UNPACKING HETEROSEXUAL PRIVILEGE (AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO RACE PRIVILEGE)
I am a Negro Faggot, if I believe what movies, TV, and rap music say about me. Because of my sexuality, I cannot be Black. A strong, proud, Afrocentric Black man is resolutely heterosexual, not even bisexual. Hence I remain a Negro. My sexual difference is. . . a testament to weakness, passivity, the absence of real guts—balls. Hence I remain a sissy, punk, faggot. I cannot be a Black Gay Man because, by the tenets of Black Macho, a Black Gay Man is a triple negation.
—Marlon T. Riggs58
Straight men—even "progressive" straight men—might be reluctant to challenge heterosexual privilege to the extent that such challenges call into question their (hetero)sexual orientation. As Lee Edelman observes in a related context, there "is a deeply rooted concern on the part of. . . heterosexual males about the possible meanings of [men subverting gender roles]."59 According to Edelman, heterosexual men consider certain gender role inversions potentially dangerous because they portend not only a "[male] feminization that would destabilize or question gender"60 but also a "feminization that would challenge one’s (hetero)sexuality."61
Edelman’s observations suggest that straight men want to preserve the presumption of heterosexual identity; they want to preserve this presumption not so much because of what heterosexuality signifies in a positive sense but rather because of what it signifies in the negative—not being homosexual. And straight Black men might be especially concerned about preserving the presumption of heterosex- uality—though I am not at all confident that I’m right about this, and I am certainly not suggesting that straight Black men are more homophobic than straight men of other races. But it is the case that heterosexual privilege is one of the few privileges that straight Black men know they have—not being a "sissy, punk, faggot." This is not to say, of course, that Black male heterosexuality has the normative standing of white male heterosexuality. It does not; straight Black men continue to be perceived as heterosexually deviant (potential rapist of white women)62 and heterosexually irresponsible (jobless fathers of children out of wedlock). Still, Black heterosexuality is closer to white male heterosexual normalcy and normativity than is Black gay sexuality. And many straight (or closeted) Black men will want to avoid even the suspicion of homosexuality, because that carries with it the "Black Gay [Male] . . . triple negation" to which Marlon Riggs refers. Challenging heterosexual privilege creates (homo)sexual identity suspicion.
Most of us, I think, recognize that our identities, via their social constructions, signify. That is to say, our socially constructed identities have social meanings to others, and even ourselves. Some of these meanings are more entrenched in the American psyche than others. Race, gender, and sexuality-based assumptions about person – hood are especially difficult to dismantle. For example, when I walk into a department store, my identity signifies not only that I am Black and male but also that I am a potential criminal. My individual identity is lost in the social construction of Black manhood. I can try to adopt race-negating strategies to challenge this dignity-destroying social meaning. I can dress "respectable" when I go shopping. There is, after all, something to the politics of dress, particularly in social contexts in which race matters—that is to say, every American social context; I can appear less "Black" in a social meaning sense if I am professionally or semi-formally dressed.
Purchasing an item—something expensive—immediately upon entering the store is another strategy I can employ to disabuse people of my "Blackness." This strategy will reveal to the department store’s security personnel what might not otherwise be apparent because of my race and gender: that I am a shopper. If I am not in the mood to dress-up and I don’t want to spend any money, there is a third strategy I can employ: solicit the assistance of a white sales associate. This, too, must be done early in the shopping experience. A white sales person would not be suspected of facilitating or contributing to Black shoplifting and can be trusted to keep an eye on me (a Black man).
White people don’t have to worry about employing these strategies. Nor should they have to—no one should have to. However, white people should recognize and grapple with the fact that they don’t have to employ or think about employing these strategies. This is a necessary first step for white people to come to terms with White privilege. Barbara Flagg and Peggy McIntosh—two white women— make similar arguments. Their self-referential interrogation of whiteness is the analytical analogue to the self-referential interrogation of heterosexuality I am proposing.
