Friday, January 28, 2011

The perils of a liberal-arts education

Zack Rosen's "In Defense of the Gay White Male" was painful to read. It was a prime example of how 'your privilege is showing' ruins conversations. Stop! Apologizing! Stop apologizing for not apologizing while at the same time apologizing! It's well and good to recognize the struggles of others, but on and on and on about how wonderful it was to attend a conference where those of one's own group were bashed from the left, how moving the speech was of the least abashed basher. "I am frequently called out for, at best, my excess of privilege and, at worst, the ways that people like me have disenfranchised the rest of the queer community through our existence and our actions." Lord knows these accusations will continue if you continue having this discussion. (Such as: "Oh my God, a white dude made other people's identity issues ALL ABOUT HIM? Alert the media, I'm shocked. Snark over, here's the deal; this article REEKS of privilege.") The moment a writer reveals himself to be vulnerable to a 'your privilege is showing,' the more gleefully the writer will be taken down with just that expression. Much as I think it's great as a matter of principle for the white guy with the mansion in Chelsea (the default white gay male experience, right? sarcasm...) to recognize the challenges faced by the kids of color hanging out on the western stretches of Christopher Street, I wanted to just tell this author to make friends with the gay-libertarians-who'd-be-conservative-but-for-the-fact-that-they-like-dudes set. I believe the appropriate expression here is, life is too short.

If Rosen is set, however, on gazing into the navel of privilege, here's another way he might look at it: the gay white masculine-appearing male is in some ways less privileged on account of the expectation of privilege. Here's this person who looks like he has it easy, who can experience privilege in certain situations (hailing a cab, at a job interview, integrating into the gay community, etc.), but whose struggles are not recognized because they are virtually invisible. The more privileged he would be otherwise, the greater he falls when it gets revealed that he's attracted to men, the more of a threat he is to the straight white masculine-appearing males who make it a political cause to defend their place in the hierarchy. (The whole 'we thought he was one of us' - same as what made assimilated Jews so threatening to anti-Semites back in the day.) I once had this conversation with a guy who looked and I must say acted like the ultimate douche, maligning marginalized groups, Jews and women among them, if I remember correctly. I made some comment about how, what did he know about being marginalized, and he mentioned being, and I quote, "a fag." Did this revelation make him any less of a douche? Not exactly (and nor was it terribly surprising, given that most of the other men at the party were gay male friends or acquaintances), but I would bet that he's faced more difficulties from being a member of a group that it, after all, remains legal to oppress than I have for the marginalized aspects of my own identity. The new bit of info, although again, not mind-blowing, absolutely changed the dynamics of the conversation. My point, Rosen, if you're reading this, is that the mismatch between assumed privilege and real privilege of white gay cisgender men is stark indeed, and that this could always be your angle.

(Note: typo and link fixed.)


Gregor said...

Disappointing that you've succumbed to the same kind of social bullying that emanates from all the identity politics debates. Being gay may be tougher than not being gay even for white guys, but what relevance does it bear on his opinions (the dude at the party) on women and Jews? A douche is a douche, because of what they say and who they are. Being gay (or whatever other minority membership one wants to claim) is not inoculation from peer criticism. The more people are allowed to get away with being shitty when they play their identity card, the worse our social discourse gets.

Phoebe said...


You're absolutely right that the guy shouldn't get a free pass, and I don't believe I gave him one. My initial assessment of douchiness didn't change, as I get at in the post. But the dynamics of the conversation did. Whereas at first I assumed he had no clue what it was like to be any kind of Other, it was now possible that he was playing at some kind of all-us-Others self-deprecation. Not something I find acceptable - I've written about how I don't think being a gay Jewish man makes it OK for someone to write nasty stuff about Jewish women. What I was trying to illustrate with this anecdote is that the leap between thinking someone is an unhyphenated white male and learning that they're gay is a larger one in terms of how much privilege you assume they have than when, for example, one learns that a black woman is also a lesbian.

Anonymous said...

Phoebe ... I applaud your post and response here. I might add that of all the "groups" in the LGBT community the most condescending, selfish and patronizing are the White-Gay-Males. Maybe this is, perhaps, because as the world community is becoming aware of, the white-male element is becoming the minority and they're scared.

Frank said...

Thanks for your post, Phoebe. I'm one of those gay-libertarians-who'd-be-conservative-but-for-the-fact-that-they-like-dudes. I've never felt guilty for what I am, and I never will. I try to use whatever gifts I have to make my community a better place, as do most people I know.

To the anonymous poster above... you're a close-minded bigot, guilty of the very thing you are trying to generalize about others.

Phoebe said...


You say you agree, then state the precise opposite of what I did!


Glad you appreciated the post!