(OR ERASING RACE)
Gay rights proponents sought to legitimize a sexual identity antidiscrimination norm by analogizing to historical race discrimination: the military’s discriminatory practices against gays and lesbians is the same as, or at the very least similar to, the military’s discriminatory practices against Blacks. Thus, the argument runs, because it is illegal and immoral for the military to discriminate against Blacks, it should be illegal and immoral for the military to discriminate against gays and lesbians.
Jane Schacter refers to the inquiries into "whether gay men and lesbians are sufficiently ‘like’ other protected groups, and whether sexual orientation is sufficiently ‘like’ race"41 as a "discourse of equivalents."42 She is critical of the "discourse of equivalents" because, among other reasons, "[c]urrent civil rights laws are held out as the normative baseline against which the gay civil rights claim is tested."43 Importantly, when Professor Schacter speaks of a "discourse of equivalents" she does not have pro-gay rights discourse in mind. Rather, she is referring to the rhetorical strategy deployed by opponents of gay rights initiatives and legislation, who invoke the analogy to deligitimize and undermine claims for gay equality and equal protection.44
Yet a "discourse of equivalents"—Blacks are like gays—is also problematic in the context of gay rights advocacy. Here, too, this discourse must be, to employ Shacter’s term, "decoded." Quite apart from the extent to which a gay rights "discourse of equivalents" acquiesces to the idea that gay and lesbian civil rights claims are legitimate only to the extent that gays and lesbians are perceived to be "like" Blacks or other racial minorities, it also falsely disaggregates race and sexuality. The consequences of this disaggregation are twofold: (1) the entrenchment of the perception that Black identity and gay identity are mutually exclusive categories, separate and distinct identities; 45 and (2) the obfuscation of how whiteness operates as the default race for lesbian and gay identity.
Professors Trina Grillo and Stephanie Wildman observe that "the use of analogies [in civil rights discourse] provides both the key to greater comprehension and the danger of false understanding."46 Focussing their discussion on the race/gender analogy, Grillo and Wild – man argue that "comparing racism to sexism perpetuates patterns of racial domination by marginalizing and obscuring the different roles that race plays in the lives of people of color and of whites.47 Grillo’s and Wildman’s argument, then, is not simply that comparing, for example, "women" and "Blacks" obscures that some women are Black but also that the comparison obscures that white women are raced— beneficiaries of white racial privilege.48 The race/sexual orientation analogy functions in a similar way, obscuring not only that Black people are gay but also that white gay people are raced. To illustrate this point, let me distinguish between the interracial and intraracial aspects of the race/sexual orientation analogies gay rights proponents deployed in the context of the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" controversy.
To support the claim that the rationales proffered for the segregation of Blacks in the military are the same as the rationales proffered for the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the military, gay rights proponents often invoke the following statement made in 1942 by the Secretary of the Navy opposing desegregation of the military:
Men on board ships live in particularly close association; in their messes, one man sits beside another; their hammocks or bunks are close together; in their tasks such as those of gun crew, they form a closely knit, highly coordinated team. How many white men would chose, of their own accord, that their closest associates in sleeping quarters, at mess, and in gun crews should be of another race? How many would accept such conditions, if required to do so, without resentment and just as a matter of course? The General Board believes
that if the issue were forced, there would be lowering of contentment, teamwork and discipline in the service.49
According to David Smith, the spokesperson for Campaign for Military Service, a gay and lesbian coalition group, substituting the words "gay" and "lesbian" for the word "Negro" reveals the similarities between the rationales offered to justify the discriminatory practices against Blacks on the one hand and lesbians and gays on the other.50 As Professor Alycee Lane suggests, however, "[r]eplacing the words ‘Negro’ with ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’ is a move that. . . denies that a ‘Negro’ could in fact be ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ . . . [and] assumes that whiteness is the defining characteristic of homosexuals."51 Smith’s "Negro/gay" rhetorical substitution, in other words, constructs an interracial race/sexual orientation analogy that renders Black gay and lesbian experiences invisible. His analysis invites a comparison between Black (heterosexual) victimization caused by past military racist practices and (white) gay and lesbian victimization caused by current homophobic military practices. Blackness is employed here not to discuss Black homosexual identity (e. g., how the military’s "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy affects Black lesbians and gays) but to discuss Black (heterosexual) racial identity (e. g., how the military’s past racist practices affected (heterosexual and closeted) Blacks.
Whiteness is employed not to racialize the pro gay rights discourse, white gay and lesbian identity, or current military practices, but to draw attention to the similarities between the 1940s discussions about the legitimacy of a racially segregated military and current discussions about the legitimacy of a heterosexually exclusive military.52 Invisible here is not only Black homosexuality, but also how whiteness operates as a racial norm vis-a-vis gay and lesbian sexual identity. The comparison is between race ostensibly unsexual – ized (i. e., "Black people") and sexuality ostensibly unraced (i. e., "gay and lesbian people").53 The gay rights proponents’ deployment of the analogy reinscribed the Black heterosexual racial subject and white gay and lesbian sexuality subject as authentic identity positions. This interracial Black/gay analogy conveys the idea that to be Black is to be heterosexual; to be homosexual is to be white.
