Under the Rainbow

Modern queer politics forged itself against Blackness. Where will it go next?

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s June ruling on marriage equality, the world seemed awash in an iridescent glow. The social media icons of private citizens and symbols of state power and capital alike were all adorned in the LGBT flag. For a brief moment, it looked as though the ostensible project of post-AIDS queer activism—full recognition of the humanity of queer people, equal access to opportunity and equal protection under the law—had been fully realized.

Even self-proclaimed radical queers, who have often voiced disdain with marriage equality’s position as the central cause of LGBT activism—viewing marriage’s heteronormativity as contrary to the goals of queer liberation—softened their critiques in light of the victory. But for Black queers, reality soon settled in. Celebrating amid the gratuitous violence against Black bodies and the deadening silence of non-Black LGBT activists provoked a question that has dogged the push for marriage equality from the beginning, a question of a darker hue: What good is equality when many of us still are not free, fighting for the right to live?

The timing of the Supreme Court decision—coming in a little over a week after the Charleston church shooting—illustrated the longstanding distance between the goals of the LGBT rights movement and the ongoing Black freedom struggle. The contrast between the LGBT rights movement’s courthouse victory for inclusion in civil society and the very same society’s continued violent opposition to Black humanity is a tension within queer politics that has never been resolved. Or rather, it has been resolved fatally, but not everyone sees. On the underside of the rainbow—in the invisible shadow it casts—lies the ghostly body of the Black queer. On the underside of the rainbow, in the face of a queer politics founded on the notion that HIV/AIDS is no longer a crisis worthy of material concern, Black people are dying of the disease at an alarming rate. This is the shameful work which post-AIDS queer politics has left undone. It threatens to undermine the very idea of an LGBT coalition.

Dramatizing the tensions between Black queers and the non-Black LGBT community, writer and activist Darnell L. Moore started the Twitter hashtag #NotTooProudToFight to voice his frustrations with the insistence on pride and celebration without accountability for the Black lives in peril. In Chicago, activists staged the BlackOutPride action, a die-in at the annual Pride parade. But well before #BLM—since before Stonewall, in fact—Black queer activists have been calling out the segregation and disregard for Black life that characterize mainstream queer politics. While critical, such interventions are difficult given dominant conceptions of the Black community as antithetical to LGBT political goals, and inversely, the LGBT community as non-Black. Prevalent slogans such as “gay is the new black,” which co-opt the Black freedom struggle in the name of LGBT equality, are based on the misguided premise that Black freedom has been won, and erase the existence of Black queer people. All of this, which aims to promote the queer political cause, hurts Black queers by furthering a discourse which sees Blackness and queerness as opposed.

In essence, the Black queer stands as the unthought of LGBT activism—outside the limits of the discussion of “queer identity.” Frank B. Wilderson III argues that nothing else in society functions

so completely as a repository of complete disorder as the Black body… Blackness is the site of absolute dereliction at the level of the Imaginary, for “whoever says ‘rape’ says Black”, whoever says “prison” says Black, and whoever says “AIDS” says Black.

Within the societal structure that Wilderson outlines, the Black body—and, in the specific case of the LGBT community, the Black queer body—is a site of contagion and discord. It cannot be otherwise—for the Black queer serves a critical function. In order for the post-AIDS queer project to achieve its putative goal of liberation, the suffering of the Black queer must be ignored, their very existence must be erased.

This schism between the suffering Black queer and the liberated white one is calcified in the ongoing, still-deadly HIV/AIDS epidemic. AIDS and Blackness overlap in the cultural imaginary. Black gay men and women are dramatically overrepresented in terms of rates of HIV infection—one report posits that Blacks make up 44% of people living with HIV. According to the Center for Disease Control, Black gay men are “the racial/ethnic group most affected by HIV,” noting that in 2010 they accounted for “approximately 4,800 new HIV infections—more than twice as many estimated new infections as either young white or young Hispanic/Latino gay and bisexual men.” HIV/AIDS is one of the leading causes of death for young Black people no matter their sexual practices. But a Washington Post article of last year notes that nobody can explain “why black Americans, particularly black gay men, have such high rates of HIV infection compared to the rest of the population,” calling it a “public health mystery.”

