Art: Vakseen, Jez (2014).

Raising Our Voices

Combating cultural appropriation in the queer community.

By Chelsea Bland

If you’re a person of color, you’ve likely experienced one of those cringe-worthy moments when someone of a different culture (let’s be honest, usually a white person) tries to prove they can relate to you by saying or doing something clearly inappropriate, or worse yet, wildly offensive.

Frankly, this is quite common within the queer community. From casual gatherings to drag shows, we see people within the LGTBQIA+ community step into the murky waters of microaggressions, cultural appropriation, or outright racism. It happens when folks think it’s okay to mimic a black woman’s attitude or be the “fiery Latina” when they are in spaces where they feel more comfortable. And most of us have heard the stories of people in our community using racist or derogatory language on dating apps—so much so that Grindr launched its #KindrGrindr campaign to combat discrimination on its platform.

Calling out cultural appropriation usually brings the chorus of people who try to convince everyone that these types of actions are just a result of folks having fun or only intended to show appreciation for another culture.

In an article in Australia’s Star Observer, Kristian Reyes defines cultural appropriation in a way I think is worth repeating here: “Cultural appropriation occurs when we co-opt aspects of an underprivileged or minority culture and divorce it from its roots for the purpose of costume, fashion, ridicule, or profit.”
As someone who is both queer and black, I regularly navigate the intersecting worlds that make up my identity. Depending on what circles I’m in, my sexual orientation may be ambiguous, but my blackness is always front and center.
My life has taken me on this journey of navigating blackness, queerness, and womanhood. I’ve been able to find my tribe, a safe space that encompasses all of my identities and allows me just to be. So when I see elements of black womanhood trotted around in queer spaces as a punch line or caricature, it stings just that much more.

With the ‘othering’ of diverse cultures comes the silencing of their voices.

Tagg Magazine aims to center the stories of lesbian and queer black and other people of color.

WHAT DOES CULTURAL APPROPRIATION LOOK LIKE?

It’s common to see white queer folks imitate colloquialisms and mannerisms created and popularized in the black community. Now some try to get away with the argument, “We’re both marginalized groups. I understand your struggle, so there’s no reason to be offended if I belt out ‘yassss queen’ for the tenth time during this cocktail hour.”

Insert exasperated sigh. Proximity to a particular group or loose familiarity with their struggle does not give one carte blanche to cherry-pick aspects of their culture to entertain others or weave into one’s public persona for personal gain.

For example, let’s look no further than pop culture’s favorite lesbian: Ellen DeGeneres. Now, generally speaking, I think she is funny. Her skits with former First Lady Michelle Obama are some of my favorite things to watch on the interwebs. And, DeGeneres’ impact on entertainment and popular culture is undeniable. Where it gets sticky is how she has used her relationship with black celebrities and her own queer identity to step over the line.

Remember in 2015 when she did a Nicki Minaj skit and the characters had exaggerated back sides? Or in 2016 when she shared a meme of herself riding on the back of Olympian Usain Bolt and said that’s how she wanted to run her errands?

Feel free to join me in a collective side eye. The clear issue here is that black folks are continuously used as props. Society’s insatiable appetite for a joke reduces us to a punchline and the complexity of our personhood is erased.

In her theGrio.com article “Ellen just reminded us what happens when white liberal friends get too comfortable,” Blue Telusma explains a core problem behind words and behaviors some view as harmless jokes: “The biggest privilege of whiteness is constant access to your humanity. White people—as a whole—will always be seen as three-dimensional and sympathetic human beings. Human is their default setting. People of color don’t get that luxury. We are seen as a solid mass of peculiarity. Our default setting is otherness.”

With the “othering” of diverse cultures comes the silencing of their voices. We saw this when DeGeneres chose to jump into the Kevin Hart debacle—as if to speak for all queer folk when it came to his past homophobic comments. While I support a queer-led space for Kevin Hart to address his problematic words and behaviors, this was a conversation that he needed to have with the black queer community. This was a time for DeGeneres to step back and let black queer voices lead the discussion.