This is not to suggest that there are not in fact similarities between the language the military employed in the context of the 1940s to justify racial segregation in the armed forces and the language the military currently employs to justify its discriminatory practices against gays and lesbians. My point is rather that comparisons about language became comparisons not only about identity (Black and gay) but also about discrimination (homophobia and racism).
Subtler, but equally problematic, the intraracial race/sexual orientation analogy is reflected in the following claim: "we (gays and lesbians) are just like everybody else." This assertion constitutes a form a white racial bonding. It is intended to convince white heterosexual people that white gay and lesbian people are "just like" white heterosexual people. Decoded, the "we are just like every body else" claim becomes, "notwithstanding our homosexuality, we are still white—virtually normal."54 The comparison here is really between white gays and lesbians and white heterosexuals. Because whiteness and Blackness are oppositional racial signifiers, 55 because Blackness is that which makes people "different—and especially with respect to sexuality,"56 Black gay and lesbian people are not regarded, inside or outside of the gay community, as being "just like everybody else." Consider, for example, how one potential white gay donor responded to the news that Urvashi Vaid had been selected as the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: "How could they have selected that radical woman, he asked, ‘who’s practically a nigger.’" 57 Because Vaid is not white (and because of her politics) she does not have " racial standing" to represent the (white) gay and lesbian movement. She is not "like everybody else."
Racializing gay identity and sexuating Black identity would have compelled gay rights advocates to distinguish not only heterosexual Blacks and lesbian and gay Blacks but also gay and lesbian Blacks and gay and lesbian whites. This, in turn, would have required them to address the extent to which their own advocacy reflected racial hierarchy, privileging the victim status of white gay men and to a lesser extent white lesbians.
And indeed, the pro-gay representation of gay identity during the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" debates were overwhelmingly white. Particularly noteworthy here is that while Perry Watkins, a Black Army Sergeant, established an important milestone when he became the first openly gay serviceman to challenge successfully the military’s anti-gay policy, 58 gay civil rights proponents did not, according to Watkins, solicit his advice or ask him to participate in their efforts.59
Nor did Perry Watkins’s story feature prominently in pro gay rights discourse about military practices vis-a-vis gay and lesbians. The representative gay man was Keith Meinhold, a white military service man.60
Watkins’ participation in military life prior to the gay/military debates deserves further elaboration. His visible presence as an openly gay Black man in a heterosexist military culture makes his invisibility in the gay rights discourse all the more curious. Watkins was nineteen years old when he was drafted into the military.61 He was drafted for three years notwithstanding that he responded "yes" to the question on the enlistment form regarding "homosexual tendencies," and notwithstanding the military’s express policy of not enlisting or retaining homosexuals.62 After a year of military service, Watkins was subjected to a criminal investigation of his sexual activities. Watkins again acknowledged his homosexuality, this time in an affidavit. Specifically, Watkins indicated that "he had been a homosexual from the age of 13 and that, since his enlistment, he had engaged in sodomy with two other servicemen."63 Apparently, Watkins’s affidavit was not evidence enough of his (homo)sexual orientation; the Army "dropped the investigation because of insufficient evidence"!64
Watkins’s performances in drag—at recreational centers, social clubs, and other official and unofficial military gatherings65—would also have raised "questions" about his sexuality. These performances were oftentimes specifically requested.66 Given the tendency to conflate sex, gender, and sexual orientation,67 Watkins’s performances would, at the very least, have created a question mark about whether Watkins was what Julie Yuki Ralston refers to as the "heterosexual military man."68
Subsequent to his initial enlistment, Watkins was enlisted in the military three additional times—in 1971, 1974, and 1979—despite the military’s awareness of his sexual orientation.69 It was not until 1982 that the army discharged Watkins for the very "misconduct" it had previously chosen to ignore, tolerate, and even defend.70 Watkins challenged his discharge and ultimately won.71
The fact that Watkins was gay and out and therefore potentially a gay icon was undermined because he was also Black. According to Tom Stoddard, a white gay lawyer who directed the Campaign for Military Service, "there was a public relations problem with Perry [Watkins]."72 Ostensibly, the problem wasn’t simply that Watkins was Black, but also that he wore a nose ring.73 If the goal was to present a "respectable" (and not counter-cultural) gay (though not necessarily white) image, other more mainstream Black gay icons were surely available.74
Watkins was quite aware that what caused the gay rights movement’s marginalization of him as a Black gay man and his story as an "out" gay Black man in a heterosexist military culture were concerns about his racial (un)palatability to mainstream America. Margarethe Cammermeyer, a white woman and a member of the National Guard,75 came out as a lesbian during the gay military debates and became, according to Watkins, a gay rights "poster child" for demonstrating military injustice.76 Commenting on how Cammermeyer was received by the gay community and employed as a gay icon, Watkins remarked "we’ll go with a [white] woman who led a lie for fifty-six years before we go with a black man who had to live the struggle nearly everyday of his life."77
