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Diff'rent Strokes

Queer love: What's race got to do with it?
photo: Amy Pierce. Prop styling by Jaime Keeler. Makeup by Kemboi/ButtaSweet Ink.

If you see a black man and a white man touching anywhere other than a sports venue in the United States, most likely they're lovers. Or so I've always joked. Well, actually, always assumed. Straight men in this country still rarely stray across the black-white divide when looking for friendship, while for gay men race has more often been a lure than an obstacle.

Black and white gay men seem not just to be together, but more prominent than ever—from the sexy pair on Six Feet Under to Lawrence and Garner, the two whose sex life the Supreme Court glowingly affirmed when it declared sodomy laws unconstitutional. This summer, New York City's Men of All Colors Together (MACT/NY) and the National Association of Black & White Men Together (BWMT) will celebrate their 25th anniversaries.

While black-and-white couples remain rare in the U.S., a new analysis of Census 2000 data indicates that same-sex cohabiting couples are much more likely to be interracial than their different-sex counterparts.

The study, by UCLA School of Law's Williams Project, reveals that 12 percent of gay couples are mixed compared with 7 percent of straight ones. This difference holds up when you control for age, education, and urban living, factors that correlate with interracial coupling and distinguish gay from straight. The bulk of these couples are Latino-white (43 percent), distantly followed by black-white (14 percent), Asian Pacific Islander-white (11 percent), and black-Latino (3 percent). This pretty much mirrors the breakdown for straight couples, except that significantly more interracial gay couples than straight are black-white (14 percent versus 9 percent).

Why do gays engage in more mixed-race loving? Well, as a WGM (discounting my Native American grandfather and occasional crushes on the opposite sex) who has coupled with BGMs (discounting those who were actually biracial and the one who just married a woman), my initial response was that we are less prejudiced. Having overcome one form of bigotry, our eyes open to the irrationality of others.

But then this Christmas, guess who? My sister brought her black boyfriend home. Sitting with my black boyfriend, I started to get the creeps. Growing up in Missouri, my best friend had siblings who all married blacks. I had dismissed their partnering choices as a manifestation of the hyper-sexuality that whites in this country have projected onto blacks. Was I no better? Even after all those African American studies courses in college?

photo: Amy Pierce. Prop styling by Jaime Keeler. Makeup by Kemboi/ButtaSweet Ink.

Come to think of it, given my friends' reactions to my partners, I can't say the LGBT community goes easy on interracial couples. Or maybe I just don't understand the more positive nuances of "dinge queen." Even friends who haven't directly criticized my partner choices hardly let them go unnoticed. Most dismissively generalize that I'm "into black men" based on a sample of one.

And I can't say my responses to them indicate an untroubled mind. When I was younger, I'd defensively counter with an exaggerated list of my white partners. Later, I deployed the model-U.N. defense: "But I've dated Asians, Latinos, and a member of the Andorran petite nobility!" More recently, I quietly but firmly state that surely their exclusive same-race dating pattern requires as much interrogation as mine.

As long as I'm confessing, I've always judged BWMT the way my friends judged me. I've never hesitated to join a group organized around same-sex loving. So what's my problem with one organized around different-race loving?

Maybe our community's race-based preferences are as suspect as my friends assume. Could it be that a larger percentage of gays than straights are inclined to get off on racial-sexual stereotypes just like a larger percentage live a life of leather? Thumb through the personal ads in any gay rag and you'll see we're not bashful about cataloging our desires with labels like Big Black Top, Hot Latino, White Bottom, and Submissive Asian.

When you divide the boys from the girls, Census 2000 data indicate that gay men's partner choices account for more of the difference between queer and straight interracial coupling. This may be because the dominant gay male culture exaggerates the broader culture's definition of whiteness as beauty. I attribute this, like most bad things, to gay porn.

According to John R. Burger's exhaustive study (the poor guy studiously watched thousands of videos) One-Handed Histories: The Eroto-Politics of Gay Male Video Pornography, until 1980 our porn reflected our rainbow—race, age, hairiness, and all. Then came the VCR and bam!, a couple of guys in the Valley monopolized gay video production. As it turns out, they both dug young white jocks and force-fed us their preference for the next decade. Today, we're all lifting, waxing, and Botoxing like mad.

 

OK, it may not be completely their fault, but the dominance of the porn star look could lead more gay men of color to prefer whites over each other. Census data provide some support for this: Blacks, Latinos, and API gay men have higher rates of out-coupling than their straight counterparts. The most extreme example: 40 percent of API gay men out-couple, compared to 11 percent percent of API married men.

