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Homophobia and racism: the failed policy of ranking oppressions

Posted on Friday, March 20th, 2009 at 11:43 am

Author: Feature Writer

Gc contributor: Renee Martin

We live in a world of social constructions. Even before our bodies physically enter the world they are framed. Much of our life is spent performing the different roles that have been thrust upon us.

In many cases, the identities that we are forced to take on are contrary to any form of social equality. The majority of the planet negotiates at least one ism and in so doing we have a tendency to privilege our experience over the experience of another, rather than being cognizant of the ways in which the isms interact. We have come to see resistance as seeking power, yet this approach is problematic because we socially understand power as the ability to oppress another.

The British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology performed a study in which they concluded that homophobia was more prevalent than racism. I believe that it is essential to note that both racism and homophobia are evils within our society. However, the desire to rank oppressions is a false project. Even asking the question of prevalence assumes that a form of “good” oppression exists. It further ignores that there are many people who must negotiate multiple sites of oppression. If we begin to question by asking which is worse, homophobia or racism, we are purposefully ignoring the experience of people of color that identify as same gender loving.

This “study” involved questioning 50 people to ascertain their beliefs in regard to homophobia and racism, and from there they drew the conclusions that homophobia was a larger social problem. Asking 50 people what their thoughts are is hardly a scientific study. Regardless of how random the subjects are, nothing can be determined in this manner. To add insult to injury it was determined that “gay is the new black”.

“Gay is the new black” frames a gay and lesbian identity as specifically white. It says to the world that homophobia is wrong because white gays and lesbians are being treated like blacks and it is this – and not the evil of homophobia – that we must seek to challenge. The largely white male run gay and lesbian organizing groups have continually failed to use an intersectional approach to their organizing. Gay marriage has become the latest organizing push and to justify this choice over the issues that have been cited by people of colour who are same gender loving, they have continually employed strategies that are racist and/or sexist.

As long as there are those that are both gay and black, gay can never be the new black. It is white privilege that causes this issue to be framed in this way. Powerful white leaders in the gay and lesbian community have so over-valued whiteness that they have failed to see the racism that is inherent in this kind of organizing. No study can measure which is worse, because black gays and lesbians do exist.

The GLB community frame organizing around a desire to achieve equality, but the question we fail to ask is equality for whom. The white elite of the GLB community do not seek equality with people of colour, they seek equality with white cisgendered heterosexuals, which is problematic. Continually we see the argument of “we are just like you”, however the “you” in question is necessarily white, affluent and largely male. There is this sense that certain people are being robbed of their ability to properly benefit from white privilege because of homophobia.

Having the ability to oppress another is often how we denote hierarchal position. If a white male must negotiate homophobia, he cannot benefit from his white privilege in full and this causes resistance. If gay organizing were truly about equality, the voices of people of colour would be equally reflected and every possible intersection would be represented. I have yet to see the inclusion of people that are differently abled or even a decent cross section of people by age. A movement that privileges certain bodies cannot be about striving for equality; it can only be about asserting power to oppress another.

Until the GLB community fully embraces intersectionality it will continue to fail in its organizing efforts. One cannot assert privilege to fight social injustice as it simply reaffirms the idea that a hierarchy of bodies is not only natural but correct. While racism is not an issue that is unique to the GLB community, the failure on the part of some to own the fact that racism has been a large part of their organizing efforts has caused the alienation of many potential allies. It is hard to be sympathetic to a movement when you see yourself constantly positioned as the “other”.

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  1. Thank you for blogging about this. I hadn’t heard about this study, but it’s ridiculous. As much as it’s important to understand how different oppressions are interlinked and support each other, homophobia and racism are such completely different things that affect different people in completely different ways. There is no way to really compare them or rank them, and what is the point of doing so?

    And yes, if you are a person of colour who is not straight, it can be hard to separate the two oppressions in your life. But even as a (white) queer female bodied person, it would be impossible for me to separate the sexism and misogyny I’ve experiences from the homophobia that is shaped by those things, from the poverty I’ve experienced, mostly caused by sexism and homophobia and disability, but which also changes the way people are sexist and homophobic to me! Does that make sense?

    Though if I were to compare the problems the archetypal white able-bodied cissexual middle to upper class gay man faces, with the problems the average black person in the US faces (and to me this is the comparison the dominant conversation about this in the US seems to constantly imply), “cry me a river white boy” is all I can think. But this comparison still doesn’t tell us any truths about the reality of being oppressed for real people from either group.

    One more thing: in my experience being surrounded by racist and homophobic people, it seems much more socially acceptable to say you don’t like gay people than to say you don’t like members of a specific racialized group. This does not mean homophobia is worse by any stretch! Just that racism has learned to operate in different ways. I don’t know if things are similar in the UK or not, or how the study was done, but I can see how this could make such a study even more useless. Oppression is institutionalized and systemic, but it is often falsely presented as some bigoted people saying mean things to others because they are different.

  2. I think the idea behind being gay is the new black is nothing new–lots of gay rights activists like to compare their struggles to that of the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle blacks went through.

    However, I do think it’s more acceptable today to be homophobic than to be racist, specifically towards blacks (I do think it’s more acceptable now to be racists towards Hispanics and Latin Americans as well).

    Like Ander said, that doesn’t make either -ism better than the other. Oppression and -isms are all institutionalized and are created to keep one segment of the population in a second-class stature. To even say that one is “better” than the other is just a mockery to what the oppressed groups go through to gain equal rights.

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  4. “Just that racism has learned to operate in different ways. I don’t know if things are similar in the UK or not, or how the study was done, but I can see how this could make such a study even more useless.”

    Andre. So true, racists have earned degrees and learned to oppress within the law so well that it’s hard to measure these days. The only people who can truly give you a barometer of how bad racism is, are the people who experience it every week. But the problem is that it’s hidden so well within the law so no one bothers to add it to their statistics.

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  6. No room for gays?

    I’m not homophobic but I feel uncomfortable around gay people. I can understand the stereotypical view taken by some people.

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