Think before you speak

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.



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5 responses to “Think before you speak

  1. Gary Hollander

    I don’t want to learn what my week would be like without one of your posts, Gayle. Again, thanks for your thoughtful and completely readable commentary. Thanks, too, for this particular post that so generously addresses a major issue among white gay men – generous because it would be easy to throw up your hands and say, “This woman isn’t going to take on their unconscionable behavior.”

    As usual, my comments about your post refer to just a few points that “snag” me as I read them. The pause that these points give me are not negative in any way. They just slow me down sufficiently so that I can ponder your ideas. Today, there are three things.

    First, when you observed that a young man whose presentation you were critiquing looked like he’d never been given that type of feedback before, I asked “Why not?” I wonder if the academy is that unaware of its own racism given the very limited access to higher education afforded the Global Majority, namely people of color. Or, is there some sort of feverish liberalism at play that believes that these racist comments are particularly real, authentic, emblematic of an underground culture – and thus unassailable? Perhaps in a more general way, his mentors and faculty members (likely white) are uncomfortable interrupting racism, being seen as unpleasant, or defer to people of color to do the heavy lifting.

    In any case, thanks for taking this on. The young man can now have a better shot at becoming the sort of professional and man that he likely wants to be.

    The second point that snagged me is this one: “’queen’ being an empowering reclaiming of a gay slur.” I think the jury is still out on this one, Gayle. Unlike “queer,” queen remains derisive even in its use among gay and bisexual men. It connotes frivolous , haughty, dramatic, bitchy, and unkind. In the past I might have used this term about myself, but found that – even when I tried to neutralize my thoughts and feelings about it – using the word “person” or “man” when referring to myself was much more humanizing. In short, I wonder if both the “rice” and the “queen” part of the expression are de-humanizing or objectifying.

    Finally, I generally read the “NO FATS,” “NO FEMMES,” “NO POZ,” or “NO ASIANS” in ads as “I am more committed to my fantasy of life than to finding the man of my dreams. At this time my dreams are small and are not likely to grow because of this mental rigidity.” I know a few lovely men who have placed these ads; unfortunately they don’t know that they are lovely men. Their ability to hold onto a perspective that they themselves are good, intelligent, attractive, connected, zestful humans is tenuous at best. Holding on to their own self-worth by their fingernails limits their ability to reach out to the men of color, the men with HIV, the men comfortable with their gender expression, and the men comfortable within their own skin who could be all they really hope for in life.

    Again, thanks Gayle.

    • Thanks for your well-articulated points, as always! I’ll just touch on a few.

      I think that racism is alive and well in the academy, for the reasons you noted. What’s particularly dangerous about this brand of racism, in my opinion, is that it is often perpetrated by people who consider themselves to be progressive, forward-thinking, and working towards social justice. I see it to some extent at my own institution – a denial that one’s actions are racist (often of the covert form) because they are intelligent, caring, open-minded people – not the kind of people who would harbor racism. Moreover, in order to really eradicate racism, we have to examine privilege, and that’s a very uncomfortable thing for those of us who hold some form of privilege.

      Both “rice” and “queen” are definitely dehumanizing. I think the “queen” has been reclaimed to some extent, but what I also see is a youth culture who grew up with more acceptance, and who didn’t experience the vicious forms of homophobia that their elders experienced. I think that’s why there’s somewhat of a generational split on the word “queer,”

      And lastly – I appreciate your comments regarding the personal motivations around the exclusionary criteria in personal ads, and how that might reflect some internal dynamics,

  2. Wow Gayle, yet again, you’ve given me pause. I began reading this article thinking I was going to read about the expressions I hear constantly from my son’s friends (but not my son, who knows better) and from my nieces and nephews that – though they care deeply about their aunt, my wife – they persist is saying; “That’s so gay” and “You’re so gay”. Those rankle and every time I point them out to the straight teens in my life who say them, they laugh it off as me being uptight that it’s just an expression. One niece got right in my face and told me if it was hurting my feelings, then maybe I shouldn’t be gay. She just doesn’t get that it hurts my wife too who has decided it’s not worth the effort to keep trying to explain to these kids that what they’re doing is bad or wrong and why. Where they live blacks/African Americans are still called “colored”. If they haven’t moved past that, moving past gay slurs is probably a long way off.

    Myself, not being a member of the white, gay male community and living and hanging out where they tend to live and meet, I haven’t been a party to these additional expressions of verbal prejudice. Oh, I’ve seen the personal ads that only look for “ht/wt proportionate WM” (read skinny white males). Also, I hear the word “queen” thrown about and, I admit, I’ve used it. Further, I’ve used it in the same manner Gary speaks of it; to refer to a gay male who is being dramatic, bitchy or unkind or some combination of the three. However, I’ve never heard the word queen used in conjunction with a modifier like rice or chocolate. Were I to hear it in the context of a conversation, I have to tell you I might not have picked up on it being derogatory before reading this.

    Your absolutely right and your points are valid. I learned something today, so thank you. One question, how did the graduate student end up faring among the judges at the research conference? I’m just curious to know if is narrow view ended up tripping him up?

    • Thanks so much for your comment! I’m glad you learned something – it’s a real wake-up call to see the kinds of terms that are batted around. The graduate student didn’t win any awards at the conference, although I’m not sure it was because of his choice of terminology. Since it was a general psychology research conference, there weren’t many LGBTQ studies presented, so that could have been a factor too. If I remember correctly, the study that won the grand prize was some kind of biologically-based rat study – biological psych research often wins awards, because people think of it more as “real science” than the stereotypical “warm and fuzzy” science that *most* psychologists do. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Fringe: An Interview with Gayle Pitman | Shelly's LGBT Book Review Blog

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