Caught between oppressed and oppressor

by Evan Walsh / Beacon Staff • February 18, 2016

Beacon Staff
Beacon Staff

Some mornings I wake up and ask myself: Will I put on masculinity today?

As a gay man, representing myself to others every day seems like a choreography of personal history and culture—a mixture of projection, privilege, presentation, and privacy. I wonder: How do I want to be seen by others? 

Maybe I’ll don a flannel, a hunting hat—a reminder of days out in the quiet woods with my best friends, a place where men can be animals, too. Or I could wear my blue and gold high school varsity jacket, maybe my fraternity letters. No matter the garb, the message remains similar. I could represent a lion pack—stand for men who, despite their faults, will go to any measure to protect one another’s masculinity, as if their very manhood is the oxygen that keeps them going. These clothes sing of my maleness, an echo of my privilege. 

For my entire childhood, society taught me how to be the embodiment of white masculine heterosexuality. It taught me to pay for women, to hold the door, to be chivalrous and steadfast. It pushed me to keep my jaw set and tight, my shoulders up, my arms flexed, my fists curled. It required me to not show emotion, to never cry or feel. It asked of me not to get too close to other men, to keep a distance and keep the social order in place.

When I realized I was gay, I faced a whole new question—if society says that I am the antithesis of everything I was taught to be, then who am I? Those guys in the pride parade in leather assless chaps, the two chain-smoker guys who made out near the shower-cam in Real World: Philadelphia, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain: those were three of the few extremely limited archetypes of gay culture I had as an early teen. Confronting this dearth of images on the other side of the closet, I felt neither here nor there, a feeling that lingers even today, when I’ve been out for seven years.

I am white, male, upper-middle class, and gay. Three of those four are the result of some genetic lottery that granted me the privilege to be more inclined to get what I want. It’s easy for me, and for all white, queer men, to focus on the bullying, violence, and hate recycled in our society’s values and hyper-masculine gender roles. We indeed should focus on those things—but to be blinded by the hatred and hurt we have received would cause us to miss an essential distinction of our privilege. 

I have no right to ignore others because of my own struggles. Nor should my whiteness give me any reason to be unconcerned. It’s my responsibility to be more than just complacent. 

Although being gay means I have to navigate oppression, that doesn’t give me an excuse to act as if I don’t have privilege, or that I am an authority on all forms of oppression. It’s too common for members of this community to emphasize the mistaken idea that our negative experiences can serve as a blanket source of all-knowing relatability, an end-all be-all source of understanding the experiences of other oppressed groups.

Though I know oppression, my homosexuality should not be an excuse to appropriate other cultures. Gay white men will never be an emblem of black culture. I shouldn’t “YASS QUEEN” to my black friends at every interaction, or, by my behavior, perpetuate the myth that every white gay man has an inner black woman. 

“I have privilege.” If, in your life, you live between being a part of an oppressor class and a part of an oppressed group, remember to say that to yourself, and be willing to look beyond the wound. Every single day, I should engage with the fact that my oppression comes merely from only one of those many genetic, social, historical lotteries. For others, several personal narratives, histories, and backgrounds intersect and compound and catalyze one another to create even more challenges. 

As literary and queer theorist Leo Bersani wrote in his essay “Loving Men,” the gay community is “an oppressed group not only drawn to the power-holding sex, but also belonging to it themselves.” In a queer culture often pioneered and dominated by young, attractive, able-bodied, athletic white men—beacons of power and privilege—the gay community and I have a long way to go before we have this all figured out. 

My white, middle-class maleness and my freedom to be unapologetically gay are a privilege. By understanding how I relate to my privilege, I have learned to give space to others, as I would want space for myself. To listen and to speak when it is my place. And when I am called to arms, I have learned to fight the right battles, forging forward, but off to the side where I have learned it is not my place to be in front.