In the aftermath of the rejection of #HERO, Jonathan Boniface puts forward his view that whilst public figures such as Beyoncé cannot be held responsible for the failure of such movements, they should still be subject to scrutiny for their failure to act.
Earlier this week, I suddenly became aware that my Twitter feed had entered a meltdown of ‘Hunger Games’ proportions. All kinds of strange statements were flying around about Beyoncé, who appeared to have ‘failed LGBT people’ in some strange manner. On the other hand, many POC were rallying to support Beyoncé, claiming that white people, especially white cis gay men, were exploiting an opportunity to attack a WOC. Indeed, statements went so far as to claim that white people simply didn’t have any right to comment on intersectionality because, being white, they didn’t understand it. So which was it? Was Beyoncé some sort of awful ‘traitor’, or were white cis gay men exploiting an opportunity to express their latent racism and exert privilege?
As with any heated debate, the truth of the matter, to me at least, lies somewhere in-between the two perspectives.
If you’re unsure what all the fuss was about, some background to the situation will probably help. In May 2014, Houston City Council adopted the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which prohibited discrimination based on race, sex, ethnicity, military status, marital status, religion, disability, national origin, age, sexual orientation or gender identity. Sadly, this proved to be a rallying cry for a whole range of conservative anti-LGBTQ+ groups, who challenged the city council and ensured that the ordinance was put to a public vote which, last week, was lost, thereby securing the repeal of the ordinance.
Conservative groups trotted out a whole range of tired anti-equality arguments, foremost amongst them the insistence that if the protections contains in HERO stood they would allow male sexual predators access to women’s safe spaces, such as toilets. In other words, they played yet again on the absurd and insulting notion that trans women are nothing more cis men wearing women’s clothes for the purposes of committing voyeurism or, even worse, sexual assault. The voters failed to uphold HERO despite the support of the major of Houston and many local businesses. Opponents of HERO also claimed that the ordinance would violate religious liberties, despite there being a number of exemptions within the ordinance to appease this notion.
Was Beyoncé some sort of awful ‘traitor’, or were white cis gay men exploiting an opportunity to express their latent racism and exert privilege?
What, however, does any of this have to do with Beyoncé? Absolutely nothing, apart from the fact that Beyoncé comes from Houston and that in August, HuffPost’s Carlos Maza wrote a blog encouraging Beyoncé to speak out in favour of the retention of HERO – his reasons for doing so, the history of how this became an online campaign and the failure of Beyoncé to respond to the call for her to use her voice to support the ordinance are already well documented. In the aftermath of this, social media exploded with any number of LGBTQ+ people criticising Beyoncé for ‘failing her gay fans’, whilst supporters of Beyoncé expressed their outrage that the star was being ‘bullied’ or having her views ‘policed’.
The focus of this storm soon became racial. Tweet after tweet in support of Beyonce came from POC expressing their outrage at white cis gay men being critical of a high-profile WOC, that it was not the place for such men to demand a WOC use her voice in any manner, and that she didn’t owe the LGBT community anything. In fairness to Carlos Maza, he actually agreed with this, in broad principle:
“No celebrity is obligated to weigh in on social issues. Beyoncé is one of the most powerful women in the world, and she doesn’t owe her voice, her influence, to anyone but herself. Being an artist doesn’t require someone to also be a social justice warrior, and Beyoncé is entitled to avoid political disputes in the name of protecting her public brand.”
Indeed he is correct, but are we to buy into the notion that is impossible to criticise a hugely popular artist, and an incredibly influential figure in American society, just because she is a WOC? Anyone familiar with my writings on The Queerness will know that I have a very dim view of the selfishness of the white cis gay male, and I’ve expressed my personal view that ‘he’ needs to do better in just about every area, not least race. But that isn’t what this is about and applying a simplistic interpretation of privilege and oppression to this situation does not benefit anyone.
Beyoncé does not ‘owe’ anyone her voice, no. But what was stopping her from using it? You can draw an obvious parallel with figures such as Lady Gaga, whose voice on LGBTQ+ issues rings loud and clear. But, like I said, that’s the obvious parallel. A less obvious, but much more telling comparison, could be draw with someone like Madonna, who was using her profile to support equality in an age when it was potentially far more damaging for an artist in the public eye to speak up about issues such as gay rights, HIV and AIDS. Her support for gay (and later LGBTQ+) rights was not compromised by notions of whether it prudent, or timely. It just happened.
When you strip away the indignation regarding the skin colour of the person making these criticisms, what we’re talking about is a basic human/civil rights issue. It’s inconceivable that someone like Beyoncé, hailing from Houston and with friends and family still located there, would be oblivious of HERO, or the campaign asking her to become involved. It doesn’t add up, and it suggests that the publicity machine around her most probably urged her not to get involved. This bothers me because from a personal point of view, if I came from Houston and had any sort of public profile, speaking in favour of something like HERO would be a complete ‘no brainer’, regardless of whether it was ‘prudent’. Surely if you have any basic interest in civil rights this would be an automatic thing to do? I’m reminded of the famous quote from Desmond Tutu – ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ Does that not apply here? Do we apply a double standard because this is Beyoncé and she is ‘beyond reproach’ as a WOC?
Applying a simplistic interpretation of privilege and oppression to this situation does not benefit anyone.
