There has been much ado about the newfound notion of “black gay privilege.” In numerous tweets, blogs, and a certain Huffington Post article, it has been articulated as a special benefit enjoyed by black gay men. This “privilege”— produced by white anxiety and white supremacy—supposedly enables us to evade the traditional economic struggles experienced by straight black men.
The crux of the argument is such: White people are less intimidated by black gay men because they are seen as less of a threat. Therefore, black gay men enjoy greater employment options and benefits than black straight men. Said “privilege” is situated on the assertion that black gay men are less masculine and therefore less intimidating to white men and women, and more likely to be hired and promoted. There are many problems with this belief, but let us first begin with an anecdote.
Last winter I took a job with a large non-profit focused on HIV survivors in New England. Being black, queer, and affected by the HIV epidemic, it seemed a natural fit. My awarded senior thesis had centered on HIV criminalization and was steeped in the work, from Boston to Oakland. My life experiences, my professional expertise and connections all but guaranteed this job as a perfect fit for me. I would be doing the work, the work of saving my people.
However, upon realizing I was the only queer person of color in my department—and one of just two black men on staff—I became a unique type of cultural commodity. My hair was long, my jeans skinny, and my eyebrows marked by the Dominican straight-edge. This was my style—but to my supervisor, it symbolized something more: weakness, access, and power. Routinely, she felt empowered to run her fingers through my locs, grab my waist and inspect my biceps and pecs with a grip that lingered for seconds.
Walking into the office felt like I was on the auction block. I was clothed and free-ish—but my socioeconomic future depended on the presentation of my blackness, the (imagined) invitation of my queerness, and her unfettered, unregulated, and unencumbered access to it. This was the price I paid in order to work on an issue vital to the survival of my people, black people, BlaQueer people. In order to pitch policies, garner grants, and direct funding to black HIV survivors and those at-risk for acquisition, I had to mortgage my body and use the proceeds as license to work on a leash.
In department meetings, I was routinely dismissed and silenced by my white, cis, female supervisor; this, despite her inability to define undetectable and constant markings of us as “blacks” and “the infected.” My ideas were not material to what was happening—unless first filtered through her—and my thoughts were important only insofar as they provided her with cultural-credit, a way of proving that she too was hip, in touch with blackness, and familiar in the high art of shade. I was often summoned to her cubicle, not to speak about policy, but to translate Beyonce memes, answer “is it true about black ____” questions, and discuss why “gay” people act like “that.” In short order, I was transformed from an awarded, published and noted writer, speaker, and activist to simply “hers.” Particularly telling was the ways in which she micromanaged my conversations and work with the other black man in our department—who happened to be her equal in status—climbing over the cubicle to watch and listen, all the while sending him or I irate text messages.
The suspicion of black men “in collusion” is nothing new, and a friendship of black men across masculinities and sexual practices indeed seemed alarming. The flow of my queerness, somewhere left of masculine, combined with the criminality of my blackness provided a logic and pathway of domination and control. I don’t assert anything about her thought process or ethics. I will only state that she felt some need, some yearning to demonstrate her power, her influence through, on, and because of me. This was demonstrated through public yelling, berating and humiliation before funders, colleagues, and community members.
When I finally responded in private, in a calm but stern manner, I was cited for making her feel uncomfortable, out of control, and afraid for her safety. My blackness had gone too far. I was now being marked as a dangerous black man and losing access to the weakness of queerness. The implication: That my role and treatment by her was situated on and created to provide her with (in addition to physical access to my body) a particular access to feelings and notions of comfort, power, and bliss. My supervisor exhibited a yearning displayed in early white feminisms—the desire to access white supremacist, hetero-patriarchies and the power to enact racial-sexual terrors at an equitable rate. She did so with the confidence of a lioness, surrounding a wounded gazelle, pride in tow.
Neither queerness nor same-sex attraction inherently require or guarantee a particular performance of masculinities or femininities. This is equally true for heterosexual black men. Racial-sexual discriminatory hiring, firing, and managing practices are not a function of the sexual practices or gender performances of black men, but instead a display of white anxieties and insecurities. These insecurities and anxieties are rooted in racial-sexual tropes that were imputed on black bodies during slavery. Black male and female bodies–across sex, sexuality and gender performance–were routinely violated in circus-like displays of racial-sexual terrors and power.
