The Unbearable Whiteness of the Gay Rights Movement

From left to right: Ambassador to Australia John Berry, Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James Brewster, Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Daniel Baer, Ambassador to Spain James Costos and Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius. Photo credit: Blake Bergen/GLIFAA

From left to right: Ambassador to Australia John Berry, Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James Brewster, Ambassador to Denmark Rufus Gifford, Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Daniel Baer, Ambassador to Spain James Costos and Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius. Photo credit: Blake Bergen/GLIFAA

by Peter Ward

[Editor's Note] I asked Peter to write about the above photo of the six openly gay US ambassadors, which made the rounds on social media with variations of the following line: “Everything wrong with the Gay Rights Movement.” This was before BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner broke the story on HRC's internal report on its diversity “problem.” Peter's piece remarks on two important ideas: firstly, how white privilege is entwined with the political direction of mainstream gay rights organizations and who benefits from it, and secondly, a truer human equality is a far more radical enterprise which requires the untethering of civil privileges from the institution of marriage. His questions seem rhetorical, but if you go along and try to respond along the way as you read, you may also be confronted by how our perceptions of “gay” are indeed racialized and privilege whiteness.

When you think about the gay rights movement, what comes to mind? For some, it conjures images of trailblazers leading the good fight to break down the walls of oppression faced by gays in America. It infers a sense of communal spirit, unified in its mission to expand equal rights for all. I know many people and LGBT organizations that think, or would like you to think, that this is true. However, the gay rights movement’s fight for equal rights is much less inclusive than it lets on and in my opinion, has been white-washed. The movement disproportionately represents and benefits white gay men, while excluding others. The cause of this is America’s history of white privilege. White privilege has created this monolithic image of what it means to be gay in America which is perpetuated by the media and the lack of diversity within LGBT organizations. The danger this poses to the gay community is that rather than fighting for the right to be queer, we are assimilating into the dominant, heteronormative culture in America which is led by white, gender-normative men, leaving others behind.

Decades of marginalization has led to a lack of diversity within our government and in our job markets which places the interests of white men over those of others.

Before you freak out at me for such a bold statement, think about it. White people, particularly heterosexual white men, have always had a privileged place in America. It should also come as no surprise that this nation has a sad history of marginalizing people of color and women. White men have never had to fight for the right to vote or to be free from government oppression (perhaps save for the Revolution). If you are a white, cisgender male like me (and you know what I mean by white), it’s ok to acknowledge that we have “white privilege.” What is it? White privilege is the unearned advantages white people, particularly white, cisgender men, have at the expense of those who are different. It can be hard to notice, especially if you are a white guy but if you take the time, you can spot it. All of my important holidays and dates are on the calendar. Most, if not all of my bosses have been white, my government representatives are usually white, I never have to worry about being paid less than someone of equal stature, and I can always find someone in entertainment with whom I can relate. You may not realize it, but being a white man in America has probably never hurt you or held you back. If we can acknowledge that all of this exists, why can’t we accept that if the gay rights movement is predominantly led by white men, that the issues most important to them such as marriage, are those that are front and center?

White privilege is perpetuated by our nation’s history of racism and discrimination against those who do not fit the mold of the typical American. Decades of marginalization has led to a lack of diversity within our government and in our job markets which places the interests of white men over those of others. The 114th Congress, although hailed as the most diverse yet, still has a long way to go before it is fully representative of the changing demographics within the country. The new Congress is 80% white and 80% male. Corporate America is no better. Walk into a corporate boardroom and you will most likely find white men. African American, Latinos and Asians comprise less than 7% of the boards in Fortune 500 companies. Women only hold 19%. However, women make up 50% of the US population while minorities make up a combined and fast growing 30%.

