“Why do they have to talk about that here?”
“That” was referring to the Black Lives Matter movement, and “they” referred to GSAFE, an organization that advocates for inclusive and safe schools. The question arose at GSAFE’s 2015 Celebration of Leadership dinner, an event to recognize and uplift LGBTQ youth leaders. The evening’s program drew attention to the intersectional work necessary to make the LGBTQ community a space where everyone’s full identity is included and celebrated. That evening I had more than one white, cisgender, gay man approach me with that pointed question. To me, those moments capture one of the biggest issues our community faces internally: the erasure and oppression of people of color from the LGBTQ narrative.
Before she recently retired, a social studies teacher at LaFollette High School would spend a week each semester organizing panels on social issues. I always accepted when asked to participate on her gay marriage panel. I welcomed the chance to see how the students viewed the issue, and to share how being denied equal access to marriage affected LGBTQ lives beyond just the ability to marry. Every time I visited her classroom I made a point to survey who was in the room. Every year students of color were in the majority. I found it interesting that the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, to the best of my knowledge, was predominately white. So what’s keeping the students in that room from being part of the alliance?
Sometimes I worry that I am oversimplifying how I say this, but until you make it safe to be black in a given space, it’s not going to be safe to be black and gay, or to be Asian and gay, or Latinx and gay. When spaces (social, advocacy, educational, etc.) are created exclusively around issues affecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning community, those spaces are often not friendly to people of color. If oppression has a hierarchy, race ranks above sexual orientation and gender identity. This has created significant barriers for LGBTQ people of color and often pushes them further into the margins.
White Privilege in the LGBTQ Community
The same year as that GSAFE dinner, the U.S. Supreme Court declared marriage equality the law of the land. It was a time to celebrate, for sure. A quick survey of my Facebook friends showed that people quickly applied the pride flag filter to their profile photos, but I also noticed that those supporters were overwhelmingly white, or allies. For LGBTQ people of color, the victory was bittersweet. How can you celebrate gaining this hard-fought right when greater issues directly impacting health and survival have not been fully addressed, or have not received the same level of support from donors to fund an advocacy campaign? Statistics show that youth homelessness and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment are two issues that disproportionately impact LGBTQ communities of color. Many large donors who contributed to the fight for marriage equality were disproportionately white, and marriage was one of the few areas in their lives where they felt impacted by discrimination.
This issue is significantly larger than anyone could comprehensively cover in one short essay. I invite anyone reading this to please dive in deeper. Reflect on how our community isn’t immune to the same institutional and systemic racism that we face as a wider society. How do we begin unpacking that? We’re a small, marginalized group. To create safe and equitable spaces for us all, we need to listen more to each other and build relationships that are inclusive and take into account our full identities.
Examples of Social and Systemic Racism
One of the last frontiers for unchecked racism in the queer community can be found in mobile dating apps like Grindr, Scruff and Tinder. It’s common for these sites to allow users to set up profiles with preferences that mask racism. Most fail to see a racist connection, but ruling out an entire group based on race is racist. I’d challenge people to explore the roots of these preferences. Most often what these profiles identify as attractive are white standards of beauty, or advantages associated with white privilege.
Another example involves diversity and inclusion efforts. I can’t count the number of times I’ve met with corporate diversity and inclusion committees and could point out the gay person in the group almost immediately. They’re usually the only white person in the room besides me. While I commend all of these groups for making an effort to be inclusive of the LGBTQ community, I think the consistency of placing a white person in that role points to a much larger systemic issue. We have many accomplished LGBTQ leaders of color who deserve to represent the community around these tables.