By: Tim O'Keefe
I am a privileged white boy. I grew up in an upper middle class, nuclear family with two loving parents and three siblings. I received a good education, which has led to a successful career in New York City and a job that affords me a comfortable lifestyle.
I also happen to be gay.
Realizing I was attracted to men was as clear cut as me sitting in my 6th grade health class and learning about “sex.” Once our Health Ed teacher Ms. Pirtle finished the lesson, I remember getting that sinking feeling in my stomach and thinking “I don’t like that. Oh. My. God. I’m gay.” My immediate feelings were not of disgust or embarrassment, but of fear; fear of what it all meant. From that day forward, those two words would ring out in my head constantly. “I’m gay…I’m gay…I’m gay…”
Here are some things that I am not: I am not trans, I don’t identify as queer, I am not black, and I have never felt conflicted or confused about my gender identity. For a long time, I have only focused on one thing: what it’s like to be me – a privileged, white gay man living in a privileged, white straight man’s world.
Needless to say, the chips have been more or less stacked in my favor.
I’m not writing this to downplay the struggles of being gay, white, and male in America, because the struggle is definitely real. For me, the struggle meant grappling with reality as an anxious, awkward, closeted youth, coming out at 19 in drunken waves of exclamation, figuring out what the hell it meant to be gay in a straight world, and constantly having to still come out to people on a regular basis. None of this was or is particularly easy for me, relatively speaking.
Things could be more difficult.
Admittedly, it used to bother me when I read articles about the LGBTQ+ community that criticized the gay white man as the only voice being heard on TV, in the news, and in magazines. Gay white men were decidedly the majority of the representation of the broader LGBTQ+ population in American Culture. I would get defensive and think to myself “well it’s better than not being represented at all!” I also resented the idea that – after finally reaching a point in my life where I was 100% comfortable with my sexuality and who I was as a “minority” in this country – I was now being told that I wasn’t enough of a LGBTQ+ minority. At least that’s how it went in my head.
That was my white male privilege train of thought.
As a white dude (let’s forget about my sexuality for a moment), I have systematically been trained to think about myself as the center of attention. Whether it was directly or indirectly communicated, everything in American society has been catered towards me. Growing up in a system like this skews your perception of reality. I grew up, and continue to live in a safe bubble that I just happen to have been born in to.
I have never been arrested, even though I have broken the law on many occasions; speeding, simple traffic violations, smoking weed in public – small infractions, but on the same level of transgressions that have led to the murders of black men and women across this country at the hands of our police forces. At first glance, I am not particularly effeminate (but give me a bottle of wine and put Britney on Spotify and this queen will slay). I have never been the target of a hate crime, nor have I ever been harassed on the street or called a fag by people passing by. I have never received suspicious looks or had anyone cross the street to avoid walking by me. I have never been hassled by police. Ever.
Historically, the LGTBQ+ community has experienced discrimination and violence from the police and we still face these issues today, to an extent. I would argue that the biggest threat comes not from the police, but from our neighbors. Homophobic/transphobic men and women continue to lash out in violent, verbal, and abusive ways. Sometimes these people face legal consequences, sometimes they don’t.
Where the police fail us is by not taking our claims seriously, or belittling what has happened to us. Last year, a friend of mine got into an argument with a man he was dating. The man got violent towards him and so the police were called. When they arrived the cops were very blasé and asked my friend, while laughing, “is this some sort of gay lover’s quarrel?” and quickly dismissed the situation. This is a relatively “tame” example, but I think you get my point?
There’s a level of shame that I carry around because of my experiences (or lack thereof), and it has nothing to do with my sexuality. It comes from the feeling of not wanting to be misunderstood. The fear of being grouped into a category of humans that have been in power (and have abused that power) forever, and the urge to say “but that’s not me, I’m not the problem here.” But the truth is, I am part of the problem. I have not fully acknowledged or understood the opportunities that I have been given based on my gender and race. Ignorance ain't bliss my friends. It is the problem.
In high school, my freshman year science teacher Mr. Knight asked the class “do you even realize how lucky you are to have been born in the United States?”, and to be honest, no, we didn’t. We were stupid little 14-year-olds, what the fuck did we know or care about the world? But his words have always stayed with me. However, I would amend his message to more accurately ask “do you realize how lucky you are to have been born white and in the United States?” – since he was speaking to an entire class of Caucasian kids in New Hampshire.
Living out my 20s in New York City, I have met people from all walks of life, people who have experienced this world in completely different ways than I have. Every new person I meet is another opportunity to learn more about what it's like to not be me. It's taken a very long time to stop focusing so internally on myself and my own experiences as a gay white man, and begin to more consciously try to put myself in someone else's shoes.
So what’s next for this privileged white gay boy? Well I’ll tell you. I will continue to learn. I will continue to open myself up to criticism, and I will start being more vocal about the clear imbalance of opportunity and the abuse of power that’s running rampant in the United States.
And I will be a friend and ally – to anyone who has ever felt misunderstood for something they themselves didn’t quite understand.
Mr. Knight, I’m starting to get it now.
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