It’s Okay to Be Gay, So Long As You’re White
Like most good white liberals in America (and David Brooks), I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. For white gay men, I think the book provides an alternative interpretation to the recent ruling on marriage equality that we are deeply afraid to discuss. The recent whitewashing of the Stonewall Riots makes it all the more important to question the predominance of whites within the current LGBT movement.
A cynical reading of Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States, is that the majority opinion is simply an extension of whiteness. Edie Windsor, of prior Supreme Court fame, was a rich old white lady who was told it wasn’t enough to be rich and white; she also needed to be straight. James Obergefell, similarly, is a perfectly presentable (i.e. well-off) white plantiff. There’s nothing at all outside of the “mainstream” about either of these two individuals except for the unfortunate fact that though they were born white in America, they were also born gay. This accident of birth meant that privileges and rights were denied to them that other whites received.
So we must ask ourselves a difficult question. Are we as a country advancing rights for all minorities equally, or are we just reshaping whiteness?
While our country stagnates on issues of race, except for the recent removal of the Confederate flag, we advance gay rights forward and congratulate ourselves with photos of six white gay ambassadors. We owe our newfound national liberty to the good judgment of two Catholics and three Jews, religious groups once excluded from power back when you had to fulfill all of the WASP (White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant) requirements. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter as much if you’re a Mormon or a Catholic. You can be president or a Supreme Court justice, as long as you still believe in (one non-Muslim) God. Consider then that Obergefelle v. Hodges, through the conservative institution of marriage, codified the mainstream whiteness of gayness.
Whiteness, as defined by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is the Mountain. Vague and generalized, it can be defined only in relation to the diminished groups around it, the Valley. For gay white boys like me who grew up in the South, we were denied the Mountain. This was particularly troubling for us, when all of our other characteristics suggested that we should be on the Mountain with “everyone else”. But unless we decided to marry women and hide, equality under the law simply was not possible. Now, just as the Irish are no longer considered the “Negroes of Europe,” gays and lesbians are no longer persona non grata in public life.
Freedom to Marry, its namesake purpose achieved, will shut it doors. Its leader is a white man. The same can be said for the leaders and/or founders of other national groups; there is an unbearable whiteness to the LGBT equality movement. Yes, of course people of color will benefit from this ruling. But at a time when women are still struggling for equal pay, why is it okay for a law firm that hires gay white men to call itself “diverse”?
White gay men, I would argue, are fulfilling a linchpin cultural role at this moment in assuaging white guilt. It’s like being asked to try sushi for the first time, and you pride yourself on eating a California roll. White gay men are like the sesame chicken of diversity: exotic to the uninitiated, but in reality, just fried chicken with some corn syrup and seeds sprinkled on top. Marriage, particularly with rates declining among African-Americans, has become an institutional marker of whiteness. By claiming it for ourselves, we are essentially saying, “Look, don’t worry about me! I’m going to play by the rules just like all of you other good white people.”
Perhaps now you are thinking of me as an ungrateful, privileged, overeducated white man reaping the benefits of a coordinated legal strategy and heroism that started decades before me. But where is our Paris is Burning of today? Why does the latest Stonewall movie erase drag queens? Do little black boys of color look at James Obergefelle and think, hey, it’s okay to be gay? Do little brown lesbians look at Edie Windsor and think, hey, that could be me some day?
My point is that we have a long and terrible tradition in the United States of America of extending whiteness to some instead of extending justice for all. One group moves forward, and black people remain in the Valley. The Mountain may get larger, but the Valley remains. Whiteness grows, and blackness solidifies.
White people are particularly sensitive to this criticism because we do not accept that they are obligated to speak out against issues of race. We complain about the constant churn of racial debates when we are the only ones who can afford to ignore the conversation. Much of my graduate school education was aimed at convincing me that race is a social construct (it is) and that class, not race, was the real issue. If you adjust for family income, there is no racial achievement gap; it’s all about poverty.
Class. Poverty. Transgender. White people would rather talk about any of these things rather than talk about race. Because race, as Coates puts it, involves a certain down payment on our individual success. “You didn’t build that,” Obama told us during one of his too-honest slips-of-the-tongue.
Well, we didn’t. I went to a college built by slaves where you could keep slaves on campus. White gay men are still white. And while I’m thrilled and joyful about being able to get married anywhere in these United States, I recognize that it’s another privilege added to my substantial pile. It’s another victory, made within the established system, which makes my life that much easier. It’s almost as if I have been made whole once again. It’s that one path in life that was closed to me before that now is open. It’s the sense that, “I’m just like everyone else now.”
But when I’m honest with myself, “the everyone else” isn’t everybody. It’s all of those straight white people I know.
“I can’t even talk about Sandra Bland anymore,” I said to a black friend recently.
She responded, “That’s your privilege. That’s your luxury. You don’t have to read about her or think about her or relate to her at all.”
The Mountain of Whiteness, once reclaimed, is an easy and comfortable refuge from the foundational injustice of America.
But what price do you pay for staying on the Mountain?