According to Barbara Flagg, "[t]here is a profound cognitive dimension to the material and social privilege that attaches to whiteness in this society, in that a white person has an everyday option not to think of herself in racial terms at all."63 This, reasons Flagg, is indeed what defines whiteness: "to be white is not to think about it."64 Flagg refers to the propensity of whites not to think in racial terms as "transparency phenomenon."65
Importantly, Flagg does not suggest that white people are unmindful of the racial identities of other whites or the racial "difference" of nonwhites; "Race is undeniably a powerful determinant of social status and so is always noticed, in a way that eye color, for example, may not be."66 Rather, her point is that because whiteness operates as the racial norm, whites are able "to relegate our own racial specificity to the realm of the subconscious."67 As a result, racial dis-
tinctiveness is Black, is Asian, is Latina/o, is Native America, but it is not white.68 To address transparency, Flagg suggests the "[^conceptualization of white race consciousness. . . [to create] a positive white racial identity, one neither founded on the implicit acceptance of white racial domination nor productive of distributive effects that systematically advantage whites."69
Peggy McIntosh’s work provides a specific indication of some of the "distributive effects" of white racial privilege. Thinking about how male privilege is normalized in everyday life but denied and protected by men, McIntosh "realized that since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege that was similarly denied and protected."70 To illustrate the extent to which white privilege structures and is implicated in everyday social encounters, McIntosh exposes the "unearned" advantages that accrue to her on a daily basis because she is white.71 The following are a few examples:
1. I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
15. I did not have to educate our children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my
McIntosh is careful to point out that the term "privilege" is something of a misnomer: "We usually think of privilege as being a favored state, whether earned, or conferred by birth or luck. . . . The word ‘privilege’ carries the connotation of something I want. Yet some of the conditions I described here work to systematically overempower certain groups." Accordingly, McIntosh distinguishes between "positive advantages that we can work to spread. . . and negative types of advantage that unless rejected will always reinforce our present hierarchies."73
Flagg’s and McIntosh’s interrogation of whiteness can inform an interrogation of heterosexuality. Like whiteness, heterosexuality operates as an identity norm; it functions as the "what is" or "what is supposed to be" of sexuality. This is illustrated, for example, by the Nature versus Nurture debate. The question about the cause of sexuality is almost always formulated in terms of whether homosexuality is or is not biologically determined rather than whether sexual orientation (which includes heterosexuality) is or is not biologically determined. Scientists are searching for a gay, not a heterosexual or sexual orientation, gene. Like non-whiteness, then, homosexuality signifies "difference"—more specifically, sexual identity distinctiveness. It is homosexuality, not heterosexuality, that must be "specified, pointed out."74
Perhaps heterosexuals should develop a practice of "pointing out" their heterosexuality to destabilize the notion of homosexual difference. Perhaps heterosexuals should be encouraged to "come out" as heterosexuals. One argument to support this practice would be that the more heterosexuals explicitly invoke their heterosexuality the less it operates as an unstated norm. This argument has some force. Yet, I am uncomfortable with the idea of heterosexuals "coming out." My uneasiness is unrelated to concerns about whether individual acts of heterosexual signification undermine political efforts to establish a privacy norm around (homo)sexuality. The argument here would go something like the following: to the extent that heterosexuals are "closeted" (i. e., private) about their (hetero)sexuality, they help to send a message that (homo)sexuality is a private matter and should be irrelevant to social and political decision making.
I am not persuaded by this sexual identity privacy argument. It is functionally analogous to race neutrality arguments: Not invoking race, ignoring race, keeping race "private," helps to delegitimize the invidious employment of race as a relevant social category. It seems to me that keeping race private—removing it from public dis- courses—is not a sensible way to address the realities of racism. Race matters; therefore, we ought to talk about it—and publicly. Nor am I persuaded that avoiding public discussions about (homo – and hetero-) sexuality is a sensible way to address homophobia. Sexuality matters; therefore, we ought to discuss it—and publicly.
