As LGBTQ+ equality moves forward, we are increasingly presented with the selfishness of the white cis gay man. Jonathan Boniface gives his opinion on why gay men need to do better by the rest of the LGBTQ+ community.
Gay men need to do better.
This may seem like a somewhat theatrical way to open an article that admittedly already has a title seemingly drawn from the annals of ‘How To Achieve The Best Click-Bait’ but, after a number of false starts, it seemed the best and most succinct manner in which to begin.
OK, let’s issue the disclaimer right now. No, not all white cis gay males are selfish. Yes, the way I have opened the article is deliberately provocative because it seems to draw on a certain stereotype. Nevertheless, as with many stereotypes it proceeds from a grain of truth, however hard that may be for anyone’s wounded gay pride to accept. Now that we’ve dealt with the perceived threat to ‘gay pride’ implied by my statement, let’s progress.
There has been a shift in the last ten to fifteen years, and it worries me. Gay men have changed, and not for the better. Nowhere is this change more evident than in our friend, lover and adversary all rolled into one – the beast that is ‘social media’. There are likely many reasons for this change, foremost among them being the gains that gay men have enjoyed as a result of improvements in ‘LG equality’, such as civil partnerships and equal marriage. We can now, to quote Ewan McGregor, ‘Choose Life’ in the most heteronormative manner that we like. (I’m aware I just showed my age there. Anyone confused by the reference should google Trainspotting.)
Gay men have changed, and not for the better. Nowhere is this change more evident than in our friend, lover and adversary all rolled into one – the beast that is ‘social media’.
Nevertheless, as with any such legal and social gains, either real or perceived, it is men who invariably rise to the top. Firstly, it was not an oversight on my part earlier to refer to improvements in ‘LG equality’ and not ‘LGBTQ+ equality’. The ‘progress’ made for those in the BTQIA subsets of our wider community does not in any way, shape or form live up to that achieved for LG people and within that, it is often the experience and needs of gay men that seem to be the drivers of change. If you need evidence of that, consider how often ‘equal marriage’ is referred to as ‘gay marriage’.
As both government and society have sought to redress the inequalities of the LG position (again, deliberate usage there), some within our community have become more comfortable, probably as a result of feeling more ‘normalised’. Or rather, the main beneficiaries have become more comfortable, and those who have gained the most are those at the top of the privilege totem; the white cis gay men. If you just rolled you eyes at that statement then it’s a sign that you actually need to open them more widely. Step into any ostensibly ‘queer’ space and look around at who you see dominating, or go online where the voices of, for example, queer POC are systematically ignored or silenced. Denying the fact that gay men have a position of privilege within the community is nothing more than crass ignorance.
Privilege in itself is not as much of a problem if people are aware of it and are proactive in trying to break it down, or using their privileged position to redress the balance between themselves and others. Unfortunately, so many white cis gay men fall into two camps (no pun intended): those who are blissfully ignorant of their position; or, more worryingly, those who consciously enjoy their privilege too much to care about others. White cis gays are often the ‘poster boys’ of our community; they’re sexy, successful, outgoing, SO funny that you could lose a rib just listening to them and, what’s more, they can now get married and be part of ‘normal society’.
Those who have gained the most are those at the top of the privilege totem; the white cis gay men. If you just rolled you eyes at that statement then it’s a sign that you actually need to open them more widely.
It’s almost like someone has played a very clever game of divide and conquer. By making gay men happier, more confident, secure, wealthy and powerful, ‘progress’ has actually worked against the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. Gay men care less about the rest of the community and, in a wider sense, they care less about society as a whole. It stands to reason when you think about it, I mean if they scarcely care about those outside their own subset of the LGBTQ+ community why on earth should we expect them to care about the wider picture, i.e. issues such as human rights?
This is a powerful and, I’m sure to some, rather offensive notion, which needs to be deconstructed to be fully understood. Race is pretty good starting point. [Please note that dropping ‘cis’ from this point onwards is a deliberate, temporary action.] Put simply, racism pervades the ‘gay scene’. Let’s just take a moment to consider this: it’s 2015 and we still have a situation where white gay men are more likely than not to fetishise BME men due to lazy and pervasive stereotypes. A recent article by FS magazine exposed truly staggering levels of prejudice amongst white gay men, with one of the quotes including ‘I actually feel physically sick at the sight of too much black flesh’. It’s very easy for white gay men to downplay such notions as the exception rather than the norm, but the evidence presented would actually suggest the opposite and, in fact, that for many BME men, racism on ‘the scene’ is a bigger issue for them than day-to-day homophobia.
