Alex Blaze

The Bender theory of discrimination

Filed By Alex Blaze | July 17, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: adam serwer, CNN, gay marriage, LGBT, LZ Granderson, marriage, marriage equality, Pat Buchanan, Prop. 8, rights, same-sex marriage

Pat Buchanan was on Rachel Maddow last night to talk about Sotomayor. He said she was an affirmative action pick in the bad way who isn't qualified because he hasn't been motivated enough to read any of her opinions (seriously).

I saw this video this morning, and several readers emailed me a link to this CNN article on how gay isn't the new black, about how some gay people's "I'm mad as hell and I won't take it anymore!" reaction to the DOMA brief was alienating to a significant group of black LGBT people. It all, on some level, seems tied up in the same thing: white privilege.

Adam Serwer called it the "Bender theory of discrimination" this past week, and I think it's worth repeating here because I've seen a whole lot of it among white LGBT people this past month. It's based on a line from an episode of Futurama and aptly describes the way many people of all stripes look at discrimination:

This is the worst kind of discrimination: The kind against ME!

Indeed. The conservatives like Pat Buchanan who discuss racial discrimination only seem concerned with racial discrimination against white people, what they call reverse discrimination, because it's the only time they feel even the slightest impact of the fact that we're still a nation that deeply divides itself along racial lines. They cry for people like Frank Ricci, who had to study for a promotions test that was eventually thrown out, and completely ignore the fact that the New Haven Fire Department has discriminated against black firefighters for over a century, controlling positions of power in the department and not letting black firefighters fairly get promoted in a city that is almost 40% African American. The larger story is about a city that can't find a fair way to promote firefighters, and getting stuck on the fact that one test was thrown out is extremely myopic... unless you're only willing to accept white people as victims of racism.

In completely unrelated news, this past week a coalition of POC LGBT organizations in California wrote a letter saying that they think that going forward with a ballot initiative to overturn Prop 8 will be a losing battle that'll waste money and make the push harder in 2012, which is a year by which same-sex marriage advocates can be ready. They weren't advocating waiting, but getting to work now and giving more time for that work by pushing for a ballot initiative three years from now, not just over a year from now.

Mostly-white LGBT organizations responded that California has to go to it now, ready or not. One went so far as to calculate the gay and lesbian people who will die between 2010 and 2012, and then never be able to "experience that affirmation." It's impatience, and there's nothing particularly wrong with impatience so long as it doesn't impede good strategy. A stitch in time....

I've come to realize that one of the key experiences that is true almost all the way across America's LGBTQ population is, at some point in one's life, falling from one position to a lesser status, no matter where we start out. Because of that, the LGBTQ movement is often driven not by a desire to achieve social justice or improve society or lift up the community, but to get back that lost privilege. I've seen that attitude in lots of people, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, and it's the making of an extremely myopic worldview.

Sometimes it presents itself as "I'm the most discriminated-against person in America." Sometimes it's "My group is the last group it's OK to discriminate against." Sometimes it's "We don't have time to examine our dirty laundry or fairly include minorities within the community because we have to fight for x, y, and z legislation." Sometimes it's an incoherent call for "equality" that includes legislation whose intention is to create legal inequality to make up for larger systems of oppression, like civil rights and hate crimes legislation, saying that we're currently "unequal" to other, privileged minorities. Sometimes it's voting Democratic only because of sexuality or gender identity when one is really a Republican and then getting mad when voting, working for, and donating to a particular candidate doesn't produce an entire list of passed legislation within 5 months. Sometimes it's quoting Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights Movement leaders only when it supports one's position and ignoring their more systemic criticisms of culture and economics that indicts many of our life-styles.

And sometimes it's "Gay is the new black." LZ Granderson discusses that topic in a column for Here are a few excepts, but the entire thing is worth reading.

In [white LGBT's] minds, Obama is not moving fast enough on behalf of the GLBT community. The outcry is not completely without merit -- the Justice Department's unnerving brief on the Defense of Marriage Act immediately comes to mind. I was upset by some of the statements, but not surprised. (After the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, President Ronald Reagan's initial handling of AIDS and, more recently, Katrina, there is little that surprises me when it comes to the government and the treatment of its people.)

Still, rarely has criticism regarding Obama and the GLBT community come from the kind of person you would find standing in line at a spot like The Prop House, and there's a reason for that.