This cycle of white male dominance has bled into the gay rights movement, right into the very organizations leading the fight for equal rights. A 2008 Pipeline Project survey reported that only 4% of executive directors at LGBT organizations were people of color. I had a difficult time finding more recent statistics. However, I did find a Washington Blade article listing the salaries of LGBT organizations leaders. 58% of the 41 listed were white men. In terms of those who identify as gay in America, 4.6% are African American, 4% are Hispanic, 4.3% are Asian and 3.2% are Caucasian. It seems strange that although minorities are more likely to identify as gay, that LGBT leadership would not be reflective of that.

The lack of diversity within gay rights organizations combined with the history of white privilege has created a monolithic image of what it means to be gay in America. That image is one that we see over and over, attractive, white, cisgender males. When you think about popular gay neighborhoods, which come to mind? I immediately think of Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen in NY, Boystown in Chicago, and San Francisco (ok, not a neighborhood, but you know what I mean). What do all of these neighborhoods have in common? They are all predominately white enclaves! Name a gay neighborhood that is not pretty much white men? Go ahead! I’m waiting...

This white male image is perpetuated by the media. Televisions shows with gay characters such as Modern Family, Will and Grace, Glee, Looking, and Queer as Folk only seem to be interested in presenting a particular kind of homos. That type is usually white, male, cisgender, attractive, and at least middle class. Fliers for gay parties, cruises or vacations and you will most likely see a white dude looking back at you. If you want to find images of black and Hispanic queers, look no further than your nearest HIV/AIDS awareness ad. Looking for a gay Asian? Better luck finding Big Foot! Even lesbians (of all colors) are not as well represented as white men. Sure, they might play a bit part here and there, but they are rarely cast as longstanding characters on TV. While LGBT organization such as GLADD routinely monitor the media to make sure that gays are not being negatively stereotyped, they seem to have no problem with these shows. They seem to be complacent in the idea of gay meaning a white, cisgender male.

What does all this mean for the gay rights movement? I fear that it does not bode well for all of us queers. Instead of fighting for equal rights by transforming American society, we are instead seeking to assimilate into the dominant, heteronormative culture within the country. Instead of saying we are different, we trying to convince the straight world that “we are just like you.” However, the problem is that we are not. Gay rights leaders always say that being gay is not a choice. To me, that implies that if we had a choice, why would we choose to be gay rather than straight? Queers are represented by both men and women of different races and gender identities, who face multiple layers of discrimination. Although the legal “victories” recently won seem great, they don’t guarantee equal rights for underrepresented queers. Take for example the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Movements. Although both groups have equal rights before the law, in practice, both still experience tremendous discrimination as a result of living in a nation dominated by white men. Look no further than the income disparity: ask a woman and man who perform the same job how much each gets paid.

The monolithic image of being gay and the assimilation trajectory of the gay rights movement place the priorities of white, cisgender men over others. Marriage equality is a good example. Marriage has been the leading cause of gay rights organizations for years and they have been successful in legalizing gay marriage in 37 states. While it seems and in ways is a victory for all gays, the institution of marriage benefits whites more than minorities. Marriage is an institution which allows for the transfer of property between generations and the sharing of benefits (health, tax, citizenship) between partners and their children. Research has highlighted that white people are far more likely to have employer sponsored health insurance than those of color. While people of color have full time jobs, they are more likely than white people to be employed in lower wage industries that provide limited access to employer-sponsored health insurance. When it comes to homeownership, we see the same trend. Whites are more likely to own homes than people of color due to unequal lending practices. If whites are more likely to have health insurance that can be shared with their partner and to own property which can passed down, the benefits to white men are greater than those to non-whites. The mainstream gay rights movement has been bent on achieving the right to marry as the last great frontier for equal rights. Sure, for white men who have health insurance, property and nice stock portfolios, perhaps this is the last frontier to equality for them. However, what about everyone else?

