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Race is Sexuality


Emmett TillTo anyone of my political and intellectual inclinations, the headline in the Huffington Post veritably leapt off the screen: “Tea Party Protests: ‘Ni**er,’ ‘Fa**ot’ Shouted at Members of Congress.” The Post was reporting, March 20, 2010, on the attacks by Tea Baggers on Democratic members of the House of Representatives as they entered a building to hear from the President about the then-pending Health Care Reform Act.  Reportedly, protestors shouted, inter alia, “nigger” and “faggot” at the House Members. This headline gave me an epiphany—I had never noticed the strong orthographic similarity between the words “nigger” and “faggot” before.

I consider such cultural non-coincidences very telling. I’ve decided I’m going to start calling myself a sexual nigger. The orthographical non-coincidence between “nigger” and “faggot” nicely makes the point of my essay: that white supremacy and heterosexual supremacy rest on the same conceptual foundation, the attribution of irremediable sexual irresponsibility to members of the abjected minority group.


Emmett Till died in 1955 at the ripe age of 14. The two white men whom everyone knew to have murdered him won acquittal from a jury whom the prosecutor referred to in his closing statement as “Anglo-Saxons.” Photos of his horribly disfigured face–his mother insisted on an open casket to allow as many people as possible to see the effects of the murderous violence he suffered—revolted the nation and spurred civil rights organizing. What could a 14 year old boy do to provoke such outlandish, inexcusable (except by fellow “Anglo-Saxons”) rage from two otherwise apparently competent adults?

He made a fresh remark to the wife of one of the men. The wife was white. Emmett, need one even say, was black.  Such were the niceties of American racism under segregation.

The Emmett Till murder illustrates the logic of the white supremacist imagination in the United States. No actual assault is necessary. Only a fresh remark by a black boy to a white woman was enough to unleash murderous violence. Such is the paranoia in our culture—by no means entirely gone—that surrounds white people’s perceptions of black male sexuality, the core component of our culture’s generalized paranoia about black men, which manifests, in the early twenty-first century, in the neo-slavery of wildly disproportionate incarceration of those black men.

Race and sexuality are fundamentally different as human identity characteristics.  This is obvious. It is so obvious that it hardly merits remark. Race seems, at first glance, to involve ontology—who/what African Americans are—whereas sexuality involves morality—it is more about what lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons do.

On closer examination, however, this turns out to be a false dichotomy. So it is that, in contemporary American politics, the relationship between race and sexuality as identity characteristics has become sort of a hot topic, although it typically gets articulated in a highly oblique manner, so you’re excused for having missed it. Allow me to explain.

The problem is that a group of people, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons, have come to claim what we call “civil rights” protections against discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. When Congresswoman Bella Abzug introduced the first bill prohibiting sexual-orientation discrimination in American history, she proposed simply to add “sexual orientation” to the list of protected categories in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Conceptually simple, politically impossible.

Some persons object that LGBT civil rights claims are obviously invalid. Lesbians and gay men, however, have accumulated sufficient political and cultural power as to provoke vigorous defenses from conservatives of the belief that their civil rights claims are invalid. These defenses are the subject of this essay. The central claim is that objections to lesbian/gay civil rights claims are literally not the least little different from objections to African American civil rights claims, to wit: Any claim to “civil rights” in the United States automatically invokes comparison to the granddaddy of all civil rights movements, the African American movement, which defined the term in the American imaginary with its public protests against legal racial segregation starting with the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896 declaring that separate facilities for the races were constitutionally permissible, so long as they were equal–the notorious “separate but equal” rule. (Of course, facilities for African Americans were invariably inferior, which ultimately led to the demise of the rule, as Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues at the NAACP chipped away at segregation in various border south institutions by pointing out the necessary insufficiency of ad hoc university programs for segregated African American students.)

Lesbian and gay activists have consistently analogized their movement to the African American movement, to the consternation of conservatives. This move reflects in part the genuine belief among lesbians and gay men and many others that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is no more morally valid than discrimination on the basis of race, regardless of any similarity or dissimilarity between the two types of characteristics, and regardless of the obvious fact that, our own dead notwithstanding, lesbians and gay men as a class have suffered nothing that can compare to what African Americans and their ancestors as a class suffered through slavery and segregation.

