Last Thursday, 42-year-old Bayna-Lehkiem El-Amin was sentenced to nine years in prison plus three more under supervision for his role in an altercation in 2015. His case is a cautionary tale about just how well white gay men and white women have cultivated progressive language around gender and sexuality to mask the violence of their whiteness.
It all started on Cinco de Mayo, when Jonathan Snipes and his boyfriend, Ethan York-Adams, drunkenly knocked over a glass at a Dallas BBQ restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Allegedly, someone from El-Amin’s table called the white gay couple “messy faggots” in response.
Snipes admits he attacked El-Amin with his bag after hearing the slur. What happened next is how many were introduced to the story because it was caught on camera and later went viral: El-Amin smashed a chair over Snipes’ head with a startlingly forceful blow.
El-Amin is Black. Snipes and York-Adams are white. Immediately, the racial, sexual, and gendered implications of the incident became apparent. While El-Amin ran into hiding—perhaps predicting the historically consistent outcomes when Black queer men are charged with harming white gay men—Snipes and York-Adams ran to the media to paint El-Amin as a hulking, gay-bashing brute. Newspapers had no problem printing those very words alongside other dehumanizing descriptors not unfamiliar to Black men facing the criminal justice system.
Local gay politicians jumped to call it a hate crime. Even though El-Amin’s own queerness was later revealed, they never walked the “gay bash” narrative back. Hate crime charges were dropped at the revelation of El-Amin’s sexuality, but the anti-gay ascriptions stuck to him throughout the trial; joined like melanin with his brown skin.
From the beginning, Snipes and York-Adams never denied their drunken behavior incited the fight, and neither did Assistant District Attorney Leah Saxtein, the white female prosecutor trying the case. Instead, Saxtein argued that because El-Amin could not “to let these girly men get the last word”—a motivation deduced from nothing more than the white gay victims, apparently—his actions went far beyond self-defense and were unjustified.
Judge Arlene Goldberg, the white woman hearing the case, ultimately agreed. “The jury rejected your claim of self-defense,” she said after the verdict was announced and before locking him away for the next decade of his life.
Snipes, York-Adams, the white LGBT politicians involved, Saxtein, and Goldberg represent the ultimate collusion of white gay and white woman victimhood. Together, they were able to not only use their skewed criteria for victimization to erase the significance of the instigating attack, but also to render El-Amin’s own queerness immaterial. It didn’t matter that El-Amin was attacked first or that he was queer, his response was too strong and too Black—and his victims too perfectly victimized.
Though people of color and Black people especially bear the brunt, white women and white gay men have a long history of positioning themselves as the sole victims of the very real violence of patriarchy and heteronormativity.
This is why terms such as intersectional feminism, womanism, and “same-gender-loving” have been created to distinguish people with marginalized gender and queer identities who do not have access to whiteness from those who do. Yes, white queer people and white women experience violence, but they just as often use this experience to cloud their own participation in a racial system that would lock a Black man away for nine years for defending himself.
The significance of the mask white womanhood and white gayness provide cannot be understated. Though Black women experience it at far more astounding rates, white women alone have been able to wield the threat of rape by Black men to their advantage (often resulting in lynching). Similarly, anti-queer violence, to which Black trans people especially fall victim to without much redress, becomes both the exculpatory tool for white gay men who knock over drinks and hit people with bags, and the punitive weapon against anyone who dares retaliate. Any understanding of victimization that underestimates the importance whiteness not only minimizes the unquestionably real dangers of gendered and anti-queer violence faced by nonwhite queer people and women, it also turns those dangers against the very people who are harmed the most.
This can be seen in how even while Black women have presented numerous arguments for opposing Hillary Clinton based on her specific anti-Black history, some white feminists have charged any scrutiny specific to Clinton, even from the left, is sexism. Rather than eliminating the demonstrable violence her access to imperial power allows, white feminism would prefer just that this violence be allowed for women the same way it is allowed for men.
In this way, even arguments against Hillary Clinton informed by feminist lenses become sexist attacks. Those who are not “with her” become a bigger problem than her very real history of antiblackness. The victimization of her white womanhood obscures the victimizing power of her access to whiteness, only making it easier to go unaddressed.
At El-Amin’s sentencing, Judge Goldberg told him, “I know that you want to cast this, your supporters as well, as an issue about race. I don’t see it that way.” But this is only a stating the obvious. Goldberg’s access to the oppressive power of whiteness—the power to sentence a man defending himself to nine years in prison—requires she see nothing but a defenseless poor gay boy and a hulking Black monster whenever Black queerness conflicts with white gayness. And she, like many white women and white gay men, rely on that access more than anything else.
As another defenseless Black person’s murder is looped across media over the next several days, it is important to acknowledge that Terence Crutcher’s killer was a white woman. It is important to address how those responsible for taking ten years of a queer Black man’s life are white gay men and white women. It is important to understand how white gay men and white woman use patriarchy and heteronormativity to cloak their whiteness and position themselves as defenseless victims always in need of state protection while the state continues its onslaught against Black communities. After we understand these facts, we have to stop allowing them to get away with it.
Photo: El-Amin Family