This begs the question, where on earth is the sense of shared struggle that you would expect from white gay men? The LGBTQ+ community is one that has, historically, been bound together by a sense of shared struggle. Surely, you would expect that white gay men, being part of a minority group themselves, would identify and empathise with members of another ‘minority group’, especially one that has a shared sexual identity? The answer would appear to be no. This forces one to ask how many of the same white gay men will happily describe WOC as ‘fierce’, and ‘fanboy’ over them, whilst only seeing BME men’s value in their preconceived notions of the size of their genitalia?
It’s 2015 and we still have a situation where white gay men are more likely than not to fetishise BME men due to lazy and pervasive stereotypes.
Whilst it is not my intention to simply rehash evidence presented elsewhere, there is another aspect of the FS study into racism that is deserving of attention, and that is use of language by white gay men. We’re probably all accustomed to the use of hateful language online, as we all know that it’s easier for people to be bullies, or to be prejudicial behind the safety of a lovely laptop, tablet or phone screen. Therefore it was saddening, but unsurprising, to hear that BME men were the subject of racist comments and taunts on dating apps, but what was more staggering was the sheer number of racist comments delivered face-to-face or in general social settings, such as bars and clubs. Yet again, it would seem that white gay men happily feel empowered enough to express their racial prejudices quite openly. The white gay man rules ‘the club’, so why not?
I’m aware, of course, of the objections that could be made to this to argument. I’m guessing they’re something along the lines of this: ‘Not all white gays do that…’; or ‘but black people face racism in all walks of life, but just on the scene…’. But let’s be frank about it; if you make either of these pitiful apologies for the racism of white gay men then you are not doing enough. So what if POC face prejudice elsewhere? That shouldn’t be a justification of ignoring it in your haste to get to the bar for a gin and tonic, probably getting served before a POC just because… And again, where is the sense of solidarity? Are queer spaces only fully safe and accepting for you if you’re not a POC, or trans? Yet again, it strikes me that this issue is getting progressively worse because white cis gay men have gained the most from the improvements made to the position of LGBTQ+ people. They don’t need to identity with POC as much because they’ve become more empowered, and they don’t care about others within the community because they like to be the ‘poster-boys’ of the LGBTQ+ movement. The irony is that white gay men would likely have identified more with their BME counterparts twenty years ago because they would have felt more of a sense of shared struggle. Now it’s easier for white gay males to ‘rise to the top’, and they like that.
Yet again, it would seem that white gay men happily feel empowered enough to express their racial prejudices quite openly. The white gay man rules ‘the club’, so why not?
White cis gay men have always struggled to do better in terms of trans issues. It’s almost as if the whole notion of intersectionality is some sort of myth. I cast my mind back 15 years to one particular bar I was fond of attending, which was popular with a great number of trans women; they would sit on one particular side of the bar where, invariably, they would face open verbal mockery or, at the very least, receive withering looks from the rest of the overwhelmingly white cis gay customers. Fast forward to 2015 and things are scarcely much better. Indeed, the social media explosion heralded by sites such as Facebook and Twitter has shown an awful that a huge amount of crass ignorance and transphobic rhetoric is still prevalent amongst the gay community. This is, on the surface, offset by admiration for high-profile trans figures such as Paris Lees, Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner. But in equal measure, ostensibly ‘queer spaces’ are still places where trans people are gawped at by white cis gay men, many of whom still feel little need to lower their voices when they utter slurs such as ‘oh look, the trannies are in’.
Just as with issues of race, there seems to be a disconnection in the heads of many white cis gay males between the history of their own struggle and the current struggle faced by other members of their community. As much as David Cameron or Tony Blair may point to the achievements of their respective governments in moving ‘equality’ forward, they have done little to advance the position of trans people, either legally or in terms of social attitudes. The fact that one part of the LGBTQ+ community has gained so much in comparison to its other constituent elements means that, once again, it fails to give a damn about another group – unless, of course, they’re high-profile and ‘can pass’.
Another excellent example of the selfishness of the white cis gay male can be seen in his attitude towards ‘pinkwashing’. This is a very inconvenient truth for the average gay man who wants to join the party in Israel, as it so inconveniently gets in the way of all the fabulous fun that could be had in Tel Aviv. In recent years, Israel has been promoted as some sort of fabulous mecca for LGBTQ+ rights. Well, even if this were true, this notion represents (at best) an attitude tantamount to ‘who cares just as long as we’re ok?’. It’s hardly groundbreaking to suggest that the marketing of this position to affluent cis gay men is a convenient way to distract from the human rights abuses that are widespread in Gaza and the West Bank. But who cares about that when there’s a good party and lots of hot boys in their underwear in a club in Tel Aviv? Who cares about the plight of the Palestinian people, or violations of international law, just as long as the gays get their party? Yet again, it is testament to the fact that there is little to no identification with or empathy towards a group of people engaged in their own struggle.