In fact, it may be that we have more interracial relationships not because we're less racist but because we've yet to face the real race taboo: marriage. Studies of unwed interracial hetero couples indicate that concern about their families' prejudice and possible discrimination against their unborn children are the main reasons they don't marry.

Census data confirm mixed-race couples are less likely to be married than same-race couples. When you separate straight couples into the married and unmarried, the unmarried are twice as likely to be interracial (14 percent versus 7 percent). Which means that unmarried (by definition in 2000) same-sex couples have no greater propensity to interracially couple than unmarried straights.

Here too, it appears, "calling it marriage" matters. Until gay men and lesbians have equal access to marriage and child raising, we won't really know if we'll do any better than the straights.

At bottom, choosing a mate is a highly individualized and muddled process. While a racial fetish or color blindness may get you from the bar to the bedroom, it's not going to get you through the drive home from Thanksgiving with his resentful maiden aunts. The same-sex census couples are cohabiting after all, and more than a quarter of them have been together for over five years.

Instead of homosexuality heightening racial tolerance or racial-sexual fantasies, I think our greater propensity to interracially couple is due to our smaller population size and our shared queer experience.According to Rachel F. Moran in her book Interracial Intimacy: The Regulation of Race and Romance, straights (she never mentions same-sex couples) have been slow to couple across race lines because our society is still so racially segregated. If they don't meet at work or in their grocery stores or bars, how can they hook up?

Historically, gays just haven't had the numbers to live apart. Using the best estimates available, there are about 281 million of them and 6 million of us. We are more likely to interracially couple for the same reason different-sex Hawaiian couples (a whopping 30 percent) do. Because of our limited and somewhat isolated pool, we're thrown together more and don't have as much latitude to exercise our same-race preferences.

Even if straights were thrown in one another's way more, they wouldn't have nearly as much to talk about. Whether swapping coming-out, HIV infection, or recovery stories, we have shared experiences that cut across racial lines. Gay proms and student groups aside, most of us have lived lives that distance us from our racial communities and pull us toward each other. And for some of us, particularly whites who tend to take whiteness for granted, sexual orientation is more central to our identity than race.

The summer I worked in Greenville, Mississippi (civil rights, of course), just one month after coming out, illustrates my points. There were no gays in Greenville and nightlife revolved around the gas station that sold Slurpees. Not a good location for a gay awakening. Then suddenly, at midsummer, my employer made a crack about the town's whistling, black homeless man. Turns out "Pepsi" was Greenville's only known homosexual. We never hooked up, but that may be because I never saw him again—despite my vigilant lookout. As my employer's jokes kept rolling, I felt closer to the vanished Pepsi than anyone else on that mosquito-encrusted delta. Fifteen years later, I still feel a tie between Pepsi and me.

OK, maybe Greenville is extreme. But according to demographer Gary Gates, Census 2000 identified same-sex couples in all but a handful of U.S. counties (mostly in Nebraska) no matter how unpopulated. And even smaller cities have a limited number of gay institutions that serve to corral us together.

In Kansas City in the '80s, there was only one good gay dance club, the Edge. So we all went there: lesbians and gay, black and white, young and old, the trannies and the wheelchaired. My interracial dating began at the Edge. While I was clinging to my goth "girlfriend" and trying to look world-weary at 17, a black boy strode over and asked, "So, are you gay?"

"No."

"Too bad."

The idea that someone could be disappointed that I was not gay sparked a revolution in my worldview and self-image.

While our limited numbers and shared experience seem the most compelling explanation for our greater propensity toward mixed-race coupling, our behavior once we get to the big cities is not encouraging. The moment we reach critical mass, we resegregate.

 

Here in New York, to shuttle between Sprung, Papi-licious, Habibi, G, and the Web is to move between worlds.

This spring, Badlands, a bar in San Francisco's Castro district, was accused of scrutinizing the bags and IDs of black patrons more closely than those of whites. This is the very problem that led to BWMT's creation in 1980.

I'm not saying we haven't come a long way. But being gay is not do-it-yourself sensitivity training. Ironically, the more political progress we achieve—the easier it is to be out—the more our rainbow may be in danger. As we become more like, and liked, by straights, we risk losing one of the forced treasures of being small and apart: those dancefloors, meeting rooms, and parades where we became people of all colors together.


Brad Sears lives in Los Angeles and teaches sexual orientation and disability law at UCLA School of Law.


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