Race matters: In anti-gay protests, gay bashings, and suicides

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People of colour have been missing from the conversation about attacks on the LGBTQ community. A conversation on CBC's The National was a case in point. It promoted the view that to be LGBTQ meant to be white.

Canadian news media have provided heart-wrenching accounts of the string of suicides and homophobia-fuelled violence that has occurred recently in the United States. The coverage has made clear the deep-seated hatred and violence that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people (LGBTQ) are subjected to on a daily basis, just for being who they are.

One incident, during which two male teenagers and a 30-year-old man were brutally tortured by members of the Latin King Goonies gang, occurred in the predominantly Hispanic Morris Heights section of the Bronx, New York. Only a week earlier, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers student leaped to his death from the George Washington bridge after his roommate had posted a live video of him being intimate with another male.

These situations expose how much work remains to be done to address the bullying, hate crimes, harassment, and suicide of LGBTQ people everywhere. Advances in legal rights alone are insufficient if the hearts and minds of those who wish us harm remain closed to our existence as human beings worthy of respect, love, and dignity.

I was heartened by Wendy Mesley's coverage on The National on CBC News in early October of the recent anti-gay attacks and suicides in the U.S. Three members of the LGBTQ community, all white, were invited to appear on the show to give their perspective. They said that the anti-gay bullying, harassment, and suicide evident south of the border are present in Canada as well, but that challenges facing LGBTQ people, such as youth suicide, do not always receive the level of national attention they deserve. In this respect, Canada has much to learn from the United States.

However, as I watched and listened to the panel members speak, I was disheartened by the omission of race in their discussion. We know that the victims of the New York City incident belonged to a visible minority group, but this fact was not mentioned by any of the panel members. The struggles and challenges faced by LGBTQ people of colour were not reflected except for a very brief reference to an Iranian immigrant whose family might not approve of his or her sexual orientation.

Why was the panel silent on the topic? Did they think that the anti-gay attacks somehow confirmed a prejudice of racial minority groups against their non-heterosexual members? They did not seem to be saying that. Rather, in my opinion, the decision to not address race fits the social and policy agenda of the dominant white LGBTQ community. Too often, as on this program, LGBTQ issues as they pertain to people of colour are disregarded in favour of a monolithic, "community-wide" approach -- a euphemism for white-only issues. But, as research has shown, the experiences of LGBTQ people of colour are qualitatively different from those of the dominant, white racial group.

The white-dominated LGBTQ community wants to present a unified front. Everyone is supposed to be the same and everyone is supposed to be treated equally. But as many non-whites in the LGBTQ community know, this idea of a unified, welcoming community is more of a utopia than a reality. Whites who are brave enough to admit it know this too. This awareness is central to meeting the needs of this vulnerable population. Educators, social workers, politicians, and LGBTQ organizations cannot effectively address the anti-gay violence, bullying, and related intolerance experienced by LGBTQ people of colour without understanding how race interlocks with other identity matrices to compound this experience.

Yet, as I watched the three white guest speakers that day on the CBC, I was left with the impression that race did not matter.

Race functions in LGBTQ communities in ways that render invisible the lived experiences of LGBTQ people of colour. This invisibility has the effect of silencing and marginalizing LGBTQ racial minorities at the same time as it privileges the interest of the status quo. The National's presentation reinforced this perception. It promoted the view that to be LGBTQ meant to be white.

LGBTQ people of colour are working to change this long-held perception, because of the potential for such a narrative to inadvertently contribute to the violence perpetrated against them. Failing to mention race on this show could feed into, for example, a black nationalist discourse that (according to one author) perceives black men who engage in same-sex practices as "diseased, race traitors, feminine, and sick." This kind of thinking creates conditions for violence to occur.

Surely, it is no surprise that LGBTQ people live in homophobic environments. Social discrimination persists in Canada and the United States, despite equal rights legislations for LGBTQ people. For LGBTQ people of colour, the discrimination is compounded because of their multiple identities. As the incidents described in this article suggest, however, if we are to truly understand the experiences of LGBTQ people of colour, we need to move away from a colour-blind approach and consider how race and other cultural identities factor into the equation.

It is unfortunate that LGBTQ people of colour were not given the opportunity to contribute to the CBC dialogue. In the future, I would hope that the National would take care to reflect the diversity of the LGBTQ community in those it invites to its show, in order to achieve a comprehensive, balanced perspective on critical matters facing the community.

Sulaimon Giwa (sol.giwa@gmail.com) is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, School of Social Work, at York University.

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