Editors' Note: Guest blogger Brian Rainey is a PhD student at Brown University.
There has been a very interesting back-and-forth online about gay and bisexual men's sexual "preferences" when looking to date or hook-up.
First, Alex Rowlson wrote an article for the Canadian queer publication, Fab, criticizing these racial "preferences," saying that "the culture of sexual liberation has been replaced by sexual segregation." In response, Zachary Sire of the Sword argued that stating "preferences" was a matter of "free speech" (which, apparently only applies to people who state "preferences," not their critics). In yet another rejoinder, Cedric DeWittson of Fleshbot points out that attractiveness is culturally conditioned and that people who state their preferences are very insensitive, often doing so with the "terminology of the Jim Crow era." The debate was picked up by Queerty and then the discussion really took off.
The first thing I'm struck by in this debate is the word, "preference." But when someone says, publicly, something to the effect of "no blacks," it is not a racial "preference;" it is a racial exclusion. We need to be clear about what is going on here and start calling these statements what they really are. The word "exclusion" is better because it clarifies what the problem is.
It is not simply the douchy way in which someone says something; the problem is the exclusionary rhetoric and tone. There is a world of difference between "really into other white guys" or "blond hair turns me on" and "only into white guys." The latter is very exclusionary; the former is not. So I think that we should just drop "preference" to describe this game altogether, and just call it what it is: an exclusion.
The Absurdity of Exclusionary Rhetoric
If I were to generalize about what impact these racial exclusions had on me, personally, I would say they have had about the impact of repeatedly hearing "that's gay" as a synonym for saying that something is "bad." It is certainly not the worst problem I've faced as far as homophobia is concerned, nor is it the first place I would concentrate my energy for social change, nor is it as bad as someone calling me a "faggot" - but it didn't help. It reinforced the idea that homosexuality was something negative and something "bad."
When gay and bisexual men (and other MSMs) go on sites where they constantly read, "No [blacks/Asians]" and see it associated with other traits of low value, such as obesity and feminine behavior, it associates one's race and ethnicity with something of low value. Sometimes these racial exclusions will be juxtaposed beside douchy, moralizing statements about "feminine" men (e.g. "If I wanted to be with a woman, I'd be straight"), making it seem as though the author has attached some kind of moral stigma to this particular race.
On one level, the whole damn spectacle of racial exclusions is preposterous, since there are no biological "races," and, even if there are, they would not map onto social races. Evolutionary psychologists say the only physical traits we may be predisposed to liking are symmetry and, perhaps, fertility, not skin color. Just one millisecond of critical thought would show that these exclusions are attuned to social cues, rather than anything "natural."
More absurdly still, apologists for exclusionary rhetoric often insist that their critics are the ones bringing ideology into the bedroom, even though these exclusions are based on modern, European racial categories (you know, an ideology)! So, let's not flip the script: it is the exclusions that force ideology into gay forums and venues that are supposed to be shared with people of color, not those who criticize them.
When it comes to accuracy, it makes absolutely no sense for these racial excluders (let's objectify and reify them for a moment, since they enjoy doing it so much to others) to say "no Asians" when thinking people know that the social category, "Asian" encompasses a dizzying array of phenotypes. And I've always wondered how Indian, black and mestizo Latinos navigate this mess. Racial excluders usually say they are only in to "White and Latin" and then say they're not into "black and/or Asian." But if you're Latino with epicanthal folds or a Dominican with some African ancestry, how is that supposed to work?
Fascinatingly, racial excluders, who are incorrigible categorizers, and who, to hear them tell it are just informing us of exactly what they want, don't say.
The Case for Excludies
On another level, though, broad exclusions make a certain sense as far as efficiency is concerned. Excluders have, in their mind, a prototype of racial group members - inspired by racial hierarchies and stereotypes - and they are willing to exclude a very large number of exceptions to weed out the exemplars they are apparently so repulsed by. Mental efficiency strategies like this do not need to be accurate, but only provide the desired result. Even if excluders debar Asians they find attractive, in their mind, the payoff is worth it because they will be driving away all of those exemplars that they do not find attractive. Keep in mind, excluders don't care about accuracy or complexity, just what they perceive to be efficient.
But it is not just about efficiency, is it? The "excludies" (let's use an even cattier term, since many "excludies" enjoy endearing terms like "fatty" or "fats") reflect existing social hierarchies which is why they are so offensive to many and have such a negative impact.
The 'Values' of Racism
Excludies are one more reminder of the value that society puts on black people and Asians - like "that's gay" reminds us of the negative implications of homosexuality. Just this week, the widespread racism in the NYPD, something that is certainly not news to most blacks and Latinos in NYC and even some whites, has been exposed once again. It is just another example of the daily racism people of color face of which most white people are blissfully unaware, or have the luxury of thinking about abstractly (an exception to this might be the confrontations with police at the OWS protests where plenty of white people have experienced the NYPD acting like armed goons).
Some people say that what excludies do is none of anyone's business and that people should not be made to feel guilty about their exclusions. But statements made in forums or venues that are supposed to be shared with people of color are public business.
Also, the reality of HIV and other STDs has already created a situation where healthy gay men should evaluate and reflect critically on their sexual behavior and desires, anyway. STDs force us to realize that what we do in the bedroom can have far-reaching repercussions for ourselves and others, and that fact imposes (or should impose) on us, whether we like it or not, a certain mindfulness about our sex life. Perhaps we all, excludies and those harmed by excludies alike, could use more reflection in this area.
Something that "feels better" or may be more efficient, sexually, needs to be tempered by the health concerns of the gay and bisexual male community. Analogously, in a country where the social disease of racism runs rampant, there should be some critical reflection on our sexual behavior and desires.
Everyone is, for good reason, worried about the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. We are, to our shame, less concerned about the containment of social sicknesses.
Personal Decision Making
There are, of course, limits. Among black people, sometimes, dating white people can be viewed with extreme suspicion. Or, when someone sees a young person of color and an older white man together, they might have many questions, perhaps reflecting a suspicion of the racial dynamics behind that relationship. Or if a person of color is turned down by someone, they might suspect race had something to do with it. But when it comes to people's actual relationships and sex partners, this is where the line must be drawn.
We can analyze rhetoric, language and to a certain extent social behavior in a particular context, but we cannot rightfully impugn motives for personal decisions. If they are not trumpeting their racial exclusions in public, people's personal sexual behavior can be left alone.
We should also keep in mind that finding someone sexually attractive is not ultimately a barometer of racism. Leaving aside the issue of fetishization even, racism is more insidious and too complex to be spotted simply in people's racial attractions. After all, even segregationist Strom Thurmond had sex with a black woman. Or, if someone is attracted to Latinos, but rants on about how they are taking over the community and stealing "our" jobs, they are still racist, attractions notwithstanding. This is why it is important to clearly state that we are opposed to language, images, rhetoric and larger social practices that are exclusionary, not necessarily personal preferences.
The problem is that there is a large group of gay and bisexual men who think that they can be as contemptuous of the psychological impact racism has on people of color as they want to be.
(img via Queerty)