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“I Wrote This Rant Before” – Reflections From A Black Gay Man In America

Me - Hoodie

I wrote this rant before, but I erased it.
I wrote this rant before, but I erased it because I worried what others would think.
I wrote this rant before, but I erased it because I worried others would think I am militant.
I wrote this rant before, but I erased it because I worried I was militant.

The exact words escape my memory, but it went a little something like this.

I know two words, six letters long each, that shape my experience as a human. They are both old words, with long histories of linguistic, social, and political transformations. One is the perverse derivative of a color that now implies the oppressive superiority of one group over another. One is the perverse transformation of a neutral, inert object that was used to eliminate people now dehumanized and disempowered by the word. One has been reclaimed by some of the very people oppressed by the word and what it represents, but too many are repulsed by the word to successfully reclaim it. Instead, most refer to the word only by its first letter – N. The other word has not been met with systematic efforts to reclaim it. Yet, ironically, the word seems to repulse fewer; as such, referring to it by its first letter – F – world confuse most as another word we regularly censor.

Despite their differences, these two six-letter words share similarities, some odd. Similar in length, beginning and ending with consonants, home to two Gs in the middle, with vowels sandwiched in between. In use, the two are similar in their function of reminding me that I am subhuman, or maybe not human at all. At least, as a partial human, the word nigger reduces me to my skin color and, as such, that my status is inferior to those of white skin. The word faggot reduces me to a sexual act considered immoral, pathological, and revolting. Only six letters long, yet each conjures up a reminder of my place in society – always outside – even when included within.

The simultaneity of these experiences infuses their dehumanizing potential. Indeed, in society, this racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist society in which I live, places me at a subordinate status as a racial minority, as a sexual minority, and as a racial-sexual minority. This marginalization is compounded by the dual betrayals of the predominantly-heterosexual Black community and the predominantly-white gay community. In the former, I am just as likely to be reminded of my subordinate status as a faggot as I am in white-dominated society. I am likely told my efforts to fight homophobia are distracting. In the latter, my racial identity is erased and any attempts to attend to anti-racist projects seen as irrelevant. Unfortunately, both communities have fallen prey to white heterosexist efforts to “divide and conquer,” and too rarely able to forge lasting coalitions. Both, too often, forget that individuals cannot be reduced to a single status: fighting racism, yet putting up with sexism; fighting homophobia while ignoring the whiteness and middle-classness of gay movements. Invisible in Black spaces as a faggot, invisible in gay spaces as a nigger, and invisible as both in society.

But, for as much invisibility is regarded to these statuses is the granting of hypervisibility. Due to the presumption of whiteness and heterosexuality, one always stands out as something other – the Other. I know the ironic reality of invisibility as a Black person, yet the hypervisibility as a black man approaching someone on the street at night. I know the invisibility as a queer person, yet the hypervisibility as a gay man in sex-segregated spaces and situations. It is quite odd that one is simultaneously invisible and powerless, yet hypervisible and threatening.

I use these stereotyped threatening images to my advantage. Or, I at least attempt to do so in desperate attempts to protect myself. When I feel the sense of danger arising in white people as I approach, I trade off my Blackness for my gayness in an effort to seem harmless. Who’s ever heard of a gay thug anyhow? Flipped, in scenarios where I feel unsafe as a queer person, I emphasize my Blackness to appear threatening. To what extent this is simply hypervigilance every minority faces, I am unaware. To what extent these trading-off efforts work, I cannot assess.

The possibility of trading off race for sexual identity and vice versa is made through their intersections with gender. An emphasized Blackness to appear threatening presumes a tough, masculine demeanor, one that implies heterosexuality. An emphasized gayness to appear non-threatening implies a meek, feminine demeanor, one that is at odds with the stereotypical image of Black men. When laid out this way, their opposing nature becomes apparent. One cannot be both the stereotypical Black man and the stereotypical gay man. The former implies the opposite of the latter, and vice versa.

What, then, is the category of Black queer? How does one inhabit these two identity spaces defined as opposites of one another? One’s mere existence resists narrowly defined racial and sexual categories. But, many face what feels like pressure to choose: choose your status, your identity, and your allegiance. Are you Black or are you gay?