Instead of marriage, there are many more important issues facing the gay community, particularly for queers of color. How about racial justice? Discrimination against queers of color is exponentially worse than those faced by their white counterparts. LGBT people of color are twice as likely to be the victims of physical violence. Can you name a LGBT person of color who was killed in under three seconds? Didn’t think so. Now try to name a white LGBT person who was killed. Matthew Shepherd quickly comes to mind. In response to his horrific murder, Congress passed the Matthew Shepherd Act of 2009 which expanded hate crime laws to protect victims of homophobic and transphobic violence. Although most violence against gays is directed towards minorities and transgender people, the act is named after a white man and his experience. Why him? Why not an African American, Hispanic, or Asian gay? This is by no means meant to downplay the tragedy that befell Matthew Shepherd. Rather, it serves to highlight that the experiences and tragedies of white people are still revered as more important than those of people of color. To further highlight this truth, how about Meaghan’s Law or the Amber Alert?

While the media would like for us to believe that all gays are white, cisgender and middle- to upper-class men, many queers are low-income. Employment discrimination, lack of health insurance, homelessness, and other factors make LGBT people particularly vulnerable to the impact of economic inequality. Gay and lesbian families (especially the latter) are significantly more likely to be living below the poverty line than heterosexual married families, and children in gay and lesbian households are twice as likely to live in poverty as compared to children in homes with heterosexual parents. And given the legacy of racism in the U.S., the statistics are even worse for LGBT people of color.

We must also seek to empower those who identify as transgender. Transgender people are more likely to live in extreme poverty and 41% have attempted suicide compared with 1.6% of the general population. They are also consistently abused and experience discrimination and violence at larger rates than other queers. Too often the “T” is left off of LGBT initiatives.

Queer youth and transgender homelessness is another issue that matters more to queers of color than marriage. 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT in which 68% were kicked out of their home because of their sexual orientation. 65% of these homeless queer youth belonged to racial minorities.

Why is the movement so adamant about assimilating into the heteronormative culture and its institutions, especially marriage? What about those queers who decide not to be married or those who are in polyamorous relationships? Are their families not equal to those of married couples? Even if gay marriage is legalized nationwide via the Supreme Court, in order to access the benefits of marriage, those who are not entirely male or female would need to accept gender tyranny. Instead of fighting for the right to marry, true equal rights would be fighting to overthrow the current system and how benefits are dispersed. Rather, we should be fighting to extend the benefits of marriage to all people. Let’s fight for universal healthcare and for the same tax and citizenship benefits allotted to married couples. Let’s focus not on assimilating and entrenching the same discrimination within our community but rather on transforming and replacing these institutions which have historically denied us the same rights. Let’s battle racism and income inequality so that ALL queers, actually ALL people, have the same rights.

How do we do this? Well, I think the first step is to acknowledge that the mainstream gay rights movement has missed the mark with respect to equal rights. We have to acknowledge that no two queers are the same. Large rights organizations such as the HRC and GLAAD must acknowledge that gays and transgender people of color face multiple layers of discrimination that their white counterparts often do not. Secondly, let’s stop trying to be like everyone else because we are not. Let’s stop trying to convince the hetero world that we are “just like them” and assimilate into their institutions. Let’s blaze our own path and fight for the rights of all people, not just gays. We need to stop treating gay rights as if they are disconnected from other rights movement and realize that they are one in the same. We need to stop focusing on surface issues such as marriage equality and focus on the more substantive, fundamental issues that have kept minorities, gay and straight, in inferior positions to whites. We should be demanding diversity so that our government, job markets and rights organizations better reflect the changing demographics within the country. We need queers of color in leadership positions because as much as white guys (like me) try to empathize, we can never really understand what it is like to walk in their shoes. Let’s acknowledge white privilege and rather than be ashamed of it, let’s transform it into human privilege. Dignity is the most powerful tool in this world and it has the capacity to bring people together. Everyone wants to feel that their voice matters.


Peter Ward is a 30-year-old gay professional. He is a community activist and a member of the Brooklyn Changemakers, a group of young professionals seeking to advance the mission of Brooklyn Community Services.