There’s been renewed media interest in “sexual racism” in queer spaces and how it impacts our dating lives. Marcus Stow ponders: shouldn’t we be asking some deeper questions about what it says about our society in general?
As campaigning over bourgeois issues such as marriage subsides, racism in LGBTQ+ spaces has recently become more of a hot topic in queer media, with much of the focus on insensitive or overtly racist comments on dating apps. The GMFA recently published a survey on ‘Racism on the scene’ with some predictable results – predictable if you have ever dated while non-white that is:
- 80% of Black guys,
- 79% of Asian guys,
- 75% of South Asian guys,
- 64% of mixed race guys
- and most of the Arab guys who responded said they’ve personally experienced racism on Britain’s gay scene.
Even Pink News covered the topic recently, but decided to get a photogenic white man to make the point, with no sense of irony, accompanied by the usual unmoderated racist car crash in the comments section. While our Pink News psychotherapist conveniently forgets to discuss white supremacy, he does make some good points. We live in a wider society which posits attractiveness as mainly white, thin women or ripped bulky men. Is it any wonder that queer people are not immune from this?
I spoke to some queer people about dating and how they feel wider society informs the issues with “sexual racism” on the scene, how they feel it develops and festers, and what can be done about it.
“ ‘It’s just a preference’ – I’ve heard that phrase so many times. Not just from guys who unsurprisingly aren’t interested in black men but also more alarmingly and frequently by non-black guys who are ‘only’ into black men. Our skin colour is a block type to them and our individual features are overlooked and disregarded.” – Derrien
We live in a wider society which posits attractiveness as mainly white, thin women or ripped bulky men. Is it any wonder that queer people are not immune from this?
A google search reveals pages of results with regard to the nature/nurture debate around sexual attraction, but precious little about how our environment informs what we find attractive. And it’s true that many white people grow up in areas where there are few people of colour, aided and abetted by a homogenised media, the notions of what we should find attractive forms on that basis.
“It’s possible that it’s just reflection of their upbringing and surroundings, which are undoubtedly informed by racism or segregation with a small s (as we live in a white supremacist world). It’s still racism even if it’s more unconscious. You’re an adult now, so ‘not growing up with people of color’ is not an excuse. You have access to the internet, that same internet that connects you to Grindr can also be used to socialise and interact with black people and learn”– Yves
Indeed Tom, who grew up in small Sussex village, recounts that originally his desires were informed by his predominantly white surroundings, before he moved to London and interacted with black men:
“There were very few people of colour in my school, so the boys I fancied were white, the men with their tops off in the teen mags I ogled were white. After not noticing people of colour myself for most of my life, after one sexual experience, my head is turned more by black guys. I now wonder if there was a degree of objectification in this. I think having sex-dates in general encourages us to objectify others, and race is one way we do that. I hate the ‘no blacks’ commands on Grindr and the racism inherent in how black men are discussed.” – Tom
Given that society has strong social norms about what is to be considered attractive and what isn’t, it stands to reason that when people step outside these norms, there is often overt disgust and ridicule in what amounts to an attempt to police what people find attractive:
“A small group of mostly guys from my Uni class were having a discussion (as you do) about who was ‘fit’ and I mentioned a South Asian-descent guy (but from East London, and who wasn’t present at the time) who is certifiably handsome, physically fit, and an all-round babe, as the sexiest in the class. Everyone expressed shocked/’eww’ faces, saying things like ‘but he’s so East London’, and there was a sense of general shock that I didn’t pick one of the white rugby boys instead. That was my ‘whoah, people here are really sexually racist’ moment.” – keep_sketch
I asked the question on Twitter – whether people thought they were being ‘policed’ by peers when expressing sexual desire for someone outside of the conventionally attractive norms, and my notifications column filled with tweets saying ‘yes’. However some experiences prove that sexual racism goes deeper than skin colour and features. Pamela recalls a date in the 1990s, where a woman was perfectly happy to engage with her and plan a date based on her photo and profile, but did an abrupt about-turn when she realised her background:
“She answered my dating ad in DIVA magazine, with my name and picture. We chatted on the phone and ‘clicked’. I look light-skinned in photos and my name is Pamela, but when I arrived at the date it was clear she had realised that I was Indian and she started making excuses, stuttering that ‘I usually go for blondes’ – even though my picture was obviously me with dark hair and confusing light skin. She left very quickly. This happened to me more than once.” – Pamela
So in this scenario, a woman had been perfectly happy to engage with Pamela assuming that she was white British, and then rejected her on discovering she was a different ethnicity. Nothing had changed, not her look, nor her personality. What had been introduced is the concept of the ‘other’. It ties in with the dismissal of millions of people who are “black” or “Asian” who can look a myriad of different ways.
