The LGBTQ community has a wide breadth of diversity, which is something that we tend to pride ourselves on. Our rainbow flag – the iconic emblem of our community – symbolizes that diversity in its spectrum of colors. But the racism that accompanies that diversity – and that is a systemic part of the LGBTQ community – exists on the flip side of diversity. It’s like the dirty little secret that we don’t want to talk about, or deny that it even exists. “Just because I don’t want to date [insert racial/ethnic group] doesn’t mean I’m racist,” isn’t an uncommon statement. Or “Just because I ONLY want to date [insert racial/ethnic group] doesn’t mean I’m racist.” That dirty little secret is what I’d like to talk about this week.
Take a look at the dating profiles of gay men on online dating sites, and you’ll see all kinds of exclusionary criteria, like:
“NO POZ” (meaning “no HIV-positive”).
Or you might see:
Or you might see some more, shall we say, colorful – and disturbing – language used. What’s particularly striking to me is how brazenly this language is tossed around, without concern for political correctness or potential offensiveness. This coming from a community that’s no stranger to oppression.
Years ago, I was part of a panel of judges at a psychology graduate student research conference. In one particular study I was asked to judge, the student was studying the relationship dynamics between “rice queens” – White gay men who only date Asian men – and their Asian-American lovers. While I would never throw that term around, I use it deliberately in this context – because this student, who was a gay White male, used that term repeatedly throughout his presentation – AND he used it in the manuscript he’d submitted to a well-regarded academic journal. It didn’t once cross his mind that this term might be objectifying and perjorative; in fact, when I raised that issue in my critique of his presentation, it was clear, based on his facial expression, that he’d never been given that feedback before.
Rice queens, bean (or taco, or salsa) queens, hummus queens, chocolate queens – believe me, there’s many more contemptous terms where that came from. Not that slang in and of itself is necessarily a bad thing. Historically, gay slang has functioned as a secret code, allowing gay men to communicate with each other and express themselves without being detected. Polari, a British form of slang used within the gay underground subculture throughout the 20th century, is one example of the ways that gay slang functions in the community. But when a “secret code” is used within an underground subculture, there’s no social monitoring of that code. If we apply linguistic relativity theory (also known as the Whorfian hypothesis), which presumes that the language we use has a powerful influence on our cognitive processes, we can see how racism gets woven within the fabric of one’s culture. If racism is embedded within the structure of one’s language, and that racist language goes unchecked and unchallenged, then a collective racist cognitive process starts to get its hooks into that culture. My guess is that this is where some of these “queen” terms came from – “queen” being an empowering reclaiming of a gay slur, the modifiers of “queen” adding a racist tint.
Let’s take this a step further. Cognitive psychologists would likely argue that not only does language influence our thought process, but our thought process influences behaviors. Racist language leads to racist thoughts, which, in turn, leads to racist acts. And when we look at the psychological research, what do we find? Racism happens in the LGBTQ community. For example, in a study published this month in the Journal of Latina/o Psychology, Latino gay men reported feeling ostracized in White gay environments; being treated rudely and unfairly by White gay men; and being sexually objectified by White gay men because of their race. So not surprisingly, objectifying language contributes to a climate of objectification.
What’s even more disturbing is that, according to the same study, more frequent experiences of racism – both general and gay-related – were strongly associated with lower self-esteem among the Latino gay male participants. And other studies have identified a range of risk factors associated with racism in the gay community, the two most widely studied being depression and risky sexual behaviors.
There’s a great PSA campaign sponsored by the Ad Council and the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that’s called “Think B4 You Speak.” While these PSA spots, featuring stars like Hilary Duff and Wanda Sykes, call attention to the damaging effects to youth incurred by the phrase “that’s so gay,” I think the title of the campaign is relevant here. The words you use have more power than you think.