My concerns about heterosexuals "coming out" relate to the social meaning of that act. Individual acts of heterosexual signification contribute to the growing tendency on the part of people who are not gay or lesbian to employ the term "coming out" to reveal some usually uncontroversial or safe aspect of their personhood. Nowadays, people are "coming out" as chocolate addicts, as yuppies, as soap opera viewers, and even as trekies. Sometimes the "outing" is more political—"I ‘out’ myself as a conservative," I heard someone say recently. This appropriation and redeployment of the term is problematic to the extent that it obscures the economical, psychological, and physical harms that potentially attend the gay and lesbian coming out (or outing) process.75 Although context would clearly matter, there is usually little, if any, vulnerability to "coming out" as a conservative, as a yuppie, as trekies, etc. Nor is there usually any vulnerability to "coming out" as a heterosexual. The assertion of heterosexuality, without more, merely re-authenticates heterosexual normalcy.76
Yet, more and more heterosexuals are "coming out," and often with good intentions. This "coming out" is performed explicitly and implicitly—affirmatively and by negation. Consider, for example, the way Houston Baker comes out in a panel discussion about gender, sexuality, and Black images: "I am not gay, but I have many gay friends."77 When asked about his decision to reveal his sexual identity in the negative (Baker did not say, "’I am a heterosexual,’ but ‘I am not gay’"78), Baker responds that in thinking about our identities, "You decide what you are not, rather than leaping out of the womb saying, "I am this."79
The questions about whether Baker should have "come out" as a heterosexual in the affirmative or the negative obscures the fact that it is the "coming out" itself that is potentially problematic. As Bruce Ryder points out, "heterosexual men taking gay or lesbian positions must continually deal with the question of whether or not to reveal their heterosexuality."80 On the one hand, self-identifying as a heterosexual is a way to position oneself within a discourse so as not to create the (mis)impression of gay authenticity.81 Moreover, revealing one’s heterosexuality can help to convey the idea that "heterosexism should be as much an issue for straight people as racism should be for white people."82 On the other hand, "coming out" as a heterosexual can be a heteronormative move to avoid gay and lesbian stigmatization. It can function not simply as a denial of same sex desire but to preempt the attribution of certain stereotypes to one’s sexual identity. The assertion of heterosexuality, stated differently, is (functionally, if not intentionally) both an affirmative and a negative assertion about sexual preferences ("I sleep with persons of the opposite, not the same sex") and an affirmative and a negative assertion about the normalcy of one’s sexual relationships ("therefore I am normal, not abnormal"). In this sense, I do not completely agree with Keith Boykin, director of the Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum,83 who maintains that because heterosexual orientation "has become so ingrained in our social customs, so destigmatized of our fears about sex, . . . we sometimes fail to make any connection between heterosexuality and sex."84
Boykin is only half right here. The socially constructed normalcy of heterosexuality is not due to the desexualization of heterosexuality in mainstream political and popular culture, but rather is due to the sexualization of heterosexuality as normative—"destigmatized," to employ Boykin’s term. And it is not simply that homosexuality is sexed that motivates or stimulates homophobic fears about gay and lesbian relationships, but rather that homosexuality is sexed deviant—stigmatized, as it were. The disparate social meanings that attach to gay and lesbian identities on the one hand, and straight identities on the other, make explicit or implicit individual acts of heterosexual signification cause for concern.
Recently, I participated in a workshop where one of the presenters "came out" as a heterosexual in the context of giving his talk. This sexual identity disclosure engendered a certain amount of whispering in the back row. Up until that moment, I think many people had assumed that the presenter was gay.85 After all, he was sitting on a panel discussing sexual orientation and had participated in the Gay and Lesbian Section of the American Association of Law Schools (AALS). There were three other heterosexuals on the panel, but everyone knew they were not gay because everyone knew them; they have all been in teaching for a while, two are very senior, and everyone knew of their spouses or partners. Everyone also knew that there was a lesbian on the panel. She, too, has been in teaching for some time and had been "out" for many years. Apparently, few of the workshop participants knew very much about the presenter who "came out." Because "there is a widespread assumption in both gay and straight communities that any man who says something supportive about issues of concern to lesbian or gay communities must be gay himself,"86 there was, at the very least, a question mark about his sexuality. Whatever his intentions were for "coming out," whatever his motivations, his assertion of heterosexuality removed the question mark.
