“At What Cost?” is a testimony-based column which takes the lived experiences of NYU students and connects them to broader societal challenges. As much as we’d like to view NYU as a utopian “safe space,” our fellow students are forced to make difficult choices every day — this is our opportunity to unpack them.
If you’ve ever set foot in the West Village you’ve likely walked past one of the city’s infamous historical landmarks, The Stonewall Inn. In the heart of New York’s self-proclaimed “Gay Village,” Stonewall represents the inception of the LGBTQ campaign for equal rights. In today’s context, Stonewall serves a physical reminder of the progress queer people have made toward justice. However, for many years, the powerful actions of black, brown and trans figures within the queer community were left out of this narrative. The commercialization of the LGBTQ movement throughout modern history has attempted to erase the most central and marginalized figures of the movement, leading to lingering tension within the queer space.
The history of the LGBTQ movement is filled with uncertainty, due to the suppression of gay culture by mainstream society and a lack of physical record keeping. That said, oral legend has preserved many crucial moments in LGBTQ history, one of the most significant being the Stonewall Riots of 1969. These riots catalyzed the creation of the Pride parade and were spearheaded by two trans women of color, Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera. Johnson is often credited for throwing the first brick at these infamous riots. Rivera, a Latinx trans woman, is similarly noted as a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activist Alliance and the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. The impact which these two women and countless others made on the LGBTQ movement changed the landscape of queer acceptance in mainstream society forever. However, the 2017 documentary titled “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” though controversial, was the first real acknowledgment of the impact that trans women of color had on LGBTQ activism. Released nearly 50 years after the Stonewall riots, this documentary shed light on historical misrepresentation within the queer community and provided an accurate portrayal of the key actors within the queer movement. Unlike our current perception of the Queer Movement, the fight for LGBTQ rights has clear black, brown and trans roots. A casualty of the rebranding of the Queer Movement by predominantly cis-white LGBTQ activists are the black, brown and trans activists who were nearly erased from queer history.
Fast-forwarding to the 21st century, the Queer Movement in the United States has been focused on campaigning for representation in media and broader society. In efforts to make LGBTQ representation more palatable, though, the queer community has been confined to reductive stereotypes hinged on hyper-femininity, cisgender males and whiteness. Shows like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” have been widely received by mainstream audiences; however, they often perpetuate the inadvertent silencing of black and brown, as well as trans, voices within the queer community. RuPaul himself stated that “Drag loses its sense of danger and its sense of irony once it’s not men doing it.” Though he has since recognized how damaging his words were to the drag community, RuPaul’s misstep is an undeniable sign that intersections between drag and the trans community are dismissed.
This ignorance is further substantiated by LGBTQ viewers critiquing the show’s treatment of black drag queens and ignoring the historical connection between the queer community, poverty and people of color. Drag and ball culture in the queer community was established as a creative outlet by predominantly POC queer artists in New York from impoverished areas. Not only did the art form rise out of social exclusion in the queer community, but it also inspired underprivileged queer artists to make something out of nothing. Yet on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” the judges have been scrutinized for favoring white, thin and “polished” queens for multiple seasons. The Vixen, a recent contestant on season 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, is a clear example. Due to her passionate opinions and crafty aesthetic, she faced harsh criticisms from the judges, fans and fellow contestants while on the show, as opposed to her fellow white contestants. This treatment ultimately led to an explosive conversation between her and RuPaul during season 10’s reunion episode. This bias is unrepresentative of what the larger queer community is like — inclusive, unconventional, supportive and eccentric.
Drag was once a space for queer people of color and in that vein, so was “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Yet the show, with its popularity, has turned drag into a commodity, naturally by focusing on profit and viewership — a priority that any large media corporation would have.
Black, brown and trans queer people have often been forced to create their own spaces and culture due to exclusion, but it seems that even in those spaces, their culture is being appropriated, taking away what were formerly havens made by the marginalized for the marginalized.
Even within the liberal-minded environment of NYU, it is difficult to find spaces where intersectionality is accepted.
“It’s been very difficult finding queer spaces of color at NYU, specifically because of the ‘color’ part,” said first-year Nick Gorham. “There are lots of spaces where I can go and feel safely queer or safely black. The spaces where I feel I can be both are very far few between.”
Gorham contrasts this experience with his past, mentioning how his high school demographic was roughly 80 percent black or Latinx in a predominantly white town. Growing up in the south, he imagined that a liberal northern state like New York would offer plenty of spaces of inclusion. However, he has been disappointed so far.
Despite having spearheaded movements for equality, representation and acceptance, these spaces are still sought after and relevant in 2018. Racial tension has always been a topic of contention within the queer community, as historically queer people of color have been ostracized by their white counterparts to gain acceptance in mainstream society — seen through overlooked historical figures like Johnson and Rivera.
All this is not to say that NYU or New York City should be expected to comprehend the nuances of queer tensions — there are a number of fronts where it is the LGBTQ community that lacks unity. It is clear just from the instances mentioned that there are fundamental disagreements regarding race, sexuality and intersectionality within the LGBTQ community, making it unreasonable for these spaces to already be established. As a whole, the community must understand their differences first to determine what these spaces must entail to make the stride for representation and equality more efficient.
Dyshere Logan is a sophomore at the Stern School of Business studying Finance and Sustainable Business. Email Dyshere at [email protected]
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