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Pet Sins September 2007

Between 'selling out' and 'unconstructive accusations' - the need for a balanced dialog

I've seen some attempts at 'dialog' or 'promoting understanding' directed by queer-people-of-color individuals/organizations towards the "white mainstream glbt community", and most of the 'dialogs' fall into these two categories.

1) The "Please accept us, we're just like you" approach

People who take this approach tend to focus on presenting stories about how their communities of color discriminate against them. They assiduously steer clear of mentioning the thorny issue of discrimination against people of color in the 'mainstream', 'white' American gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community. These glbt folks of color tend to emphasize their commonalities with 'mainstream glbts' to the point of ignoring differences and points of conflict. (There was a case in which a Eurasian lesbian who politely mentioned racism from white lesbians had that part of her story subtly excluded from a publication by the editor - also a queer person of color - leaving only the non-threatening parts.)

These 'assimilationists' take the opposite approach on the topic of their relationships with their ethnic communities They free tell white folks of the hostility they face from people of color.

Sometimes I get the feeling that they're trying too hard to present a non-threatening face to the 'white majority glbt community', or they're telling white people what they think white people want to hear and reinforcing the stereotype that communities of color are more homophobic than white communities.

Now I'm not suggesting we should present a hostile, threatening face either. On the other hand, I've seen the other approach described under #2, which I don't think works well.

2) The "You're ignoring our needs" approach

I sometimes get confused by queer people of color who make this accusation against the 'mainstream white glbt community' and then don't define exactly what "our needs" are, and how they should be met, and how they're being ignored. If people have specific suggestions for improving an organization or community - and sometimes they do - that's fine and good. But I'm uncomfortable with the idea that we as queer people of color have "special needs" that need catering to.

If there is active discrimination in matters of service, it should definitely be addressed. But sometimes when some individual/organization unintentionally does something that is 'culturally insensitive' due to ignorance and not malice, I don't think there's any need to get all worked up and blow our top at it/him/her and the 'institutionalized racism' supposedly behind the situation. (Yes, I agree that institutionalized racism exists, but I don't see it as the reason behind every perceived slight) Getting angry, bitter, and calling people 'racist' when said individuals had no intention of doing harm at all isn't constructive and would only make people defensive and less likely to listen. A better way would be to raise concerns in a calm and rational way without assuming the guilt of the organization that is allegedly 'ignoring our needs'.

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Now, one of the better approaches I saw at promoting understanding and exchange without 'selling out' came in the form of an individual. The individual I have in mind is a legal alien of East Asian background. He was familiar with literally a couple of thousand years of East Asian sexual minority history, which he shared with me and others on various occasions. He told the histories rather matter-of-factly and unromantically, not in some sensationalist Joy Luck Club manner designed to emphasize the 'exotic Oriental' or conjure up a romantic past.

Unlike the folks who take Approach 1, this was someone who saw no contradiction in being "gay" and "Asian". There was no conflict for him since he had 2000 years worth of East Asian gay history behind him. He did not feel 'excluded' by the "Asian community', since he saw that 'community' as extending a couple of millenia back to the times queer folk were just a fact of life and not seen as a moral contradiction as some modern, Westernized Asians see it.

This friend seemed to have little interest in assimilating into the 'white mainstream' glbt community, but he was not hostile towards the 'mainstream' either. He presented himself on his own terms - as a alien and outsider, and yet undeniably 'queer', and perhaps even more so, in his connection to 2000 years' worth of queer predecessors within his own culture. And amazingly, people who were not East Asian loved his historical accounts and connected to this history as if it were their own. So at least some of his audience did not see the history he told as "East Asian queer history." They saw it as "queer history" - their history. This, I think, is a success.

R.E.N.
May 2007