BY: Stephen Donnan
A lot has been made recently of the seeming assimilation of the vernacular of African American women within the male gay community both in the US and in English speaking nations such as Ireland and the UK. You don’t have to look very far to see what I’m talking about first hand. There is often a willingness and an urge among gay men, particularly white gay men, to emulate the persona of an ‘independent black woman’ (as the saying so offensively goes). This can range from vocal imitations to movement. If you are unsure what I am talking about all you have to do is visit your local gay club, go to the smoking area and I will guarantee you you will encounter a gaggle of gays clicking their fingers, smacking their lips and flicking their imaginary weaves whilst quacking ‘Yes gawd mama!’ as though they are Vanessa Williams herself.
I have read a number of articles regarding this, particularly on the notion that this misappropriation of black female culture is offensive and hurtful. I am a white gay man. That also means that I am a white man, there are no two ways around that fact. I benefit from the privilege of being a man and being white, despite my sexuality. As much as I loathe the implication it is entirely possible for me to ‘hide’ my minority status within a sea of white male faces if I need to in order to survive and thrive and often times I have felt the urge to do just that (But that’s a whole different blog).
It is impossible for me to appreciate the sadness and the offence that is characterized by gay white men mimicking the vernacular of black women in order to front that they are strong, independent and fierce. If we were any of those three things then maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to tell people that whilst relying on a vocabulary and cultural image that we have borrowed.
Have I been guilty of this? Hell yes I’ve been guilty of this and let me tell you why. As a gay white man I do benefit from privilege however Western culture, as much as it pretends to be tolerant, open minded and accepting of the spectrum of sexuality, is still deeply homophobic and transphobic on the most basic of levels. Masculinity is defined by the absence of femininity, the totality of a cultural conditioning that has lasted centuries. This conditioning teaches boys from a young age that to be a woman is to be weak, to be second class, to be unable to work or sustain the roles predominantly occupied by men. It is this offensive and undermining attitude that pervades how men are seen within society.
To be a gay man is not to be a man, we cannot fit within the confines of what the patriarchy demands of us. we don’t have sex with women, we don’t appreciate the same ‘manly’ things or are we simply aren’t allowed to. Gays don’t play football, we don’t drink beer, we don’t know jack about cars, gambling, boobs etc etc. Of course none of that is true but that is what we are taught and it puts an enormous demand on young men to conform to what masculinity is and where they fit in within society. If we don’t conform to this then we don’t fit in and therefore we aren’t ‘men’.
Gay men, especially gay white men, are emasculated by this social construct. We are barred from accessing the same shared camaraderie that seems to exist on some level between straight white men. They have no ladder to climb in terms of what it means to be a man. They are already there. By the simple fact of our sexuality as gay men we don’t have access to that.
Black women, particularly African American women, have led the march towards progress and the reclamation of feminism and the rightful place of women as equals in society. As a gay man I don’t have those same role models. gay men exhibit a femininity by default, we cannot exude the same level of ‘manliness’ as dictated by society so we instinctively fall back on the only cultural construct that we both envy and know better than any other – that of empowered black African American women – and that’s the catch – by emulating the vernacular of African American women as white gay men we are dis-empowering them by wearing their culture as a costume. We may think it’s cute, it’s kitchy and it’s what RuPaul wants us to do but it’s offensive and also quite racist.
Can you imagine, as a white gay man reading this, walking up to a woman of colour in a nightclub or even in the street and clicking our fingers and snapping ‘Hey gurrl!’ as if we are somehow part of the same post-colonial expression of feminist power? Well I’m sorry guys but we aren’t and regardless of how much it has been portrayed in the media (and I blame a lot of this on the media, too) we need to find a backbone of our own. Yes we can certainly identify with the positive and affirming messages that are uttered by powerful women of colour such as Beyonce, Angela Davis etc and we can of course challenge the patriarchy in our own way but by emulating the stereotype of the black African American women we are reducing her to nothing more than a caricature.
Long have I heard gay men complain of the stereotypical gay guy in the media. He is flamboyant, abrasive, colourful, feminine and non-committal, often very witty and quite bitchy. So why do we, as gay men, reduce another minority to a stereotype by doing the same? Standing shoulder to shoulder with feminists is something that gay men should do as responsible and informed citizens, it does not mean we should emulate those who are already oppressed. Black women throughout history have had to struggle and fight within a misogynistic structure from black men and again within a racist social structure created by white men. Let’s not feed into that by stripping them of their own identity and wearing it as a mask.