The Importance of Intersectionality in Queer Studies: Erasure and Appropriation of Black Queer Individuals in LGBTQ+ Rhetoric

The standard of beauty in society is nothing new – to be thin, white, and conventionally attractive is what humans have been socialized to believe is the epitome of beauty. While it is known that eurocentrism is celebrated in modern culture, what is less spoken about is the white-washing of queer culture as well. While the queer community as a whole has made great strides, the experiences of black individuals on the queer spectrum are almost unheard of and certainly not spoken about/taught about very often. The rhetoric often conveniently excludes an in focus study on what it is specifically like to be queer and black, and often dismisses and ignores the link between race and sexual identity, and the different experiences had by queer people of color, opposed to Caucasian individuals who identify as queer. The “umbrella” of the queer experience is more hurtful than helpful, because by lumping all queer individuals into the same category, the individual hardships that racialized queer people face, are skimmed over and ignored under the guise of “equality”. Queer individuals have dealt with a myriad of injustice, however black queer individuals have an added layer of discrimination against them due to their race, and the anti-blackness that unfortunately coexists. While equality is certainly important, it is often used interchangeably with completely ignoring racialized struggles, and the lack of consideration for intersectionality. This essay will expose the ways in which black queer individuals face struggles and hardships that are ignored, and even at times perpetrated by white individuals.   

     To set basis of this argument, a working definition of the term “intersectionality” must be defined. As first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, intersectionality describes the study of the way in which multiple social identities may overlap to add to existing and related systems of oppression and discrimination. For the purpose of this essay, the social identities that intersect would be that of black, queer individuals.

     It is important to understand the concept of “intersectionality” as it provides a foundation for anti-black practices such as erasure, appropriation and fetishization in the queer community. “Erasure” in this case, can be defined as the deliberate, or non-deliberate exclusion of black individuals, and their struggles as a result of being black, in the queer community. An example of this can be found in the seemingly innocent pride parades.

     As explained by author, Aaron Talley, in his article ,Pride is For White People, “…it is incumbent upon queer communities of color to make sure that we put pressure on the national narrative to keep queerness from being synonymous with white, skinny, able-bodied, cisgender maleness” (Talley 2014). Talley explains, through his experiences that Pride celebrations are usually run by and for white queer men, in neighborhoods that cater to that specific demographic. This would then become problematic, as any black queer person, or queer person of color runs the risk of feeling ignored, or tokenized. In fact, a simple Google image search of key words “Toronto pride parade”, seems to prove Talley’s point perfectly, as image upon image focuses almost exclusively on white, able-bodied males enjoying the festivities. This is ironic, as Pride is meant to be an inclusionary of all queer individuals and allies, but is presented solely by white queer people. This has then lead to smaller, lesser known spaces such as “black Pride”, wherein black queers are have made their own space, amongst a seemingly inclusive tradition.

     This erasure is crucial, as it shows just how simply people of color, black people specifically, are able to slip unnoticed under the radar, even in queer communities. This also points to an even deeper problem, which would be anti-blackness in the queer community; once again proving the importance of the consideration of intersectionality. If Pride festivities, which are arguably looked at universally as the celebration of queer individuals, conveniently exclude any people of color – then is the practice really as inclusionary as it prides itself on being? The answer to that is a simple “no”.

    Furthermore, erasure of the black, queer experience can even be seen in black history itself. In his Huffington Post article, Alvin McEwen explains, “It stands to reason that the legacy of racism didn’t leave LGBT people of color unscathed. But information about what LGBT people of color did during those awful times in our history or what effect it has had on us is practically nonexistent” (McEwen 2016). This example of black erasure is especially harmful, as it removes black queer folk almost entirely from the rhetoric of black history. McEwen explains that while black history and the horrors of slavery has been studied and analyzed extensively, that there is little to no talk about the experience of black queer people. In fact people often compare the struggles of LGBTQ people to that of black people during the Civil Rights movement, completely ignoring the fact that the two co-existed. This further exemplifies the importance of intersectionality, as treating the two as completely separate struggle ignores the fact that the two can intersect, and dismisses the link between sexuality and race. 

     As explained in the scholarly journal Queer Is the New Black? Not So Much: Racial Disparities in Anti-LGBTQ Discrimination, “…much less research has attended to the intersection of race and sexual orientation to understand the differential risks associated with intersecting marginalized identities for discriminatory experiences” (Whitfield, Walls & Langenderfer-Magruder 427). This once more shows the effects of erasure within the black queer community, as research is usually lent to either black studies, or queer studies. It is arguable that it is as equally harmful to exclude black queer people from black studies, as it is to exclude black queer people from queer studies. Both practices perpetuate the dismissal and erasure of the black, queer experience, where oppression on both levels take place, once the two social identities are merged. In a study set to explain the relationship between race and health, Gerry Veenstra concludes that “…these fundamental axes of inequality in contemporary societies are considered to be intrinsically entwined; they mutually constitute and reinforce one another and as such cannot be disentangled from one another” (Veesnstra 1-2). This study is significant because it creates a factual, casual relationship between health and race, which explains the way that different systems (such a racism and homophobia) work together to create and perpetuate difficulties for visual minorities. Veenstra also comments on the importance of understanding intersectionality and its relationship to human health by stating “Intersectionality theory presents a new way of understanding social inequalities that possesses potential to uncover and explicate previously unknown health inequalities” (Veenstra 2). He goes on to give an example: “A lowerclass Black lesbian is necessarily all of these things, and their mutual manifestation represents a unique state of being and a unique set of social experiences and structural constraints” (Veenstra 2). The language used in this quote is particularly important, as “all of these things” sets to explain that being lower class, black, and a lesbian will cause more than one struggle, as it entails more than one identity which are all oppressive in tangent and singularly. However, understanding how these three (class, race, sexuality) work together in a trifecta of systematic oppression, will only help to strengthen ones understanding.

