You're off to a house party hosted by a fabulous gay socialite. You're dressed to the nines, hair perfectly coiffed, and your pre-party selfie gets 30 likes on Facebook. You feel confident and ready to mingle. But a couple of hours into the evening, you notice that most of the single guys don't seem interested in getting to know you.
Chances are that if you're a gay man of color, you've experienced this more than once. Gay men need a fresh approach to tackling the problem of racism in our community. How do we go about breaking down the racial barriers that those of us living in the United States have built around each other? We first have to recognize that there is a problem, especially as it manifests itself in the world of online dating and mainstream gay male culture.
There is little agreement among gay writers who have addressed this topic. Take, for instance, the contributions of Marten Weber, Laurence Watts, and Justin Huang to HuffPost Gay Voices in recent years. The debate here reflects some of the confusion about racism, sexual orientation, and human nature that arises whenever anybody points out that gay men who belong to ethnic minority groups are frequently made to feel inferior or unwanted on hookup apps and dating websites and even in gay establishments.
Huang expresses dismay at the racism directed toward Asian Americans in the queer community online and in urban areas. He adds that while having a sexual or romantic preference for particular ethnicities is not racist, advertising one's preference for a particular color or ethnic group is. For Huang, racism in the queer community extends to the political realm, where the gay rights movement still has an overwhelmingly white face. Similarly, Weber condemns the classic "no fems, no chubs, no Asians" refrain on hookup apps and dating websites and what he calls the "moronic 'no offense, it's just my taste'" excuse for exclusion based on ethnicity. But he also makes the more provocative claim that gay men may be more racist in their sexual and romantic preferences than heterosexuals. He asserts that, unlike heterosexual attraction, homosexual attraction begins with a desire to identify with and emulate a partner. If gay men are more likely than straight men to want to be like a member of their own ethnicity, then this would help explain their more overtly exclusionary behavior. However, Watts rejects Weber's argument, insisting that a gay man is no more racist for not being into a guy based on his skin color than he is sexist for not being into a woman. For Watts, racism is strictly about social, political, and legal prejudice; it can't exist in the realm of sexual and romantic relationships.
So who's right? For one thing, Watts' analogy is false. There is scientific evidence that sexual orientation is biologically predetermined, even if no "gay gene" exists. But there is no proof that attraction to members of a particular ethnic group is biologically predetermined. For a gay man, this means that not being attracted to a black guy is very different from not being attracted to a woman. The former can be explained in terms of environment, cultural assumptions, and socialization; the latter cannot. That makes the "I can't help it; it's just my preference" argument not just wrong but also extremely lazy. Secondly, we can legitimately ask whether preference itself can constitute a form of racism. Racism necessarily involves a comparative judgment. The underlying thought is that some races are naturally superior to others. When a person says, "I'm only into white guys, not blacks or Asians," he isn't expressing some sort of neutral preference. Rather, he is presupposing that white men are, on the whole, aesthetically (and therefore naturally) superior to black and Asian men. And since preference for particular ethnicities is not biologically predetermined or immutable, he can't go on to say, "I like what I like, and I can't do anything about it."
Research from the dating website OkCupid has shown that black gay men generally receive fewer responses than members of other ethnicities. White gay men respond the least to anybody and show a strong preference for other whites. Although all ethnic groups consider interracial relationships acceptable, whites are still the least willing to have such a relationship themselves. When researchers compared the reply rates of gay men belonging to different ethnicities, they found that gay Asian, "Indian," Pacific Islander, and black men had the four lowest overall reply rates. Moreover, when asked whether they would strongly prefer to date someone of their own skin color or racial background, anywhere from 6 percent to 22 percent of non-white gay men said yes. By contrast, an astonishing 43 percent of white gay men said that they would strongly prefer to date other white men.
OkCupid is just one example. The New York Times has reported on the persistence of racism online more generally, citing the work of researchers who weren't expecting to find such a high frequency of intra-ethnic dating. One study of a well-known dating website showed that more than 80 percent of the contacts pursued by white users were other white users, and only 3 percent were black users. Black users were also 10 times more likely to contact whites than whites were to contact blacks. Here too, some people indicated that they were open to dating members of different ethnic backgrounds but failed to do so in practice.
It's not just gay white men who display this kind of racist behavior. Many non-white gay men have internalized racism and seek validation of their physical appeal and desirability from gay white men. Sometimes they even show contempt for members of their own supposedly inferior ethnicity. I agree with Huang that it is annoying when people assume that the self-worth of "ethnic" gay men is based on whether gay white men take an interest in them, as though we'll all quit complaining once a hot white dude woofs at us on Scruff.
As research has shown, racism is alive and well amongst us, and the common arguments for preference don't hold up. So how can we make progress toward a less racist gay male community? A good start would be to broaden our horizons when pursuing sex and relationships. Above all, we must want to be more open-minded. This is all the more imperative for gay men, who are part of a minority community that is reviled and dehumanized in various ways. Given this reality, it is inexcusable that we continue to discriminate against one another. We should make an effort to embrace the cultural diversity within our community by socializing with and dating gay men of different colors, shapes, sizes, and backgrounds. That is the only way we can learn to see past the color of a person's skin and affirm his humanity. There already is some evidence that same-sex couples today are slightly more likely to be interracial than opposite-sex unmarried couples are. This is exactly the kind of trend we want to see. It is unreasonable to expect people to become attracted to every kind of look, but it is still better to try and fail than to defend brazenly racist attitudes in the name of "preference."