Photo credit: Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles
Intersectionality. Louise Mensch thinks it’s bullshit. Caroline Criado-Perez thinks it’s bullying. Rose McGowan thinks it’s, well, we don’t know what Rose McGowan thinks it is. But her recent comments about gay men being “more sexist” than straight men, which she subsequently apologized for, demonstrate that she may not be an intersectional feminist herself.
I don’t disagree with Rose McGowan that a lot of gay men are misogynists. That’s a given, because a lot of men are misogynists. When I was 18, I briefly dated a man who referred to one of his close female friends as “Gash.” Reducing a woman to her genitalia is objectifying and demeaning, regardless of a man’s sexual orientation.
Back in January, Jezebel ran a lengthy piece by Rohin Guha, an out gay man, about just this topic, addressing the “myth of the fag hag” (itself a disgustingly sexist term) and the misogyny permeating gay clubs and the gay community:
It’s a dirty secret of a subculture of the gay male world about women: That they’re essentially unwelcome, unless they come to us as a Real Housewife, a pop diva, or an Tony award winner–or an unassuming fag hag. To anyone just coming out of the closet and hoping to get his bearings in the gay male community, the attitude towards women is simple: They are just objects whose function is to serve gay men. Maybe it happens when gay men get too comfortable in newly-discovered safe spaces–where they get to call the shots as their proudly out new selves. Or maybe it happens through cultural conditioning. Whatever the cause is, it becomes clear: If there isn’t any kind of transactional exchange happening, then women lose their value in gay male subcultures.
Rohin, like Rose, is talking about “gay male privilege,” but this is only part of the story, and misses the intersectional reality here, a point that Noah Baron cogently made in a rebuttal at the Huffington Post. There is no such thing as “gay male privilege.” There is male privilege, which gay men have. There is cis privilege, which cis folks have. There is white privilege, which white people have. A gay man can have, and should be expected to check, any and all of these privileges. But there is no “gay male privilege.” Being a member of the LGBT community means you are a member of the oppressed class, and by default lack privilege-in this case, “straight privilege.”
This is where intersectionality comes in. If Rose or Rohin were to speak of the male privilege which gay men possess and which many are oblivious to yet benefit from, while also acknowledging their simultaneous oppression, I wouldn’t be writing this. But neither does. Rose starts off by straightsplaining queer activism (around the Beverly Hills Hotel, specifically, and Sultan of Brunei’s brutal anti-gay policies more broadly), lecturing the gay community on why our response to our oppression is the incorrect response. Only after this does she begin lamenting the lack of gay male allies in the fight for equal pay and women’s liberation.
Rohin also addresses pay inequality. “So long as [gay men] know how to play our cards in the corporate world, we can potentially enjoy a higher salary than our female counterparts…” he writes, continuing with how, so long as we have a “poker face,” gay men can avoid sexual assault. “It isn’t perfect,” he says rather blithely, “but privilege is privilege.”
Indeed. But for the millions of Americans who live in states where they can be sacked or refused a job for being gay, this isn’t a privilege, it’s an oppression. For the millions of gay people, including in places like New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, who have to assess their new workplace and think twice about putting up a picture of their families, this is not a privilege. We live in a white heteropatriarchy, which values heterosexuality and reviles homosexuality. Yes, my male privilege makes me less likely to face street harassment, assault, or gender-based discrimination. But you best believe I wouldn’t dare hold my boyfriend’s hand back home in Kentucky. You best believe I was a dirty little secret for years because my ex worried what coming out would do to his career. You best believe I still have to assess every situation, corporate or otherwise, to figure out whether it’s safe to come out.
Addressing men as a class, which includes gay men, and addressing the misogyny of gay men is not homophobic, and it needs to be done more often. Explaining how male privilege benefits all men is important. I’m glad that people are thinking and talking about these things, because the gay community has gotten a pass for too long. But there’s a way to do it that doesn’t dismiss the very real oppression that gay men face every day.
And that was my major problem with Rose’s comments, and it’s been something I’ve stewed over since Rohin’s piece went live last winter. Rose didn’t approach gay men as men, she approached them as gay; as such, it read as a member of the privileged (straight) class attacking members of the oppressed (gay) class. Similarly, Rohin is incredibly dismissive of “gay culture,” completely ignoring the sacrosanct nature of gay spaces (like gay bars, for example) to so many gay men, for many of whom it is the only escape from pervasive heteronormativity.
Should more gay men step up in the feminist fight? Absolutely. Should more gay men have our male (and white, and class, and cis, and able) privilege checked? Definitely. Should more gay men examine the ways in which we objectify and degrade women, invading their spaces and bodily autonomy? Yes.
But this isn’t because we’re gay. It’s because we’re men.
Comparing oppressions is tacky, but understanding the basic tenants of intersectional feminism is necessary. We are all differently yet simultaneously privileged and oppressed, and it’s important to recognise the differences, both in ourselves and in others. Neither Rose McGowan nor Rohin Guha did this, and it was to the detriment of their otherwise cogent point. Tackling sexism in all its pernicious forms, in every place, is imperative, but attacking an oppressed class is a lousy way to do it.