Gather round, it’s story time.
Have you ever wondered why most gay clubs only play Top 40 hits? Have you ever been out with your crew and the night is lit and the only thing that could make this night one for the record books is to hear something with a beat, only to be disappointed by hearing the same set of songs that you heard the week before? What’s the point of a DJ if they are just playing the same remixed top 40 songs with the occasional hip hop track thrown in 20 minutes before kicking everyone out? Why is Hip Hop and R&B music only given a night or a couple songs thrown into a set in any given gayborhood club?
Back in a former life, I worked as a barback at a newly-opened gay club in my hometown. When several of us veterans of the gay club scene proposed a change to the Top 40 and dance music formula implemented by every other club, the owner replied, “No, we will not play anything that will attract a bad element, those are not our customers.” I realized then and there that music was a social determinant used to exclude LGBTQ People of Color. This hypothesis would prove itself to be true, even in the epicenter of LGBTQ life in San Francisco’s Castro District.
There are a couple of places in the Bay Area that give us the quality of music we want. However, they almost always reside outside of the Castro’s “Gay Mecca” borders. Whiteness defines the local community in San Francisco. Walking in the areas of the city where the gay community has a public face reveals an awful truth for LGBTQ people of color: we are not fully accepted into the LGBTQ community.
Whose Gay Mecca Is It Anyway?
San Francisco is one of the most liberal cities in the United States and is considered the gay Mecca for LGBTQ people all over the world. The 7x7 (miles by miles) liberal paradise is, however, not the Gay Mecca for LGBTQ People of Color.
Spend any time in the Castro and you will see in the most visible faces of this community a blatant underrepresentation of people of color. The divisions that exist between white LGBTQ people and LGBTQ people of color can be measured by public visibility, representation within media, and local popularity of culture and music (though, indeed, white LGBTQ people love aspects of PoC culture, just not so much the people part of PoC). And it can be measured by an obvious inference: that proximity to whiteness is the sole route to validation in the LGBTQ Community (that is, if you adopt the look, values, opinions, and spaces of white LGBTQ people, you’ve “made it”).
The invisibility of people of color is apparent to any casual visitor. The windows, lamp posts, and flyers are filled with a plethora of pictures of white men of all shapes and sizes--from middle age and older white “daddies” that frequent Twin Peaks bar, to the scruff beard wearing “masculine” guys that hang out at 440 Castro and the Mix and Midnight Sun, to the mainstream pretty young white male of Beaux, Hi-Tops, and the Lookout. All of these places have one thing in common: whiteness is represented, visible, and influential, while Queer People of Color need a white or white-passing chaperone in order to gain white approval.
Because of or in spite of that, it is true now more than ever that we need each other. We live in a time and space where those of us who are LGBTQ people of color are being silenced by the hands of a community that would rather see us begging for their support and coddling their feelings; it’s a community that prefers we not make them uncomfortable with our experiences and politics and aesthetic; that community is dependent on our free labor and votes for their own political and social gains but is nowhere to be found when we want to build and add our voices to community. Erasure from Queer History, spaces made unsafe and unwelcoming--where do we have to go from here?
The beautiful thing is that LGBTQ People of Color have long endured, been burned, and emerged to endure all over again. We can work toward uplifting each other, fight for and create our own safe spaces, demand representation, and always call out dismissal and racism. We do not believe that being LGBTQ makes any white person free from displaying their own brand of bigotry--systemic, institutional, individual, or otherwise. And against that, we will find our Gay Mecca, our gayborhood, by us and for us.
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