And there was never a meaningful discussion about Black lesbians during "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" controversy. Notwithstanding that "in the Marine Corps, black females were discharged for homosexuality at twice the rate of white males,"78 Black lesbians were not featured as victims of the military’s discriminatory practices, let alone presented as icons. The story of Black lesbians in the military remains to be told.79
Professor Lane reasons that "the choice between Watkins [on the one hand] and Meinhold [and Cammermeyer on the other] was one between the non-universality of blackness as representative and the universality of whiteness, between that which could not represent and the representative."80 Perhaps Lane overstates the extent to which race explains why Meinhold and Cammermeyer were employed as gay icons and Watkins was not. After all, the Watkins litigation preceded the "Don’t, Ask, Don’t Tell" controversy by several years.81 One could certainly make the argument, then, that by the time the gay rights community was politically gearing up to challenge the military’s treatment of gays and lesbians, the Perry Watkins story was no longer ripe; it had lost it cultural and political currency. This ostensibly race-neutral explanation certainly has some explanatory value. But, the determination as to whether a particular story has political currency is itself a race-based decision, the passage of time notwithstanding. To better appreciate this point, we might ask the following "race switching" question: Would the Perry Watkins story have played a more important role in gay civil rights efforts against "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" if Perry Watkins had been white? My answer: "probably yes," but I recognize that there is no real way to falsify that claim.82
Nor do concerns about race disappear when the decisions to employ Cammermeyer and Meinhold as symbols of gay victimization are articulated as strategic ones. The perceived political efficacy of these decisions relates to the racial context in which they are being made. Undoubtedly, it was easier for the gay rights proponents to "sell" a white gay man to mainstream America and to the gay and lesbian community as a civil rights icon than it would have been for them to "sell" a Black gay man (with a nose ring). White people care more about what happens to other whites than they do about what happens to Blacks. White bodies are valued more than Black bodies.83 Basing a "civil rights" strategy on the racial palatability and un – palatability of whiteness and Blackness, respectively, even if this is done for pragmatic reasons, contributes to the valuation of white identity and devaluation of Black identity. A civil rights strategy should not be based—implicitly or explicitly—on this sort of race- based pragmatism.
My critique of the gay rights employment of race/sexual orientation analogies is not intended to suggest that it is always and in every context inappropriate to compare race and sexual orientation. Unlike Professor John Butler I do not suggest categorically that "in the case of homosexuals in the military, the racial metaphor should not be uti – lized."84 (According to Butler, "there is no metaphor from which to learn when it comes to addressing the acceptance of homosexual – ity."85) But, as Joan Williams observes, "the sameness rhetoric signals a. . . choice to ignore a whole series of differences for strategic reasons."86 In other words, we decide, oftentimes for pragmatic reasons, what to make similar and what to make dissimilar. We decide when and how to analogize. Roberto Unger explains, "The decision to liken one instance to another, or to distinguish terms, turns on a judgment of what differences and similarities are most significant to the moral beliefs at stake."87 What was "at stake" for the gay rights proponents was the legitimization of an ostensibly race-neutral (but in effect white-centered) sexual identity equality. Lost in their deployments of race/sexual orientation analogies is the reality that white gays and lesbians are raced and that Black gays and lesbians exist. The race/sexual orientation analogies should not be employed without explicitly grappling with this intersectional reality.
Of course, white gay rights proponents know that they are white. And, of course, they also know that Black gay and lesbians exist. Yet, their gay-rights political engagements vis-a-vis the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy did not, as far as I can tell, address the intersection of race and sexual orientation. They articulated "Blacks" on the one hand and "gays" and "lesbians" on the other as essential, unmodified identity categories. In so doing, they obscured white racial advantage and Black sexual identity disadvantage. Put another way, their employment of the "race and sexuality analogy. . . preclude[d] an examination of the ways in which racial domination and privilege impact gay and lesbian people."88
The questions then become: What should the gay rights proponents have done differently? At the very least, Perry Watkins’s story should have featured more prominently in the gay rights advocates’ public89 discourse about the military’s discriminatory practices. The telling of Perry Watkin’s story would have helped to "authenticate" the gay rights proponents’ employment of the civil rights movement’s rhetoric and symbols. However, gay rights proponents could not credibly have made the claim that gay rights are Black rights because, among other reasons, Black gay victims were not employed to galvanize Americans against the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. Their experiences were closeted, even though some of them, like Perry Watkins, were out of the closet. The most public casualties of the military’s heterosexist policies were white. Throughout the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" controversy, Black gay and lesbians were invisibly out.