'Bye Sierra': A Slightly Angry Queer Response to the Sierra Mannie Controversy

Don't get me wrong, Sierra: Appropriation does happen, but gay men didn't steal "your" shit. They helped draw, color, sew, produce and conceive of it in the first place. So when you see white gay men emulating black women, you should be aware that part of what they are responding to is the expression of gay, queer and feminine men.
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Sierra Mannie, by now we've all read your really quite explosive "Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture," and the white gay male blogosphere has given its really kind of inevitable reply: We agree. Impersonating black women, claiming their identity, ("I am a strong. black. woman.") just performs and re-entrenches degrading stereotypes of black women, kind of like a paint less "black face," and is thus an exercise of unselfconscious white supremacy that is straight-up basic and we are all kind of embarrassed about. So the gays are all like: "Sorry about our friends." Then the world wide white gay net reassures you, Sierra, about how seriously they take the problem of structural inequality in terms of race before it points out, with all undue respect, that you marry your completely legitimate overarching point with a cavalcade of homophobic myths about how the closet works and tired anti-queer sentiments that, you know, aren't cool. But thanks, white gay bloggers say, for calling us out on the racism.

I'm a little less cool with your article, however. The praise "Dear White Gays" receives for merely bringing up the issue of appropriation seems to be distracting critics from zeroing in on its homophobic and transphobic logic that denies the way gender and racial inequality work in tandem to deny the dignity of both white gay men and black women. Instead, your piece frames respect for black women as indistinguishable from a really quite shameless homophobia -- which is full on reprehensible.

When you tell your reader, the white gay man, "You do not get to claim either blackness [ok, I am fine with that] or womanhood. It is not yours. It is not for you," you engage in gender normative rhetoric that de-legitimizes gay men and trans-women. And, of course, this was part of your polemic, to push white gay men's buttons by denying their white privilege... forcefully. We got it. But the authority you accrue to yourself in telling men what gender expressions are permissible for them depends on another kind of privilege that illegitimately empowers cisgender and gender normative people at the cost of trans, gay and feminine men. This is why, after the publication of your piece in TIME, one of the first tweets congratulating you on your success was from an anti-trans feminist blogger. I don't know what your intentions were towards trans people in writing your piece, but your policing of gay men's gender performance by claiming dominion over femininity has transphobic consequences that shouldn't be ignored or left un-critiqued as it, as far as I have read, has.

And just to be clear: What's at stake when you talk about "woman-hood" isn't so much the social identity or experiences of women. It's femininity, in your own words the "language," "stereotypical mannerisms" and culture (you make reference to the "appreciation of Beyonce") we associate with women but encompasses a category of gender performance. Gay men (you aren't only talking about the white ones here) are ok until they start acting like women, stealing their feminine culture. Because femininity is yours.

You're wrong, though. The idea that only people born as women generate, and therefore own exclusively, femininity is probably one of the more outlandish of homophobic ideologies. Genderqueer, m-to-f transsexuals, and feminine gay men exist in their own right, Sierra. Feminine gay men men don't, as you say, merely "adopt" or ape women's behaviors and mannerisms. The truth of the matter is that some men are as authentically feminine as some women. And some feminine men who are white grow up around black people who are feminine, so, yeah, their femininity might seem a little "black" to you. Really not their fault. Really none of your business. This is to say, your heterodominant feminist fantasy of owning "womanhood" is not the reality of queer people or feminine men. Femininity is theirs also and it is not for you to allow or deny their gender expression.

I say "heterondominant fantasy" because your gender normative moralizing flies in the face of facts. For instance, when you position black women (with Beyonce as the exemplar) as the original producers of black feminine culture, creating "our music, our dances, our slang, our clothing, [ and] our hairstyles [which] ... are rounded up, whitewashed and repackaged for ... [the] consumption," of culturally parasitic white gay men, you aren't just nastily defaming gay men, you are asking your reader to believe the impossible, namely, that Beyonce's hair, fashion and choreography are authored wholly by black female artists.