But the analogy is also frankly a strategic move by lesbian/gay activists. The African American civil rights movement earned enormous moral and political authority through hard sacrifice, including many, many dead activists (and at least four dead little girls in the infamous bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL), eventually forcing Congress to pass arguably the two most important pieces of legislation in the twentieth century, if not in the history of the Republic, the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts.

Lesbian and gay activists, understandably, would like to be able to invoke that moral and political success on behalf of their own discrimination claims. Conservatives strenuously object. Conveniently forgetting that their ideological forebears were as sure that racial discrimination was valid and necessary as they are that sexual-orientation discrimination is valid and necessary, they dispute the sexuality-race analogy, recognizing that, if it takes firm hold in the public imagination, they lose automatically. Such is the moral and political weight of the African American movement even nearly fifty years later.

The dispute tends to take the form of arguments about “choice.”  One African American minister who objects to the idea that lesbian/gay political claims deserve the “civil rights” designation asserts that he has no control over his race, but he does have control over his choice to remain abstinent. Apart from the question of why one’s access to civil rights should depend on abstinence—to take a puckish example, Bill Clinton deserved his day in court to defend himself against the implications of his philandering, even having admitted the philandering—this assertion rests on the erroneous belief that civil rights protections are available only on the basis of immutable characteristics.

In its more sophisticated form, as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the nation’s most intellectually sophisticated heterosexual supremacist, implies, the issue is regulation of conduct versus status. According to Scalia, all that distinguishes lesbians and gay men from the rest of the population is a propensity for a particular type of sexual conduct, which the state must have the power to prohibit. Imagine a group claiming that they all had the propensity to murder and deserved “civil rights” protections for their conduct.

Fabulously, Chief Justice Burger, concurring with the majority in the Bowers v. Hardwick decision upholding Georgia’s sodomy statute against constitutional challenge, asserted that the issue was not personal preferences, but “the regulatory power of the state”—that is, if the state cannot prohibit sodomy, then it can do nothing. Scalia echoed this claim, in slightly less apocalyptic terms, in his dissent from the Lawrence v. Texas decision overruling Bowers and striking down all sodomy statutes in the nation. There he wrote, “The impossibility of distinguishing homosexuality from other traditional ‘morals’ offenses is precisely why Bowers rejected the rational-basis challenge. ‘The law,’ it said, ‘is constantly based on notions of morality, and if all laws representing essentially moral choices are to be invalidated under the Due Process Clause, the courts will be very busy indeed.’”

The Constitution, in contrast, expressly prohibits in at least two ways all government penalties predicated solely on status.  At base, this is all the Thirteenth Amendment, prohibiting slavery, does—it permits slavery, but only in the form of imprisonment on conviction for criminal conduct. The less-known prohibition on bills of attainder performs a similar function,  only articulated in terms of archaic British legal practice.  As one law professor put it, it cannot be a crime simply to be who you are.

But of course, in implicit obeisance—in the breach—to the principle of moral responsibility only for conduct, not for status, white supremacists have always sought rationalizations for their prejudice in disparaging claims about the characteristic conduct of African Americans, including the claim by slave owners that slavery benefited the slaves by providing them with the reliable subsistence that they would be unable to earn through their own initiative if they had to compete with the superior white people. This argument persists in more intellectually sophisticated, social scientific form in arguments about the alleged “culture of poverty” that conservatives like to ascribe to African Americans. And in good conservative fashion, as recent studies of the 1906 Atlanta race riot show, it was the very economic and cultural success of African Americans in the city that was even then emerging as a national capital of African American leadership that prompted the white backlash.  Negative consequences are self-fulfilling prophecy, especially among ill-educated followers of conservatives who are only too happy to incite their minions.

