I recently read an article in Time Magazine called “Dear Black Women: White Gay Guys Are Your Allies, So Don’t Push Us Away”.
The author’s basic sentiment is “we’re both marginalized groups so, we should be working together as opposed to tearing each other down”. As a basic premise, this is fine, if not overly simplified. I felt like it was a very weak argument. The more I thought, the more I realized it bothered me, because he also takes a tone that implies that black women should be grateful for White gay men.
I am a white passing, gay, Latino male.
Even though I might feel uncomfortable in white spaces, I still pass as white in those spaces and benefit from that passing. In the Castro, for example I don’t feel as at home as I might elsewhere, but I look very similar to the white men around me. Like many gay men, specifically the popularized performance of white gay men, I use a lot of language and performative behavior that is adopted from black women. Watch Paris is Burning if you don’t believe me. In the past I’ve said things like, “Oh I’m really a black woman inside”, and black women have even said things like that to me. But sometimes I say it and I don’t think about what that means for my appropriation of Black Feminine Culture.
When I started realizing that a lot of the colloquial terms I use, like “YASSS”, didn’t start with gay men, it worried me. Is this appropriation? And does my passing as white heighten that appropriation? If yes to either (or both), what is my responsibility, as a person at the intersections of many types of marginalization and privilege, to right this?
Much of my performance is sincere. Growing up, seeing my sisters dance was a behavior that I admired and wanted to also participate in. My sister, Lucy, would dance Banda in heels and I was like “that’s so cool, how does she do that, I want to do that, heels are dangerous and exciting”. Performance of femininity has always been sincerely appealing to me.
As I aged, and much of my performance grew in its femininity, it also grew in its blackness. This growth, while influenced by the fact that my models for queer feminine identity performed this way, also came from a genuine love of black women. Throughout much of my life, women of color, specifically black women, have encouraged me, taught me, and been my confidants.
I struggled to feel at home in college, and the reason I stayed at Chico State was a black female professor who studied Africana Women Studies at Clark Atlanta, was one of my main motivators. She was definitely a black feminist professor. I was enthralled by her and took courses from her in Sociology, Ethnic and Women’s studies.
That’s when I started reading Patricia Hill Collins and Audre Lorde and all of these super powerful black women authors- to seek making sense of my queerness, of my positionality. Black women manage to advocate for themselves and those in their communities while also, so purely and authentically, advocating for marginalized groups in general. I feel like they bring up not only themselves, but communities. They empathize with hypermarginalized communities in a way that white gays don’t.
This gap comes from privilege.
What the Human Rights Campaign presents as their image of equality is like, gay marriage. It’s not “stop queer deportations” or “end the imprisonment of trans women in men’s prisons”. They’re not fighting battles that impact queer communities of color, or forms of marginalization that intersect sexuality with other forms of identity.
And that’s privilege- when you don’t have to acknowledge or take a stand on something.
And once I recognized that yes, my queerness was something that often made me oppressed, I also realized there are a lot of aspects of my being that afford me privileges that I had never questioned.
Because of my appearance, I take on the privileges of a white man. The fact that I am 6’3”, that I am white passing, that I am masc presenting, affords me the privilege of embracing whatever identity performance I want (often one that is high femme), and not being killed for it, or heavily ostracized for it. I still wonder what is my responsibility as a white passing Latino who learns femme performance from black women?
Think back to the situation in Napa, where a group of black women got kicked off a train for “being loud”. Would a group of white gay men been kicked off the train? I don’t think so. That behavior, the same behavior, is acceptable for some groups and demonized for others. If I do this thing that black women are angrily accused of doing all the time (being loud), it’s cute. Me being white passing and queer is different than being a darker person of color and queer, because sometimes in our society just being a person of color is queer.
The answer then, is yes, many aspects of my identity performance appropriate cultural practices built by black women. I don’t know if my performance is problematically appropriative or if, because it is a sincere performance of my own marginalized identity (a femme performing man), it just simply is. But black women’s performance is so good for my soul.
One of the biggest issues with appropriation is the lack of acknowledgment- people are able to find success with traits that have actively held others, with whom those traits originated, back.
We have to acknowledge where we learned this performance. From there, we have to ensure that we are using any privilege we might innately have or acquire to support others.
To say, as many people do, “we’re Black women’s allies”, but not talk about the trans black women that are being killed, or help the black women in your life fight for equal pay- that’s weak. Don’t talk about it, be about it. Show up at rallies, help victims of femicide, provide resources. I think of the black girls that I work with, and how I feel a sincere and particular responsibility to them. Both because it’s my job and because of my specific positionality, I feel as though I can be, and have been, a very familiar, accessible person for them. With those relationships, I’m committed to providing them with everything I can. I’m proud to call myself an ally, and being an ally requires action.
Jaime Barajas is queer Xicano scholar, an educator, and an activist.