Monday, August 24, 2009

Whose Community Is It Anyway?: White Privilege in the LGBT Community

“But you all have the same issues we do! I mean, why are we even dividing ourselves, race doesn’t matter—we are all gay.”

Fifteen years ago, a white gay male friend said this to me after I asked him how responsive the LGBT group he ran focused on issues affecting people of color. He truly did not understand that LGBT people of color might have unique needs or that we may have different priorities than the white LGBT community. Since that conversation, I have worked diligently in the LGBT community to help my white brothers and sisters understand the privileges they enjoy as white people.

White privilege is a difficult concept for many whites to understand. As Peggy McIntosh contends in her seminal piece "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack", Whites are not taught to recognize how their status as white people confers on them many privileges. Hopefully, this piece will try to break the layers of denial that whites have about their privilege and that work to protect, prevent awareness about, and entrench that privilege.

White privilege is a set of advantages that white people benefit from on a daily basis not afforded to people of color. White privilege can exist without white people's conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country. The biggest problem with white privilege is the invisibility it maintains to those who benefit from it most. The inability to recognize that many of the advantages whites hold are a direct result of the disadvantages of other people, contributes to the unwillingness of white people, even those who are not overtly racist, to recognize their part in maintaining and benefiting from white supremacy.

White privilege teaches whites that only one's own standards and opinions are accurate to the exclusion of all other standards and opinions. Because Whites generally view their beliefs and actions as normative and neutral, they fail to identify Whiteness as a racial identity and do not realize they are racialized as well. Though Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, average, and ideal, their perspective is not “objective” or neutral. By not confronting their privilege, Whites as the racially dominant group maintain that dominance.

Whiteness in the LGBT community is everywhere, from what we see, what we experience, and more importantly, what we desire. Media images in television and film promote a monolithic image of the 'gay community' as being overwhelmingly upper-middle class if not simply rich, male and white. Even the most cursory glance through gay publications highlights the scarcity of images of people of color. If we are represented, it seems that we only exist to serve the needs of the largely gay white population seeking an 'authentic' experience of some kind, either through sex, music or travel. To the white LGBT community, our existence as LGBT people of color, is merely an afterthought, an inconvenient fact that is thought about in the most insignificant and patronizing way.

In the LGBT political world, this shows up as White people thinking that the issues of importance to them are the only ones that matter. Many White LGBT folk do not realize that LGBT people of color have different perspectives and may think we as a community should focus on other issues. White privilege obscures the fact that LGBT people of color may frame a particular issue in a different way. Moreover, people of color who are attracted to the same sex may not even use the terms “gay”, “lesbian” or “bisexual.” However, the white framing of our issues is the only one allowed in our political discourse. The voices of LGBT people of color are generally not included unless the white LGBT group wants to reach out to communities of color. If LGBT people are included, they are often only done so as tokens and only if they agree with the white LGBT narrative.

We must continue to grapple with the ways invisible whiteness and white privilege permeate the LGBT community because they undermine our movement. Recently, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights organization, released a report aimed at gaining a deeper understanding about the complexities at the intersection of race, sexual orientation and gender identity. I applaud HRC for this study and the subsequent blog conversations and online town halls they are holding. I hope, though, that HRC discusses white privilege as a part of this work. If they do not, the work will be incomplete. Paula Rothenberg, a professor who specializes in studying whiteness, reminds us that white privilege is the other side of the racial oppression coin. HRC, and other groups that are attempting to be more inclusive, cannot truly look at why people of color are not involved in the larger movement if they do not examine white privilege. It's time for white LGBT folk to challenge their own privilege, listen to all voices and take on the issues that matter to all of us.


  1. The HRC is waaaaaaaay behind and should have been working to bridge the race gap LONG before the media accused Blacks of helping to pass Prop 8 in California. The HRC's lack of diversity is not a new complaint. It wasn't until the organization realized that gays of color can help (or even hinder) the gay rights movement that they decided to actually do something about their lack of diversity issue.

  2. ::applause::

    I love this, Chris. Actually, the post made me think of another way white LBGTIQ approach PoCs of various sexualities: that they can't be/do/say anything racist because they're oppressed in this culture, too. To me, being LBGTIQ isn't an inherent get-out-of-racism identity.

    Your message needs to be repeated.