Apart from the obvious point that sodomy as the allegedly defining act of lesbians and gay men (never mind that non-lesbian/gay persons perform sodomy regularly, especially insofar as the statutes prohibit oral as well as anal intercourse, and never mind the manifest empirical absurdity of positing an identity of sexual conduct between lesbians and gay men) causes no harm to individuals—quite the contrary—or to the larger society, unlike murder, and the less obvious point that acts of discrimination against lesbians and gay men rarely, if ever, depend on any showing that the individual suffering the discrimination has ever violated a sodomy statute, there is the point that lesbians and gay men have built an increasingly effective political movement with long-surviving organizations all around their common identity. Hard to imagine how they could achieve such a feat solely on the basis of shared sexual conduct. Presumably meetings of persons who share only a predilection for sodomy would accomplish very little business.

The more obvious analogy is to religious groups, both in terms of the conduct/status distinction and in terms of claims about “choice.” Plainly, religious groups build long-surviving institutions on the basis of a highly abstract conception of shared identity—Catholics, for example, come in all manner of racial and ethnic categories, but all still identify as Catholics and presumably make certain fundamental choices about conduct based on that identity choice. And their core institution is perhaps the oldest in western culture. Jews, of course, have, if not institutions, then certainly a continuous sense of religious, cultural, and political identity that predates even the advent of Christianity.

I say identity “choice” advisedly here, of course, to make the obvious point: immutability in fact is not a requirement for civil rights protections in American law.  We rightly prohibit discrimination on the basis of religious belief and practice, which is plainly chosen. Perhaps most individuals stick with the religion they grew up with, but many change—I was raised Episcopalian, but now am Buddhist. Many abandon religion entirely, and no agent of government in the United State may have any official opinion whatsoever about such choices.

Explicitly Christian governments in late medieval and early modern Europe that lacked the American concern for individual liberties coerced Jews to “choose” to become Christian—or expelled their Jews altogether—which illustrates the danger of overly facile claims about “choice” that fail to account for the possible centrality of the characteristic to the individual’s identity, or for the potential consequences of the wrong choice. Battles between flavors of Christianity were endemic to Europe in the early modern period, and, in England, produced the political philosophy of John Locke—classical liberalism, with official respect for choice of religious belief as a central tenet—that had a profound impact on the Founders of the United States.

To put the point another way, we do not prohibit racial discrimination because those poor black people just can’t become white—a fantastically patronizing claim, and the inverse of the implicit claim of the conservative “ex-gay” movement: that if LGBT people can change, then the state may reasonably require/encourage them to do so by imposing legal disadvantages on those who refuse to do so. We prohibit racial discrimination because it is morally wrong and an egregious violation of our nation’s founding principles. Lesbian/gay activists and their supporters believe the same is true of sexual-orientation discrimination, regardless of any similarity or dissimilarity between sexual orientation and race as identity categories.

But the analogy between race and sexuality actually runs much, much deeper, as anyone with even modest familiarity with American history should easily be able to see.  What matters about race is not really skin color or any other physical difference.  Skin color is just the phenotypic accident that makes racial difference easy to spot.  What matters is racism, which is the fund of meanings that (decreasingly) powerful white supremacists have chosen to attach to the phenotypic accident (indeed, one could quite reasonably tell the entire history of the United States as one of the gradually diminishing authority of white supremacists, starting with Thomas Jefferson and culminating in the election of Barack Obama to the office that Jefferson himself held at the apogee of his long life of public service). Race is not really about ontology. As modern geneticists and anthropologists have demonstrated, in terms of human bodies, with respect to race, there’s no there there.

And the most prominent, enduring meaning that white supremacists have always attached to African American identity is an irremediable propensity for sexual irresponsibility as the leading component of their general irremediable irresponsibility. We may call this the “where’s the white women” rule. In the racist imaginary, all black men are constantly on the prowl for white women to ravage, which is why we must rigorously segregate the two groups and, as in the case of Emmett Till, kill any black man who crosses the line, even if merely verbally.