Yet this mystery is greeted with silence from LGBT activists, more concerned with legal issues—obtaining marriage equality, repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, ending sexuality-based jobs discrimination—which, while of importance, lack the life-and-death immediacy for Black people as HIV/AIDS. An existential urgency once gave the LGBT movement its power, and established its current visibility—a visibility which white queers leverage in order to lobby for equal rights and state incorporation. One need only look back to the pioneering work of ACT UP or figures such as Marsha P. Johnson in order to fully grasp the primacy of death in mobilizing a radical queer politics. But the modern political agenda of the LGBT movement is to “drop the dead in the service of mainstream inclusion,” as literary scholar Dagmawi Woubshet elegantly argues in his recent book The Calendar of Loss: Race, Sexuality and Mourning in the Early Era of AIDS. And so Blackness, as the embodiment of death within the Western cultural imaginary, is dropped to the wayside.

The historiography the AIDS epidemic sees the turn of the millennium as marking what Andrew Sullivan, in his 1996 essay “When Plagues End: Notes on the Twilight of an Epidemic,” infamously termed the “post-AIDS” era. In the article, Sullivan argues that the “plague” of AIDS has largely subsided due to advances in medicine, and that the disease is no longer of great concern to him and his readers as it has become manageable—chronic, rather than fatal. This common-sense narrative of the AIDS crisis holds that the transformation of AIDS from an epidemic and exigent crisis to an everyday disease began to emerge in 1996, after the introduction of anti-retroviral therapy. This move away from framing HIV/AIDS as a plague was concurrent with the increase in rates of HIV/AIDS infection amongst Blacks. The statistics, in this case, are startling—according to the CDC, from 1981-87, Blacks accounted for 25% of people with AIDS, while by 1996-2000 that number had nearly doubled, at 45%. In his essay, Sullivan flippantly acknowledges that “many Americans—especially Blacks and Latinos—will still die” from the disease, while positing that it is no longer a crisis that “signifies death.”

How could Sullivan claim that Black and Latino deaths somehow do not signify what they are, even given his famous allegiance to white supremacy? By positing Black people as less human (and therefore signifying less) first, and secondly, Sullivan’s readers as non-Black. Political scientist Cathy Cohen noted in her landmark text The Boundary of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics that at the time of her book’s publication in 1999 “the AIDS epidemic [was] increasingly becom[ing] a disease of people of color, [while] the literature, images, and general presentation of the disease stay predominantly white.”

The “plague years,” as they are now remembered and canonized (in documentaries such as 2011’s award-winning How to Survive a Plague and narrative films such as Dallas Buyer’s Club and HBO’s adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart) appear in memory as decidedly white and middle-class. It is no coincidence, then, that as Black rates of infection steadily increased, and white middle-class gay men, who had the financial means and access to afford the emergent anti-retroviral drugs, were no longer vulnerable, the image of HIV/AIDS shifted. With it, queer politics moved past the question of AIDS and onto issues of incorporation and formal equality.

According to legal scholar Dean Spade, this was not a deracialized move. He writes that post-AIDS queer politics are founded on “an articulation of Blackness as adverse to sexual modernity, and whiteness as predisposed towards it.” This notion, Spade says, “produces Blackness as ‘straight’ and gayness as white and increasingly non-Black, erases the existence of Black queers, and affirms the exceptionalism of whiteness against the backwardness of Blackness.” This foundation allows for a post-AIDS queer politics, which celebrates diversity and inclusion while staying lethally anti-Black, and ignoring issues that disproportionately and adversely affect the Black queer community.

This post-AIDS ideology structures the debates in contemporary queer politics, arguably reaching its apex with the FDA’s 2012 approval of the drug Truvada as Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). Taken daily, Truvada is said to be 99% effective in preventing the transmission of HIV into the bloodstream. This is a major breakthrough, which has substantially changed the contours of sexuality, lifting the cloud of fear, piercing the stigma that lingered since the initial outbreak of the pandemic, and offering new possibilities for intimacy. Yet similar questions of access and availability circulate around PrEP as they did the anti-retroviral therapies and drug cocktails of the late 90s. Dagmawi Woubshet says that the prevalent post-AIDS discourse serves to displace AIDS “both temporally, as a demarcated past,” against which PrEP helps forge a new queer identity, and “spatially, as an issue that now matters only in communities of color in the U.S. or beyond in the global south,” where PrEP is assumed not to penetrate.