Are you kidding? Though I can't speak definitively to whether Beyonce's most often blonde hair (her femininity is not especially "black." Paging bell hooks. But anyway... ) has ever been styled or colored by a male homosexual hairdresser or colorist, I wouldn't bet against it as you have. I can say positively, however, that Beyonce's clothing has been provided by a number of male gay designers, most notably, Alexander McQueen (cough, white, cough), and more than once her choreography has enjoyed the input of ball culture ("Lose My Breath"). That Beyonce's femininity is the product of a collaboration between a woman and numerous gay men both black and white is simply a matter of record.

Other black female icons like Tyra Banks and NeNe Leeks (not great examples, but there they are) have, on camera, without equivocation, called themselves "drag queens" and/or credited their performances of femininity, their fashion, make-up and mannerisms, to a gay male stylists, like Mr. Jay and Miss Jay, and Dwight Eubanks, respectively. Gay men didn't steal "your" shit. They helped draw, color, sew, produce and conceive of it in the first place. So when you see white gay men emulating black women, holding black women's "woman-hood" a little too close, you should be aware that part of what they are responding to is the expression of gay, queer and feminine men whose work has been swallowed up into (am I allowed to say, "appropriated by?") representations of black women.

The reason you can so easily claim for women exclusively the cultural contributions of queer men is because men with a talent for feminine culture are under threat of violence and discrimination for developing and sharing that talent. Queer men who can sing and dance as ably as Beyonce or model as gracefully as Tyra Banks are barred from representation in a culture rigidly controlled by gender normative ideologies. Compulsory heterosexuality, however, still has use for queer men's feminine virtuosity, employing them well outside the spotlight, funneling their expressions of femininity into representations of gender normative women, a process of appropriation which allows you to claim ownership and authority over a gendered culture. And both the anti-trans feminist left and the Christian fundamentalist right agree with you, so you think it is must be true. But it's not.

Don't get me wrong, Sierra: Appropriation does happen, and it can be can ugly and embarrassing. For instance, when you misuse the word "bottoming," telling your white gay male addressee "I don't care who you are bottoming" when in fact we thirsty faggots don't "bottom someone," we "bottom for someone," we forget to be offended by your crass slut-shaming and objectification of gay black men because we are trying to digest the flabbergasting but increasingly likely notion that you have not in fact talked to a gay man in your life and still felt qualified to pen your essay.

And when you brew us some "truth tea" oblivious to the fact that "t," as used in gay male social circles, in fact, stands for "truth," which we "spill" as a double entendre of "tea, " thus making your condescending brew of "truth tea" read like an amateurish cup of awkward "truth-truth," it sounds like someone watched Paris is Burning a whole half time before she thought she could talk down to gay men in their own lingo. So, at the height of your arrogance, Sierra, lecturing us white gay men about how annoyed you are at having your femininity co-opted, and your culture stolen, your reader is witnessing you butcher his own slang, his own culture... in TIME magazine no less. It's a little much to take... seriously or otherwise.

The clumsy hypocritical appropriation aside, Sierra, the way you refuse mention of black gay men as anything other than white men's tops plays on a number of racist tropes that haunt interracial couples in general and gay interracial couples especially. Black gay men, the ones whose culture your language most closely appropriates, don't figure prominently in your article (they would challenge too forcefully the race separatist underpinning of the piece), but when you gesture to their existence, you objectify them in much the same way -- I am sorry to say -- some gay white men do, as living dildos, used for their "big black cocks," but not so much viable for a substantial romance or deep friendship. The relationships between white gay men and black gay men, you imply, are just sex.

There is no better way to express how deeply something bothers you than volunteering that you "don't care" about it, Sierra. And one could argue that you are just as annoyed by white gay men co-opting the sexual attention of black men as you are black femininity. Which is sad. But when you presume to read white gay men to filth regarding their sex practices which are absolutely none of your business (for instance, I don't say, I don't care "who you are opening your legs for") and can't even use the word "bottoming" right, it's pathetic. I'm not the first person to say this, but it bears repeating: "Check your own privilege."

