Love is Love is Not an Excuse

Even when we aren’t marching with Tiki Torches and shouting “JEWS WILL NOT REPLACE US,” white people have a natural talent for racial bias.  So natural, in fact, that most of us regularly contribute to discrimination and erasure of people of color (POC) without realizing it.

The LGBTQ+ community is no exception.  In our struggle for rights and acceptance, we have an unfortunate tendency to ignore queer people of color (QPOC). Take, for example, the Stonewall riots: widely seen as a turning point in the struggle for gay rights in America (less so for trans* rights, unfortunately).  These riots, although instigated by trans women of color, launched a movement that benefitted white cisgender gay people disproportionately to the rest of the queer community. The 2015 movie about the Stonewall riots even created a fictional character just so the protagonist could be a cisgender white man instead of the real-life Marsha P. Johnson and/or Silvia Rivera.

We white people have been socialized, through a system of racial oppression, to see ourselves as the “default” and to center ourselves in situations that are not about us.  I am not saying that white queer people (WQP) do not face real difficulties with discrimination and violence, rather that QPOC experience a uniquely difficult struggle as a result of their intersecting marginalized identities.  See this, this, this, this, this, and this article for more information.

When the Pulse shooting happened last year, WQP yet again overlooked the experiences of QPOC as we processed our grief and rage and fear.  I own my contribution to this; I and many of my white queer friends initially failed to acknowledge that the majority of victims were people of color and that Hispanic/Latinx and black communities were hit harder than we were.  It took some reading, a few difficult conversations, and a lot of introspection for me to understand that by claiming the event as “the gay 9/11” and by centering my feelings of victimhood, I was effectively ignoring QPOC.

Which is why today, I want to talk about the comic Love is Love.

LoveIsLove-Cv1

For anyone who doesn’t know, Love is Love is a 144-page comic anthology co-published by DC Comics and IDW in December of 2016, in order to raise money for survivors, families, and victims of the Pulse Shooting. It features 1-2 page comics and spreads depicting the rage, grief, fear, and ultimately hope within the LGBTQ+ and ally communities in response to the event.

You might ask what this anthology has to do with QPOC erasure.  Look at the racial diversity represented on the cover! Unfortunately, the cover doesn’t mean much once you realize that white men are over-represented on the list of writers and artists, while people of color are grossly under-represented. In fact, despite 300+ creators contributing to the project, Love is Love features the work of exactly one black woman.  For perspective: two of the Pulse shooting’s 49 victims were black women; three were white men.

At an LGBTQ+ comics convention in Brooklyn, New York, I attended a panel called “Love is Love: One Year Later,” featuring a small group of contributors, half of whom were white men. Marc Andreyko, the project’s originator and main organizer, moderated the panel. He was understandably proud of the anthology’s success; although meant to be a one-time event, Love is Love has gone through several re-printings, distributed more than 100,000 copies, and will soon be released for publication in several foreign countries. Given that 100% of the initial proceeds went to people who were affected by the Pulse shootings – with proceeds of later publications slated to benefit LGBTQ+ charities such as The Trevor Project – this is undeniably a good thing.

Which is likely why Andreyko was so thrown off when the first two questions from the audience called him out on the lack of POC contributors.

The resulting discussion consisted of several familiar justifications, from Andreyko as well as contributor Phil Jimenez (who himself is a QPOC):

  • You’re wrong.
  • How do you know they were white?
  • No seriously, how do you know?
  • We used white male contributors because we wanted this project to sell.
  • We reached out to as many people as we knew.
  • Not everyone we contacted was able to submit something by the deadline.
  • We didn’t intentionally exclude people of color.

Andreyko did later walk back a few of these comments, acknowledging the problematic lack of diversity on the contributor list and pledging to do better in future anthologies.  (Side note: apparently a five-year anniversary edition is in the works, and Andreyko promises to include more QPOC creators.)