     In “Never reflected anywhere”: Body image among ethnoracialized gay and bisexual men, it can be found through the authors studies that “…almost all of the body image-related studies conducted on GBM [gay/bisexual male] populations have employed predominantly White samples or have ignored the issue of race and the effects of racism altogether” (Brennan, et al. 390). This is very unsettling, as it shows how even conducted surveys and studied that are used at the base of statistical research, do not consider the link between race and sexuality or sexual discrimination, and therefore completely remove people of color from the rhetoric.

     Another point brought up in this article, were the effects of fetishization: “Ethnoracialized GBM [gay/bisexual men] experience racism in various forms, such as physical and verbal assault, being fetishized or eroticized due to one’s race” (Brennan et al. 390). It is interesting that they include the act of fetishizing and eroticising in tangent with physical and verbal assault, as it in actually is a form of abuse. Fetishizing and eroticising, in this case can be defined as an intense sexual interest of a person due specifically to their race. This is incredibly problematic as it is labelling these type of people as an exotic “other”, on which to base sexual attraction of due to the difference in their skin tone and ethnicity. In this way, it is dehumanizing, as they are not being doted upon for much other than their race – stripping them of all their other qualities and diminishing them as a perverse exception to the sexual norm.

     In reference to violence against queer individuals, Doug Meyer shares his findings in his academic journal, An Intersectional Analysis of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) People’s Evaluations of Anti-Queer Violence. According to Meyer, his results “…reveal significant intersectional differences, thereby dispelling the notion that LGBT people evaluate forms of anti-queer violence in uniform ways” (Meyer 850). Not surprisingly, Meyer denotes his results: “I have combined the violent experiences of multiple groups of LGBT people of color to highlight how white respondents did not confront the same pressures as other racial and ethnic groups” (Meyer 857). While Meyer’s work certainly cannot stand as a single definitive truth about white and black queer struggles, his findings point towards the notion that queer people of color are subject to more violent hardships and experiences due to their ethnicity. The reason for this can be hypothesized as, because the standard of importance in society is that of a straight, middle-classed white male, that those who are visibly outside of that description (racialized, non “straight-passing”, non-masculine) individuals would automatically be thought of as less important, and thus subject to more negative experiences as a result. Whereas a white queer person, may visible pass as what is “acceptable”, and for that reason would not have to face the same injustices.

     Another practice which stems out of fetishizing black individuals in the queer community can be found in the act of appropriation. This would mean the embodiment of the culture, practice, dress and general culture of African American individuals for depthless reasons – ranging from humor to simple fashion – by white, or non-black people of color. This practice is seen as harmful, as black individuals have historically been targeted, stereotyped, and segregated for the same behavior that a white person may decide is funny or fashionable, wherein it gains attention and often praise, simply for being done by a white person. Some examples may include the use of physical traits such as big lips and large buttocks, which black people have been ostracized for, and applying to the white body, where it becomes “fashionable”, “different”, or arguably the most offensive – “exotic”.

     Appropriation can also be found in language. African American Vernacular English (AAVE), or more colloquially known as “Ebonics”, describes the language typically used by urban, working class Americans. This dialect reflects the speaking patterns of black Americans, specifically in the southern parts of America. Referencing William Labov’s studies of language, authors of Representing the language of the ‘other’: African American Vernacular English in ethnography explain how “AAVE is used to unify an oppressed group through distinctive syntax, grammatical markers, and semantic content” (Brown & Casanova 211).

     By establishing the rich, black culture specific roots of this type of English, it then becomes incredibly problematic to by colloquialized and used off-handedly by those who are not of African American decent. In re-connection between with queer studies, the appropriation of AAVE is unfortunately incredibly popular amongst the white and non-black community. In fact words that are used frequently in the LGBTQ+ community such as “yas”, “shade”, and “reading”, are in itself a form of cultural appropriation, as its origins are in the development of the drag ball scene, where most of these expressions were created and used by queer people of color (Amatulli 2016). This is very important as these expressions have come to be, almost expected, and are certainly heard and perpetuated, not only in queer spaces, but have been absorbed into the universal dialect of colloquial language.

