Why I’m tired of white gay men telling queer stories

A few days ago, it was announced that Ryan Murphy, the mind behind queer favorites like Glee and American Horror Story, is developing a show slated for 2018 called Pose that will explore 80s LGBTQ ball culture. According to Deadline, the series “examines the juxtaposition of several segments of life and society in New York City: the emergence of the luxury Trump-era universe, the downtown social and literary scene and the ball culture world.”

I hate it preemptively.

It’s not that I don’t believe this is a culture worth exploring or that the show could have no entertainment value. Murphy is a talented storyteller who had little difficulty drawing me into the worlds he weaved in Glee and American Crime Story. I have no doubt Pose will bring an equally new and refreshing approach to the television experience. But I was immediately reminded of all the ways white gay men use ideas of queerness universalized around their own experiences to tell our stories that are ultimately harmful to other queer people like myself.

There is a thin line between entertainment, appropriation, and historical revisionism when it comes to who gets to tell queer stories and why. Two years ago, when Roland Emmerich released Stonewall, a fictionalized account of the riots most recognize as the start of the modern gay rights movement, the film’s obvious whitewashing and erasure of major trans Black and Latinx figures did not go unnoticed.

Stonewall was only a small part of a legacy of cisgender white gay men taking up space in the LGBTQ community with no regard for anyone else, a legacy to which Murphy himself has willingly contributed.

As many have already pointed out, Murphy’s shows have had a consistent problem with anti-Black portrayals of Black women specifically, perhaps most noticeably on American Horror Story and Scream Queens. As Kerensa Cadenas writes for Complex, “(Murphy) knows what he’s doing—there’s always a wink, a hair flip, a smirk to acknowledge the tongue-in-cheek nature of his jokes—but that doesn’t lessen the vileness of these moments on his shows. In fact, it makes it feel even worse because as the audience, we’re supposed to just accept them.

But the problem with Pose is bigger than one person or a few problematic portrayals. Ball culture was created and driven by Black and Brown queer folks to provide protection from the violence that necessitates that far too many Black and Brown LGBTQ people to seek homes outside of their own. Within the scene, queer youth, many of them homeless, create new family structures and support systems that they might not find anywhere else. It is just as much a safe haven from the racism of white queer people as it is from the straight people in their families and communities in which they grew up.

LGBTQ stories are much bigger than what white gay men live, and much bigger than many can even envision. But because of white gay men’s experience with marginalization on behalf of their queerness, it is far too often assumed that they can speak to the marginalization of other queer people as well. This ignores how whiteness and maleness intersect to encourage white gay male violence against those even more marginalized within the LGBTQ community.

White gay men telling stories like Pose without ever rectifying this issue is part of this same pattern of violence that leads to anti-Blackness and transantagonism in queer spaces everywhere.

When white gay men tell queer histories, the brick that starts a revolution magically exchanges from my sister’s hands to theirs.

HIV is no longer a problem, or it’s one that can be fixed with a “magic” little blue pill that magically does not make its way into the most vulnerable communities because of magical perpetual systematic roadblocks to health-care access for the Black poor.

Marriage is the war they call the rest of us queer folks to wage alongside them, even though it benefits them nearly exclusively. Its victory leaves in its wake only a struggle against a mysterious loneliness with causes that look very white to me, but what do I know. The struggle is not the continual casualties of Black trans women; that is just a footnote.

A Black queer Bayna El-Amin serves 9 years for being “a brute” and defending himself against them, despite his own queerness. A Black queer Michael Johnson serves 30 for being a “mandingo” and sleeping with them, because of the queer ways they’ve taught us to stigmatize his disease.

Hate crime laws take on their names even as Black queer kids face the brunt of this violence, because “white, angelic-looking, seemingly innocent” becomes a more “easily embraceable symbol.”

Black kids get charged with anti-white hate crimes now. Even the most progressive-seeming pieces of the law have a way of always coming back to haunt those its government was designed to enslave.

In my personal life, this is why white gay men have been able to become the primary enactors of violence toward me. By virtue of my queerness, I am forced into community with them, and their stories become mine even when I have never been given a chance to set the terms of how they should deal with my Blackness or non-maleness.

I cannot speak for Murphy’s intentions, and I hope what he creates is less of a white gay mess than what I expect. But the last time I went to a ball, I looked up to see all the white gays who paid extra for the VIP section looking down on the Black and Brown queer folks competing below and felt something safe and necessary was missing from that experience that had been there before. When white gay men look down from above at our stories, something is always missing. And when they re-tell those stories, you can bet that something will usually be missing then, too.

