When I came out it was far from triumphant. The awkwardness of the affair, the strange, muted reaction of the family and the sudden shift in the way a large portion of my friends perceived me shifted things to the negative. Within a month girl friends of mine tried to make me into their sassy gay friend and demanded I take them to a drag show at a local bar. We arrived to a deserted bar. The performers played against an empty room. At the bar, staring at me, was a man who had groped me on the bus. In between outsized, campy performances the MC made cutting, transphobic and misogynistic comments. The sole black performer was characterized as “the ghetto tranny”.
This experience came to mind when I read Mark Joseph Stern’s piece in Slate, “I’m Grateful to be Gay- Otherwise I Might Have Been a Horrible Person”. In the article Stern lays out the sentiment that because he is gay it’s impossible for him to be “a professional minority basher”.
“Gay people are born with empathy for the underdog, whether we like it or not. We’ve all played the role of the outcast, the weirdo; we’ve all faced prejudice and discrimination and sorrow and self-loathing. Those of us who emerge from the darkness gain newfound will and determination. But we can’t shake that fundamental desire of justice, that yearning for fairness for those despised by society.”
Maybe Stern has known better gay people than I have or was born into a more progressive city but this isn’t something I’ve experienced. The gay community, such as it is, in my region is racially segregated. It’s rare to see a black person at one of the gay bars in town. It’s also not the friendliest to transpeople, bisexuals or lesbians. We are stratified by wealth, by race and by gender identity with cis-gender, white men as the in-group and everybody else pushed to the margins. It’s not unique to my city. A simple google search for “gay racism” will get you a Wikipedia page dedicated the issue of race in the LGBT community. Downloading the Grindr app will open a new world of racism in which people post things like “no Orientals” or, “squinty eye, no reply”, or “I like sugar and rice, not chocolate or spice” on their profiles. The Human Rights Campaign has often been accused, rightly so, of ignoring trans issues. Bisexuals are told they don’t exist so often that it’s maddening.
My point is not to rain all over Stern’s parade. I’m glad that he attributes his empathy and progressive stance to his sexuality. I’m glad he’s self-aware enough to realize that the struggles he faces as an out gay man make him kin to other people who face oppression for their race or sexuality or gender identity. Being gay, however, is not sufficient to inoculate you against being a racist, being transphobic, being misogynistic or erasing bisexuals. There are ample chances for a gay man to fall into “a pit of paranoid fury” that makes empathy “withered and warped”. To think otherwise blinds us to real issues that plague our community. We owe it to ourselves, our female, bisexual, trans, and POC siblings to strive for equity. We owe it to ourselves to be aware of our shortcomings. We owe it to ourselves to be aware of our capacity for failure because without it we’ll never know if we’ve actually succeeded.
This Thanksgiving I’m not going to raise a glass to some self-congratulating notion about my sexuality; I’ll raise it to the family and friends that rescued me from an abusive relationship this year. That, I think, is something to be thankful for.