Essay was destructive, divisive; erased queer people of color
Clarifying the intent and focus of last week's hate-crimes essay
John Partridge's essay in last week's Review claimed to address racism within the Oberlin queer community specifically surrounding the vigil for Matthew Shepard. However, under this pretense of progressivism it worked in a very destructive and divisive way to attack the queer community, erase queer people of color and pit oppressed communities against one another. Many of us in the queer community were angered by the homophobic implications of this letter. We cannot stress enough that this anger is fueled by the pain it has caused. We, the three authors of this response, feel it is important to express exactly why this letter was so damaging.
First, we wish to locate ourselves in terms of race and sexual orientation. We are two white queer men and one white queer woman, speaking only for ourselves. John Partridge is a straight white student who failed to represent himself as such in his article. In fact, he claimed to "bestow a slight [his emphasis] bit of knowledge about the experience of people of color" in his letter. We find this misleading and problematic.
The Oberlin vigil was organized by queer people in response to Matthew Shepard's murder, which was the culmination of a barrage of anti-queer propaganda, rhetoric, and violence, both on campus and nationally. From Trent Lott's comparison of queer people to kleptomaniacs and alcoholics, to a national advertising campaign from supposed 'ex-gay' brainwashing programs, to threats of Fred Phelps' (the minister behind such slogans as "AIDS Cures Fags") protest of the campus, to a series of hate mail and death threats to queer students and staff on this campus, we have been a community under assault. In this context, Matthew Shepard's death was a breaking point for many of us; which in part explains the huge turnout at his vigil.
Many of us took John Partridge's letter as another attack on queer people because of its divisive and destructive nature. He denied the history of queer oppression in his letter, implying that queers are not 'oppressed enough' to legitimately respond to harassment and murder. He specficially placed the burden of organizing "a more general program to address hate crimes" upon the shoulders of queer people, while ignoring the oppressions and the invisibility of queer people in this culture. Reciting statistics from the FBI as John Partridge did is in itself questionable, considering the FBI's history of perpetuating racism and homophobia. The U.S. government didn't even begin tracking hate crimes against queers until 1994.
Partridge explicitly states it is racist to respond to the murder of a queer man (in fact, any hate crime not directed solely at Blacks) because anti-queer violence is not the first priority on his hierarchy of oppression. By doing this, he pits communities against each other. This completely erases the existence of queer people of color, implying that queer equals white, and forces queers of color and those who align themselves with both communities to "choose" a single identity or "side." In a college that already faces strained relations between oppressed communities and has a lack of sufficient services and spaces for queers of color, Partridge has done everything to worsen the problems.
Instead of addressing his concerns constructively (i.e., attempting to organize against hate crimes on campus or to encourage dialogue), he chose the frame of a public attack on queers (and, in fact, anyone who attended the vigil). He himself did not attend the vigil, and has no idea what purpose it served or who was in attendance. He wasn't there to express his anger at hate crimes towards people of color, nor to hear the grief expressed by others. This is, at the very least, disrespectful of an individual who was brutally murdered and of a community in mourning.
He goes farther than that, however. He barely even refers to queer people in his letter, erasing us even while he attacks us. When he does deem to mention us, he uses clinical and dated terms, such as "homosexual," instead of those that we use to identify ourselves. He attempts to induce shame in those who attended the vigil by implying that they weren't concerned about other hate crimes. Shame has a particularly loaded history for queer people, as our sexuality has been framed in shame-based terms, both through religious and secular culture. It has been used to drive us into the closet, to damage our development, and is directly linked to the disproportionately high rates of drug abuse, alcoholism, and suicide within our community, not to mention high rates of violence against it. We find the employment of shame in his essay to be a violent act, and find it particularly offensive, considering he was addressing the violent murder of a gay man.
Before closing, we would like to clear up the factual misconceptions in Partridge's letter. The vigil was not organized by the Gay/Straight Alliance. The GSA is a high-school based organization working to save the lives of queer teens in Oberlin. Partridge's targeting of them is inaccurate and detrimental to a fragile and important program. Imagine a queer youth, particularly one of color, who may be considering coming out at Oberlin High School, and how harmful his letter might be to them. In addition he implies that the rock painted in Tappan Square represented the consensus of those attending the vigil, when in fact it was painted by an individual, not LGBTU, not the GSA, not every single one of the 300 people in attendance at the vigil. There is a diversity of backgrounds and of views in any community, including the queer community. The rock should not be taken as the single voice of the vigil. Again, if he had attended the vigil he would know that. We would again like to question his uncritical use of FBI hate-crime statistics.