Despite the catchiness of the slogan, gay is not the new black.

Black is still black.

And if any group should know this, it's the gay community.[...]

Not to be flip, but Miley Cyrus is older than Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell." That doesn't mean that the safety of gay people should be trivialized or that Obama should not be held accountable for the promises he made on the campaign trail. But to call this month's first-ever White House reception for GLBT leaders "too little too late" is akin to a petulant child throwing a tantrum because he wants to eat his dessert before dinner. This is one of the main reasons why so many blacks bristle at the comparison of the two movements -- everybody wants to sing the blues, nobody wants to live them.

This lack of perspective is only going to alienate a black community that is still very proud of Obama and is hypersensitive about any criticism of him, especially given he's been in office barely six months.

If blacks are less accepting of gays than other racial groups -- and that is certainly debatable -- then the parade of gay people calling Obama a "disappointment" on television is counterproductive in gaining acceptance, to say the least. And the fact that the loudest critics are mostly white doesn't help matters either.

It's a question of perspective, and, let's face it, we often don't have that. And I can't shake the feeling that I've been reading and hearing a whole lot of "We paid and worked for these politicians, and everything we wanted from them didn't immediately happen! And we even showed how displeased with the current situation we are! The system is broken!" It's not to minimize the fact the pernicious effects of DOMA and job discrimination. I'm saying that, once again, one letter to a Senator does more than 100 angry blog comments, and that we're going to have to accept, with grace, the fact that we're still a minority that most people don't like or don't particularly care about if we're going to get through the Obama administration without incurring psychological damage on ourselves. It'd also be nice for us to understand that even if that laundry list of LGBT legislation is passed, we'll still be living in a homophobic and transphobic society filled with people who don't want us to be here. There will still be work that needs to be done.

This is where I see the connection to what Pat Buchanan was saying. No one's going to like this comparison, least of all me because I think Buchanan is a noxious poison in our political discourse, but I do on some level understand what he's trying to say. I don't think he's trying to tear down minorities, at least on this issue, but is really, and deeply offended by affirmative action programs as discrimination against white people and has a substantial lack of give a fuck about discrimination against anyone else. He's absolutely wrong, and his mentality is based on the fact that he sees himself as the most discriminated-against minority in America (white males) based on a selective reading of the facts and an inability to think beyond himself.

A certain segment of the LGBT community sees gay, lesbian, and/or transgender white people as the most discriminated-against minority in America (although they usually talk only about their own group in the LGBT spectrum) and that lack of perspective comes from the same white privilege that Buchanan is infected with. Sure, the LGBT white people who can't see outside of homophobia and transphobia have a more legitimate grievance. But their motivations aren't much more noble.

Granderson ends his column by saying that such a mentality is counterproductive to achieving that list of legislation, but I don't particularly think so. It produces an impatience around these issues that can be motivating, and white privilege in the LGBT community has been around since before Stonewall and look at all that's been accomplished (yeah, I know, not marriage for everyone, but, seriously, a lot's gotten done for 40 years).

What I do worry about are how well we're doing in achieving social justice if there are some among us who aren't looking inwardly as well as trying to get legislation that benefits them passed, as well as those sorts of discriminations that can't be fought against with legislation. If we're not working towards creating a society where social justice is valued above "Me first," then we're going to have to lead the way towards that.

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Re: "I've come to realize that one of the key experiences that is true almost all the way across America's LGBTQ population is, at some point in one's life, falling from one position to a lesser status, no matter where we start out. Because of that, the LGBTQ movement is often driven not by a desire to achieve social justice or improve society or lift up the community, but to get back that lost privilege. I've seen that attitude in lots of people, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer, and it's the making of an extremely myopic worldview."

Yes, and yes, and yes, and yes...!

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | July 19, 2009 12:59 PM

Yasmin, that's exactly the section I was going to excerpt and say, "Yes!!" to also. :)

Very good post, Alex!!!

Granderson's article was a deplorable belittlement of the struggles of homosexuals, which belied an astounding ignorance on gay history.

To think that anyone would applaud a blatant example of oppression Olympics is sickening.

I don't think that he was playing the oppression olympics there, but a response has to be made when there is a vocal minority of gays saying we are the most oppressed people in America or the only oppressed people in America.

Yes, he was. I don't think there is any other way to read his little bit on the difference of police interaction; and while gays were arrested, blacks were fearing brutality and for their lives.

