My bestie and I were driving to Portland, Oregon’s LGBT Pride parade when the frumpy gay white man in the back seat dropped the N-word.
At the time, I was working on my poem, “The 6-letter F-word.” It’s based on my most recent experience of being called a faggot. The poem addresses the bigot, demanding:
go back to your house / your house of 6-letter words / go back to your house of 6-letter words / with double G’s stuffed in the middle
I wasn’t picturing one of my own people — another gay white man — as the bigot when I wrote it.
Around the same time, Grindr released a survey that sparked significant controversy among HIV activists. One question on the survey asked users how they would feel if Grindr allowed them to filter their options by HIV status. For example, filtering out users who identify as HIV-positive to see only the profiles of HIV-negative men. Many folks were concerned that this filtering option would perpetuate HIV stigma — one of the most dangerous factors in the epidemic. Others applauded the option as a prevention modality, arguing that it facilitated healthy serosorting.
I could pontificate upon the oversimplification and problematic nature of the latter stance as well as the research supporting the former stance. But then, I would be missing the bigger picture: Grindr already allows users to filter by age, weight, height, body type, ethnicity, and 12 different “Tribes,” including “Poz.” And Grindr is only one of many platforms through which gay men interact.
Gay men, we need to talk. We need to take a moment to examine our history, our liberation struggle, and our complicated entitlement to what we have come to call “preferences.”
Our history — our identity — is inextricably tied to our sexual liberation. How many of us have suffered abuse, bled, and died for our cause, the right to live our truth? That truth involves loving the way we are meant to love and, yes, fucking the way we are meant to fuck. The universe has gifted human beings with incredible magic — love, intimacy, pleasure — and we have earned a place in our movement where many of us gay men feel less ashamed to enjoy these gifts. We feel proud and empowered, many of us, to proclaim, “No! I will not live my life as a fraud!” We cherish our hard-earned right to unashamedly love, and have sex, with other men.
But in this liberated state of empowerment, many of us--especially those of us who are white—have neglected to question the other ways we have been indoctrinated: racism, transphobia, ageism, ableism, body negativity, HIV stigma — and the list goes on.
It’s a tremendous victory to be able to say “no” to the heterosexual way of life presented to and expected of every person in this society. Saying “no” to a lie imposed upon us is an act of bravery. It feels amazing to say “no.” It serves as the source of our pride—our identity. But these days, we are saying “no” to a lot more than heterosexuality. We are saying “no” to each other:
No tops, no bottoms, no fats, no femmes, no blacks, no Latinos, no Asians, be my age, masc for masc, looking for same, no pic no chat, bareback only, HIV-neg, clean, UB2.
We have all sorts of rules about body hair, dick size, and fantasies that must be met if we are to meet in real life.
We’ve confused sexual liberation with sexual discrimination. We’ve escaped one box only to create hundreds of new boxes for each other. The companies that profit off our community know this. They provide us tools with which we filter each other out of our lives according to our biases, thinly veiled as “preferences.” We are literally erasing entire ethnicities, gender identities, and serostatuses from our worlds because I just don’t like black guys, femmes aren’t real men, poz guys are dirty.
We sound a lot like our oppressors. We have a lot of work to do--gay white men and HIV-negative men in particular. I believe that Grindr, et al., have a responsibility to reduce — or at least avoid perpetuating —HIV stigma and discrimination in the community from which they profit. Simultaneously, we as a community shouldn’t stand for features that promote racism, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination.
The historical trauma of the HIV epidemic is very real. That being said, it’s 2016. If you’re afraid of people living with HIV, it’s time for a reality check: people living with HIV aren’t dangerous, HIV stigma is. It’s time for you to do a little research. A lot has changed.
If you think being gay makes it OK to use the N-word or to erase men of color from your lives out of “preference,” wake up. Look at the violently racist environment you live in. Ask yourself why you think it’s OK to categorize entire races of men as untouchable. It may be a preference, but it’s a racist preference.
Brake. It’s time to turn off those filters. It’s 2016, after all. We are on our way to my favorite celebration of the year, surrounded by rainbows, nakedness, triumph, Pride — but there is nothing but shame for the ugliness that’s right here with us, alive and well, in the back seat.
Brian Minalga, MSW, is a gay-poet-warrior activist who works for the Office of HIV/AIDS Network Coordination at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. This article represents his personal views and not those of anyone else.