Pride month has once more come and gone, and this year, more than any other, has highlighted what’s become a real problem for our continued progress as a community. Most of the gay white men I know, certainly those who are middle-class and HIV negative, stopped worrying about the movement for equality years ago. After society quit policing our bodies and lives with zeal, most of us were more than content to move on. Non-discrimination laws in blue states now protect our livelihoods. The Supreme Court decriminalized sodomy in its 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision, and then it legally recognized same-sex relationships with its 2015 Obergefell decision. For gay white men — at least in our minds — the struggle is over. The rest of the queer community will have to fend for itself.
We left the movement, not coincidentally, at the moment it turned its attention to achieving equality for trans folk, to fighting for the dignity of queer immigrants, to highlighting the dangers of the carceral state for queer people people of color, to supporting the needs of queer elders, and to honoring the lives of long-term HIV survivors. Gay white men could have rallied the same intensity we had for pursuing marriage and employment non-discrimination, but we didn’t. We should be doing more, but we aren’t. In fact, we don’t even want to be asked.
The majority of us aren’t interested in learning about intersectionality or what it means to be transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary. We’re not to be fussed about income inequality and its specific impact on the broader queer community. We’d rather ignore what it means to be HIV positive with its implications for accessing affordable healthcare. We might support a woman’s right to abortion, but the politics of defending reproductive rights for all women remains theoretical. For most gay men, equality in the “post-Obergefell moment” is defined by being out, being white, and being done.
Activism at every level is a personal thing, so there’s no obligation for anyone to be an activist on anything but his own terms. But the way in which gay white men have retired from the fight is problematic.
To successfully and ostensibly position ourselves within the economic, cultural and political establishment of the straight world, we’ve deliberately distanced ourselves from the rest of the queer community in the mind of the public. We created a niche identity that emphasizes who we are as white men and downplays who we are as queer folk. Then, to secure general recognition of that status, we willfully abandoned issues important to other queer people. Now, to confirm our new social position, we disclaim those issues as not being queer issues at all. Putting it bluntly, the more a gay white man can assert he has nothing in common with a trans woman of color, the more likely he is to receive the approbation he craves from his straight “peers.”
The world we inhabit, however much it has accommodated some queer people, remains a sexist, racist, classist, transphobic, and even homophobic place. To the degree it makes any allowances for queer people, it still looks to gay white men as the arbiters of what constitutes equality. By withdrawing from the movement, we’ve ratified for straight people the mistaken notion that the political objectives of queer people are all met. Having alienated the concerns of the rest of the queer community we’ve now curtailed opportunities to expand the political awareness of committed straight allies.
Consider any issue still requiring the efforts of queer activists and it’s easy to see the ways in which each is a challenge to prevailing notions of poverty, race, gender, and the criminal justice system. But gay white men looking to maintain their recently acquired social standing can’t allow themselves to be too closely associated with the politics of sex work, harm reduction, HIV criminalization, the carceral state, corporatism, or pinkwashing. Earnest activism in any of these areas would shake the foundations of “Gay Respectability” as it exists within the context of straight society, jeopardizing the place inside it that gay white men have been allowed to occupy.
James Baldwin, a black man and self-described “homosexual” (he did not identify with the term “gay”), recognized this proclivity among gay white men thirty-five years ago. In 1984, he told the Village Voice “I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society.”
The years following the Obergefell decision have proven Baldwin’s opinion to be true. Gay white men who once felt cheated by widespread homophobia now see it only narrowly, limited to the few things the world continues to deny us. Absent the legal infrastructure built to justify anti-gay animus, we expect society to afford us all the courtesies we consider our due as white men within the racist, cisgender patriarchy. Our general disappearance from the movement is confirmation that our fight was never against the general bigotry inherent in homophobia; it was always, instead, against the specific consequences of homophobia for gay white men.
Don’t believe me? Ask a gay white man if he’s ever been arrested just for being on the street. Ask him if he thinks a restaurant in the south would deny him the use of its bathroom. Ask him what most frightens him about the possibility of spending a night in jail.
To be fair, gay white men maintain some presence in the movement. Once a year, we swarm the gayborhoods festooned in our finest Pride drag, and we might even march in the parade to re-assert our bona fides as part of the other-than-straight community. We regularly informed, mostly via social media, of the latest slight coming from a religious leader or a public official somewhere in Flyover Country. We nurse the schadenfreude for every Republican outed in a gay sex scandal (honestly, who else cares about the ongoing whereabouts and whatabouts of Aaron Schock?). And we do what we can with our wallets, showing up to annual gala dinners or supporting popular queer candidates for elected office.
But gay white men have to do better. We have to rejoin the fight. We have to care about the things we would rather ignore. Fifty years after the riots began at the Stonewall Inn, achieving equality must be more than the opportunity to live in straight suburbs and drink in straight bars. It has to be more than just coming out. It has to be more than getting married and buying cakes.
It has to be more than praising a moderate Democratic candidate for President simply because he’s a gay man — especially when he has a weak record of supporting the queer and black communities in the city where he’s mayor.
The only way to achieve full equality is to eliminate the homophobia inherent in the continued control of queer bodies and queer lives by straight society and its institutions. Equality has to be measured in the dignity that queer people are afforded not just as our authentic selves but as our whole selves. For that to happen, gay white men need to remember that we too are still queer.
Until gay white men abandon the self-serving distinctions between ourselves and the rest of the queer community, we can’t argue in good faith that any of us has achieved full and lasting equality. And if gay white men aren’t a part of that fight, then we’re part of the problem.
Brian Gaither (@briangaither) is an LGBTQ activist in Maryland. He is a co-founder of the Pride Foundation of Maryland and the Maryland LGBT PAC.