The Whiteness of LGBT+ Spaces
I'm not writing this in a fit of white self-hate. I've noticed recently that as a transgender white person, I inhabit mainly all-white spaces. I unconsciously select the company of those I'll have things in common with – company that's identifiable to me, company that feels unconsciously familiar. I may not like this phenomena, but if I look up from my navel, the evidence is all around me. Previously, in a career where I frequently recruited for a company, I trusted my instincts with the internalized logic of, 'would I get on with this person? Would they fit in?' Call it intuition, or unconscious bias: these things are the same. I'm still not free from this way of thinking, but at least with this increasing wokeness of mine, I can now compare myself to being Agent Smith in The Matrix, realizing I want and need to be more like the awakened hero Neo. And so I have to face issues, like Neo, of how to enter the Matrix, while also resisting it. The Matrix – my Matrix, as the thing that has shaped all I know – is whiteness, is capitalism, is patriarchal in form. I don't have a plan for beating it, and I'm not claiming to have good answers, but maybe just asking questions is enough for the time being.
So I'd like to start by talking about LGBT+ spaces here in Edinburgh, and the university's Staff Pride Network. It's an almost totally white space, of which I'm a part, given my whiteness. We, the Network, discussed the issue of whiteness last Friday, and it can – to a degree – be rationalized. Scotland is a white majority country, Edinburgh is a white majority city; LGBT+ spaces will reflect the population trends as a whole. I agree that Scotland is a mainly white space, in numbers and in ideology. It's this latter part I think we should talk about more. Even if Edinburgh were an all-white 'zone' (and of course, there are diverse communities of people of colour here), I don't think it would lessen the importance of the discussion. We should talk about race because race exists nationally and internationally as a life-defining issue. There is no single LGBT+ community, there are LGBT+ communities, and any policies drafted for LGBT+ rights, invariably represent the aspirations of only one particular LGBT+ community, namely the white LGBT+ community. You want an example? Try comparing Sarah McBride's policy campaigns in the U.S. on behalf of the American trans community: access to restrooms and serving the military, and equal rights to get married. Compare and contrast with the issues of communities of trans/queer people of colour in the U.S.: abolitionism, addressing police harassment and persecution, and a greater redistribution of wealth to help those without privilege to overcome bias in housing, employment and education. These may not strike you as LGBT+ issues, but if you're thinking this thought, you're probably white.
The whiteness stretches back in time. The LGBT+ movement in its mainstream form is historically controlled by white ideology. You can see the way Stonewall rioters like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera have been whitewashed from Stonewall history, their protests against systematic poverty, stigma, and police violence, quietly erased, even as the issues continue to endure. Their bodies have been appropriated, made iconic, for mainly white, middle-class campaigns allowing gays/trans people in the military, and equal rights with marriage. These aren't the policies Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera fought for, this homonormativity, in which happy, white gay married couples give you a smile and a wave from behind white picket fences. There are certainly white gay/trans activists who fight for this white-picket vision, like columnist Andrew Sullivan, or Sarah McBride, for whom the socio-economic system is doing just fine and requires just a tweak. But these are LGBT+ activists who benefit from the overall system; they're white and well-off, you could call them symbols of the 'pink dollar.' The police aren't trying to incarcerate them on any trumped-up charge. The chances of conviction and felony aren't likely to infringe on their future, with the accompanying loss of driver's license, voting rights and legal employment opportunities, and any other barrier that will impede them from participating fully in society.
So how do white LGBT+ spaces begin to address this marginalization of certain narratives, this bias? First of all the reflection should happen internally. We shouldn't expect a trans/queer person of colour to come and explain it all to us, and prove to our sceptical eyes and ears that we live in a racialized society. To quote Reni Eddo-Lodge in the opening of her book Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race:
'I'm no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race . . . I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect . . . They truly believe that the experiences of their life as a result of their skin colour can and should be universal. I just can't engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness . . .'
It's not the role of people of colour to plead their case. Those white Neos with sufficient awareness should attempt to organize within all-white spaces the discussion that gets the ball rolling. Whether or not there's resistance, let's start imagining what it must be like to not have white privilege; let's study examples, let's look at the facts. In turn, let's ask - given it's the white LGBT+ community that will attract the most money and political support - how we can organize events and set a direction that recognizes we are just one LGBT+ community in a society of many, some at all kinds of socio-economic disadvantages, who effectively live in a different world to us, and whose issues cannot be our issues.
Secondly, perhaps we need to accept that as long as we live in a racialized society, there can never be a single, unified LGBT+ community. To assume otherwise is to downplay the presence of racism and its impact, and to presume that our white familiarity is the commonality for everyone. Perhaps there can be at best coalitions of LGBT+ communities, in communication with each other. In the meantime, the privileged white LGBT+ space can use its event-organizing and meetings and budget to remind members and audiences of why different communities exist and what this means for policy-making. But if we're interested in helping and supporting trans/queer people of colour, we need to open our eyes to the racialized nature of our society, and we need to consider that for the scale of the structural issues involved, the solutions lie beyond the white-picket borders of the single-issue, white LGBT+ space.
(Images taken from Heroes Wikia; MoMA site; New York Media)