Everyone knows that the easiest way to start a lynching—a white mob killing of a black man—was to accuse the lynchee of some sexual impropriety toward a white woman (so it was profoundly frustrating when Clarence Thomas accused the Senate Judiciary Committee of a “high-tech lynching” that none of the historically illiterate, white Senators thought to point out that no black man ever suffered lynching, as Thomas claimed, for harassing a black woman). In the nineteenth century, Rebecca Felton called for white people to lynch 1,000 black men per week to protect white women from their purported sexual depredations. The murder of Emmett Till in 1955 was only the last (one hopes) example of this horrendous practice, and it proves that, in effect, no actual act was necessary, except insofar as one insists that speech acts are acts—an abstract philosophical point that plainly cannot justify the private lynching of a fourteen-year-old boy.

Similarly, in the racist imaginary, black women are all sluts who think nothing of popping out all the babies they can without regard for how to support them, a fund of images that Ronald Reagan unabashedly played on in his denunciations of “welfare queens.”  It is an indication of how pervasive and insidious such images are that the mere invocation of a term that facially has nothing to do with race could reliably have the effect that Reagan presumably intended for it to have.

That is, in the minds of those who would discriminate, ultimately African Americans are identical to lesbians and gay men, who are also guilty of irremediable sexual irresponsibility. First, there is the simple fact of the sex, or of conservative beliefs about the sex, itself.

When Emory University desegregated, a graduate who was later a Governor and United States Senator of Florida wrote to the Chairman of the Board of Trustees to object. In his letter, he noted that a number of the NAACP “boys” who had come to Washington to lobby had divorced their black wives to marry white women. This was a relatively respectful account of the NAACP for a segregationist at the time.  Another distinguished graduate who was responsible for maintaining birth certificates in the county where he resided asserted that he and his staff spent inordinate time helping African Americans who often could not recall their birth dates, and whose mothers often could not recall which of their various sexual contacts had fathered a particular child.

Similarly, a minister who attended a debate on lesbian/gay rights that I participated in at the University of Mississippi said to me afterward that God never intended for men to put their penises in each other’s anuses.  I refrained from asking, if that’s so, then why does it feel so good?  Arch homophobe Pat Buchanan was far from the only conservative who claimed that AIDS was only the inevitable punishment for gay men’s defiance of the laws of nature, as ordained by god, with their immoral sexual activity. Buchanan actually published the claim that 10,000 sexual partners in a lifetime would not be extraordinary for a gay man. I wish. Shades of Rebecca Felton’s goal of lynching 1,000 black men per week. In the same essay, he also called for exclusion of gay men from various occupations, including food handling, any medical service, and child care because of the supposed danger of transmission of various infectious diseases, including AIDS. In short, advocating segregation.

Conservatives apparently have vivid imaginations regarding other people’s sexual conduct and feel no compunctions about prohibiting that conduct when it offends their vivid imaginations, regardless of the complete absence of individual or social harm, or of correlation between their imaginations and reality. Conservatism, after all, is all about abstractions–witness their apparent belief that legally recognizing same-sex marriages will have some disastrous impact on opposite-sex marriages, or Antonin Scalia’s lament in his Lawrence dissent that the majority’s opinion would invalidate statutes prohibiting masturbation. The idea of any systematic effort to enforce such a statute boggles the mind. Recall also that the Supreme Court struck down state statutes prohibiting interracial marriages only relatively late in the civil rights revolution. To give the devil his due, one must concede that conservatives are at least consistent.

Then there are the possible consequences that conservatives dream up as flowing from sexual conduct they don’t like. Again, abstractions on the hoof.  During Emory’s desegregation debate, someone posted flyers on the campus listing numerous “scientific studies” predicting the “mongrelization” of the white race as a result of interracial sex. White supremacists are just that—they believe “white” people are inherently superior, intellectually and morally, if not physically, to “black” people such that the children of interracial unions will necessarily cause diminution of the white race’s superiority because the mixing of any two distinct substances will necessarily be a middling blend that lacks the “purity” of either original substance.

Never mind that the conservatives’ slave owning forebears long ago corrupted racial “purity” with their propensity for impregnating their slaves. Ain’t no “white” people in the United States, or “black” people either. We hear far less about male slaves impregnating white women under slavery, but it must have happened. The “racial purity” of yore is today’s “sanctity of marriage”—the fantastic conservative abstraction that ate a minority’s civil rights.

