While the LGBT population has much to be proud of since the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the commemorative starting point of the gay rights movement, we also have much more work to do and within our own population — first and foremost honestly addressing racism amongst ourselves.
Instances of racism within the gay population are not new. They were evident throughout my own formative years during the 1980s and 90s, when gay social venues were clearly segregated by race. And while I knew these conditions existed, they became more clearly illuminated while I was interviewing young, gay millennials for my new book examining the coming out process of gay men across generations.
Two themes quickly became apparent: First, each generation of gay men has its own main struggle. For those who came of age pre-1970 — which I have come to know as the Stonewall Generation — it was about the struggle to live openly, freely and without fear. For my generation, it was about surviving AIDS. For this new generation, which builds upon the experiences of those who preceded them, the issues have shifted to matters of identity and battling a white, privileged hyper-masculine perspective that too often dominates gay life and in media.
These “norms” were evidenced in the second episode of the rebooted sitcom Will & Grace, which examined intergenerational dialogue and depicted the ease of coming out for a young, gay man — in this case, a young, white gay man of familial means whose experience is far from the norm for most.
The young gay men with whom I spoke for my book experienced racism in myriad manners in the gay community. Dylan, a 24-year-old with roots in Jamaica, spoke about his experiences while looking to meet other men on the dating app Grindr, noting that being black and gay was a “double negative” leading to continuous rejections from white men on this app. Yasar, a Ghanaian 23-year-old, indicated his discomfort in dating white men, noting that the power and privilege our society bestows on white men place him at a power disadvantage in a relationship with a white man, making Yasar feel “beneath” him.
And for 19-year-old Juan, the sense of otherness that he has experienced as a gay man — which all of us experience as we first come to realize our same-sex attractions during childhood — functioned synergistically with his feeling of otherness as Mexican-Chinese man in the gay community. Since he already felt separate due to his heritage, his sense of otherness as a gay man was easier to navigate. In his words: “I feel that if you’re white in a society that values whiteness and is constantly helping white people succeed, it might be harder for [white men] to reconcile their gay identity because they’re not used to feeling left out. They’re not used to feeling stigmatized, depressed.”
These words represent only a sliver of the life experiences of young gay men — and all gay men — of color. The experience of racism in the gay community is tangible. Yet straight colleagues express dismay and confusion at this phenomenon, failing to understand that those in a marginalized group quite frequently also marginalize. The oppressed also oppress.
The social conditions experienced by these young men are a call to action to us as Americans to continue to engage in the difficult discussions about race. The gay population is not exempt from these larger conversations, but must likewise be held accountable to reflect inward and to challenge conventions of what it means to be gay, to reframe the white, privileged gay male paradigm that has dominated our community.
Perry N. Halkitis, Dean and Professor, Rutgers School of Public Health, is the author of The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience and the upcoming book Out in Time; Gay Men Coming Out across the Generations.