Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Insersectionality - what it is and isn't

Mike is an 18 year female to male transman. He is currently studying psychology at The Evergreen State College between making quilts. He someday aspires to be a social worker, and in the mean time, he wants to fix the fact that not everyone is born with an inherent right to be themselves.  


White queer people have an unfortunate tendency to appropriate African American historical and cultural symbols. I see this coming out of two beliefs, the first of which is that the major battles to end racism have already been fought (false) and the belief that if you belong to an oppressed group, you cannot add to a different group’s oppression (also false). The reality is that being oppressed does not give you a get out of being an oppressor free card. It is very possible to be queer and be racist.

The truth of the matter is that while racism and homophobia are both forms of oppression, they are very different. There are of course intersections, one of the quirks of queerness being that it is universal. People of any race, class, or creed can be queer. There is still a very large chunk of white queer people that will never experience the realities of racism first hand and there are POCs who will never experience the realities of homophobia first hand. There is nothing wrong with this, because allies are wonderful and it isn’t anyone’s fault that they were born a certain race or sexual orientation.  It becomes a problem however, to appropriate or erase pieces of movements that don’t belong to you or your heritage.

What brought this on was reading Forty Hours and an Unwritten Rule by Kim Williams. It is an amazing and fantastic book that explains how racism is both still thriving and difficult to deal with. Williams included a chapter on queer people’s tendency to compare their struggles to those of African Americans, saying that what they experienced was pretty much the same thing. And I’m not disagreeing with her on that point, and I’m not going to disagree with her that it’s a bad thing, for two reasons. First is that queer people can perpetuate racism and comparing homophobia to racism erases much of the racism that is still around today. The second (and ultimately more selfish) reason is that it makes homophobia seem like it isn’t important and bad all on its own. I really only object to the way that Williams goes about decrying appropriation and comparison that I object to, particularly since she erases a good deal of queer history to do so.

The most problematic example and largest example of erasure is that she cites the holocaust as an example that queer people don’t have a history. I am incapable of finding it ironic because it makes me angry, largely because it illuminates the pattern of erasure that queer people face. Queer people were killed in the holocaust. Gay men had pink triangles sewn onto their clothes in the concentration camps. Lesbians were lumped in with vagrants and gypsies and were labeled with black triangles. Berlin was a thriving hub of research for transgender surgery and treatment before Hitler came to power and the doctors were forced to leave. And I find it frustrating that this woman who is very well versed in African American history, who rightfully complained about how little most Americans know about African American history, does not know very much about queer history. I suppose it is to be expected, because she is not queer herself, but this again speaks to the really large amount of erasure that queer people face. No one wants to teach that queer people were killed in the holocaust because it is somehow still seen as controversial.

A specific quote that jumped out at me in Williams’ book was “It was impossible for Matt to understand and appreciate my people’s long, tired journey because his pedicured feet could never endure the troublesome walk of our long, weary past.” And I don’t disagree with her that white queer people will never know the first hand reality of living with racism, because no matter how much we might sympathize, we will never be able to empathize. That point is incredibly true. I object to the quote because referencing manicured feet makes it seem like there hasn’t been a long and hard path for queer people to walk. We have had our own long and tired journey. From the fight against sodomy laws starting as early as 1869 to the homophile movement spread through the mail in the 1950s and 60s, to the more socialist movements that eventually culminated in the Stonewall Riots, getting homosexuality taken out of the DSM and winning battles on a local level to have Anita Bryant campaign across the country to try to get every one of those gains repealed, to the AIDS movement and having to rebuild and start over from just about square one, and now the fight for an ENDA and gay marriage.

All of this comes back to my original point that homophobia and racism are very different oppressions. Queer people need to stop stealing African American history. Homophobia is an equally valid form of oppression and it is insulting to both queer people and people of color (and especially queer people of color) when we appropriate a history that is not ours. We have a history, even if it must now be learned at the knees of our elders and through finding those rare and precious books. There is no point in trying to fight homophobia only to be racist. There are queer people of color and it is high time we stopped estranging them through inept and ignorant tactics.