Arbitrary Justice: On Gay Men, Desirability Politics, and the Me Too Movement
Amidst the Me Too Movement’s takedown of powerfully corrupt men, a conversation about accountability in the gay community, or lack thereof, is long overdue — but particularly with regard to desirability politics. By desirability politics, I mean the hierarchical privileging of traits deemed sexually or socially desirable, from physical attractiveness and sex appeal, to popularity and upward mobility. For so many survivors in the gay community, desirability politics often results in abandonment and betrayal, and the widespread denial about the issue is traumatic in and of itself. As rates of harm and violence (abuse, assault, predatory bullying, etc.) among gay men continue to climb, with scarce culturally affirming structural public health interventions, it warrants our immediate attention. I’m sharing my story to help others understand why.
Years after recovering from a same-sex relationship in which I endured a great deal of harm and toxicity, I realized in hindsight that I had spent more time healing from the desirability politics surrounding the harm, than the actual harm itself. As a “baby gay”, I was too naive to fathom the local gay community’s sheer apathy about unspoken hierarchies that bestowed halos and crowns upon any and all men with the most desirability. Isolated from my family and desperate for a chosen one, I saw what I wanted to believe — and my idealism led me to imagine that the many activists around me treated other gay Black men with as much dignity as they espoused publicly. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
No one warned me that this community would worship the person who thwarted my attempts to stand up for myself: exoticizing his Latinidad and lighter skin; fetishizing his masculinity; and ushering him and his pedigree past the gatekeepers of community leadership. No one warned me that activists on the covers of LGBT magazines and in national HIV awareness campaigns would joke about sleeping with him, to my face. Or that I’d be scapegoated in relentless rounds of one upmanship that I never incited. No one warned me that misogynoir would embolden those in positions of power to humiliate me as if there were no consequences for denigrating someone with my “regular” Blackness and my devalued “twink” frame. And no one warned me that my suicide attempt wouldn’t be off limits for shade, even among the “elders”.
My former partner, whom the aforementioned desirability politics privileged and protected, has been the only person involved to ever acknowledge how it impacted my sense of belonging and well-being. But the ringleaders of community? They left me to pull the knife out of my own back and to heal my bloody rage, alone. My trust in cis gay solidarity and in LGBTQ+ community organizations and grassroots movements has never been the same.
Even so, this experience did teach me one valuable lesson that I’m glad I learned sooner rather than later. That lesson was that gay men who are deemed the least sexually desirable are often expected to be the mules of the community. It’s taken for granted that those of us whose features are not phenotypically white “enough” — and whose physiques are not masculine “enough” — will fight on behalf of a community that barely fights for us. And we’d better not burden others with a guilty conscience by speaking out, either. We must always channel our outrage into art or a teachable moment that is palatable and non-offensive to those who’ve discounted our dignity. As survivors who are alienated by desirability politics, we’re gaslighted, tone-policed and cornered, until we heal enough to speak and write about our trauma as eloquently as Baldwin.
Even publishing this piece instead of simply posting about this issue on social media, yet again, is a choice that exemplifies how desirability politics works: I’ve expended emotional and intellectual labor (with energy and time that I never had to begin with), just to avoid being dismissed. Yet, if I were an alpha male who commanded authority and epitomized sexual dominance and prowess, this same message would have been understood readily, the first time. I’ve been painstakingly intentional about accounting for all of the nuanced cultural, developmental, political and sociohistorical contexts around gay men’s desirability politics, and yet I’ve still been rebuked for pointing out desirability politics in real life…even when gay men have repeatedly shown conscious complicity in harm and negligence of accountability.
My point here is that we can’t even get through a conversation about desirability because of desirability. Unless the most desirable gay man among us summons community to follow his lead, no one pays attention. And to be sure, I do acknowledge how desirability works in my favor, as described in “Dear Queer Black Activists: An Honest Letter About Desirability Politics Among Our Men”. But my choice to stand up for those whom community overlooks more than myself, differs from the choices of most. That’s my truth, not self-righteousness.
My story is neither a passive aggressive call-out, nor an unforgiving attempt to incite speculation. I’m writing transparently because talking around this issue never makes any headway. After all these years, I continually witness intracommunity harm swept under the rug because of desirability politics. Even folx whose discernment the community should be able to trust have proven to be unabashedly complicit behind closed doors. The conundrum of desirability politics being hard to prove, but easy to refute, makes it all the more difficult to question motives in the face of power dynamics. Over time, I’ve come to realize that so many gay men who leverage desirability, in the most harmful of ways, have no interest in truly unlearning patriarchy beyond political performance and the performance of femininity.
Be that as it may, any community that hasn’t unlearned patriarchy cannot possibly cultivate solidarity — no matter how much the collective aspires to do so. Along with capitalism, patriarchy desensitizes us to toxic masculinity, which, in turn, leads us to devalue the vulnerability needed for an ethic of care, the very core of community and solidarity. So, here we are: a gay “community” that too often justifies complicity in harm because of sex, money, social climbing.
As a queer Black person who has spoken out about this issue quite often, I’ve come across so many gay men who are aggressively defensive in these discussions. Despite this, I will never back down from my stance that it’s not a coincidence whom the gay community humanizes and offers swift reconciliation, as opposed to trashing, without a second thought about empathy, protection, or even redemption.
I truly hope these words open the hearts and minds of gay men who have been consciously complicit in harm, as well as those who have yet to self-reflect and take steps toward accountability. Since accountability can never be forced, not even through punishment or shame, I greatly respect those who take the initiative to do that work. All of us, including myself, have toxic emotional conditioning to unlearn. And all of us have harmed others. It’s an inevitable part of living as we grow. So, I write this for all of us, really.
Most importantly, I hope that these words affirm for survivors that to be embraced by community, it isn’t necessary to be desirable, likable or “useful”. So, never cower to intimidation, or hold back when speaking truth to power. Your truths are valid, and speaking them aloud is sometimes the only way to reclaim your indestructible power and to cut down the lies meant to dim the light of your spirit. Although I have written a path to healing as a writer and have found solace in my work as a healer, I’ll always regret the years that I remained silent, to my own detriment. You musn’t live with my same regrets. You will never go wrong by speaking the truth to protect your peace — trust me. In the words of Nikita Gill:
“Remember what you must do
when they undervalue you,
when they think
your softness is your weakness,
when they treat your kindness
like it is their advantage.
that sleeps inside you
and you remind them
what hell looks like
when it wears the gentle skin
of a human.”
Arbitrary Justice: On Gay Men, Desirability Politics, and the Me Too Movement
Desirability politics is the hierarchical privileging of traits deemed sexually or socially desirable, from physical…