I reject this notion of opposition between Blackness and gayness just as I reject the labels nigger and faggot. I am not defined by the histories of oppression, enslavement, and discrimination faced by Black people. I am not defined by the history of oppression, exclusion, and collective closetedness faced by gay people. These histories shape who I am and my consciousness, but I cannot be reduced to either.

This time, I will keep this rant.
This time, I will keep this rant to share with others.
This time, I will keep this rant to share with myself.
This time, I will keep this rant to accept my militance.

So What If Sexual Orientation Is A Choice After All?

The federal challenge to California’s voter-approved same-sex marriage ban has raised a number of questions about the experiences of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, same-sex couples and families, among other issues.  It seems the trial is not only addressing the constitutional nature of a law that discriminates against a minority group because of their sexual orientation.  In fact, it seems as though the entire claim that LGBT people are marginalized in our society is on trial — that, and tests for every stereotype about LGBT people (e.g., the supposed link between pedophilia and homosexuality).

Is Sexual Orientation A Choice?

One testimony seems to be the crux of the trial, but generally, in my opinion, irrelevant to whether discrimination is at play in banning same-sex marriage.  Prominent psychology researcher and professor, Professor Gregory Herek, was called to the stand to testify on the etiology of homosexuality and the experiences of LGBT people on Friday, January 22nd:

Plaintiffs lawyers are already done questioning their final witness, UC-Davis psychology Professor Gregory Herek, who earns the distinction of being one of the quicker witnesses thus far (although cross-examination is just beginning, and that has tended to go for hours with the plaintiffs experts). Herek testified that research shows gays and lesbians do not choose their sexual identities, as same-sex marriage opponents suggest. And he also said they are subject to social stigma.

What I find interesting is that this question must be answered.  Before the rest of the country can get on board with same-sex marriage, it needs to know that lesbian, gay, and bisexual people have run out of all of their options regarding sexual orientation.  If they have not given this heterosexuality thing a fair chance, we’re not just going to concede to their demands for support for this gay thing.  Research on attitudes toward homosexuality and LGB people has found greater acceptance when heterosexuals believe that homosexuality is not chosen and cannot be changed.  Thus, even if it may seem irrelevant to LGBT people whose rights are on trial, it matters to the majority (heterosexuals) that currently have the power to approve or disapprove of those rights.

So What If It’s A Choice?

I know, I know — if evidence ever emerged that sexual orientation was chosen, at least by those who have chosen something other than heterosexuality, we would see a lot of lost support for sexual equality.  But, therein lies two problems: 1) if it is chosen, why is choosing homosexuality or bisexuality wrong, and heterosexuality right?  2) why is choice bad?  The heteronormativity and homophobia remains; this homosexuality/bisexuality thing better be beyond your own control, or, if not, you’d best be choosing heterosexuality.  Yet, supposedly heterosexuals do not choose to be heterosexual.  That’s quite the double standard.  Secondly, why do we value and celebrate choice in other arenas of the social world, yet deny freedom to choose our romantic and sexual partners?  Why should rights only be afforded if it’s a condition you cannot help?  So long as one’s sexual and/or romantic relationship is consensual, who are we to determine whether it should be treated as equal to other types of relationships?  I am going to take the radical step here and suggest that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” should extend to consensual sex and relationships as well.  If Katy Perry wants to kiss a girl and like it, whether because she’s naturally bisexual or just because she wants to see what all of the fuss is about, why should our support for her freedom to choose boys or girls be restricted?

Calling Heteronormativity Out

In some way, I suggest our next step is to ask “so what?”  If you choose to be with men, with women, both, transpeople, intersexed people, Black people, Latina/o people, Muslim people, tall people, vegans who like Britney Spears, and so forth, why are your choices and freedoms any less valuable than someone who is naturally attracted to other groups?  And, why is there so much focus on the origins of homosexuality and bisexuality, though not heterosexuality?  Further, why do we care so much about the gender of object choice but we are not out searching for the “cause of interracial desires”, or why some people are attracted to muscular people, or taller, or nerdy people.  I cannot imagine that every aspect of our “type” is naturally occurring, but frankly, so long as our actions are consensual, it shouldn’t matter.