Not all of these excuses were completely false; the comic publishing industry has been consistently dominated by white men. By limiting the project to people who were well-known, easy for white men within the industry to reach, and/or able to temporarily drop what they were doing to create a contribution without being paid for it, the organizers unconsciously favored white men, whose privilege allows them to be over-represented among people who fit those criteria.

White people who are committed to racial equality need to understand that it is not enough to be “color-blind” or to ignore race as a factor. In projects such as Love is Love, white people in a position of privilege need to actively reach out to people of color, directly counteracting the systemic disadvantages that POC face. We so naturally default to white centrism that anything that does not actively work to include POC unintentionally shuts them out. (And that’s not even considering the issue of tokenism.)

The conversation was not going well until Tee Franklin, the only black woman on the panel (the entire project, in fact) spoke up.  (Jimenez appeared stunned to learn that Franklin was the only black woman contributor.)  Franklin described her experience as the “token black woman” in Love is Love.  She talked about queer black women and girls who had approached her to say that her contribution was the only place where they saw themselves represented. She pointed out that not only do databases of creators of color exist, so do anthologies of their work.  There’s even a database where people can search for queer creators of color.

Andreyko seemed increasingly receptive to what Franklin was saying, and by the end of the discussion he appeared willing to take action to include more queer creators of color in future projects.  My girlfriend and I were visiting Tee Franklin’s display after the panel, and Andreyko actually approached her while we were there.  He looked through one of the anthologies she had mentioned and eventually gave her his contact information so that they could work together on future POC-inclusive projects.  As someone outside the comic publishing industry, I can only hope that positive change comes from this.

A recurring theme at this convention was the importance of diversity, intersectionality, and representation in the media.  Representation matters, I heard time and time again. The Love is Love panel attempted to put that mantra into action, by calling out a project whose representation was lacking. I’m sad that it took almost a year for this issue to be brought to the organizers’ attention, and I’m equally sad that Tee Franklin is receiving backlash for speaking out about it. WQP (and allies) need to start doing better by QPOC, and this is just one of the many ways we can do it.

So what can you do?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Watch a video of the panel on Facebook. Show your support for Tee Franklin and other QPOC by liking or sharing it.
  • Educate yourself on the struggles that QPOC face. As I’ve said in previous entries, it’s long past time for white people to listen to marginalized voices.
  • Include QPOC in your conversations about LGBTQ+ issues.  Do you know how many trans women of color were killed in 2016? 2017? The past 48 hours? Do your friends and family know? Do not let another conversation about the Pulse shooting finish without someone mentioning the queer Latinx and black communities. Keep pushing when your white friends and families try to ignore or dismiss the issue. Be that person.
  • Show your support for Tee Franklin on Twitter and/or by pre-ordering her book Bingo Love. I’ve read the preview, and it looks fantastic!
  • Support queer creators of color by actively seeking out their projects.  I listed some ideas in a previous entry about prose books by authors of color, and there are plenty of other resources out there for finding books and comics by queer creators of color.
  • Let Marc Andreyko know that you hope future projects similar to Love is Love will be more inclusive of queer creators of color.
  • Buy and read Love is Love. Yes, it’s problematic, but it’s also a wonderful project for an excellent cause. We can acknowledge its racial bias while enjoying and supporting it for the good that it does.  Just make sure that when you discuss the book, you acknowledge the experience of QPOC and creators who were excluded. Do the work to make your corner of the LGBTQ+ movement inclusive, intersectional, and representative.
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Books by people of color: A rec list

In early 2016 I realized that the overwhelming majority of books I had read were written by white authors. It was one of those “duh” moments that formulated my privileged-white-person-becoming-aware-of-pervasive-systemic-racism process.  To some extent, I blame American public schools, the media, and the publishing industry, but the bottom line is that I had neglected to examine all of the ways that white supremacy has seeped into the cracks and seams of my life.  So, I made a resolution to only read books by authors of color for a year.

I highly recommend that other white readers do this: if not a full year of avoiding white authors, then a close examination of the diversity of the authors you’ve read and conscious effort to expand it.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: listening to people of color has never been more important than it is now.

