Perez Hilton at the MMVAs 2010

Perez Hilton and the gay movement's racial politics

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BY ALOK VAID MENON

Perez Hilton is at it again. After his online fight with Azealia Banks in January, the blogger caused controversy with recent tweets claiming that “inside every gay man is a fierce black woman.” 


 

Then he defended himself by comparing black women to Hitler. Via Jezebel:

"I AM genuinely hurt/saddened. Go back to your superiority complex and overreacting," "I didn't attack. They did," "The whole overreaction has really bummed me out. :-(," "I only apologize in life if it's with sincerity. I'm not sorry," "I'm not racist," "They should probably just ignore me and/or stop reading my tweets then," AND, ahem, "Some present logical arguments, but then Hitler attempted to justify the holocaust too."

According to Hilton’s black feminist critics, like Crunk Feminist Collective’Eddie Ndopu, these caricatures “reinforce dehumanizing narratives … about black femininities.” In an essay for Feministing, Sesali Bowen writes, “We shouldn’t need a white male body to legitimize our experiences or expression...we’re not going to accept this as a compliment.” Even white gay men joined the backlash. Christopher Carbone, a writer for Slate and the Guardian, responded with the hashtag #NotYourSassyGayFriend to call for the end of racist gay tropes.

While I agree with the many critiques that have surfaced in the weeks following his Twitter meltdown, I think we need to push the conversation further to really understand just how deeply racism is entrenched in gay communities.

This incident is not just about Perez Hilton; it’s about the gay movement as a whole. We cannot afford to view appropriation as an isolated incidenceracist appropriation is an underlining component of the contemporary gay rights movement.

Racism is not just about individual actions; racism is a system. The rest of useven those of us involved with LGBT activismare complicit in anti-black racism. This incident brings up larger questions about the status of gay rights in this country. This is about the “progress” of gay rights and gay marriage in a moment of unyielding anti-black racism, leading to mass incarceration.

Hilton’s appropriation of language from black women is symptomatic of a larger cultural theft: the gay movement’s hijacking of the black liberation struggle. In 2008, an Advocate cover asked, “Gay Is the New Black?” That headline is a perfect distillation of the recent trend of activists calling the gay struggle the new civil rights movement, as if the “old” civil rights movement were over. Take, for example, Attorney General Eric Holder’s frequent remarks that the fight for marriage equality is a continuation of the civil rights movement: “Just like during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the stakes involved in this generation's struggle for LGBT equality could not be higher.” In Arizona, publications like Gawker and the Seattle Times were quick to equate the state’s discriminatory legislation to Jim Crow.

What such comparisons do is create the illusion that anti-black racism is over in this country. But just like Hilton’s superficial nod to black women, what is violent about this appropriation is that the way it operates is not actually about real collaboration and solidarityit’s about exploitation and greed. Perez Hilton, like the gay movement itself, is not actually interested in ending racismboth are interested in exploiting blackness to get ahead.

When gay men like Hilton use black women’s language they are celebrated as “fierce” and “sassy,” but low-income black women are too often shamed for being themselvescalled “welfare queens.” the gay movement has been successful in using the rhetoric of the civil rights movement gaining unprecedented legal victories, such as the recent repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, but in the same political climate, black activists have been unable to garner support for racial justice issues.

In Florida, a black woman named Melissa Alexander is now facing up to 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot into the ceiling for her abusive husband; Alexander is having difficulty fundraising for her legal expenses. Where was the gay movement when CeCe McDonald a black trans woman was thrown into prison after defending herself from racist and transphobic attacks? Where was the gay movement when Assata Shakur, one of the most influential black feminist activists, was the first woman added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list. Gay organizations have not come out in support of the countless black people in this country who are being targeted, criminalized, and incarcerated unfairly. Where is the solidarity now?

What becomes evident is how gay rights organizations are quick to use the language of the black struggle but not actually support black people themselves. This is how appropriation works: black people are reduced to a concept, a history, an ideasomething able to be contained in a gay man’s body. Black people are not respected as thriving people still resisting virulent state criminalization and violence.

What is so violent about appropriation is that it gives the superficial impression that oppressors are somehow supporting the people they oppress. I’m sure that Mr. Hilton genuinely believes that he supports black women; I’m sure the gay movement believes it’s helping all people of color.

However, what becomes evident is that appropriation really only benefits people with power. Appropriation is manipulative: It strategically steals to get ahead. Both Hilton and the gay movement merely give lip service to black people: using their language, but not actually supporting them. We have to own up to the fact that not only the success of gay celebrities like Perez Hilton but also the “success” of the gay movement is on the backs of black people in this country.

It’s time for less talk and more action.

Alok Vaid-Menon is a grassroots queer activist and artist who currently works with the Audre Lorde Project and DarkMatter.

Photo via TonyFeiguerias/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)