“Gay Panic” And Anti-LGBT Hate Crimes Are Two Sides Of The Same Coin

When I was home in the DC area for winter break, I met up with a good friend who had recently moved there from Indiana.  The first thing he told me was that a professor in his department had been murdered.  “Whoa, that’s crazy!” I said, not sure what else to say, and then turning back to look at the books in the “lesbian interest” section of the queer bookstore we were browsing.  I had no idea how tragic the story really was, nor that it would quickly become national (to some degree, even international) news.  On December 28th, Indiana University Professor Don Belton was stabbed to death by Michael J. Griffin.  Griffin used a 10-inch-long knife to stab Belton five to six times, later telling police that he had done so because Belton had sexually assaulted him twice and showed no remorse.  Belton’s department, IU Department of English, has expressed their sadness about for the loss, and members of the community have also come together to express their sadness and demand for justice for his murder.

“Gay Panic”

I am surprised to say the last thing I predicted I would hear about Belton’s death was reference to the “gay panic” defense for attacking a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person.  But, because of Griffin’s claim that he was sexually assaulted, some, including CBS, have speculated whether this ugly defense will rear its head in this tragedy when it goes to court.  Griffin has pleaded not guilty to the murder, and, it would seem pretty far-fetched for him to claim “gay panic”: that he momentarily went insane because of an exposure to homosexuality.  Belton’s personal diary denotes excitement about a new relationship with “Michael”; further, Griffin went to Belton’s home with a 10-inch-knife and an extra set of clothes.  (He fled the scene and disposed of his bloody clothes.)  That sounds like a slam dunk for premeditated murder to me.  Right?

A Hate Crime?

This weekend, back in Indiana, a good friend and I discussed the murder.  He stated that this should be tried as a hate crime, as it could be argued that Griffin planned and carried out a murder of a gay man, with whom he had at least two romantic encounters, claiming that he had been sexually assaulted by the man.  My quick rebuttal was that Griffin himself, by virtue of his sexual relationship with Belton, could not be accused of a hate crime.  But, very quickly, my friend pointed out his own sexual orientation and/or behavior is irrelevant – if he killed Belton because of his hatred for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, he has committed a hate crime.  This point transcends this case, as there have been rumors that one of the men who killed the late Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1997 in Wyoming because of his gay sexual orientation, is bisexual.  In both of these cases, a gay man has been murdered and blamed for his own murder because of his supposed sexual advances toward a heterosexual-identified man – a reality that can only be true in the eyes of someone who holds inaccurate stereotypes and hostile feelings toward gay people: a hate crime.

“Gay Panic” And Hate Crimes Are Two Sides Of The Same Coin

If you do the math, the end result is the same.  With a “gay panic” defense, an attack has occurred against a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person because of their sexual orientation.  With a hate crime conviction, an attack has occurred against a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person because of their sexual orientation.  These two pseudo-legal conceptions are strangely two sides of the same coin; however, with the “gay panic” defense, the homophobic attacker is not faulted for their own actions – they were so overwhelmed with someone’s gay sexuality that they temporarily lost touch with reality and attacked the supposed source of this psychosis.  For this defense to be successful, which I believe it has had some, society, culture, and the law must accept that lesbian, gay, and bisexual sexualities are bad and that it is reasonable to be afraid of them;  thus, both the “gay panic” defense and anti-LGBT hate crimes stem from homophobia.

Remembering Don Belton

A memorial service is scheduled for Belton tomorrow, January 15that 5pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 2120 North Fee Lane in Bloomington, Indiana.  There was a large vigil held in town on January 1st, as well.  And, Inside Higher Ed reports “And Josh Lukin tells me that he is proposing a session called ‘Remembering Don Belton’ for the next MLA — a panel ‘engaging his scholarship, art, journalism, and pedagogy.’ Possible topics might include ‘his writing and teaching on black masculinity, Baldwin, Brecht, Mapplethorpe, Morrison, Motown, jazz, cinema, abjection,’ to make the list no longer than that.“  It is my hope that Belton’s murder will spark a more in-depth and complex understanding of the way prejudice operates, and that society, culture, and the law will progress to reflect it.

Update (03-10-2013): In revisiting this post after the recent murder of Marco McMillian, a gay Mississippi politician, this discussion remains relevant.  Again, a murder has been justified as the result of being sexual assaulted by a gay person, or panicking after consensual same-gender sex.