I’ve created a list of some of my favorites.  I did my best to include a variety of genres, but there are definite trends.

Feel free to add your recs if you have any!

Nonfiction – Essays

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

This is a collection of thoughtful, well-written, and occasionally hilarious essays on gender, race, sexuality, body type, higher education, and Scrabble. Anything by Roxane Gay is worth a read (I’m currently reading Difficult Women, which I love so far), and this award-winning bestseller is a fantastic place to start.

Ljeoma Oluo’s articles

Okay, you caught me. Two items on this list aren’t physical books. To my knowledge, Oluo hasn’t published anything off the internet (except for the Badass Feminist Coloring Book, which I discovered while researching her and will be placing on my wish list right…now.) Nonetheless, her writing is too important to exclude, especially now.  I specifically recommend “Welcome to the Anti-Racism Movement” and “When a Woman Deletes a Man’s Comment Online.”

Nonfiction – History

God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 by David Levering Lewis

This one was obviously written for people who either read about history for a living or want to read about history for a living. I am not one of those people. Still, it was worth pushing through the dense material in order to see a perspective on Medieval Europe that we never got in my overwhelmingly-white American public school.

Nonfiction – Memoir

The Other Side of Paradise by Staceyann Chin

Staceyann Chin, a lesbian speaker and activist from Jamaica, describes her childhood, biracial identity, adolescence, coming-out, and emigration to the United States.  Her story is emotional, charming, and powerful, and the audiobook – which she narrates – absolutely blew me away.

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

This memoir was published long before Obama ran for president, and it beautifully outlines the way that his biracial identity and early activism uncovered complex issues about American race relations.

Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching by Mychal Denzel Smith

I think, at a minimum, every American needs to read or listen to this book. Smith uses his life experience to illustrate hard and complicated truths, not just about the experience of black men in America but also the experiences of women, LGBTQ+ people, people with mental illness, and people with multiple marginalizing identities. There’s an audiobook narrated by actor Kevin R. Free, and it is phenomenal.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

A lawyer in Alabama who started a non-profit organization to provide legal counsel for Death Row prisoners – among a myriad of other things – Stevenson uses tragic and horrifying case examples to highlight the cruelty and racism in the American criminal justice system. This is another book that all Americans – especially white Americans and/or people who feel complacent with our justice system – need to read or listen to. (Stevenson reads the audiobook.)

Fiction – Non-speculative

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

A famous jazz musician dies, and his death reveals to the world that he was transgender in an age when trans* issues were even more poorly-understood than they are today. The book uses alternating points of view between between the late musician’s wife, adult son, and people with varying degrees of involvement in his life in order to weave a tragic and heartwarming story.

Burnt Shadows by Kamala Shamsie

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Kamala Shamsie (see also: In the City by the SeaKartography), but this one is my favorite. It follows a survivor of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki as she transitions from houseguest in a British home in Delhi, to refugee in Pakistan, to wife and mother in Karachi, to elderly woman watching New York City struggling to recover after 9/11.  There is love and tragedy and destruction and the sense that everything is endless and cyclical.

(Kamala Shamsie is my former creative writing professor, which is how I found out about her. I wish she were better-known because she is a fantastic writer with important things to say, especially about politics in the Middle East and the USA.)

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Tragic and complex and layered, this series of interconnected anecdotes centers on two Native American families living on a reservation in North Dakota.  The book meanders between time period and point-of-view as aimlessly as many of its characters wander through life.  Several of Erdich’s other books are on my to-read list.

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

This is a good one for people who like unreliable narrators and hazy, ambiguous non-solutions to mysteries (I’m told that many of Ishiguro’s books are like that, so check him out if that’s your thing).  Slightly creepy, it’s a beautifully written study of mothers and daughters in post-WWII Japan and beyond.

Guapa by Saleem Haddad

A man in an unnamed Arab country narrates the 24 hours of his life after his grandmother discovers him and his boyfriend in bed together.  As he attempts – and fails – to go about a normal day, we see commentary on politics, society (Arab and Western), marginalization, and family secrets, all through the eyes of a traumatized man trying to redefine himself in a world that consistently fails to understand him.