That kind of inaccuracy is intolerable. So is trying to barter acceptance from a community in exchange for not appearing as critical of a leader with which said community identifies.

That kind of inaccuracy is intolerable. So is trying to barter acceptance from a community in exchange for not appearing as critical of a leader with which said community identifies.

There is a differencec between calling him slow on these issues, which he has been, and the all-out "homobigot," "homophobic," lose-our-heads-and-start-making-shit-up response to him has been over the top. I was criticizing him long before he was in office and plan on doing it long after that list of legislation gets past, but for some reason I've found myself having to defend him occasionally because some of the stuff that gets said about him is so inaccurate it just isn't helpful and cheapens real criticisms of him.

The police thing I just read as a response to the fact that Stonewall is the end-all-be-all of police brutality. I do think that he was wrong in implying that LGBT oppression started with Stonewall, but considering how rare this discussion is and how much shit anyone gets for bringing it up, I'm willing to cut a little slack.

I just felt annoyed when he characterized the entire gay movement as a bunch of sissy brats that have hardly seen the oppression that blacks had. It was ignorant and patronizing. Gays have been brutalized and led to mistrust police as much as blacks, so making it seem like gays only get escorted to the jailhouse with their prissy nail polish while blacks got the Real Oppression (TM)just comes off as oblivious to gay history.

I just see his piece as a symptom, though. How much of our community is really enlightened about our history? Very few. There's no extensive academic bodies, approved literature, and the exposure that civil rights for blacks has achieved. His piece just showed that he's familiar with one face of oppressive history, but rather naive about the other.

Of course, I doubt that those Towleroad comment trolls that canoodle in Queerty as well should be used as legitimate examples to detract from our movement. It's as if we were to grab absurd Pentecostal churchgoers and present them as the standard for black intellect.

I love the comparison of commenters on certain blogs to Pentecostals. Wasn't Palin a Pentecostal too?

I agree that Granderson is playing "oppression olympics" with his column. He makes some good points, but he's way too divisive. The comparison of the n-word to the f-word was especially troubling.

This is the best response to his piece.

[blockquote]It'd also be nice for us to understand that even if that laundry list of LGBT legislation is passed, we'll still be living in a homophobic and transphobic society filled with people who don't want us to be here.[/blockquote]

I strongly agree with this. I wonder if once all the legislation is passed will all the activists pack up their stuff and say "mission accomplished"? I grew up in an extremely homophobic household, country, and community, will there be resources to help LGBT children navigate these spaces and find some semblance of peace?

Marla Stevens | July 17, 2009 8:04 PM

May I suggest NBJC Deputy Director/CT State Rep. Jason W. Bartlett's essay on hearing the Obama speech in person (and watching the body language of both the President and First Lady as he spoke):

He does not find Obama to be an antigay bigot (at least not where employment rights and the military are concerned) or lacking in understanding of our claims that justice delayed is justice denied. He just points out that, politically, he finds himself hamstrung by a majority African-American antigay bigotry as typified by Tom Joyner's response to the president's Stonewall speech.

I've been labeled racist for saying that that level of antigay bigotry exists in black America and that unwarranted vilification still serves as a sad cautionary tale for others who understand that one first must acknowledge the existence of a problem in order to have a prayer of solving it.

My answer is that, of course I'm a racist. I'm an American born in the 20th century apartheid Deep South only two generations removed from the KKK -- but I am also a survivor of the KKK and have African-Americans in my closest and dearest family and that dual perspective, combined with a will born in the 1950s black maid and child city bus DMZ (where at least my little girl's rational mind figured out that the claims of the unabashedly racist adults in my world were suspect to the point of being nuts) to face these issues head-on, helps forge a path out of the pain.

But too many of us don't get the chance to engage in any kind of coming to the table with each other -- or we don't make or avail ourselves of the chances we could -- to find our common ground where oppression grinds us all and, worse, too many identify with our oppressors, becoming oppressors ourselves, thus the beat goes on.

How's that for obscene simplicitude? ;-)

Perfect summation. "If we're not working towards creating a society where social justice is valued above "Me first," then we're going to have to lead the way towards that."

But there are many who do not have a jot of empathy in their systems (Palin is one, Buchanan, Limbaugh, Beck others). So they cannot comprehend that discrimination could hurt.

So no tallies can be kept of 'which' community is hurt more.