This isn’t a call for white gay men to stop telling queer stories. They wouldn’t listen to me if I asked them to do that, anyway. This is just to say that the rest of us queer folks don’t have to believe their stories are all of ours, or that ours should always be conflated with theirs. It’s to hoping that queer people of color continue creating our own stories, like we always have, despite what might seem like a moment where they are unnecessarily being created for us. And it’s to hoping that there always remain a few balls we don’t let the white gays/gaze know about for the sake of retaining the little remaining safety we have left.

 

Photo via Flickr/Gage Skidmore

  • Irish856

    If you are tired of white men telling our story, then write a story and find someone to produce it and put money behind it.
    It is much easier to sit back and complain then it is to make it happen.

    • Lance Desker

      Until last year, when so many black stories were told in so many brilliant ways, including one which told that of a gay black boy growing up in Miami, how much money went to stories that were told from a non-white perspective? The backlash against ‘Oscars so White’ was so obvious to the point of being impossible to ignore. Right now, we have comedies which feature Asian, Black or Hispanic casts, but how many financiers are willing to put their money down on a project featuring black queer, homeless youth, who in the 1980s were decimated by HiV? How many? Please then tell me how successful would the effort be to write, and produce this series.

      • Tousen

        Oprah, Tyler Perry, John Leguizamo, etc. All rich minorities that refuse to give millions in support of gay minorities. Stop complaining about something your own won’t fix!

  • Paul Klees

    “…queer people of color continue creating our own stories, like we always have,”

    If ‘we’ always have, then, what the fuck are you talking about?

    This article should have had someone look it, an Editor-of-Color, perhaps, before they published it. It’s so confused and contradictory and bitchy and factually suspect that I can’t conceive of it doing any good for anyone on either side of the spectrum….Something tells me the author has not asked anyone to proof it and those who know the author, who would volunteer probably didn’t offer because the writer would probably take an offer of editing as an insult to his writing, which it is not. As it is now, this is awful writing.

    • crazygemini12

      Then don’t read it.

  • jackatz1

    I’m a queer white dude. I think Ryan Murphy is a horrible, gross appropriator of black culture and this is a terrible move. And to Irish856 — maybe if Hollywood trusted more people of color to make films, this show would have been made by a person of color. Also, my guess is it has already been written by a person of color and it never made it to development.

    • Irish856

      As a Gay white dude myself, I too am not a big fan of Ryan. But at least he is trying. If he gets it wrong then we need to let him know,

      As I mentioned in another response… There are plenty of ways to make and to show Independent films and self publishing books.

      • jackatz1

        Respectfully, I disagree with your first statement. I don’t think Ryan Murphy is trying. I think he steals/appropriates stories that aren’t his to tell. He uses stereotypes and exploits the violence of generations past to define characters of color. American Horror Story relied on Voodoo and used graphic violence of slavery to shock (and trigger) his audiences. It *might* work if Mr. Murphy stepped back and asked directors and writers of color to do this project.

        • Irish856

          Funny, others complain that there story is not being told at all. There are few characters out there that speak for all they supposed to represent.
          Look at the gays on modern family. They show gays as being Nelli queens. Pick a town for The Real Housewives of… do u believe they represent women anywhere?
          There are enough black storytellers out there that could tell the story if they wanted to

          • jackatz1

            There are LOADS of storytellers of color out there But we inevitably have to come back to this: Hollywood does not trust people of color to tell their own stories.. Specifically, black and brown’s people’s stories are undervalued and not celebrated not even close to the frequency that white stories are. So, how to get them produced… So that people can make a living and be valued…

  • xeor54

    Wow, where to fucking start with this projecting fucking mess of an article.

    1.) You have yet to cite any instances of white gay men committing violence against gay men of color. And even if you did, people of either race commit violence against one another all the time. To generalize a whole swath of people or demonize them for the actions of one is just moronic and hypocritical.
    2.) Just a cursory glance of the gay health websites of every major city in America lists PrEP as free or has some kind of assistance program for poor people. It’s open to everyone. And having volunteered at gay health organizations, they are PRIMARILY focused on gay men of color.
    3.) You act as if a: white gay men are never kicked out of their homes (spoiler alert: they are) and that b: it’s somehow white people’s fault that the black community is by-and-large homophobic.
    4.) New Orleans is 2/3 black and the suspects for the murders of the trans women are black. Take that for what it’s worth.
    5.) You don’t have to fucking relate to every single character on TV to enjoy them. I relate to the Golden Girls so much but I’m a gay man. I relate to Courage the Cowardly Dog and he’s a fucking cartoon dog. If your sense of self is so fragile that you constantly need to see reflections of it around you, you have deeper issues. People like Big Freedia paved the way and were the first of their kind to do stuff. They didn’t need a role model.
    6.) You act as if marriage equality is a bad thing and as if it is the only thing gay organizations fought for. Like after the Supreme Court decision, do you think all of these gay organizations just said “OK! We did it! Screw these darkies, we’re disbanding!”?