And it is the politics behind the removal of the question mark— the politics of sexual identity signification—that we always have to be concerned with here. Is it an act of resistance or does it reflect an acquiescence to existing sexual identity social meanings? Consider, for example, the television situation comedy Spin City, in which Michael Boatman plays the role of Carter Heywood, an openly gay Black male character. Boatman is clearly very comfortable with the role and is "believably gay"—perhaps, for some, "too believably gay." Thus, in a recent article in Essence about Boatman we learn rather quickly that Boatman is not in fact gay—he just plays one on television.87 We learn, too, that it was not Heywood’s sexuality that attracted Boatman to the role (he hadn’t set out to play a gay man), but rather Heywood’s career. The relevant text reads: "It was Hey – wood’s job description (a civil rights attorney who joins the mayor’s office) rather than his sexuality that attracted the 32-year-old actor to the groundbreaking sitcom. . . . ‘we’ve been exposed to the stereotype of swishy gay men,’ explains the happily married acting vet – eran."88 The question mark about Boatman’s (homo)sexuality is removed.
I became sensitized to the politics of heterosexuals "coming out" in the context of reading about James Baldwin. Try to find a piece written about Baldwin and count the number of lines before the author comes out as heterosexual. Usually, it’s not more than a couple of paragraphs, so the game ends fast. The "coming out" seems inevitable nevertheless. The following introduction from a recently published essay about Baldwin is one indication of what I’m talking about: "The last time I saw James Baldwin was late autumn of 1985, when my wife and I attended a sumptuous book party."89 In this case, the game ends immediately. Independent of any question of intentionality on the author’s part, his wife functions as an identity signifier to subtextually "out" his heterosexuality. We see "wife" we think heterosexual. My point here is not to suggest that the essay’s overall tone is heterosexually defensive; I simply find it suspicious when heterosexuals speak of their spouses so quickly (in this case the very first sentence of the essay) when a subject (a topic or a personality—here, James Baldwin) directly or indirectly implicates homosexuality.
After reading that introduction, I thought about a book review I had read a year or so ago where the reviewer, after describing how generous Baldwin had been to him as a young man in Paris, casually drops the line, "I met a young American woman on a train and we made love." No mention of the woman again. No mention of any other women either. These weren’t recollections of his Paris days, but were recollections of his relationship with Baldwin. But that single sentence served its intended purpose. There is no point wondering what he was "doing" with Baldwin in Paris. The game is over. The possibility of a gay subtextual reading of the text vis-avis the author’s relationship with Baldwin and/or the author’s sexual identity is rendered untenable by the rhetorical deployment of the "young American woman." Her presence in the text operates not only to signify and authenticate the author’s heterosexual subject position but also to signify and functionally (if not intentionally) stigmatize Baldwin’s gay subject position. The author engages in what I refer to as "the politics of the 3Ds"—disassociation, disiden – tification and differentiation. The author is "different" from Baldwin (the author sleeps with women), and this difference, based as it is on sexual identity, compels the author to disassociate himself from and disidentify with what it is that makes Baldwin "different" (Baldwin sleeps with men).
I do not believe that heterosexual significations always reflect the politics of the 3Ds. It is possible for heterosexuals to "point out" their heterosexual privilege without re-authenticating heterosexuality. Consider the way Peggy McIntosh signifies on her heterosexuality to challenge heterosexual privilege:
1. My children do not have to answer questions about why I live with my partner (my husband).
2. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
3. Our children are given texts and classes that implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
4. I can travel alone with my husband without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
5. Most people I meet will see my marital arrangements as an asset to my life or as a favorable comment on my likeability, my competence, or my mental health.
6. I can talk about the social event of a weekend without fearing most listeners’ reactions.
7. I will feel welcomed and "normal" in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.
8. In many contexts, I am seen as "all right" in the daily work on women because I do not live chiefly with women.90
Although the above items clearly reveal McIntosh’s sexual identity, they do not normalize heterosexuality. Thus, I want to expand upon her list. I think it is a useful methodology for exposing and deconstructing sexual identity hierarchy. As with my list on gender privilege, I do not suggest that this list is complete or that it will apply to all heterosexuals. As Bruce Ryder observes:
Male heterosexual privilege has different effects on men of, for example, different races and classes. . . . In our society, the dominant or ‘hegemonic’ form of masculinity to which other masculinities are subordinated is white, middle-class, and heterosexual. This means that the heterosexual privilege of, say, straight black men takes a very different shape in their lives that it does for straight white men.91
My hope in presenting this list, then, is not to represent "every heterosexual man," but to intervene in the normalization of heterosexual privilege in everyday life, and to challenge the pervasive tendency of heterosexuals to see homophobia as something that puts others at a disadvantage and not something that actually advantages them.92
Heterosexual Privileges: A List
1. Whether on T. V. or at the movies, heterosexuality is always affirmed as healthy and/or normal.
2. Without making a special effort to, heterosexuals are surrounded by other heterosexuals everyday.
3. A husband and wife can comfortably express affection in any, and even predominantly gay, social settings.
4. The children of a heterosexual couple will not have to explain why their parents have different genders—why they have a mummy and a daddy.
