A Response to Sierra Mannie

I’ve been thinking about this article for the better part of the weekend. I agree with a lot of Ms. Mannie’s arguments. I’ve seen my fare share of gay men engage in racist objectification of black women. I’ve been guilty of it, although I’m learning from my mistakes. That said, I have a few critiques of what she lays out and how she says what she says.

First, I am uncomfortable with her reductive suggestion that gay men can hide their sexuality. Some can pass, others–MANY others–cannot. I wasn’t out of the closet until my freshman year of college. I’d like Ms. Mannie to ask me how often I was brutalized in middle school and high school for homosexuality she thinks is easy for gay men to “hide.” At the heart of her argument, whether she realizes it or not, is the homophobic suggestion that sexuality is not an immutable trait like race or sex (which she repeatedly confuses with gender) because gay men, in particular, can hide their sexuality. I don’t think this misstep necessarily dilutes the thrust of her argument about racism among white, gay men, but HER unchecked homophobia doesn’t do much to bolster her credibility as a critical-cultural thinker.

Second, cultural appropriation works both ways. Actually, scratch that. Cultural appropriation in a postmodern world runs in EVERY direction. Mannie writes, “…our music, our dances, our slang, our clothing, our hairstyles. All of these things are rounded up, whitewashed and repackaged for your consumption.” This happens to every subculture. I invite Ms. Mannie to come to West Hollywood on a Friday night and see what’s happened to one of the country’s most celebrated gay neighborhoods. I’d love to see her witness the bachelorette parties, and white women and women of color yelping gay slang. Maybe Ms Mannie can simply turn on an episode of The Real Housewives of Atlanta or Married to Medicine to see how gay male culture–in all its colors and varieties–has impacted the communication habits of African American women. Maybe Ms. Mannie can visit gay neighborhoods across the country and notice how heterosexual men and women–of all colors and varieties–poach gay space. I’d love to say that, in the US, people hijack the styles of gay actors and musicians but sexual minorities are rarely given a seat at the table, and when we see gay characters on TV or film, they’re more often than not portrayed by heterosexual men and women.

Next, it’s odd that, in Ms. Mannie’s opening paragraph, she cites the gender-inverting performances of heterosexual black men to make a point about personal encounters she has with gay white men. Reading her opening paragraph, I’m reminded of Madea; and, although I’ve never heard any person–black or white–mention “Shanequa around the way,” I watched Martin Lawrence lampoon black women as Shanaynay.

Finally, let’s not start a talk about rights and opportunities in this country. There’s no point in comparing oppressions, so I won’t go down that path. But it might be instructive to remember that 70% of African Americans voters in California–one of the most liberal states in the union–voted against marriage equality. This is not to say that black men and women are responsible for that travesty. African American cultural critics rightfully argued that the statistic had more to do with faith than race. I only bring up Proposition 8 here because I see many pro-8 presuppositions echoed in Ms. Mannie’s piece: 1) Gays can “hide” their sexuality. 2) Gay men steal. They steal black men away from African American women (e.g., “for which black male you’ve been bottoming”) and they steal culture. 4) Gay, white men bottoming for black men is dangerous, particularly for African American women. 

Most of all, I see a homophobic critique and request for self-reflexivity without the author engaging in the same sort of self-prodding she demands of gay men. She repeatedly conflates whiteness with gay whiteness (e.g., “Nothing about whiteness will get a white person in trouble the way blackness can get a black person shot down in his tracks.”) and rarely engages the intersectionality of white homosexuality as it relates to other cultures. How, for example, has the association of white and black drag in, say, Paris is Burning or just about any gay bar in America, resulted in cultural hybridity, or a co-mingling of disenfranchised and marginalized communities? When I hear black female characters on TV talking about a “kiki,” I know the source and it’s not heterosexual black women.

In my day-to-day life as a critical-cultural professor at a university in southern California, I hear people say to their peers, “Check your privilege,” as they take false pride in all “the strong truth tea [they THINK they] just spilled.” The problem is that self-reflexivity runs IN BOTH DIRECTIONS. And if you’re pointing your finger squarely at one historically marginalized community without taking a SINGLE MOMENT to implicate yourself, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.

Final thought: Do I think Ms Mannie should be castigated for her words. No! So much of what she says is important. It’s telling that the white, gay response I’ve seen is largely peppered with words like “heifer” to describe a remarkably bright undergraduate. Many of the Towleroad comments in response to her piece make me sick to my stomach. By and large, the gay community has a significant problem with racism and many, MANY gay men objectify and belittle African American women. Likewise, the African American community by and large has a homophobia problem. This is how cultural hegemony thrives. Pit groups against one another and guess who wins? Not gays and not African Americans or other people of color. The only way out of this bear trap is to work together, to implicate our own communities, to point the finger in multiple directions–most importantly, to point the finger back at ourselves, to investigate our OWN privilege.