And, preposterous as it may seem, some conservatives have actually predicted that permitting same-sex marriage will result in the disappearance of the human race, as we fail to continue procreating. Apart from the overwhelming evidence that lesbians and gay men are perfectly capable of procreating if they are so inclined, there is the manifest absurdity of supposing that large numbers of persons who are currently inclined to marry someone of a different sex will suddenly change their minds and choose to marry someone of the same sex just because doing so becomes legal.  This is belief in the mutability of sexual orientation, as manifested in the “ex-gay” movement, with a vengeance. One has to wonder what sorts of fantasies lurk in the minds of conservatives who make such arguments. In a more specific version of this argument, neoconservative Norman Podhoretz asserted in a 1977 Harper’s magazine article that gay men have no investment in the future of their culture because they have no children.

In a grudging concession to the empirical reality (not something conservatives are much inclined to pay attention to, given their passion for literally fantastic abstractions) of the gayby boom of the past ten years, one does not much hear this argument any more. Instead, we hear the argument, even in reputable law reviews, that lesbians and gay men necessarily make deficient parents.

The take home message is simple: ultimately, there is not a dime’s worth of difference between the arguments for white supremacy and the arguments for heterosexual supremacy. Racism equals heterosexism equals racism.  And this is true not only in the abstract sense of the moral equivalence of racial discrimination and sexual-orientation discrimination, but also in the concrete, facial sense of the specific arguments that members of the two camps offer in support of their prejudice.

Conservatives are loath to admit this obvious point, of course. Such is the moral authority of the African American civil rights movement that no one in the modern United States wants to occupy the same moral or intellectual territory as overt racists. However, an honest assessment of the evidence—again, a factor conservatives typically prefer to ignore—leads inescapably to the conclusion that sexual-orientation prejudice is not merely the cousin, but the twin brother, of racial prejudice.

This should not surprise anyone who has read Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality: Volume One, An Introduction, where Foucault demonstrates that, far from repressing sexuality, our culture has devoted extraordinary, really rather bizarre, energy to locating the truth of all individuals in their “sexuality,” which is, at base, a fabrication in service of bureaucracy, whether bureaucracy of white supremacy or heterosexual supremacy matters not. As Emory University LGBT Studies professor Lynn Huffer recently asked, “Why is Sexuality a Moral Issue?” This is the essential question. The point of white supremacy, slavery, and segregation was always to maintain control over African Americans who, in the white imaginary, lacked the necessary self-control to prevent them from running amok absent constant white supervision.  Although Foucault, being French, lacked the fascination with race and white supremacy that almost always preoccupies scholars in the United States, still one can easily extrapolate his bureaucracy of sexuality to the policing of African Americans via obsessive focus on their alleged propensity for sexual irresponsibility.

Modern heterosexual supremacists are only the latest in a long line of western sexual bureaucrats who strive eagerly to enforce purely bureaucratic restrictions on the sexual pleasures available to the public, not, as before, in the interest of racial supremacy, but solely in the interest of perpetuating the bureaucracy of sexuality for its own sake.


Wiliam Turner

Wiliam Turner

William B. Turner holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history with an emphasis on the history of public policy. He also holds a J.D. He has published on LGBT civil rights and policy as both a historian and a legal scholar.

His two books are A Genealogy of Queer Theory, and with co-editors John D'Emilio and Urvashi Vaid, Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights. As a law student, he wrote articles on major innovations in LGBT civil rights in Wisconsin.

He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Our Cost of Empire

“And I saw a beast rising up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his horns ten crowns, and on his heads a blasphemous name.” Revelation 13:1-3.

And the beast called itself GOP and written upon its seven heads are: Avarice, Cowardice, Entitlement, Homophobia, Ignorance, Misogyny, and Racism. And the meek shall cry out in agony. And the beast shall be slain by the Lamb, in their name. And the beast's name shall be erased from the minds of men forever.