Fiction – Spectulative (Sci Fi/Fantasy/Magical Realism)

Parable of the Sower/Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler

Anything by Octavia Butler is necessary reading (I read and loved Kindred, and the rest of her books are on my to-read list). She was woke before most white people knew woke was a thing, and she used sci fi/fantasy to illuminate difficult truths about racism, sexism, and classism in America. These two books, about a new religion fighting to emerge in a harsh, dystopian America, are beautiful, tragic, and surprisingly prophetic.  The second book in particular has some frightening parallels to our current political environment.

The Fifth Season/The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

The first two books in what is so far an incomplete series, these novels represent epic fantasy at its finest.  My words can’t do them justice, except to say that Jemisin 110% deserved the Hugo award she earned for the first book.  She is another author with several books on my “to-read” list. The audio books, read by Robin Miles, are also mind-blowingly good.

Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

Most people know Amy Tan from The Joy Luck Club, though I actually enjoyed this one more. This book fits the “magical realism” genre because the narrator is speaking to us not long after her tragic and sudden death, describing a group tour through China and Myanmar that goes horribly wrong in part because she isn’t alive to lead it. The Bonesetter’s Daughter is also a good real-world-fantasy book.

Infomacracy by Malka Older

In the somewhat-distant future, our political, social, corporate, and globalization systems will have undergone some massive changes. Two parts political thriller, one part biting social commentary, this book (the first in a yet-incomplete series) holds up a funhouse mirror to politics, capitalism, and the information age, showing us a caricature of where we could be headed.

Fiction – Young Adult

Akata Witch by Neddi Okorafor

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed the Harry Potter series. There is magic, detailed world-building, compelling friendships, and an emphasis on standing up for what you believe in, even when it’s hard, even when it’s terrifying, and even when you have virtually no idea what you’re doing.  (I also enjoyed Lagoon and Binti.)

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Think Diary of a Wimpy Kid only far more profound and compelling, with an added focus on disability, segregation, poverty, death, and injustice to Indigenous people. At the same time, it somehow manages to be uplifting and occasionally hilarious. I fell head-over-heels for the protagonist and was genuinely upset when the story ended.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Another disabled-underdog protagonist with a sharp voice and compelling fish-out-of-water story; simply subtract the illustrations and add alternating points-of-view to create a more comprehensive look at this character’s life.

(If you liked one of the above two books, chances are good that you’ll like the other. Obviously, I highly recommend both.)

Shadowshaper by Daniel Older

This urban fantasy condemns police brutality, white supremacy, cultural appropriation, and gentrification. The magic is fascinating, the world-building complex, the story twisting and mysterious.  The audiobook, narrated by Anika Noni Rose, is phenomenal to the point where I would almost recommend that over the written version.  Her performance adds life and depth to the characters, sweeping you along with every step of the plot.

If You Could be Mine by Sarah Farzian

A teenage girl in Iran is in love with her (female) best friend, in a country where being gay is a crime but being transgender is not. This book uses the forbidden-queer-teenage-love story (see also: Finlater by Shawn Stewart Ruff) to explore issues of sexuality and gender identity in a way that is thoughtful, sad, and surprisingly uplifting at the same time.

Short Stories

Happiness, Like Water by Chinelo Okparanta

A series of moving and beautifully written short stories about Nigerian women of different ages, classes, and sexualities.  I also enjoyed Under the Udala Trees, which is a full-length novel about a gay woman growing up in 60s/70s Nigeria.

Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

Yet another fantastic author who has produced a bunch of excellent works, Baldwin is particularly focused on the intersection between the black male identity and the queer identity in America.

Karma and Other Stories by Rishi Reddi

I actually read this series of somewhat-interconnected stories a few years ago. Each story depicts Indian American culture in a different way, presenting the different struggles, losses, and successes that Indian people of multiple generations face in America.

The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu

This one is actually a single short story, rather than a collection.  It’s available to read for free here at Tor.com, so I’ll let the story speak for itself. Check it out!