     Using these behaviors and words all go together to construct popular tropes in the LGBTQ+ community, such as the “sassy” gay person. The problem with this, is that this “sassy” gay, or queer person is usually an able-bodied white man, which strips the language of its historicism and African American roots. This would also contribute to the act of erasure, as balls and drag culture in general, is continuously practised and perpetuated by white queer folk. While there is nothing wrong with participating, it becomes problematic where white queer individuals have absorbed these practices and cultures to the point where it becomes mainstream, and almost expected of them, with very little to no credit to the people of color that originated it. The lack of visibility of black or non-black people of color is then carried on this way, as it automatically becomes more interesting when applied to a white queer person.

     On the other side of this argument, it can be said to be a huge double standard between specifically white people and black people with the use of AAVE as well as behaviors relating to drag/ball culture. While black people have historically been shamed and stereotyped for, or thought of as “lesser” or uneducated for their use of AAVE, once it has been accepted into main stream language, or used by white people, it becomes funny. The humor, however, arguably lies in the juxtaposition between the white person speaking in African American Vernacular English, or the white queer person using it as a way to characterize themselves as “sassy”, which in mainstream society is used interchangeably (and incorrectly) with “gay” or “queer”.

     In conclusion, the erasure and continuation of appropriation of black queer individuals are some key factors which set the basis for the injustices that black, queer individuals are subject to. This works in conjunction with a lack of consideration for intersectionality, and sensitivity to discourse in queer studies and histories that does not primarily focus on white practices and figures. By examining the history of practices that are so readily accepted into queer culture, and giving credit to the people of color who are behind it, this will help to correct the erasure and pay proper respect to the spearheads, and important figures in queer history that are often forgotten or conveniently left out. Having inclusive spaces that are not primarily run by and for able-bodied white males, is also an example on how to add more inclusivity to queer-specific events and festivities. By eradicating this culture of exclusion, and erasure, which should be the antithesis of queer studies, and would be true to hopeful – yet ambitious language and actions of inclusivity. Lastly, by acknowledging the damage that homogenizing the queer experience has on people of color, and accepting the theory of intersectionality, the link between race and sexuality would still be relevant, but hopefully in time, less harmful.

 

 

 

References

 

Allen, Jafari S. "Black/Queer/Diaspora at the Current Conjuncture." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian

and Gay Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 2012, pp. 211-248. http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/article/472150. Accessed 2 Nov. 2016.

 

Amatulli, Jenna. "Here’s The Real Origin Of The Word ‘Yas’." The Huffington Post. The

Huffington Post, 19 July 2016. Web. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/heres-the-real-origin-of-the-word-yas_us_578ce747e4b0fa896c3f4306. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.

 

Brennan, David J., et al. "Never Reflected Anywhere": Body Image among Ethnoracialized Gay

and Bisexual Men." Body image, vol. 10, no. 3, 2013, pp. 389-398. http://journals1.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/17401445/v10i0003/389_rabiaegabm.xml. Accessed 31 Oct. 2016.

 

Brown, Tamara, and Erynn Casanova. "Representing the Language of the ‘other’:

African American Vernacular English in Ethnography." Ethnography , vol. 15, no. 2, 2014, pp. 208-231. http://journals1.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/14661381/v15i0002/208_rtlotaaveie.xml. Accessed 31 Oct. 2016.

 

Crenshaw, Kimberle "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black

Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist

Politics," University of Chicago Legal Forum, Vol. 1989, no. 1, Article 8, pp. 139-167. http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.

 

McEwen, Alvin. "The Erasure of 'Gay' From Black History and the Black Community

Must Stop." The Huffington Post, 6 Oct. 2014, TheHuffingtonPost.com. Accessed 29

Oct.  2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alvin-mcewen/the-erasure-of-gay-from-b_b_5936568.html. Accessed 30 Oct. 2016.

 

Meyer, Doug. Violence Against Queer People: Race, Class, Gender, and the Persistence of Anti-

LGBT Discrimination, Rutgers University Press, 2015. http://journals2.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/08912432/v26i0006/849_aiaolgtpeoav.xml. Accessed 31 Oct. 2016.

Talley, Aaron. "'Gay Pride Is For White People'" MUSED Magazine Online, 23 June 2014,

mused.com. http://www.musedmagonline.com/2014/06/gay-pride-white-people/. Accessed 1 Nov. 2016.  

Veenstra, Gerry. “Race, Gender, Class, and Sexual Orientation: Intersecting Axes of Inequality         

and Self-Rated Health in Canada.” International Journal for Equity in Health, vol. 10 no. 3, 2011, pp. 1-11. http://equityhealthj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-9276-10-3. Accessed 31 Oct. 2016.

Whitfield, Darren L., et al. "Queer is the New Black? Not so Much: Racial Disparities in Anti-

LGBTQ Discrimination." Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, vol. 26, no. 4, 2014, pp. 426-440. http://journals1.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/10538720/v26i0004/426_qitnbnmrdiad.xml. Accessed 31 Oct. 2016.