Because of his denial of the overlap between identities and his hierarchical view of oppression, the letter functioned more to tear at the fabric of our connection to one another as oppressed communities than to challenge it or help to mend and shape it. There have already been meetings between and within communities talking about ways to heal some of these rifts. It's our hope that further constructive attempts to create real communication and understanding will be the basis of -future responses to hate crimes and hate speech. Only constructive dialogue and our own action can create the space necessary to address, in unity, the violence that is directed against all oppressed communities.
This is a follow-up letter to last week's essay concerning Matthew Shepard. Its purpose is to clarify the focus and intent of last week's essay in light of the concerns raised by some individuals and groups about it.
To clarify, the essay was directed at the entire community, and not just at one or two parts of the community. To reinforce this point I want to emphasize that the essay did not contain a queer-straight dichotomy, nor was there an intention to imply one. (In fact, if any dichotomy did exist, it was a people of color-white one.) If certain individuals or groups read such a dichotomy into the letter, I apologize for not making the focus of the letter clearer, but given the length parameters of the Review, hard decisions about content and clarity had to be made to ensure brevity. A queer-straight dichotomy did not exist for several reasons which can be illustrated by examining the two specific aspects of the entire community's response that the essay criticized. First, I will address the comment I made about the Oberlin Gay/Straight Alliance. In no way was the alliance itself criticized, only the fact that the increased publicity about the alliance was lacking in that such publicity did not also address anti-hate in general, which was the topic of the speak-out. Had the speak-out sought to address anti-homophobia, then the increased publicity about OGSA would have been more in keeping with the focus of the speak-out and then the criticism would be a non-issue. Secondly, the criticism about the rock. Nowhere in the essay is it stated implicitly or implied that the painting of the rock was endorsed, supported, or executed by any formal group or organization. All that is stated in the essay about the actual painting of the rock is that it was completed by the day of the speak-out.
Another point that was made in the essay which I would like to stress here in order to further clarify the focus and intent is the relationship between the campus reaction and racism. To illustrate this relationship, I will discuss the inclusion of Lenard Clark's case in the essay.
His story was included for two reasons, to refute the argument underlying the campus's response and to illustrate that difference in reaction to the hate crime perpetrated against a white man vis-a-vis a person of color or other minority. This section will concentrate the latter reason. American society values the lives of white people more than the lives of people of color. To explicitly demonstrate this point I will cite a few stories. In 1995 two children were missing from their homes in San Diego county. One child was white, and the other black. An all-out search was conducted for the white child while little was done to find the black child. During the 1970s in San Francisco there was a mass murderer in the city who was suspected of being black. The mayor issued a call for all black men fitting the suspect's description to be stopped and checked by the police. Detroit 1994, police return an Asian-American to a white mass murderer despite the man's protestations because they believed the situation to be a dispute between homosexual lovers. To cite a more recent example, the 1997 and 1998 shootings at schools in Little Rock Arkansas and suburban Seattle Washington. Childhood deaths as a result of gunfire at school is nothing new, after all it happens quite often in inner-city schools. The difference in this case is that it happened to white kids in suburban America instead of people of color in the inner-city.
To help enable the community to deal with and address the issues presented in the essay, several actions will be initiated.
An extended version of the original printed essay will be posted at various locations around campus for community members to read. Each copy will be attached to a notebook in which individuals may write comments and critiques. Individuals may also add their name to the list of endorsees to the extended essay. Included with the notebooks will be a copy of the original published version with all its endorsees.
There will be an initial meeting of ARA, Anti-Racist Action, on Tuesday, November 10, 1998, in Wilder 101 at 9 pm. This group will seek to further comprehensive anti-hate action on this campus and will cooperatively engage with other groups to further its goals.
Lastly, there may also be a forum which will discuss the essay and the comments made about it in the notebooks.
I would like to personally apologize to all the members of the queer community and queer people of color community who were offended by the letter and took it as an attack against them. No one in Third World House, nor any of the other published endorsees would have endorsed the letter had they read it as an attack against either community. They endorsed the letter because they read it as addressing an issue related to American society's relations with people of color while using recent events as smaller scale illustrations of these issues. Also, I acted as final editor of the essay and the overwhelming majority of the paper was written by me and me alone. The endorsees that are listed as contributors did so only in the sense of proofreading, and minor rephrasing and editing changes.
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 8, November 6, 1998
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