Op-ed: Grappling With What People See As My Privilege
BY Tyler Curry
April 25 2014 6:15 AM ET
As I'm an LGBT and HIV activist, my credibility and culpability in the fight for various human rights is often a topic of discussion.
Given the many layers of social issues that relate to the LGBT umbrella, it comes as no surprise that my race, sexual orientation, and identification with my sex assigned at birth is also a contentious item of conversation. And while I am passionate about LGBT equality — and that equally includes the rights and equality of transgender people — a new trend continues to gain traction in which others use my gender identification, known as cisgender, and my race to discount my stake in the fight for human rights.
To say that this is counterintuitive should be about as obvious as saying water is wet.
Yes, it is apparent that I am a white cisgender gay male. As much as I try to cover up my Caucasian roots with globs of self-tanner, there is no escaping my pinkish-white skin tone. It wasn’t exactly a surprise when several of my essays on HIV, transgender equality, and biphobic discrimination were discounted because of my personal identifiers.
“How could you understand, you are a white, cisgender privileged gay man!” said a Hispanic bisexual woman on Twitter in response to an article I wrote titled “A Second Look at Bisexuality,” in which I challenge the biased notions some have against bisexual people.
I was surprised that the white and cisgender part of my label took so much priority in the judgment of my perspective; those two elements are mentioned first. The fact that I was still a gay man seemed only an afterthought. And that entire label, in that context, assumes that it would somehow be impossible for me to empathize with anyone who is not exactly like me.
I definitely agree that my ethnicity has contributed heavily to my perspective as an activist and as an adult, but this label doesn't have a strong bearing on my character. While I do recognize the validity of the term in differentiating between those who do not identify with their gender assigned at birth from those who do, the term cisgender is often misused against some gay men as a way of discounting their point of view. In some cases the term has become synonymous with privilege. That seems to be creating a rift by pointing out a supposed majority of the LGBT minority.
Yes, I am cisgender, and I am Caucasian. But unless you are only looking at a picture, the first thing that comes to mind when I walk and talk is homosexual. Being cisgender didn’t serve me very well as a girly boy growing up in a suburban area of Texas. From grade school into high school, I was constantly bullied. It was a nonstop roar in my ears that I could seldom escape. I changed schools twice because the rumors were so bad that both teachers and students made horrible accusations about my relationship with my father. It was all because I had a bounce in my step and a rhythm to my voice that made me stick out among the crowd.
Sure, at first glance, my ethnicity, brown hair, and athletic build granted me access into the club of the white male, which has been so valued by society as to be considered elite. But once my little bird voice chirped in their ears, I was swiftly booted out.
I will contend, if we’re creating a pseudo-superior class of white cisgender gay males, a person’s masculinity or femininity should factor in as well, because that’s so often how we judge ourselves, and that is how non-LGBT people judge us too.
Among gay men, masculinity is close to race when determining the level of prejudice a man might encounter. I would even venture to say that a black or Hispanic gay man who exhibits the alpha-masculine qualities that are universally prioritized in this country might be seen as more desirable than a white gay man who comes across as feminine. Writing off white cisgender gay men just because of those factors is sloppy, and it’s done by groups of people who should know better than to make swift judgments based on a few external characteristics.
Of course, in the context of women's and transgender issues, a white cisgender sissy boy will still not be able to relate to the trials and travails of a black lesbian or a Hispanic transgender woman. I certainly acknowledge that there are levels of privilege that come with a number of characteristics that make up individuals in the LGBT community, but unlike in mainstream society, it is more difficult to quantify these demographics into visible and rigid categories.
I do not claim to be anything other than my own personal mixture of identifiers and traits that make me who I am. But I'd like to believe it's still possible to strive to understand another group’s inequalities so that we can keep striving for fairness in our culture. That is how equality is won. White and male privilege are problems in the greater society as well as among LGBT people, but we must also combat other societal disparities, one of which is the segmentation of a subgroup that doesn’t need any more division among its ranks.
We should not minimize the experiences of anyone who is LGBT before actually taking the time to find out just what those experiences are. This is especially true if that person is trying to fight alongside our various factions to obtain equality and understanding for all.
Our individual experiences from our skin color, gender, and gender identity are what shade the colors that make us who we are. I don’t know about you, but I want to be surrounded by all different types of people to learn how to work together and fight for a more equal society.
After all, we don’t own the rainbow for nothing.
TYLER CURRY created the Needle Prick Project as an editorial and visual campaign to elicit a candid and open conversation on what it means to be HIV-positive today. To learn more about the Needle Prick Project, visit www.facebook.com/getpricked or follow Tyler Curry on Twitter at @iamtylercurry.