Let’s start with a memory. In the midst of the 2008 presidential primary season, I happened across a TV clip of a reporter going into black hair salons so she could ask the customers about the election. With the camera zooming in and a microphone pressed up to women’s faces, the reporter asked one black woman after another, “Are you going to vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? And why?”
That’s what the reporter asked, but it wasn’t what she really wanted to know. The real question was this: “Are you going to vote for Obama because he’s black like you or Clinton because she’s a woman like you? Which part of yourself is most important?” I can’t remember any of the women’s answers, only their furrowed brows, annoyed grimaces, and side eyes.
I get the same look on my face whenever I read or hear someone say that “gay is the new black.” This week, inspired by President Obama’s invocation of Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall during the inauguration, writer John McWhorter brought the discussion back to the internet. His basic premise: “Too many black Americans have little more interest in keeping the ladder out for gay people than early feminists had in doing the same for black people.”
He certainly isn’t the first person to point this out, or the second, or tenth, but the rhetoric is the same; the phrase stings more than it inspires. Well-intentioned as McWhorter and other allies may be, “gay is the new black” just isn’t working out. Here are just a few reasons why.
The LGBT community still has strides to make in terms of racism and its consequences.
I’ve only been called a racial epithet to my face twice in my entire life, both times by white gay men. Ask any gay man of color with a Grindr profile how many times he’s had to deal with white men either rejecting him or specifically pursuing him because of racist stereotypes. (Once, I read a Grindr profile that declared, “Not interested in black, Asian, or Mexican cuisine. It’s just my preference.”)
And these maddening encounters are the easy part. The marginalization of queer men and women of color is directly connected to disproportionate rates of HIV/AIDS, poverty, homelessness, and more. We aren’t post-racial, or post-black, or post–civil rights. “Gay is the new black,” however, makes it sound like we can all pat ourselves on the back and move on to the next checkbox. Racism? Done. Next up? Gay rights.
Uh, not quite, sister girl.
The phrase “gay is the new black” pushes the idea that only black and gay people have a vested interest in equality.
In addition to being condescending, the argument that black people bear a “special responsibility” to support LGBT rights is dangerous. If, based on past experiences, some people are more responsible for making equality, do others bear less? Equality is everyone’s business because oppression is to everyone’s detriment.
As an example, I’m a gay man; I’ve never slept with a woman. In no way does this mean I bear less responsibility for ending sex culture. We are all in this together, no cop-outs allowed.
We have more to gain from respecting our combined differences than continuing to insist on an increasingly outdated slogan.
Yes, the LGBT movement and black civil rights movement have a lot in common. All major civil rights movements do. However, just because there is a thread connecting Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, it doesn’t mean we can pretend they are carbon copies of one another. The LGBT movement alone struggles to address the unique realities of various queer identities. (Ask a trans woman about the challenges she faces on a daily basis and then talk to a cisgender gay man, and you’ll see what I mean.)
The LGBT movement isn’t just about gay rights in the same way that America isn’t just black and white; and “gay is the new black” is increasingly out-of-date and out of touch with the moment.