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When Racism and Transphobia Equal Death, Why Are White Gay Cisgender HIV Activists Silencing Debate on the New Stonewall Film?

August 24, 2015

Jeremiah Johnson

Jeremiah Johnson

For many, the throwing of the first brick in the Stonewall riots symbolically ignited an entire movement for LGBT justice. But if the release of the Stonewall brick launched a major movement for equality, the release of the first trailer for Roland Emmerich's new film Stonewall has launched a barrage of tweets about inequality. The trailer's lack of racial and gender diversity, and its depiction of a fictional white gay cisgender man as the central hero of the story have made many understandably concerned that transgender people and people of color have been left out of a very important, popularly accessible version of LGBT history -- despite their central role in that history.

The online discussion surrounding the film's trailer has been filled with the trademark ferocity of any debate over depictions of gender and race in mainstream LGBT media. And, as often happens, the response from so many of my fellow white gay cisgender men has been fiercely defensive.

But the unfortunate twist in the current debate has been the very public and defensive response from many of my fellow white gay HIV activists. Much attention was given to Larry Kramer's comments on the controversy, in which he called people protesting the film "crazies." Even many of the more reasonable, compassionate and inclusive HIV advocates I know have argued that the concerns of transgender people and people of color are endangering the role of gay white men in LGBT history, and are either completely irrational, or are irrelevant and beneath us.

Our attempts to silence dissenting voices in this conversation both confuse and alarm me. Why do we work so aggressively to undermine the concerns of those communities who are far less represented within mainstream LGBT rights and HIV advocacy? What exactly are we afraid of losing by allowing others to speak? Gay white men are not endangered; we are firmly established at the heart of the mainstream LGBT movement and HIV advocacy.


Cis gay white men are almost always a central focus, if not THE central focus, of every mainstream LGBT magazine, film or television show. We are also highly overrepresented in LGBT advocacy organizations. An internally commissioned report recently described the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as a "white men's club." HIV advocacy is often the same. In New York, the 60 members of Governor Cuomo's elite task force to end AIDS as an epidemic included only one young gay man of color and one transwoman, despite the fact that those populations continue to be the most impacted by HIV. Meanwhile, it would appear that white men made up over a third of task-force members.

With so much privilege, why are we so fragile and wounded any time we are asked to assess the lack of diversity in our movements? What will it take for us to listen to the concerns of our LGBT brothers and sisters with humility and compassion? What will it take for us to put real effort into actively supporting the leadership of young men of color and transgender women in our communities?

For the many white gay cis men working in AIDS activism, these are not trivial questions. We will not make progress in our efforts to end the AIDS crisis without the leadership of transgender women and young men of color. AIDS activists have long demanded that nothing be created for us without us, yet we routinely make plans related to HIV care, treatment and prevention without consulting young men of color or transgender women -- and, indeed, stepping aside so that their long-silenced voices can be heard. As I witness fellow AIDS activists actively silencing transgender leaders and communities of color in the current history debate, I am concerned that we are very far from developing the leadership we need to effectively address HIV in the communities that most urgently need solutions.

I understand that this debate is only about a movie trailer. I understand that many of us are hoping the actual movie is very diverse and doesn't minimize the role of transgender women and men of color like the trailer does. But the fact that a movie trailer is providing the context for this discussion is no excuse for the oppressive behavior I've witnessed.

The debate surrounding Stonewall has the power to change the way the LGBT community is depicted in all media and HIV activism, but instead many people are actively trivializing the concerns of transgender women and LGBT people of color. We have the opportunity to show some humility, to practice listening and to question why transgender people and people of color are continually underrepresented in mainstream LGBT organizations, magazines, films and TV shows. Rather than silence dissension, we could work to amplify the voices of racial and gender minorities within the LGBT community and HIV advocacy even if their messages cause white gay men some discomfort.

After all, what right do we have to attempt to silence transgender women and LGBT people of color in any discussion about improved diversity and visibility, particularly at a time when we are more aware than ever that racism and transphobia truly do equal death?

Jeremiah Johnson is the HIV prevention research and policy coordinator for Treatment Action Group (TAG), an independent research and policy think tank fighting for better treatment, a vaccine and a cure for AIDS.

Copyright © 2015 Remedy Health Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

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This article was provided by TheBody.


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