Let’s Talk About White Gays ‘Stealing Black Female Culture’

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Photo: Off White Productions/Courtesy Everett Collection

Last week, Time’s website published an essay with the headline “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture.” Written by Sierra Mannie, a rising senior at the University of Mississippi, it had originally appeared in her student newspaper. “I need some of you to cut it the hell out,” Mannie wrote. “I don’t care how well you can quote Madea, who told you that your booty was getting bigger than hers, how cute you think it is to call yourself a strong black woman, who taught you to twerk, how funny you think it is to call yourself Quita or Keisha or for which black male you’ve been bottoming — you are not a black woman, and you do not get to claim either blackness or womanhood.”

This met an angry response. One representative tweet called Mannie’s work “ignorant & homophobic”; Thought Catalog declared, “It’s all bullshit. You can be whomever you want to be.” Another writer called Mannie’s work “incorrect and offensive” and rewrote the whole thing as a request that straight people “stop stealing gay culture.”

First of all, Mannie’s work is that of a college student — she was writing from a specific experience and for a specific context, even if Time brought her thoughts to wider audience. And while her argument may not be perfect, she’s hit upon a very real phenomenon: of white gay men crossing lines of good taste or casual racism by “acting black.” An ambitious ethnic-studies major could stand outside the gay bar Metropolitan on a Saturday night and gather enough material for a thesis project. It’s just that the behavior Mannie’s noticing has a more complicated origin story than what she describes as “[claiming] that you’re a minority woman just for the sake of laughs.”

I’d trace its lineage to the movie Paris Is Burning. The 1990 drag-ball documentary assayed the lives of poor, largely black gay men who built an alternative culture — one with a language that would seem to borrow heavily from what Mannie calls “Shanequa from around the way.” And the white gay men I’ve met who most frequently speak, or tweet, in a faux-urban patois aren’t trying mimic Tyler Perry’s Madea character or any real-life black woman. They’re mimicking gay men from another era, who found a way to forge an identity amid difficult circumstances. The “realness” those performers prized allowed them to express themselves, through the guise of characters who owed a lot to the women who were their mothers, sisters, and friends.

“Throwing shade,” “reading,” “truth tea,” a certain fuck-you sassy posture — all of the mannerisms Mannie sees as stolen from black women have echoed through drag culture since the 1980s. TV shows like Logo’s RuPaul’s Drag Race (on which white Dallas-based performer Laganja Estranja talked nonstop about “truth tea”) or Bravo’s Fashion Queens (on which black gay men “read” one another once a week) broadcast out to the masses a manner of being that owes something to an idea of black womanhood, but also to gay people from the past.

Mannie is right that gay men have a lot of reckoning to do. There can be a flattening effect when gay people in 2014 look at the world; there’s no organized corpus of gay history, and often little sense of perspective. So gay men who are “acting like black women” are presuming that nothing has changed, that all struggles gay men have faced to claim space in the world for themselves have been equivalent throughout history. That Chelsea-based management consultant whose Grindr bio reads “Yas, hunty” is trying to express himself using a language that he views as part of his own history. But his behavior reflects cluelessness about historical origins, not a malicious attempt to co-opt black womanhood.

And Mannie’s essay has its blind spots, too. At one point, she alleges that gay men have the “privilege” of being able to disavow their sexuality, a privilege not shared by black women. (Black women “cannot hide their blackness and womanhood to protect themselves the way that you can hide your homosexuality,” she writes.) This is accurate in a certain sense, but ideologically chilling: The fact that society rewards gay men who “hide” is precisely what gave rise to a protective subculture like the one depicted in Paris Is Burning to begin with. Still, in defending themselves by presuming that their interpretation was automatically correct — and that they definitely weren't being racist even as they entirely dismissed a black woman’s experience — gay folks did flaunt a certain sort of privilege. It was proof of how much has changed in the last 24 years.

White gay men and black tween girls: They’re both on YouTube doing the “Single Ladies” dance. GIFs of The Real Housewives of Atlanta proliferate online because they’re self-consciously campy. And “throwing shade” has entered the lexicon, with political reporters from BuzzFeed to the Washington Post applying the term in ways that have nothing to do with bickering drag queens.

What Mannie has noticed is real. But while I can’t speak for the young men she’s encountered, those I know are participating in a culture that’s spread far beyond any one demographic — a culture that, by now, touches all of us.