5. Heterosexuals are not blamed for creating and spreading the AIDS virus.
6. Heterosexuals don’t have to worry about people trying to "cure" their sexual orientation.
7. Black heterosexual males did not have to worry about whether they would be accepted at the Million Man March.
8. Rarely, if ever, will a doctor upon learning that her patient is heterosexual inquire as to whether the patient has ever taken an AIDS test and if so, how recently.
9. Medical service will never be denied to heterosexuals because they are heterosexuals.
10. Friends of heterosexuals generally don’t refer to heterosexuals as their "straight friends."
11. A heterosexual couple can enter a restaurant on their anniversary and be fairly confident that staff and fellow diners will warmly congratulate them if an announcement is made.
12. Heterosexuals don’t have to worry about whether a fictional film villain who is heterosexual will reflect negatively on their heterosexuality.
13. Heterosexuals are entitled to legal recognition of their marriage throughout the U. S. and the world.
14. Within the Black community, Black male heterosexuality does not engender comments like "what a waste," or "there goes another good Black man," or "if they’re not in jail, they’re faggots."
15. Heterosexuals can take a job with most companies without worrying about whether their spouse will be included in the benefits package.
16. Child molestation by heterosexuals does not confirm the deviance of heterosexuality.
17. Black rap artists do not make songs suggesting that heterosexuals should be shot or beaten-up because they are heterosexuals.
18. Black male heterosexuality does not undermine a Black heterosexual male’s ability to be a role model for Black boys.
19. Heterosexuals can join the military without hiding their sexual identity.
20. Children will be taught in school (explicitly or implicitly) about the naturalness of heterosexuality.
21. Conversations on Black liberation will always include concerns about heterosexual men.
22. Heterosexuals can adopt children without being perceived as selfish and without anyone questioning their motives.
23. Heterosexuals are not denied custody or visitation rights of their children because they are heterosexuals.
24. Heterosexual men are welcomed as leaders of Boy Scout troops.
25. Heterosexuals can go home, visit their parents and family as who they are, and take their spouses, partners, or dates with them to family functions.
26. Heterosexuals can talk matter-of-factly about their relationship with their partners without people commenting that they are "flaunting" their sexuality.
27. A Black heterosexual couple would be welcomed as members of any Black church.
28. Heterosexual couples don’t have to worry about whether kissing each other in public or holding hands in public will render them vulnerable to violence.
29. Heterosexuals don’t have to struggle with "coming out" or worry about being "outed."
30. The parents of heterosexuals don’t love them "in spite of" their sexual orientation, and they don’t blame themselves for their children’s heterosexuality.
31. Heterosexuality is affirmed in every religious tradition.
32. Heterosexuals can introduce their spouses to colleagues and not worry about whether the decision will have a detrimental impact on their careers.
33. A Black heterosexual male doesn’t have to choose between being Black and being heterosexual.
34. Heterosexuals can prominently display their spouses’ photographs at work without causing office gossip or hostility.
35. (White) Heterosexuals don’t have to worry about "positively" representing heterosexuality.
36. Few will take pity on a heterosexual upon hearing that she is straight, or will feel the need to say, "that’s O. K."
37. (Male) Heterosexuality is not considered to be symptomatic of the "pathology" of the Black family.
38. Heterosexuality is never mistaken as a lifestyle but is merely one more component of one’s personal identity.
39. Heterosexuals don’t have to worry over the impact their sexuality will have personally on their children’s lives, particularly as it relates to their social life.
40. Heterosexuals don’t have to worry about being "bashed" after leaving a social event with other heterosexuals.
41. Everyday is "Heterosexual Pride Day."