One discrimination that most blacks do not face, is the rejection from ones primary and extended families that occurs to so many GLBTQ's... This can be lifelong and very painful, and is one reason we need to embrace each other together into a new 'family' community.

Isa Kocher | July 17, 2009 11:20 PM

it is profoundly insulting to everybody to twist LGTB struggles for equity into something anything to do with racism. tell Matthew Shepherd about white entitlement. plenty of white people died, were tortured, gave up everything to help Black people in the USA. justice is justice for all. I am not going to stop struggling for justice no matter what racist epithet you throw at me. And Malcolm died, martyred because he rejected any kind of racist hate. when you deny my right to justice, as James Baldwin explains, you deny your own humanity not mine.

Mary Hayes | July 18, 2009 8:08 AM

Let's see.... Pat Buchanan bloviates about affirmative action and we're all supposed to come to the conclusion that wanting marriage equality amounts to supporting "white privilege"?

Bilerico seems to have morphed into the All Anti-Marriage Equality All The Time blog. When can we expect to see Bilerico bloggers picketing same-sex weddings in Iowa? I'm within Greyhound Bus distance and I'd like to know so I can show up as a counter-demonstrator.

What does this even has to do with same-sex marriage? srsly.

I'd just like it to be known that I seldom complain because I've literally been told 'You can't complain! You're a happy little white girl!'
I wonder how people would react if I said something similar

Matthew Tripp | July 18, 2009 12:41 PM

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The reductio ad absurdum of this line of thinking would be stopping our opposition to DOMA and our pursuit of marriage, employment protections and of trans rights as such things offend the majority of evangelical black Americans.

Well, then let's not be absurd. :)

MitchInOakland | July 19, 2009 3:22 PM

A good part of the problem may be that for several decades we've cast our agenda more in terms of "equality" or "social justice" than of personal freedom. This started with the notion that it's in queers' interest to insist that "we're born this way" rather than that sexuality is a realm of life in which we have a right to make the choices we do. (This emerged from an attempt to kowtow to the religious right by insisting that we couldn't change if we wanted to [and that nobody in their right mind would choose to be gay], and it ends up casting gayness as a congenital condition that we're stuck with, something akin to a disability.)

As for "white privilege," I see no legitimate reason to have to apologize for wanting to expand my rights because some other group or individual may currently (or historically) have fewer rights than I do. Those WASPS whose ancestors lived in North America (and especially the South) two hundred years ago (along with their black slaves) can speak for themselves; meanwhile, when blacks we being promised 40 acres and a mule, my people (Jews in Russia) were prohibited from owning any land at all. (Racism played absolutely no part in their decision to come here, and If their faring better after coming to the states was due to the racism of the society, they deserve reparations for having been hoodwinked into any alleged complicity.)

When it comes to queers, the way in which the entire "white racism" argument is made often smacks of the Old Left canard that homosexuality is merely a symptom of bourgeois decadence -- and, in the case if gay white males, a case of an already-privileged group that has the nerve to demand even more for themselves than they already have. This is, if course, is held to be inexcusable, at least while there are still those who have less (and, given the supposition that it's "excess," perhaps will remain inexcusable for all time).

I'm happy -- indeed, proud -- to have grown up in a family where I was respected for exploring all aspects of my sexuality, as I was indeed also taught to respect all humans regardless of race. While I was living in West Oakland for six years, however, I constantly heard the "n-word" on the street for the first time in my life. I often felt unsafe among the sub-group that was using it (who had no great love for "faggots," either). Being brutalized is no excuse for creating a culture of brutality. In fact, my heart goes out to those queer People of Color who, in addition to enduring the double oppression of racism and homophobia, are subjected to the brutality of having to live among such people.

Meanwhile, queer frustration with Obama is clearly the result of our experience under Clinton, and of a creepy feeling that we're starting to see the same thing happen all over again. It has nothing to do with the fact that Obama is black -- but (despite the fact that, as my grandmother used to say, "Politics is a dirty business") he deserves no special dispensation on our issues, either.

Finaly, I agree with Alex in two issues.

First, Pat Buchanan is one of the nastiest political presences walking the face of the earth (though I think Alex is too charitable in not ascribing more malevolence to him: Buchanan's views represent a long-standing affinity between fascism and certain conservative elements in the Catholic Church).

Second, we should get away from the notion that "gay is the new black." We have a right to freedom for reasons all our own.