Also, I wish to make explicit my intentional skirting of violence against trans* people.  Though I referenced “anti-LGBT” violence, this post mostly reflected homophobic violence against lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.  This was not the negligence of referring to all LGBT people when really meaning gays and lesbians only.  While homophobia affects the lives of trans* people, the reality of transphobia and cissexism cannot and should not be subsumed into discussions of homophobia and heterosexism.

Thus, I did my best in this post not to conflate ‘LGB’ with ‘T’ and homophobia with transphobia.  It is important to acknowledge prejudice, discrimination, and violence against all sexual and gender minorities, while also being certain to acknowledge and address the unique complexities of homophobia (anti-gay and anti-lesbian), biphobia, and transphobia.  (Thanks to my friend, Aubrey, for asking for clarification on this!)

Legal Progress is Good, But Don’t Forget About Cultural Progress

I can relate to some of the disappointment with either the inaction, slow action, or counteraction of the Obama administration regarding sexual and gender equality.  Over a year ago, then-candidate Barack Obama made a number of promises that he, now as President, has either backed down from, disregarded, or moved in the opposite direction (like on the Defense of Marriage Act).  While it’s nice to have a friend in the White House, we need not forget that much of the work it will take to realize full equality in a legal, social, and cultural sense will be our own doing.  Though my generation was not around for the Stonewall riots and gay liberation, and was too young to understand any of the emergence of AIDS and the mobilization for better treatment and prevention options, we have to remember the power we hold as people to create change for ourselves.

My concern is that we’ve become increasingly obsessed with making changes to laws and policies, thus depending upon politicians and fellow voters, and have forgotten about the importance of cultural change.  For example, the government may recognize our marriages and families as real and equal, but the majority of the country will still view these as immoral or, at best, alternative.  This is reflected in voting patterns – we lose too often to continue to cross our fingers and hope that a future Prop 8 won’t happen.  (Heck, the fact that it happened in 2000 and then in 2008 in California of all places says that we need to rethink our game plan.)

I cite, for example, the removal of laws that prohibited people of different races from marrying by the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision.  Within the context of the law, interracial relationships were no longer treated any differently from intraracial relationships.  But, in my quick skim of the 2002 General Social Survey, a nationally-representative sample of adults in the United States, I see that nearly 10% of respondents still thought that there should be a law prohibiting interracial marriage.  That was in 2002!  That was 35 years after the law changed!    The General Social Survey’s 2006 survey revealed that 55% of their respondents for that year viewed homosexual sex as “always wrong” compared to 33% that said that it’s “not wrong at all”.  What good is legal marriage equality if more than half of the country thinks that our sexual and romantic relationships are immoral and abnormal?

Often times, when keeping up with my favorite blogs, I skim over posts about kiss-ins, sit-ins, and other forms of protest for the sexual equality.  But, it recently hit me that these political actions are just as important, if not more, as new bills that are introduced in congress, new decisions handed down from the courts, and new orders coming out of the White House.  The most recent I came across was the formation of “A Day in Hand”, a group in the UK encouraging same-gender couples to hold hands in public.  I’ve also seen a number of posts about the nation-wide kiss-in that was planned.  I guess a part of me shrugged because I do not currently have a honey to hold hands with and kiss, either publicly or privately.  But, I’m all for promoting others to do so.  It is these forms of actions that send a reminder to the world that we exist, we’re happy, and we’re healthy.  I’ve come across a number of studies that found that attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are much more positive when they actually know such people.  I know that this sort of advice comes with the potential of fear of harassment and violence, and the potential for being victimized, but we have to start somewhere.  Sometimes the greatest force keeping us from being out and proud is the fear that we’ve internalized.

The Science of Sexual Orientation And Identity

Quite an interesting article.

I’m a little disappointed that I’m just now seeing this article, but the timing is great – I just found out that I’ll be teaching Sexual Diversity in the fall! The article, a little long and slow to load, is well worth the read. It speaks to the ambivalence I believe many sexuality scholars, advocates, and just everyday people have about our understanding about the origins of sexual orientation. We have moved away from “sexual preference”, dismissing any allusions to choice, toward “sexual orientation”. We’ve all heard the anti-choice argument: “Why would anyone choose to be gay, putting up with all of the homophobia and other nonsense.” It’s a valid point: most of us are simply “oriented” toward certain people romantically and/or sexually.

