White gay privilege exists all year, but it is particularly hurtful during Pride

Although we share the same oppressors, white queer folks must come to terms with the fact that they play a role in the harm experienced by their Black and Brown siblings.
Illustration of black person standing in a sea of white people and pride flags and signs.
What it feels like to be a Black queer who has never been seen in the rainbow.Claire Merchlinsky / for NBC News
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By George Johnson

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the event that arguably jumpstarted the modern LGBTQ movement. But while June has become a month-long celebration for many, it’s apparent that we currently have two different prides occurring.

While rainbows are replacing corporation logos across the nation, Black folks like myself are attending rallies for the death of our trans sisters — most recently Layleen Polanco Xtranveganza, who was found dead in her jail cell in Rikers Island, and Zoe Spears, who was shot to death on June 15. Unfortunately, this is nothing new for the Black queer community; the architects and elders of the movement have been all but erased. This white gay privilege exists year-round, but it is particularly frustrating during Pride.

The architects and elders of the movement have been all but erased. This white gay privilege exists year-round, but it is particularly frustrating during Pride.

All communities struggle in some way with race, and the LGBTQ community is no different. Racism has always played a role in relationships between white and Black queer people. Just as the movement for LGBTQ rights has been whitewashed, so has Pride month often felt like a white, gay-centered event — far removed from the leaders of the Stonewall riots.

Get the think newsletter.

In a recent article for BET, I discuss how the Stonewall riots should be considered an important part of Black history. Leaders like Marsha P Johnson, Stormé DeLarverie, Miss Major and several other Black transgender and queer people were on the front line for those six nights in the summer of 1969. And yet Roland Emmerlich’s 2015 movie "Stonewall" shamelessly downplayed the role Black queer people played in leading the riots — going so far as having a white gay man throw the first brick, instead of Marsha P. Johnson.

Such revisionism is not just a feature of movies, however. White queers often benefit from the work of Black queers, only to distance themselves once their particular needs are met. Look no further than the HIV epidemic, which remains a major problem for Black and Brown men who have sex with men. The intersection of race creates additional barriers like access to healthcare, medication and a proximity to higher infection rates. AfricanAmericans make up more than 40 percent of all people living with HIV in the United States, despite African Americans comprising only 12 percent of the U.S. population. Unfortunately, when HIV stopped being known as a primarily white gay epidemic, it began to feel more and more like an afterthought.

Want more articles like this? Sign up for the THINK newsletter to get updates on the week's most important cultural analysis

Although white queer people share in our queer oppression, they are still beneficiaries of white supremacy — and are not above wielding that power in our “safe spaces.” In 2017 during Philly Pride, for example, the attempt was made to add a black and brown stripe to the rainbow flag. This action was met with anger from white gay men who felt the flag represented unity despite skin color — a particularly tone-deaf defense given that Philadelphia's gay bars had recently become a hotbed for racism.

Although white queer people share in our queer oppression, they are still beneficiaries of white supremacy — and are not above wielding that power in our “safe spaces.”

It isn’t a coincidence that in that same summer of 2017, 11 owners of queer spaces in Philadelphia went through mandatory anti-discrimination training after several incidents at various gay bars — including the discovery of a YouTube video showing bar owner Darryl DePiano using racial slurs in 2016, and other alleged incidents involving racial discrimination.

I experienced many of these same policies in the Washington D.C. area when I used to live there. Gay bar Number 9 in D.C. used to charge a cover only on Fridays — the night that the crowd was primarily Black. Nellies, a gay sports bar in D.C., also removed certain liquors like Hennessy and hid its glassware on days known to attract Black patrons. The assumption here being that Hennessy is a “Black” drink, and that Black patrons are more violent and thus should only be trusted with plastic cups. Eventually Nellies was also forced to go through anti-discrimination training following complaints from several patrons, including the writer Preston Mitchum.

Sadly, Pride month has never really been about having pride for Black queer people. We have long been burdened with the work of removing homophobia from Black communal spaces while also taking up the fight against racism in all spaces. We have seen a white gay man named Ed Buck escape accountability for the deaths of two Black gay men found in his home — a jarring reality that shows us just how much power white queers wield over queers of color. We watch violence occurring at alarming rates in the Black queer community while rainbow capitalism continues to dominate an “inclusion” conversation that never seems to include us.

While Black queer people are still fighting for survival, white queer people were fighting for marriage equality. This is not to say that marriage equality isn’t important, but it is certainly not the only fight. Although we all share the same oppressors, white queer folks must come to terms with the fact that they play a role in the harm experienced by Black and Brown queer folks — a problem they could stop if they acknowledge the privilege they have, this month and every month.