Let’s trip away race; let’s strip away the LGBTQ+ aspect and think of it from the point of view of human rights – ask yourself, should someone with a high profile have used the privilege that comes with that to support a human rights issue? The answer to that shouldn’t be anything less than yes. But further to that, there’s actually something far more insidious about how this debate has been derailed. The outrage about the perceived attempt to force or ‘bully’ Beyoncé into using her voice has employed an interpretation of privilege and oppression which is simplistic at best, and worrying at worst.
Put simply: Spare me the rhetoric that Beyoncé is being oppressed or policed here. Spare me also a crude interpretation of intersectionality that you’ve skewed to make it impossible to criticise a powerful WOC. Don’t seriously tell me that Beyoncé is more oppressed than a trans woman who can’t use a public toilet now because HERO is to be repealed. Similarly, don’t tell me that a gay man, white or otherwise, being discriminated against in the wake of HERO enjoys more ‘privilege’ than Beyoncé. I simply don’t buy it. Neither do I accept the notion that such a person can’t question others for not standing up for them. There’s an awful lot more to intersectionality than race and it’s not acceptable to focus on one strand of it just because someone you think is more privileged has dared to criticise an icon who also happens to be a POC.
‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ Does that not apply here? Do we apply a double standard because this is Beyoncé and she is ‘beyond reproach’ as a WOC?
As any avid user of social media platforms such as Twitter will confirm, it’s really not difficult to find examples of hyperbole if you look hard enough or, as in this case, to find them with relative ease. One of the most perplexing was the user who commented that ‘Beyoncé doesn’t owe anything to LGBTQ+ causes or intersectionality’. OK, yes, but when I broke this down in my head, I couldn’t help but think to myself: where does this actually come from? Why are we running to absolve a rich, powerful, cis WOC from any responsibility to promote LGBTQ+ causes? As I said earlier, I have an incredibly dim view of white cis gay men and their selfishness towards anything that doesn’t directly improve their lives, but really? We shouldn’t absolve someone of the responsibility to consider the plight of others just because they’re a POC. We all owe it to those in a less powerful and privileged position than others to do what we can to help, and some of us are in a better position than others to help. So spare me the outrage. Please.
If we want to consider this from the point of view of the impact only on POC then we should bear in mind the fact that there will be gay, bisexual and trans POC who will be affected by this. That doesn’t mean for a second that ‘Beyoncé is to blame’ for the failure of the HERO vote – this notion is as untenable as the idea that she is beyond being criticised. But if you want to be reductive, and if you want to see this issue in racial terms, then you could conceivably say that a POC probably should have spoken up for a cause that would directly benefit other POC who also just happen to be LGBTQ+? Oh no, but remember – Beyoncé doesn’t owe civil rights her voice because, um, she just happens to be Beyoncé.
Spare me…a crude interpretation of intersectionality that you’ve skewed to make it impossible to criticise a powerful WOC.
Another interesting angle to this came in the form of the demographic composition of Houston. I saw one particular tweet from a POC angry that Beyoncé was being held responsible for the ‘homophobia of white people’, presumably suggesting that the people voting down HERO were predominately not POC. Now, I confess that I have no idea how the voting intentions of those who took part in the HERO vote breaks down in terms of ethnic groupings, but this did prompt me to do some research on the ethnic makeup of Houston itself.
It’s interesting to note that Houston is becoming increasingly multicultural; the largest ethnic grouping are whites, who comprise 51% of the population, with what are defined as ‘Blacks and African Americans’ making up 25%, and a variety of other ethnic groupings comprising the remainder. The clear trend is that Houston is becoming a more diverse place as time goes by, so it would seem unlikely that what we’re talking about is simply the ‘homophobia’ of ‘white people’; more likely it’s the intolerance of people from all ethnic groupings. What’s far more telling to me is the fact that 73% of the population identify themselves as Christians, with 50% claiming to attend church regularly and 18% identifying as practising Roman Catholics. Given the toxic nature of the religious lobby when it comes to issues of equality in America, it seems likely that church influence played a big part in the rejection of HERO and this, once again, would be present across all ethnic groupings. Once again, it feels as if a racial argument has been shoehorned into something which is actually far more complex.
We shouldn’t negate someone of the need to consider the plight of others just because they’re a POC. We all owe it to those in a less powerful and privileged position than others to do what we can to help, and some of us are in a better position than others to help.
I guess what I’m saying is that this debate should not have become so reductive. It’s not actually about race – it’s about a group of people of all ethnicities having equal rights, entitlements and dignity. That’s something we should all work for. I don’t care about the colour of anyone’s skin in this fight. I’m sure it could (and probably will) be argued that I’m blinded by my privilege because I’m white. I’d counter that by saying that if I was a living in Houston right now, at this moment, I’d have less privilege than Beyoncé. That’s a fact.
To me, everyone who failed to speak up or vote, be they white, cis, heterosexual, of colour – whatever – shares responsibility for the failure of the HERO vote. Beyoncé obviously isn’t to blame, but her association with that area makes her collectively culpable with everyone else there who failed to do something to support equality. And are you seriously telling me that it’s wrong for a person, who happens to be white and gay, to express disappointment that a person who happens to be a WOC didn’t support a human rights issue? If so, we have another problem to deal with.
It boils down to two simple points. Firstly, Beyoncé can’t be blamed for the failure of Hero because there’s no evidence that her support would have saved it, and that rhetoric needs to be shut down. Second, accepting the first point, it is not unreasonable to expect public figures to support human and civil rights and they are not beyond criticism if they don’t, regardless of the colour of their skin, or mine for that matter.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter (@gaes_elskhugi)