Given that society has strong social norms about what is to be considered attractive and what isn’t, it stands to reason that when people step outside these norms, there is often overt disgust and ridicule.
But the stereotypes and issues don’t end with the first date. Once we are ensconced in relationships, we continue to suffer from stereotypes and micro-aggressions from wider society:
“The ‘gaysian’ stereotype is a reminder everyday that I fail to conform within what seems to be gay ‘industry standards’. My other half, who is white and older, yet earns half my income, seems to be the person handed the bill at the end of our meal in restaurants, 9 times out of 10. The invasive assumption that because I’m younger and ethnic, my Western partner, must be the ‘male top’ while I’m the subservient ‘female’ who is being wined & dined.” – Fabster
It’s clear that these instances of sexual racism are often symptomatic of wider societal prejudices. In the world of dating apps where the culture is about being direct and to the point, this may lead to a comfort in using terms that certainly would not cross the lips in professional or real-life social situations. And it’s not limited to dating:
“This isn’t just about sex though, many times men have hidden behind their ‘preference’ despite stating they are ‘looking for friends and chat’ in their profile. I also saw a man on Grindr who was advertising a room, and had the same ‘be caucasian’ stipulation for the room as he did for hooking-up.” – Derrien
So even “looking for friends” carries a caveat. And what’s worrying is how that wider racism will impact others. They may not want to sleep with you, which is their prerogative, but what happens when that same person is advertising a room to let or interviewing a person of colour for a job?
“Even in NYC, white liberals mostly come from Nebraska and North Carolina, move to NYC and gentrify neighbourhoods, and their networks and neighbourhoods are white. Look at “Friends” – criticism was then that it was all white in NYC, but now that isn’t even far-fetched. It’s totally possible for your whole network to be white – it’s like a subconscious (on the individual level, but completely intentional on a systemic level) exclusion, but the way gentrification happens it segregates our communities and when it’s time to hire people or hang out with people, they hire/hang out with other white people.” – Yves
Some black gay men in the USA, instead of seeking acceptance from the wider majority, interact within a black gay community, and even make it clear they are not interested in white guys:
“I hope there can be some kind of way where the mindset is decolonised by people of colour. I would love to see more PoC not care what white people say. Where I live, it is not uncommon to see MANY profiles of Black men explicitly state “NO WHITE MEN” or “Black men only!”. They need to see white attractiveness is not the standard and we’re not waiting for you to find us attractive. We are more than enough” – Yves
They may not want to sleep with you, which is their prerogative, but what happens when that same person is advertising a room to let or interviewing a person of colour for a job?
It’s a difficult path for many PoC in the UK as, given lower numbers of “out” queer people of colour and the way our communities are structured, it’s rare to see us in relationships together. And accusations of so-called “reverse-racism” in a predominantly white society can have more consequences than racism itself, which is why many PoC discuss racism and white privilege under pseudonyms online, including me.
So there appears to be a tendency to break down this issue into tales of dating app distress, with a cursory nod towards ideals of attractiveness blamed on queer media. Be more positive in your dismissal of people of colour appears to be the message, without taking the time to de-construct some of the more fundamental issues in our society.
As the issue gains more media traction and spreads into mainstream spaces, sexual racism is now being positioned as an issue in queer spaces when straight women of colour in particular will tell you countless tales of festishisation. It’s being seen as an issue around dating choices instead of something symptomatic of entrenched structural racism that permeates our wider public, professional and social life.
Structural racism isn’t just an offensive Grindr profile, it’s people being shamed for fancying people of colour. It’s recruiters binning CVs if the name is “too foreign”, or being racially profiled for stop and search, or at airports. It’s Pink News centring a white guy in an article on racism and letting racism run free in the comments. It’s not a queer thing, it’s a society thing, and for many it runs in tandem with transphobia, biphobia, sexism and ableism. Should queer people think more about deeply about destructive behaviours, where they come from, discuss them with peers and respond positively when called out? Absolutely.
Follow Marcus on Twitter (@marcusjdl)