  3. Genia, I completely agree with you about HRC being way, way behind. I formerly worked at NGLTF in the early 1990s...we had a significant weekend retreat about institutional racism within NGLTF and society at large. It was one of the most heart wrenching experiences I ever went through on a personal level---I was so upset about the conversations and the raw feelings exposed at the retreat that I had a car accident on the way home...I was distracted in thinking about the day. We were required to read Peggy McIntosh's tour de force article that Autumn mentions. I had gone to high school in Indianapolis during the late 1960s, early 1970s which was in the middle of desegregation of public schools. I was attending a Catholic High School located between the schools desegregating. We had the highest numbers and percentage of minority students in the Archdiosese, about 33 percent of my high school was black and latino. We had a lot of racial issues come up in school--black football players went on strike from practice and when the student council elections were conducted at the end of my junior year, not one black student was elected to the student council. I was elected President that year--the first girl and I went to the Black Student Union and arranged black student representation for each class with an alternate representative. Later, I enlisted in the Army and lived with black women in my platoon, my company, had black officers as my leaders and direct supervisors. These experiences certainly accelerated my racial IQ, as I call it. It is something that you constantly must work on, be conscious of etc. By the time I began to work for NGLTF in 1992 I was probably much more attuned to racial inequities than I was at dealing with homophobia. But there is no doubt that the LGBTQ movement has been dominated by white people in general, with a propensity to showcase white gay men in the media, particularly on one issue I have worked on with respect to the gay ban in the military. It would only seem that gay soldiers are white gay male officers and continues to be a big challenge I think. The HRC current tour does not have that many women participating, yet women are disproportiately discharged for being lesbian than gay men. Lesbians and gay men of color are rare as "hen's teeth." when it comes to visibility, appearing in the media etc. I loath it as it marginalizes them within the movement and of course, they have different challenges of dealing with homophobia within their respective commmunities of color. I fortunately work in a racially diverse office at Columbia University, where diversity is sought and people are asked what their experiences are and how that would lend itself in a public affairs context. We have a ways to go on including lesbians and gays openly, but I am working on that. Nice post Autumn and keep it up. You are writing about issues that run deep in our community but rarely are openly discussed. I resent the white gay men and their deep checkbooks which gives them a lot of access to power. But they certainly don't represent me as a lesbian and I suspect, nor would they adequately represent LGBTQ people of color. So keep at it. I loved this post.

  4. Sorry I addressed some of my comments to "Autumn," when this blog is written by Chris McDonald-Dennis. So, Chris, you are spot on and keep it up. I loved this post.

  5. Hi Chris. Thanks for this post. I love it and would like to repost it on my blog SoCal Voice, with your permission of course. Please shoot me an email at

    Yours affectionately,
    P.S. I wrote an article called a perfect storm that was republished on Queerty titled "There's No Repealing Prop 8 Until Gays Repeal their Own Self-importance.

  6. Genia,

    I completely agree that organizations do not change until they realize that it's in their own self-interest. Annoying? Yes, but it opens up a conversation that needed to take place all along.

  7. Good piece and the start (or continuation) of a much-needed conversation. Indoctrinated whites steeped in privilege cannot begin to unpack that until they first acknowledge they have it. Often that's just too inconvenient and really when you're part of the dominant group why would you? What's the payoff?

  8. I wrote about this, despite my position as straight (APA) ally:

    It's untenable for mostly white mainstream LGBT groups believe what anti-gay marriage homophobes do about POC communities: that we're automatically homophobic/heteronormative. It erases LGBT traditions within our own POC cultures and makes alliances very difficult.

  9. Thank goodness you posted this! A trans man friend of mine once told me the hardest thing of him transitioning from female to male was dealing with the privelege it afforded. As a Jewish person he was aware of "white faced privelege" so his knowledge helped with that challenge. We all have an opportunity to stand for justice and tolerance on every avenue we find!

  10. This is a good post on a topic, well deserving of attention. You handle fairly and your questions / observations are phrased in a way that allowed me as a reader to consider for myself what my experience and positions may be.

    I just found your site and already, I love it. I have added this to my google reader.

    Please consider cross-posting this (and any other of your posts) at


  11. I thought that Chris Macdonald-Denis did a fine job in this article of pointing out the different advantages enjoyed by White, Gay Males over those enjoyed by Lesbians and, especially, over those enjoyed by all Homosexuals of color. I had the opportunity to learn about some of those differences first hand when a fine Leader of the Lesbian Community and I Co-Chaired a Subcommittee of United for a Hate Free San Diego on Healing Between the LGBT and Black Communities following the passage of Propositon 8. We spent quite a bit of time working in the Black Community, having meetings there and helping to arrange for joint projects related to drugs, aids, and released prisoners. We did find that these differences were overcomable when the mutual concerns were real and necessary. Much remains to be done, however.