There seems to be a disconnection in the heads of many white cis gay males between the history of their own struggle and the current struggle faced by other members of their community.
But then, we don’t need to actually go overseas to find more evidence of the insular selfishness of the white cis gay male. It’s easy enough to find examples of it here in the UK, in the ambivalent attitude towards the impact of the current and previous government’s austerity measures. Those gay men who laud the achievements of the Coalition/Conservative government since 2010 seem unmoved by the disproportionate impact that austerity has had upon LGBTQ+ people. In the period up to September 2014, leading LGBTQ+ mental health charity PACE lost up to 50% of its funding and had to cease its HIV prevention work, according to a TUC report. Even more evidence of the disproportionate impact of austerity was demonstrated by a recent survey by the Albert Kennedy Trust, which revealed that LGBT people comprise 24% of youth homelessness, a hugely disproportionate figure. Conservative policies such as the abolition of housing benefits for under 21-year-olds pay little regard to the fact that the family home might not be a safe space for every LGBTQ+ person. Perhaps this is yet again because the image policy makers have in their minds is that of the nice, clean-cut white cis gay youth with supportive parents because, let’s face it, it *is* 2015, so we should just assume that coming out is a walk in the park. There’s little appreciation of the struggle of LGBTQ+ POC, some of whom may be suffering from abuse such as forced heterosexual marriage, or those rejected by their families for being trans or queer. This all comes at a time when violent crime against LGBTQ+ people (an often under-reported phenomenon) is on the increase.
This is only the tip of a rather considerable iceberg of evidence, and you would imagine that such statistics would outrage every LGBTQ+ person – but they don’t. The evidence certainly doesn’t have much impact on members of LGBTQ+ groups who actively support a government whose policies have worsened life for so many LGBTQ+ people, groups such as LGBTory, who go strangely quiet when challenged with evidence about cuts to LGBTQ+ support services. Why don’t they care about it? Well, a quick perusal of the LGBTory Twitter account pretty much answers that question – the endless pictures of people featuring a variety of ‘I kissed a Tory’ themed paraphernalia are, not always but certainly for the main part, dominated by white cis, London-centric gay males. At the recent Conservative Party conference, a number of people sought to question @LGBToryUK about the lack of diversity reflected by this tweet.
Many users, particularly POC, reported that the only response they received to questioning the composition of this panel was a ‘block’ from the administrators of the account. Whilst I am aware that I am opening myself to the charge of attempting to dictate people’s political affiliations, the point remains that I cannot understand how LGBTQ+ people can be so blinkered regarding the impact that the Conservative Party has had upon our community in the last five years. But then, when I see pictures of predominately white, cis gay men at LGBTory events, I feel I understand this more. The conspicuous affluence serves to demonstrate that issues of LGBTQ+ poverty and the need for support don’t affect them, so they don’t care about the people who are affected. Even the term ‘LGBTory’ is betrayal of our community because the T in that acronym represents their party, not trans people. It’s simply not good enough to argue that this doesn’t mean a Conservative commitment to trans issues; sometimes things appear exactly how they are, and it’s not as if this political party can boast significant achievements in this area. When you can actually engage such gay men in debate, as opposed to being cold shouldered by them, you quickly come to realise that it is more important to them to assert their right to vote for whom they want and express outrage at you challenging them for this choice, than it is for them to consider members of their own community who are adversely affected by the party they champion. Oh but remember, the Conservatives delivered ‘Gay Marriage’ (sic), so that makes everything hunky dory.
One of the most recognisable campaigning taglines of recent years is ‘It gets better’. But increasingly, I am led to wonder exactly who ‘it’ is ‘getting better’ for. It’s an uncomfortable and ironic truth, however, that life getting better for one part of our community is increasingly encouraging it to the leave the rest of our community behind. White cis gay males have been able to close the privilege gap between themselves and their cisgender heterosexual counterparts, and many of them like it so much that they are willing to let those less fortunate than themselves, in their community and in the wider world, go to the dogs.
Yes, gay men need to do better.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter (@gaes_elskhugi)
Featured image taken from Wikimedia Commons, copyright Gary Bembridge. The photographer does not endorse the opinions expressed herein, and the individuals depicted in the photograph are intended to be representative of the subject matter of this article.