Honorable mentions: 

(books and authors I enjoyed but didn’t include because I had to cap this list somewhere)

Nonfiction: A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Non-speculative Fiction: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

Speculative Fiction: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord, The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino,  The Between by Tananarive Due.

Young AdultWaters Between by Joseph Bruchac, Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova.

Short Stories: Let the Dead Bury Their Dead by Randall Kenan, The Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

Other authors to check out: Isabel Allende, John Chu, Toni Morrison, Gene Luen Yang, Malinda Lo, Salman Rushdie.

Authors I haven’t read but I’ve heard good things about from multiple and/or reliable sources: Shamim Sarif, Audre Lourde, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Junot Diaz, Nalo Hopkinson, Gabby Rivera, Zadie Smith, Manil Suri.

SUGGESTIONS FROM OTHER PEOPLE AFTER I POSTED THIS:

On “Geek Spaces” and the Social Politics of Pokemon Go

Kenney Park, next to Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts, is a small but popular space containing a basketball court, a playground, an open plaza, a fountain that people can walk through on hot days, and – recently – four Pokéstops. This plus its proximity to other Pokéstops and gyms has made Kenney Park a popular location among players of the new augmented reality game Pokémon Go.  To the outside observer, this looks like oddly-clumped groups of people staring at their phones and occasionally spouting phrases like “one more Gastly and I can evolve a Gengar” while oblivious toddlers chase their grandparents through the water jets at the center of the plaza.

I want to stress that we – and I do mean we, as I myself have caught more Charmanders in Kenney Park than I have everywhere else combined – have never disrupted the activities of the people who visit these spaces for reasons other than Pokémon Go.  We are not loud, we are not unruly, and we aren’t in anyone’s way.  In every setting I’ve encountered while playing this  game, Pokémon Go players quietly coexist with non-players in these public spaces.

Yet our presence seems to have an effect on some people, and not in a good way.

One night as I was leaving Kenney Park (my battery was low and I needed to recharge), I passed a trio of white 20-somethings on the street corner across from the plaza.  One of them, the only woman, said: “I just feel really uncomfortable right now.” One of the others replied, “I just wanna go in there and knock everyone’s phones out of their hands.”

Had I been a braver person, I would have politely requested that this guy stop being a douche (or worse).  That, however, is not who I am.

One evening in Boston Public Garden,  a young woman and two people who were presumably her parents passed through another popular Pokémon Go spot.  I overheard her say, “Literally everyone here is playing Pokémon right now,” with the same tone and facial expression one would use to complain that no one in the house ever showers. She even held up her hands as if to ensure we kept our distance.

The man who could have been her father made eye-contact with me, so I smiled at him and nodded.  He looked away, uncomfortable, and I returned to my game.

It’s not just people loudly and pointedly voicing their discomfort with our presence.  I have, both individually and as part of a group, received taunts, jokes, and downright harassment by people who for some reason object to us playing Pokémon Go in public spaces.  Comments have ranged from passive aggressive and immature (“Did I run over a Pokémon?  GOOD!”- from a cyclist who looked old enough to be my father) to direct and downright abusive (“Hey ****s! Stop playing ****ing Pokémon Go!” – from a young man in the backseat of a passing car).

These incidents did not surprise me.  I have had geek interests since childhood and am well aware by now of the stigma around geek culture.  It has, however, surprised me to see that Pokémon Go players as a whole appear to be immune to these harassments when they occur. We exchange eye-rolls, laugh to each other, or often don’t react at all.

I once overheard a player describe an incident where a man attempted to throw water balloons at the players gathered in Kenney Park.  According to the story, he made multiple attempts, but the balloons kept hitting the curb instead of the crowd.  Eventually, one player shouted, “Try spinning them!” and every player in the plaza burst out laughing.

I wish I had been there.  Not only because then I could confirm that this incident actually happened, but because it would have been a joy to witness after years of being internally and externally shamed for having geek interests.