Here again we see where queer white folks act in a way that suggests that because they experience marginalization they can therefore speak for all those who face oppression. Being a true ally and partner in supporting other diverse groups means knowing when to use one’s privilege to amplify the voices and stories of those that are too often silenced.

We’ve got to get in the trenches, get uncomfortable, and build upon the strides made by generations before us.

TELLING OUR STORIES

When I interviewed Tagg Magazine Founder and Editor-in-Chief Eboné Bell about the issues surrounding cultural appropriation, she kept coming back to the importance of telling our own stories. This is powerful. When we are in charge of our own narrative, we get to craft our stories and clap back at anyone who tries to distort the record. A key part of this is also being able to share and create our history.

“I would love it if 50 years from now some young lesbian picks up Tagg, [perhaps] sitting in their gay auntie’s house, and they are able to read these stories of people who came before them. [To see the] powerful black queer people who came before them; [to] open the magazine and see that a black queer woman started this,” said Bell.

Publications like Tagg Magazine are essential, especially when mainstream queer culture leaves out communities of color. Tagg Magazine was created to serve—as its tagline states—everything lesbian, queer and under the rainbow. It provides the community with a central source for lesbian and queer culture, news, and events. The magazine, and its accompanying podcast Tagg Nation, are intentional about telling the stories of queer people of color, and not in a way that just checks the diversity box. “I’m proud that I get to tell those stories and we’re intentional about telling those stories. It’s not like ‘alright, I gotta get a black person.’ It’s intentional because the owner and editor is a black queer woman. I exist and I have a story to tell,” said Bell.

We are all moved when we get to see a representation of ourselves in the media that we consume. It helps us feel seen and gives us the courage to travel the path that is meant for us.

ROLE OF PRIDES

While we see increased visibility of the LGBTQIA+ community in mainstream media, there’s often a lack of diversity in that representation. Even as we become more visible, whiteness is still the dominant identity.

Pride organizations are not immune from falling into this trap. Prides have an important role in navigating celebration, history, and event creation within the queer community. As organizers it is incumbent upon us not to just borrow from cultures that help us sell event tickets, but rather continue to build coalitions with marginalized groups within our communities. The immense amount of diversity within the queer spectrum means that we can’t continue to have our organizations, programs, and marketing materials mainly reflect the interests and aesthetic of white gay men.

And we can’t make changes just to avoid bad press.

We’ve got to get in the trenches, get uncomfortable, and build upon the strides made by generations before us.

“When it comes to talking about the actual issues that are plaguing our trans women of color, plaguing our brothers who are being heavily policed, and all of these issues in our community people are not as quick to want to embrace that,” said Natalie Thompson, Vice President of Records Management for the Board of Directors of Capital Pride Alliance. “I think that is a major problem within our community, and we have to figure out ways of having those uncomfortable conversations without it turning into a very divisive conversation.”

It’s imperative that we reach out to groups that are underrepresented in our organizations and at our events. This involves creating spaces to truly listen to diverse voices in our community, being open to feedback, even when it’s critical, and taking actions that are consistent with the needs of our community.

We can’t be lazy with our words and dismissive with our actions when it comes to substantive change that honors, uplifts, and centers the voices of those in our community who are most often pushed aside.

When we look at our boards, do we see the full spectrum of our community represented? Are our organization leaders able to speak from their own experiences of living at the margins of race, sexuality, gender and/or disability? Do we even give a second thought to whether someone can physically attend our events because there’s a staircase leading up to the front door?

When we’re truly able to address these issues in a meaningful way our community members won’t have to brace themselves for the next cringe-worthy moment.

Art: Vakseen, Jez (2014).
Photo Insert: Tagg Magazine aims to center the stories of lesbian and queer black and other people of color. Credit: Tagg Magazine.
Chelsea Bland

Chelsear Bland

Chelsea Bland is a proud union member with the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 2 and serves as the local’s LGBTQIA+ committee chair. She also serves as the volunteer chair for Capital Pride Alliance. Beyond her volunteer work and full-time job at a national labor union, Chelsea is also a freelance photographer.