    • crazygemini12

      This is so vile. If people speak about their oppression, it isn’t whining. If you don’t want to know how black youth experience life, don’t come to the page. It’s clear you’ve just come to troll.

      • Irish856

        Did you not read the Title of the article? It was not talking about Black Youth, It was another attack on white men.

        I wish the article WAS about Black Youth… Their story should be told.

  • Stu

    Name of this article: “I preemptively hate”.

  • Jose R Negron

    We can’t step on other people’s right to freedom of expression. If we want to tell our stories from the point of view of beige or brown people, we should find the way to produce them. There are plenty of beige and brown people with lots of money to give. Write these stories and find the money to produce them. Stop trying to coerce others into doing things your way. You don’t have to watch them either.

  • Tousen

    This article is trash. It’s one long complaint about a non issue. Why waste time on this rubbish when you could be busy writing a screenplay for a film about gays of color?
    Maybe the author should grow up

  • Brad Johnson

    Jesus these comments are a hateful mess. Most of you people jumping down the writer’s throat are missing the point; Ryan Murphy doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to portraying minorities, only exaggerating superficial stereotypes without knowing the nuances behind them or the true struggles minority communities face. So as a queer person of color, no I’m not the biggest fan of his work. And so many others are saying “Just write a show yourself if you’re whining so much,” as if any random person can waltz into Hollywood with a show pitch and have it greenlit just like that. In other words, maybe LISTEN to what queer people of color are actually saying instead of explaining to us why we should sit down and shut up.

    • Irish856

      There are film Festivals all across the country looking for films that Hollywood would not produce for general. There are festivals for LGBT’s, Blacks and lots of other groups. They even give out Oscars for short films.
      I have friends that have “self published” books that they could not get one of the big houses to publish.

      No one is telling anyone to sit down or shut up. Some of us are just saying If you want your story heard your way, you may have to do it yourself.

    • jackatz1

      ^ THIS.

  • Robert

    The article suffers from some factual errors, but I understand the underlying sentiment of poor representation in the media. What I feel that could benefit these shows and movies the most is proper consultation. I don’t mean that they have to kowtow to social justice warriors, but they could really use the once over. We don’t get enough of that in hollywood because the big wigs who make it to producer or director status are, by cultural definition, autonomous. Their egos get big and they don’t *have* to care.

    A recent article I read talked about how gay marriage and the heterocentric relationship model have started to negatively impact queer communities. Don’t get me wrong, same-sex marriage is a victory well won. I just mean, all the inner city privileged homos are becoming the new lipservice for their wealthy hetero counterparts who praise them in media for how civilized they are becoming. I feel that there are some shame politics at work there — like as a demographic we are trying to show the religious right how normal we are by being in stable marriages, even though statistically most gay marriages are also open sexually to other partners. (Also known as having your cake and eating it too.) Instead of SSM opening to the door to questioning the traditional relationship model, it has shut the door. So even as a white cis queer guy in the city, I feel shut out of the discussion. I can make some inroads for my queer POC friends by being a strong ally, but the A-Gays of urbanville don’t give a crap what I have to say, usually. The privileged don’t have to care. And let’s face it, shows like American Horror Story are made for the privileged.

    I feel that the author of this article could best benefit from being heard. That’s all. Just chill, people.

  • tommy rocket

    The racist comments on this essay are truly shocking. While I think the author conflates some unrelated issues, and the headline is apt to put white cis-male gays on the defensive, the overall point is clear: there needs to be more diversity. Brad Pitt and his production company were instrumental in getting 12 Years a Slave to the screen, so the white cis-male can use his influence to make other stories happen. Right now, lets face it, white privilege is still the order of the day but if white cisgender folk use their power and influence to support artists of color, we’ll see more diversity. People need to see themselves represented on the stage and screen and some white people may be surprised at how well they can relate to stories about people of color.