by yvonne & riese
In a TIME article published last week, University of Mississippi student Sierra Mannie clearly articulates why it is wrong for white gay men to appropriate black female culture and why they are not allowed to “claim blackness or womanhood.”
“At the end of the day, if you are a white male, gay or not, you retain so much privilege… The difference is that the black women with whom you think you align so well, whose language you use and stereotypical mannerisms you adopt, cannot hide their blackness and womanhood to protect themselves the way that you can hide your homosexuality. We have no place to hide, or means to do it even if we desired them.”
Because the patriarchy is so accustomed to silencing and shutting down black women’s voices, today TIME published a response to Mannie’s article written by a gay white cisgender man, Steve Friess, titled “Dear Black Women: White Gays Are Your Allies, So Don’t Push Us Away.” Oh you know he had a lot to say.
In his response, Friess claims that black women should be friends with white gay men because white gay men also know what it feels like to be “ostracized and pushed down.” He argues that Mannie’s arguments are illogical and calls her article a “full-frontal assault” to white gay men and points out that gay white men are actually the “truest friends black women can have in American society.” His response is dripping with white male privilege, reflects a deep ignorance of institutionalized racism, proves he knows nothing about intersectionality and the existence — let alone the struggles — of queer people of color, and offers no actual proof of how white gay men are allies to black women other than they share similar musical tastes and have distinct subcultures.
He opens by acknowledging that he comes from an affluent white background and then proceeds with an anecdote recalling a formative visit to the Sugar Water music festival in Las Vegas, where he was introduced to black women singers including Queen Latifah and Erykah Badu and was surprised to see an audience comprised mainly of black women and gay white men. He remembers being “fascinated” by the plethora of black female/gay white male friendship pairs (he also seems to be assuming that all the black women are straight and/or cisgender) and basically it seems like he’s never been around people of color and thinks it’s weird.
Friess goes on to write, “It’s easy, once you start to imagine it, to see the natural connection between the two ostracized groups, both of which have translated that marginalization into defiant, self-affirming subcultures.” There’s the word “ostracize” again. Friess uses it because it’s the only word that allows him to put white gay men and black women on the same playing field. In her piece, Mannie didn’t say that black women were “ostracized,” she said that they were “oppressed.” Friess clearly missed the point when Mannie wrote, “white people are not racially oppressed in the United States of America,” not once, but three motherf-cking times in her article. Black women are more likely to be unemployed, incarcerated, denied healthcare, denied adequate media representation and denied voting rights than white men. Full stop.
It’s the “defiant, self-affirming subcultures,” however, that Friess seems to be obsessed with, and the way he presents this theory of connection is pretty revelatory of his approach to this conversation overall. He seems to view black female culture and gay male culture as sharing unique, distinct and universal tastes in music and attitude, and from this viewpoint he never stops to acknowledge or consider that in addition to not all sharing the same taste in music, not all gay men are white, and not all black women are straight or cisgender. He opines that, “the mutual fondness between so many black women and white gay men arises both from similar, if not shared, experience, but also a strikingly similar approach to coping with it.” The only example of a “strikingly similar approach to coping with it” he seems to offer, however, is that black women and gay men went to the same “urban nightclubs” in the ’90s.
The very fact that Time magazine published Friess’s response in the first place is an example of the insidious racism and patriarchal system that Friess is so oblivious to and that black women have to fight every single day. The language he uses to describe Mannie’s words is patronizing and dehumanizing:
“Last week, that alliance came under attack by misguided University of Mississippi senior Sierra Mannie, who believed she was defending black women from cultural theft by launching an assault on white gays who, to her mind, behave too black.”
“Others have already burned the piece down to its homo-ignorant nub, noting that Mannie writes cluelessly and obscenely about the nature and challenges of being gay.”
“Mannie can bark at the gay white universe to lay off, but an appealing means of expression and art are the ultimate in open-source culture.”
Friess already fucked up the first rule of allyship. When a black woman tells you you’re not being a good ally, you listen; you don’t berate and undermine.
Friess goes on to write that Mannie has overlooked the fact that “white gay men as a group could be the truest friends black women can have in American society.” This is maddening on so many levels but mostly because he doesn’t offer any examples of what this “friendship” would procure, just an oblique reference to how their union could fight “countervailing forces that push [black women] down.” Why can white gay men help black women attack these unnamed countervailing forces? According to Friess, because they did such a good job at attacking their own countervailing force — heterosexual men, the one and only barrier to “full equality” for gay people. “Gay white men, in fact, pioneered a prototype for this. Not long ago, the biggest barrier for social acceptance for gays was heterosexual men. Then we co-opted them,” he writes, going on to argue that white gay men were accepted by straight men because they wanted to appeal to straight women who loved gay men’s music, hair, clothes and “manscaping,” even citing Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as evidence.
He does devote a paragraph to acknowledging that black women have always been more oppressed than white gay men, noting that “there is no question white gays have intrinsic advantages over black women in American society. Sure, we’ve taken our lumps, but black women certainly win the sweepstakes of oppression by a landslide.” But in the next sentence, he subtly undermines himself and reveals the blinding extent of his white male privilege and lack of an intersectional approach by once again treating “black women” and “gay people” as mutually exclusive groups, co-opting the term “civil rights movement,” and ignoring the institutional racism and patriarchal systems that queer women of color face today, declaring, “it is, in fact, this basic difference — race — that has enabled us to blitz through our civil rights movement in head-spinning fashion, while black women continue to face painful economic and political hurdles.”
While it’s great to hear a white gay man acknowledge what we all realize — that it’s the whiteness and subsequent institutional power of white gay males that enabled marriage equality, not some radical sea change in how power is distributed amongst various groups of Americans — it’d be even greater to hear him confront the fact that those same men, including him in that very paragraph, seem to think marriage equality is “full equality” for all gay people, and that’s why our heads have been spinning in disbelief at how slowly progress is being made on all other fronts. There are queer people of color — including many black women, and black trans women especially — who lack “full equality” because of their race AND class AND sexual orientation AND gender, who are homeless, unemployed, denied housing, without health care, racially profiled and denied basic human rights every day. He also never even acknowledges the existence of black gay men or black trans men, who also face insurmountable oppression and haven’t gotten much help from white gay men on that, either. If cis white gay male experience means that Friess can’t even understand that those realities exist, what reason would anyone have to think that cis white gay male experience means they should take his concept of “allyship” seriously?
What, exactly, does Friess think white gay men can do for black women? All he’s done so far is tell one black woman that he thinks her opinion is “clueless” and “misguided.” Does he have a plan to end racialized sexual harassment and assault, or hiring discrimination, or the wage gap for black women? Friess reacted to Mannie’s request that white gay men stop referring to themselves as “strong black women” by threatening to withdraw hypothetical support of black women’s political and social issues (none of which he actually names)! That’s not allyship, that’s just another example of a person in power offering abstract and highly conditional support to an oppressed group of people with whom he claims a false and unrequited kinship. He claims that white gay men were “once intensely vilified” but are now “able to harness our white male privilege for good, having learned what being on the outside is like.” If articles like this are what Friess considers to be an example of harnessing his “white gay male privilege for good,” then I’d implore anybody reading it to push him as far away as possible.