As for white gay men getting what we lose to heterodominance "floated back to us" by a patriarchy that can't distinguish between queer and straight men's appearances... Nope, that's not true either. We are identified and sanctioned early, repeatedly, and mercilessly by our peers, educators, employers and even our families. The four-year-old child killed by his parents this year in Oregon for seeming too gay could not hide from homophobic sanction as easily as you insist. His patriarchal privilege didn't float back to him, it crashed into his skull and killed him on the first pass.

And the faceless torsos on hook ups apps you so cavalierly identify as gay men's sneaky way of enjoying same-sex sodomy while preserving patriarchal privilege is also, and really more importantly, a manifestation of our oppression. Objectifying ourselves. Splitting our identities. Prohibited from connecting with other gay men openly and honestly diminishing the prospect of community. Closeted sex, no matter how much it annoys you, Sierra, is not a form of power or an exercise of dominance. It is dominance internalized into self-hatred. In your article alone, gay men can't claim their own gender identity, their artistic production, or dignity for their relationships. They can't even get gender normative people to admit heterodominance acts in a real, structural way that conditions every part of their (and your) lives. It's almost like they can't. have. anything.

Let's be clear: Your idea that homophobia is only so bad because gay men choose to be so flaming and can avoid discrimination simply by butching up or shutting up is hate speech. It apportions the blame for anti-queer violence, physical and psychological, on its victims and denies the all pervasive consequences of the closet. Safe to say: Many of us gay men were told we were faggots, queers (in the un-re-appropriated sense) and faeries well before we even learned what "gay" or "trans" meant or got the chance to come out and facelessly flaunt our sexuality on a hook-up app.

Your piece capitalizes on and perpetuates an anti-feminist and anti-queer bias in terms of discrimination, the idea that racial discrimination is more real and serious than that of gender. This is a homophobic refusal to acknowledge that these two systems of power are actually interdependent and co-constituting ("You are nothing like us and your experience is nothing like ours. It is less.") casting respect for the dignity of black women as indistinguishable from the hateful dismissal of gay and queer men. This is invidious. But it is also self-defeating. The same normative gender scheme that allows you to tell gay men what gender they should perform and misrepresent their sex practices is what allows patriarchy to deny women's claims to traditional "manhood" like equal pay in the work place and access to contraception.

You thought you could divide white gay men's race from their sexuality and conquer. You launched the structural critique of racial inequality at his whiteness and then a feminist critique of patriarchy at his gender and expected to end silly queens' bad Beyonce "surfboard" impressions once and for all. You wrote as if gender and sexuality doesn't always condition race and vice versa. Imagine, for instance, a white feminist presuming to speak authoritatively for all women's experience. (wince) Or white gay men being used to represent all queer people. (yikes!) So when you plug "gay white men" into the place of "white people" generally and "black women" into the position of "black people" as whole in your pre-packaged critique of race hierarchy and call it a critique of gay white men, it comes off... well, ignorant. Say it with me:

Gay men do not experience patriarchal power or white privilege in the same way gender normative white men do.

Repeat with me: Gay men do not experience patriarchal or white privilege the way gender normative white men do.

But this is the worst part: You're minimizing gay men's experience of homophobia in relation to black women's experience of white supremacy doesn't even bear on the issue of appropriation at hand. Does acknowledging one axis of oppression diminish awareness of the other? Does calling out white supremacy necessitate denying the pernicious effects of heterodominance? "No" on both counts. Whether black women or white homos "have it worse" doesn't change the fact that white gay men don't have the right to co-opt black women's social identities or that white privilege incorrectly lets them think their appropriation is identification. To your credit, you admit this toward the end of your piece. Nevertheless, you chose to attempt to impart homophobia and transphobia with legitimacy by projecting it onto an already vetted, well received critique of race inequality, which is not at all commendable. It is lazy, hateful click baiting that in fact undermines and defames your original well received point. To wit, the next time one of my friends jokes how he is "a strong. black. Woman," and I try to read him, he will say: "What are you gonna do, Tony, tell all the white gay men they aren't women? Gonna tell them how lucky they have it in the closet?" And while I spend altogether too much time distinguishing why you are wrong, from why you are right, my friend will mostly likely roll his eyes and say, "Bye, Sierra!"

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