These (white) family events included lynchings, penectomies, breast augmentation, and genital mutilations. These events occurred for myriad, sadistic reasons, but most often functioned as violent lessons of racial-sexual comportment. The official word, that black men and women were hypersexual and needed to be punished, eliminated, and made examples of, was held as gospel in the white community–and widely disputed amongst black survivors. The activist and scholar Ida B. Wells noted that most were terrorized not for their sexual proclivities but for their refusal to be used for the sexual pleasure of slaveholders, male and female, gay and straight. In short, black people were killed not for acts of sexual violence, but sexual resistance, interpreted as violence to the system of white (sexual) power and domination. In layman’s terms, they wanted to teach (read: force) black people how to (sexually) act (read: submit). Today’s realities are not as remote in difference or effect as we might be led to believe.
The phenomena of some black gay men accessing professional longevity is not about privilege. Privilege is an unearned benefit, bestowed without merit. This is different. This is ju jitsu. This—the forced circumcision of blackness from queerness, and queerness from masculinities in order to remain employed—is violence. I carry the scars with me in every job that I acquire, hoping that they remain invisible, an old memory, hidden from sight.
Gay, bisexual, queer and same-gender loving black men already exist in a space socially and politically apart from black men: We are the other brothers. Daily we are forced to choose and navigate how we perform maleness, in order to affirm our identity and preserve our safety from a number of violences. We are also called and required to police our blackness in a way that allows us to remain close to home and family, while also allowing proximity to whiteness (as sociocultural capital/property), to avert or lessen white supremacist violences. We must also navigate, customize, and reform our queerness, second by second, to avert heterosexist violences, obscure our seemingly dangerous blackness, and assert our power as men—that is, the power to avert systemic (cis) male-domination, visited on the bodies of women. Put simply, BlaQueerness is about surviving racial-sexual circumcisions, a two-step of terror-evasion.
When we are coerced to perform, mask, and other our personal performances of black “maleness”—not unlike my interaction with my supervisor—we enable ourselves to climb socioeconomic ladders, however frail, to financial stability. However, in doing so, we endorse the work and will of white supremacy and heterosexism/patriarchy through our assent. We compromise ourselves, as well as our rights and abilities, to simply be us—alive.
This isn’t privilege. This is survival. And it’s exhausting.
We are placed in the impossible position of negotiating between survival under white supremacy and hunger within personal black queer authenticity. The notion of black gay “privilege”—aside from erasing the realities of “right of masculine” men, trans men and womyn—positions the BlaQueer man as a buffer between white supremacists hiring practices and their black critics. Buffers exists only to take blows. Because we hired these black men, white supremacists note, we cannot be racist. BlaQueer, and left of masculine, men are weaponized as a bulwark against black truths and records of violence. Lost in translation is requirement of BlaQueer men to mortgage defacto control of their bodies and performances of self to their employer as a condition of employment. Also lost are the implicit messages that either these men are ideal and preferable and/or that other black men are deficient by choice or nature. This enables race, and by extension power, to be evaded as the focal point and instead posits responsibility on the deficiency of black, straight, masculine presenting men.
There is no black gay privilege. There are white supremacist, heterosexist, patriarchal, capitalistic anxieties engraved upon black gay bodies through violent hiring, firing and retention practices. There is violence—psychological and psychosocial terrorisms—in forced, perverted performances of ourselves, in order to find a sweet spot between masculinities and femininities that do not arouse white fear, white guilt, or white notions of equity. We are to be propertied: Seen, heard, and felt as accessible and owned by employers for their pleasure and fulfillment. Our given role then, in this system, is to do what white supremacy believes “straight” or “masculine” black men will not: Take micro-aggressions, violences, and inequity with a smile and a hair-flip. Unfortunately, BlaQueer men and womyn are the kings and queens of subversive existences, politics and liberatory practices.
“If a human chain
can be formed
around missiles sites
then surely black men
can form human chains
around Anacostia, Harlem
South Africa, Wall Street
Hollywood, each other.
If we have to take tomorrow with our own blood,
are we ready?….
All I want to know for my own protection is,
are we ready for whatever,
whenever?” —Essex Hemphill
Yes, yes we are. We must use the insights and lessons, of the scars of oppression, to draw and map our home to collective freedom and liberations. There is no cure, no panacea, no treatment to rage and resolve within the bones of BlaQueer peoples, outside of black and BlaQueer liberations. We are the ones we have been loving for, dying for, and living for. We are ready.
[Image by Tara Jacoby; Photo via Shutterstock]