclusive. And, to be more specific, they are at odds with one another.
Black people who are homo/bi/transphobic exist, too. But, somehow, the US seems fixated on the anti-LGBT prejudice harbored by Black communities as if such sentiments exist in a vacuum. That is, we discuss “black homophobia” as a social problem, while, of course, acknowledging “homophobia” as a social problem. Notice here that we do not hear of explicit concern about “white homophobia.” Why?
An Example: Prop 8 In California, 2008
Let’s take an example. Prop 8. In 2008, the state of California successfully passed an amendment to ban the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. While the entire nation witnessed history with the election of the first (half-)Black president, the US also took one step back by stripping one of the few states with marriage equality of legal same-sex marriage. Now, over three years later, legal challenges to Prop 8 are working their way up the judicial branch.
Immediately following the passage of Prop 8, many in LGBT communities, the media, politicians, and others engaged in a blame-game, pointing a finger squarely at Black Californians for the amendment’s success. Initially, results from the California exist polls suggested that a larger proportion of Black voters voted in favor of banning same-sex marriage relative to voters of other races. Corrected analyses were released later, indicating that Black voters were no more likely than any other racial or ethnic group to vote in favor of Prop 8. More importantly, Blacks only represented 6 percent of all voters in California in 2008; even if every Black voter voted in favor of the ban, that 6 percent cannot be fairly held accountable for the entire 51 percent that voted in favor of Prop 8. But, despite what the numbers say, some were quite hostile toward Blacks in the US, even resorting to racist assaults.
A Double Standard For Prejudice?
Why was it so easy to blame a fraction of the population for the majority’s decision to deny marriage equality in California? Why did our attention focus on homophobia in Black communities, while failing to ask about homophobia in the US and, more specifically, homophobia in white communities? And, why were we so angry with Black homophobes (and, at times, all Black people), but not so much white homophobes?
I argue that the answer is a double standard for homophobia. At the root of the angry reaction toward Black voters who favored the passage of Prop 8 is confusion. We are confused by what seems to be an oxymoron: a prejudiced minority, the oppressive oppressed, and so on. We cannot seem to understand how one group, still facing the contemporary remnants of a history of enslavement, exclusion, discrimination, and violence, can harbor prejudice and discrimination against another, marginalized group. The logic would seem that, given Blacks’ own experiences with prejudice, discrimination, and violence, they should be empathetic toward the plight of LGBT communities due to their exposure with prejudice, discrimination, and violence.
While the logic of empathy makes sense on the surface, it creates five problems (of likely a few others):
- It makes invisible the anti-LGBT prejudice, discrimination, and violence of whites. Though we single-out Blacks when we express our concern about homophobia in Black communities, whites are invisible as a specific racial group in larger discussions of homophobia. And, it begs the question, should we expect whites to be homo/bi/transphobic?
- It holds Blacks to a different standard than whites. Thus, LGBT- and non-LGBT people alike scrutinize the positions and actions of Black communities and organizations regarding gender and sexuality. In the aftermath of Prop 8, LGBT and cisgender heterosexuals criticized Blacks in California for their contribution to the passage of Prop 8.
- It leads us to overlook the alliances between Black and LGBT communities and organizations, and the positive steps that Black people have taken to fight for the equal rights of LGBT people.
- It keeps invisible Black LGBT people. In discussing whether Blacks are homophobic, we fail to acknowledge that some Black people are LGBT, have friends who are LGBT, and who have relatives who are LGBT. Unfortunately, predominantly-heterosexual Black communities, predominantly-white LGBT communities, and society in general are responsible for maintaining an image of Black as straight and gay as white.
- It fails to ask about racism in LGBT communities. Even with some obviously racially motivated anger directed at Black communities by LGBT people following Prop 8, there was little explicit discussion about the racist prejudice, discrimination, and violence perpetrated by LGBT people.
Let’s Look More Broadly
Frankly, the social science research on racial and ethnic differences in attitudes toward LGBT people, same-gender relationships, and homo/bisexuality is mixed; but, the tendency seems to be, once you have accounted for racial differences in religiosity and education, you see little racial difference in these attitudes and, for some matters (e.g., LGBT rights), you actually see more favorable attitudes among Blacks compared to whites. But, that is missed in a narrow focus on homophobia among Blacks. The larger point that is missed is that Blacks, like whites, are socialized in a society that stigmatizes LGBT people. Period. Thus, all people, regardless of race and ethnicity, are implicated in the maintenance or elimination of homo/bi/transphobia. Though one might be sympathetic, or even empathetic, to the plight of other marginalized groups, one’s own marginalized status does not make one automatically an ally.
Another point that is often overlooked is the sneaky (and not-so-sneaky) efforts of white, cisgender, heterosexual men to pit Black and LGBT communities against one another. A recent example of such “divide and conquer” strategizing is not as subtle as other conservative politicians and religious leaders’ efforts:
Edwin O’Brien, Baltimore’s soon-to-be Cardinal, used a speech this week to denounce marriage rights for Maryland’s gay and lesbian couples. He angrily attacked the pending passage of marriage bills in the House and Senate. Maryland’s Governor, Martin O’Malley, is a strong supporter of marriage equality and he helped to introduce the bills this past Tuesday. On Wednesday, O’Brien put his own spin on one of the most heinous arguments put forth by social and religious conservatives — that gay people’s civil rights are an affront to black people and the rights of black people.
For all of these reasons, it is important that we regularly acknowledge the intersections among race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. What are the unique experiences of individuals who are marginalized on more than one of these axes? Where are opportunities for coalition-building across marginalized and privileged communities? And, as my last point suggested, how the intersections of these systems manipulated for gain? Obviously, these are difficult questions, but important nonetheless.