However, there are some competing claims that we must reconcile. Sexuality is fluid. Sexuality is innate. Sexuality is socially constructed. Before the creation of the “homosexual” and “heterosexual” categories in the mid-19th century, homo-, bi-, and heterosexuality served as forms of sexual (and romantic, I would argue) behaviors and relationships. It was the creation of these categories that lead to sexual identities – understandings of sexual people, rather than sexual acts. This gives some weight to the social construction argument, but still, we must note the growing scholarship on biological influences on sexual orientation. Yet, we know from some research, including that of Lisa Diamond (a featured instructor at NSRC’s 2009 summer institute: http://nsrc.sfsu.edu/summerinstitute), that sexuality is fluid and contextual. How else do we make sense of lesbian-identified women who have male sexual (and/or romantic) partners and sex between men in prison and other single-sex environments?

I am weary of the biological arguments for three reasons, one in terms of research, another in terms of the practice of science, and the last in terms of politics. In the first, I must ask why we would suspect that a gene exists that would dictate that we are born to be attracted to X. Let’s say X is men, and I am born male. To say that I am born gay is to imply that something innate within me has dictated that I will find attractive what we have defined socially as male and masculine. That is, a great variety of bodies are captured within the supposedly-universal category of male, yet a certain male prototype exists: white, masculine, tall, muscular, penis, young. How could our genes determine attraction toward something that is socially created?

With respect to the practice of science, I find it ironic that prior to the mid-1970s, science was the enemy of LGBT people – yet now, we’re relying on science to make our case for equality. We were mentally ill in 1970, but now “we can’t help it, because we’re born this way.” In the social sciences, biological explanations for social phenomena are typically dismissed or heavily scrutinized. However, we willingly defer to biology to explain the origins of sexuality. Why? Why do we allow scientists to essentialize us with respect to our sexual desires, yet heavily police essentialist claims about gender, sex, race, and ethnicity?

This leads me to my third reason – politics. LGBT activists have relied on the gay-by-birth argument to make their case for equal rights. The underscoring claim is that legal protections are in order because we can’t help it. Do we not value personal freedom enough to argue for equal rights and protections even if sexuality were a choice? The as-biology argument sounds like a defense of our existence, rather than our claim to personal freedom. I note, however, that this is often the starting point in some arenas, and we’re sometimes met with the already formed conclusion that no rights are in order if sexuality is chosen.

I propose that we expand our notion of “sexual orientation”. I see our understanding as resting on the notion that we are innately attracted to a particular sex – female or male. This is problematic in that there are multiple sexes, given that sex itself is socially constructed. Beyond our attractions to particular sexed bodies, we also have attractions along the lines of gender (including identities, expressions, and presentations), race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body size and shape, nationality, language (e.g., accent), education, and occupation. Relying on the two-sex system for a moment, every female or male is not “fair game” if we’re attracted to one, the other, or both. We may find that Latino business men from New England are desirable, while never noticing the white immigrant construction workers in the US South. How do we make sense of our “types” that are raced, gendered, sexed, classed, sexualized, abled, aged, and shaped? Does biology dictate that we only find attractive bisexual Jewish women?

Furthermore, in our new, expanded notion of sexual orientation, we must reconcile the contextual influence. When our options are limited or shift, our desires change (e.g., the example of men in prison, or moving to a racially homogenous area from one that is racially diverse). For many of us, our attractions shift as we age – we don’t remain attracted to 18 year olds into our 80s or, alternatively, we no longer find 50 year olds to be “creepy” (which many aren’t). This leads me to my final thought – that we must think beyond sexual attraction, desire, and behavior. It may be that our attractions age as we age because we’re more emotionally and socially drawn to people closer to our age. This may suggest an interplay between our social, emotional, romantic, and sexual desires – a complex matrix that we miss in only talking about what gets our “juices flowing”.

As research advances and the US climate slowly becomes more LGBT-tolerant (not necessarily friendly), we need to consider the frames we use to advance our understanding of sexuality. This means detaching our reliance on scientific claims of the innateness of sexuality both in terms of research and activism. This is especially imperative given that science tends to slip back and forth between oppressive and liberating impact in society.