Since the “plague years,” the face of AIDS has changed dramatically in the cultural imaginary. No longer a “gay white male” disease, HIV/AIDS has now become a thoroughly racialized disease, with Black gay men and Black women standing as its embodied vectors and victims. Public HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns are almost universally targeted to Black gay men and straight Black women, with the image of the duplicitous “down low” brother and his unwitting female victim serving as sensationalized tropes within popular culture, further stigmatizing those with the disease. This widespread targeting of Black communities makes sense given the overwhelming overrepresentation of Black gay men and women in terms of rates of infection. However, these campaigns have not lead to a decrease in rates of infection or improved access to life-saving drugs. Neoliberal rhetorics of personal responsibility and choice dominate these campaigns, obscuring structural sources for the infection disparities, or the possibility of community health-based responses. The overrepresentation of Blacks in rates of HIV/AIDS infection, rather than being a cause for widespread concern, serves to reify Blackness-as-disease, as sign of the virus itself.

The effect of all of these shifts in queer discourse has positioned the Black gay man as the hyper-visible face of HIV/AIDS. The anti-stigma politics of the plague era are now set aside, leaving Black queers—Black gay men in particular—marked for death. The lives and struggles of Black queers living with HIV/AIDS are unrecognized, all while mainstream queer politics moves away from HIV/AIDS as a central point of concern. This simultaneous hyper-visibility with political invisibility is what the theorist C. Riley Snorton calls the “glass closet” of Black sexuality, a way of characterizing the “hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle and speculation” with which Black sexuality has been treated since the first encounter between the Black and the European.

The Black-queer-with-AIDS is the contemporary figure of this spectacle, one whom largely white mainstream queer politics readily distances itself from in order to reach its goal of assimilation and homonormativity. Just last week, the case of Michael “Tiger Mandingo” Johnson, the HIV positive ex-college wrestler who was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison for wilfully transmitting HIV to a number of partners without disclosing his status, showed this to be an active concern of queer politics. As journalist Steven Thrasher has argued, Johnson came to be an HIV scapegoat, embodying a number of racialized tropes surrounding “predatory” Black male sexuality that served to contain the risk to non-Black queer bodies.

To anyone whose politics call for the disruption of all forms of oppression, post-AIDS queer activism is more complicit than liberating. It is delegitimized by a neoliberal politics of erasure and endemic anti-Blackness. Within its political framework, the Black queer is necessarily invisible, because the success of queer politics is contingent upon its whiteness—its distance from the site of contagion. The project of queer politics hinges on a disavowal of Blackness and Black lives. Issues which directly and disproportionately affect Black queers—such as HIV/AIDS, homelessness, criminalization of sex work, poverty, and underemployment—are not and cannot be a part of the agenda of mainstream queer activism. Post-AIDS queer politics’ normative subject, the prodigal child of the plague years, is white, middle-class and upwardly mobile. Its telos is further incorporation into the state and structures of power that aim to destroy Black life.

After June 26, in the afterglow of a historic juridical victory, queer politics stands at a crucial crossroads. Among other things, the Black Lives Matter movement has put public pressure on the notion of a unified, multiracial LGBT community, and the prominence and prevalence of Black queer activists within the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside the relative silence (if not outright hostility) of non-Black queer activists toward the movement, calls into question the notion of a coalition politics. In order for queer politics to live up to its name, it must embrace and center the issues affecting its most vulnerable subjects. If it is to do any truly revolutionary work, queer politics must excise the anti-Blackness that lies at its core and effectively reconstruct itself. White queer failure to recognize that Black queer lives matter will continue to enfeeble the queer project. As it flies now, the LGBT rainbow—proud in its vivid indigo and dazzling pink—signals a blatant disregard for Black life.