Someone else on this site has already gone over it, but I don’t feel capable of writing a column that does not mention the outcome of the Zimmerman trial right now. I also don’t feel that I have anything of substance to say to any black readers that I may have, other than offering my sympathies. I know that what I am feeling now cannot possibly approach what you are feeling about this.
I am writing to my white readers, specifically to my white queer readers, because that’s the perspective I know. The points that I am trying to make have been made elsewhere. I am just trying to add my voice to the conversation.
(Oh, and before, I start, if you think that Zimmerman’s acquittal is anything other than a gross miscarriage of justice, read this summary of the facts. If you think that Stand Your Ground laws are flawed but fairly enforced, read about Marissa Alexander. If you still believe that, I don’t even know what to say to you. “Stand your ground” does not mean “Chase down a teenager against the advice of the police, then shoot him.”)
Gay is NOT the new black.
Neither is queer, LGBT, trans*, or anything else. Black is the old, new, and only black.
Are you outraged about the prevalence of hate crimes against LGBT people? Do you go to Trans* Day of Remembrance events? Have you seen the list of dead?
Look at it again. Look at the names, and at the pictures. There are a few white people scattered in there. The vast majority are black or Latin@.
Have you heard of CeCe McDonald? CeCe is a young, black, trans woman who was attacked by a group of white transphobes. Unlike in the Zimmerman case, there is no doubt—CeCe did not land the first blow. Unlike Zimmerman, CeCe suffered from serious injuries, which required a hospital visit. CeCe had every reason to fear for her life. She stabbed her attacker with a pair of scissors.
Unlike Zimmerman, CeCe is in prison. She will be in a men’s prison for up to 41 months, serving a term for second-degree manslaughter.
It would be wrong to ignore the fact that CeCe is a trans woman, of course, or to pretend that transmisogyny did not play a huge role in what happened to her. But it would be equally wrong to ignore the fact that she is black. Her attackers yelled racial slurs as well as trans slurs.
Nothing cancels out white privilege.
I don’t have male, straight, or cis privilege. That makes my life much harder than it would be if, all else being equal, I was a cis straight man (or any one of those things). I assume that we are all on the same page as far as that goes.
But none of that erases the fact that I have white privilege.
If I had walked by George Zimmerman that night, he might have catcalled me, or shouted out some anti-queer slur. But it is almost certain that he would not have killed me. If he had, he would have been arrested immediately. I am less “threatening” than a black seventeen-year-old.
If I had been in CeCe’s shoes, it’s possible (but unlikely) that I would have been attacked. It’s even less likely that I would have been sent to jail for defending myself.
White privilege is the privilege of being innocent until proven guilty, of being nonthreatening by default. It is the privilege of not having to fear the police unless you are committing a crime.
That is a big deal.
I don’t think that trying to quantitatively compare privileges is a productive activity. But I do think that it’s extremely important not to dismiss white privilege, or to claim that being queer means you don’t have it.
If I was black as well as queer, my life would be much harder. I would be less likely to be hired and more likely to be the target of violence.
Ignoring race means becoming what we hate.
Right now, things are looking pretty good for the “LGBT” (scare quotes entirely intentional) rights movement in the US. DADT is long gone, DOMA has been overturned, and it looks like state by state, marriage equality is going to sweep across the nation. There’s even some good news for trans people; the SSA no longer requires surgery before changing the gender marker on your social security card. Things are looking pretty great, right?
Marriage equality is important. People who can’t afford or don’t want surgery being able to change their gender markers is important. But these changes—particularly marriage equality, which has certainly gotten the most press—also make it easier for queer people to assimilate.
Queer kids (especially PoC) are still starving on the street. Black and Latina trans women are being forced into survival sex work and murdered. Drug use, mental illness, homelessness, unemployment, an inability to afford needed healthcare…these things won’t be solved by legalizing same-sex marriage.
And these are the problems that disproportionately affect queer people of color. They are also the issues that queer people as a group have in common with non-queer people of color.
It’s no accident that the issues that get the most attention and funding are the issues that will have the biggest effect on queer people who are privileged in other ways. A white, middle-class gay couple is going to lose thousands of dollars if they can’t receive the tax benefits of marriage. That couple’s lives and finances are not affected by the rate of homelessness among trans* youth of color. The fact that marriage equality will help poor and marginalized people as well isn’t the main issue. That reality was demonstrated harshly when the HRC refused to allow a queer undocumented immigrant to speak at a marriage equality rally.
Acceptance of homosexuality is becoming more and more widespread. At the same time, the mainstream gay movement is becoming more and more cis and white. We could be standing in solidarity with people of color to fight homelessness, but instead we’re blaming the supposed homophobia of racial minorities for slowing the progress of marriage equality.
We could be talking about CeCe McDonald, but we’d rather read off a list of names, whitewash them, and pretend that we’re all equally oppressed and that whatever helps white queers helps all queers.
We need to take a hard look at ourselves and our movement and ask whether we want to be the oppressors. It’s a pretty cushy position to be in, of course. Sometimes you can even get away with murder.
But if we want to claim that we stand for human rights and equality, we have to reject racism and anti-blackness wholeheartedly. We have to remember that while we white queers lack straight privilege, that will never cancel out our white privilege.
If we actually believe in the ideals we espouse, if we want our movement to be more than empty rhetoric in the service of whiteness, we have to remember that as much as we like to pretend that racism is a thing of the past, Zimmerman is a free man and Trayvon Martin is in the ground.