(Spinning the Pokéballs, for those who don’t know, is a technique that is used to try to capture Pokémon who are particularly powerful and/or difficult to catch.)

Plenty of people who enjoy Sci Fi, fantasy, or other so-called “geek genres” understand the experience of othering by people who do not share these interests.  We’ve been laughed at, ostracized, and/or openly shamed for years.  For me, high school and college was a slow discovery that other people shared my level of engagement in series such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, even cartoons and comic books.  It was a revelation; I didn’t need to hide who I was anymore because there were people just like me.  I could join geek communities and be proud of myself as a part of them.  This discovery literally changed my life.

Even so, geek culture has typically been relegated to niche spaces such as comic book stores, conventions, and of course the internet.  Geek spaces run wild on the web as fans from all over the world intensively discuss fictional characters and worlds, sharing their own artwork and writing with one another.  Still, these spaces have typically existed separately from the mainstream, and geek culture  has not been integrated into our society as a whole.  For example, it is common to see people in public spaces playing basketball, frisbee, or even baseball.  Less common: public Dungeons and Dragons tournaments.  Tabletop role-playing games are conducted in the back rooms at comic book stores or in players’ apartments.  We revel in who we are, possibly more than we ever have, but we continue to do so quietly, privately.

And then Pokémon Go happened.

Pokemon Go, by nature, directly contradicts the isolationism that has been intrinsic to geek culture for so long.  It forces players to walk around our neighborhoods, encourages us to gather in public places such as Kenney Park or Boston Public Garden. The aim is to get people active and exploring their spaces.  It has succeeded in this, of course, but it has also pushed parts of geek culture into spaces where we have not previously existed so openly. And that is making a lot of people uncomfortable.  We are not disruptive, but we are visible, and that appears to be too much for some people.

Many “non-geek” communities seem to view people with geek interests as being socially-awkward white men who live in our parents’ basements and have never had a girlfriend.  (For the record, as a white woman who does not live with her parents and DOES have a girlfriend, I see this reputation for what it is.) Pokémon Go is directly contradicting that stereotype.  We are all genders.  We are all ages.  We have a range of abilities, and we would have an even wider range if this game were created to be more accessible. We are straight, we are cis, and we are LGBTQIAP+.  We are black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous, and multi-racial.  We are single people, couples, families, and friends.  We are nearly everyone.  This diversity is obvious the first time you encounter a gathering of people playing Pokémon Go, and it’s beautiful.

The concept of a diverse group of people publicly enjoying a geek interest is apparently so threatening to the social order that some people – all of whom, as far as I’ve witnessed, have been white men – need to taunt and harass us as if we were all back in middle school.  The brilliant thing is, this time it’s not working.  We see these taunts for what they are and are unfazed.  Empowered by each other, we proudly exist in public spaces that belong to us as much as they belong to the people who neither know or care what a Voltorb is.  Because there are six billion people in this world and if coexistence wasn’t possible, humanity wouldn’t have lasted this long.

I recognize that I am drawing parallels with other marginalized groups, specifically pertaining to race, gender, gender identify, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, religion, and any number of other factors I may have missed. While I would never say that the experience of geek culture is proportional to what these groups have faced – in many cases these situations are literal matters of life and death – but the idea is similar. We have long accepted our marginalization and are now pushing for visibility and acceptance in public spaces, literally and metaphorically. This can feel threatening and upsetting to the people who have occupied those spaces for decades (centuries, even) and are suddenly feeling as though we are somehow infringing on their “rights.”  Hopefully this backlash will fade as these majority groups learn that we are not pushing them off the bench, merely compelling them to make room for us to sit there too.

So yes, I will continue to play my game based on an anime based on a manga based on a game.  I will pause in my attempts to catch that Fearow in order to smile at the small child chasing a butterfly in front of me.  I will carefully step around the water jets in order to access the Pokéstop at the back of the park. I will coexist with people outside of geek culture, proud to be who I am and like what I like. And that guy who believes I simply need to “get a boyfriend,” will someday, I hope, get over it.