Racisim is rife in the queer community
- Published: 24 November 2009
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As a queer community we loathe being discriminated against because of our sexuality or gender identity, but when it comes to racism, we’re as guilty as the rest of society, writes Katrina Fox.
In Australia, this year’s Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras theme was ‘Nations United’. On the face of it, it seemed a good opportunity to unite GLBT people from across the globe, but for some it was problematic. Beit el Hob Arab Queers pulled out of the parade over what it said were cultural insensitivities on New Mardi Gras’ part in regard to the focus on nationalism, something the group noted was difficult for many queers who are fighting against the restrictive borders of national identity to survive.
“Racist attitudes need to be opened up and carefully examined,” says Nicole Barakat aka Wife, performer and member of Beit el Hob Arab Queers. “At its convenience, the gay stream – in this case New Mardi Gras – put aside issues of extreme importance in the name of 'celebration'. If we had years behind us of genuine dialogue around racism and white privilege in the queer community and real progress had been made, then a celebration could be had. However, it's very difficult to celebrate under the tokenistic banner of 'Nations United', when so many people are in pain because of a deep history of genocide and racism in this country and the gay stream’s failure to acknowledge it.”
Let’s be frank: racism in the queer community is rife. It ranges from outright hostility and name-calling, stereotyping a person based on their perceived ethnicity and making assumptions about a person because of their race, to more subtle forms of racism that may not even be recognised as such by the people carrying them out.
“Cultural misappropriation and exoticism are very common forms of racism that rear their heads in public performances,” explains Barakat. “‘Blacking up’ and racial impersonations such as African American, Native American and Japanese are often presented for the sake of humour or exotic pleasure, but are terribly racist. The number of offensive performances and costumes sighted in the month of February alone was disturbing.”
Even seemingly innocent profiles on gay internet dating sites stating ‘No Asians’ – often excused as being simply about sexual preference – stem from deep-seated beliefs about a particular culture.
“The big stereotype is that Asians are culturally passive, which probably has its roots in politeness being a big thing in many Asian cultures,” says Rathana Chea, activist and board member of the Ethnic Communities Council of NSW, the peak multicultural council in the state. “The other really offensive big stereotype is that Asian queers, particularly gay men, are sexually passive, which runs hand in hand with the stereotype that all gay men are effeminate. This is offensive on two levels. Why is being femme such a bad thing? The other level on which this kind of thinking is racist is that it undermines Asians who are not sexually passive, the out and proud dominant tops of the world.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people fare little better, with many experiencing racist behaviours that leave them feeling judged and unwelcome in queer spaces. “These often come in the form of stereotyping comments that fetishise, sexualise or objectify people on the basis of their race, such as referring to people as ‘black velvet’, or a ‘flavour’ rather than a person with an identity,” says Michelle Sparks, community manager at ACON. “Ignoring or avoiding a group in a venue who, were it not for their race, you might otherwise engage with socially, also creates barriers to an inclusive community where everyone can feel welcome and accepted.”
So, what’s the answer? How do we begin to eradicate racism from our community? ACON has taken some steps to raise awareness of racism in the queer community in its ‘Would You Wear It?’ campaign that included posters featuring GLBT people from different ethnic groups. The idea behind the campaign was to encourage people to do something when they witnessed racist behaviour. But as president Mark Orr admits, although the campaign raised awareness of the issue, ACON received “only a limited number” of reports.
The key to overcoming racism, according to Barakat, is for white people to recognise their own prejudices, admit the privilege and power that comes with being white and to then be prepared to give up that power. In an attempt to kick-start this process, Chanelle Gallant, a white queer activist from Canada, organised a workshop recently called Unpacking White Privilege after being “immediately confronted, upset, infuriated and bored to tears by the cultural stereotyping and total white dominance of Sydney’s queer scene” when she moved here a few months ago.
“I think it's indicative of systemic racist attitudes when people tell me that there are so few queers of colour in ‘the community’ because there aren't very many of them, rather than questioning why queers of colour might not feel welcome or safe in Sydney's white-dominated scene and what anti-racist white allies ought to do about that,” she says.
Like Barakat, Gallant believes the onus is on white people to challenge their own racism. “To white people I say: take direction from the queers of colour in your community, offer practical support as needed for movements led by people of colour – that might mean chopping the onions at a fundraiser or doing childcare – create spaces for the voices of people of colour themselves in media, events, at work, in our movements. Find other anti-racist white allies, do your own homework and take responsibility for educating each other about racism. Whatever you do, do not wait for people of colour to point racism out to you.”
Chea concurs, reminding us that, “If people like Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk and other leaders have taught us anything from history, it is that we are the ones we have been waiting for.”