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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.
Sometimes, I catch myself being envious of those who are comfortably disinterested in race, be it race relations, their own racial identity and community, or the history of racist oppression around the world. Frankly, I disdain that the concept of race exists at all, but I will continue to force recognition of the way race (unequally) structures our social world. I hate that I have to be conscious of the way my own racial identity operates as a force in my life, but, with so few people willing to acknowledge the continued existence and significance of race and racism, I cannot in good conscious block it out of my mind. Ignorance may be bliss, but once you know, you cannot turn it off or ignore it.
On Being Multiracial
Since I was old enough to conceive of the concept of race, as a social force and as an identity, I have known that I am of two racial ancestries: African American (Black) and European American (white and Jewish). As early as kindergarten, I can recall being frustrated by the insistence of official forms and documents that I choose only one racial category when I so clearly fit into more than one — a battle that has been a consistent theme in my life, as well as the lives of other multiracial people. Unfortunately, upon moving from Maryland to Indiana, I felt a sense of racial culture shock, moving from a place where interracial couples are fairly common, to one where there seem to be little awareness that a person could occupy multiple racial categories. This meant, for a brief period, feeling that I was forced into the category of Black. My anger and frustration with some of my new experiences as a Black person in the Midwest fit with what many other Black people experienced. But, with time, I have re-realized that I am not Black. I am not white. I’m neither, yet both – a complicated description of my racial identity which reflects the complexity of my experiences with race and race relations.
My White Privilege?
Along with my Black racial identity and white racial identity comes the associated racial disadvantage and racial privilege — in particular, the disadvantages, stigma, discrimination, and prejudice experienced by Black people and the privileges and sense of being the normal, default racial category experienced by whites. Yep, that’s right. In all of my years of acknowledging being simultaneously Black and white, it has never occurred to me until now that I have white privilege. Gag! My anti-racist self is nauseous just at the thought. But, in a number of ways and on a number of levels, I am privileged by my presumed and/or actual whiteness.
Direct, Interpersonal White Privilege: In two ways, I am privileged as a white person, or at least not disadvantaged as a Black person. The first, of which I have always been aware, is being read either as a light-skinned Black person (and, thus not burdened by the stigma associated with darker skin color) or some other non-white race. In thinking about sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva‘s research on race, namely his theory of moving toward a tri-racial system in the US in which there emerges as third, middle category that is treated as honorary whites (e.g., Asians, light-skinned Latina/os), I am arguably more privileged, or at least less disadvantaged, than many Black Americans. The second of these two ways, wholly new to me, is being read as a white person — a white male, to be more specific. As such, there are an innumerable number of encounters in which I have been presumed to be a white man and, arguably, afforded the privileges that are associated with such interpersonal interactions. (Could it be that the times, at least some of them, that I have concluded that a white stranger was especially nice was a product of my presumed whiteness?)
Secondary/Indirect White Privilege: At two levels, both interpersonally and structurally, I am afforded white privilege through my relationships with white people. The largest, most sustained batch of white privilege has come from my white heterosexual male father. The privileges he is afforded through interactions with others and those that come from the structured pattern of race relations have, in turn, been handed to me through our father-son relationship. That means that, in part, my process of becoming socialized was shaped by white heterosexual male privilege. (This was, of course, in combination with the Black female disadvantages by mother is afforded.) Although weaker and not as sustained , I also am benefited by the white privileges afforded to extended family, professors, colleagues, friends, and past and future romantic partners. An interesting story was released recently about the secondary white male privilege afforded to scholars of color who have white male mentors; although the findings are overstated, the idea of privilege being trickled down to others who are denied those privileges directly is quite interesting and relevant for my family, friend, and work relationships.
What To Do About White Privilege?
Well, sheesh, I feel a bit at a loss about quickly moving to the “what next?” question so soon after being hit with the realization that I have white privilege. My initial reaction has been surprise and guilt — a similar reaction to the eventual awareness that I am privileged as a middle-class male. As I encourage others, I must acknowledge such privilege and attempt to be critical enough to see when I am being privileged simply because of my presumed whiteness, or maleness, or middle-classness, or even the rare instances of being presumed heterosexual. But, on the flip side, I have entertained the idea of capitalizing on these privileges for anti-racist pursuits. For example, when I asked one of my professors to write a recommendation letter for graduate school on my behalf, she noted that she was surprised I was not white (after seeing my personal statement) — she had assumed whiteness and was proud of my frequent comments about race and racism in our class. In some instances, members of the privileged group are afforded more room to speak, are listened to, and their words carry more weight because they are assumed to be from a place of genuine concern rather than self-interest. (And, as I have argued before, white people are likely less often challenged or doubted in general, even on matters outside of race.) But, as I am continuing to learn, reflect, and evolve, I suspect that I will have a better sense of the “what next?” question in the future. Thus, expect more to come.