Because I’m A White Man, Can I Not Talk About Feeling Oppressed?

Writing about—and recognizing—privilege can be productive, says Patrick McNeil.

I went through a Women’s Studies graduate program. And I’m a man. And this is difficult for some people to conceptualize. That there is a place at all for men in feminism is difficult for some people, too.

On a post I recently published on Feministe, one commenter was against any male involvement, saying “I personally think no feminist website should ever publish the writings of any man, ever. They are not relevant.” Most other commenters—and the editor who published my post—defended my writing, but it served as a reminder that, as a man (and especially as a white man) I am seen by some as too privileged to write about feelings of oppression. And that sucks because, well, while it’s not something I want to brag about, it’s still something that occurs. I’m gay, and shit happens.

But that commenter’s opinion matters, and I’m glad she persisted. While my post was about the street harassment of gay and bisexual men, it generated a broader discussion—partly as a result of this commenter’s dismissal of me as a legitimate feminist writer, and partly because the idea is a new one for a lot of people.

We hear a lot about the worst possible outcomes in public spaces, particularly for gay men. I remember reading an article last week about a gay couple in North Carolina who were beaten and left bloody while walking down the street—just because they are gay. Maybe I read about these things more often than others because of the particular blogs I follow, but gay men are often victims of attacks, and I tend to process these instances of violence independently because that’s how they’re posted.

But this sort of discrimination, of course, is symptomatic of larger social forces. As one commenter wrote about my post and the ensuing discussion, “I honestly think this discussion is important, because abuse of queer men is one of the direct effects of the patriarchal culture of misogyny.” And that’s something worth remembering. I think it’s time we think about street harassment—street harassment of all people—collectively as a social problem, one that happens everywhere and every day to so many people. It’s not one woman being catcalled, or one gay man being harassed for his feminine appearance (and I should clarify, one man who is perceived to be gay), it’s the collective experiences of these people existing in the same world, the shared feelings of invasion and restricted movement, and the constant worry that it will happen yet again.

I’m careful never to write about this sort of harassment without acknowledging that the street harassment of women, I would conjecture, happens more often and to more people. After all, there are many more women in the world (and I don’t mean to essentialize) than men who are perceived to be same-sex attracted. I also know that framing myself as a student of Women’s Studies automatically opens me up to criticisms, particularly that I am trying to refocus discussions on men or that it’s really just a cry for help. And that’s not my intention at all. I just happen to be a man, and a sexual minority, and I want to write from a feminist perspective about my experiences and the experiences other men have had.

And this brings me back to my discussion of privilege. Going through my program I often wrote about LGBT issues, and particularly about violence enacted against gay men. I never saw fault in this and my professors didn’t seem to either. It was a reaction to my environment, I think. As I sat through class after class hearing about how oppressive the white male population is, I wanted to remind others that identity categories beyond race and gender exist. And, admittedly, I probably did that too much. But I couldn’t help it. I felt too privileged. I still do, and I know this is a problematic thought process. But I also think it’s normal.

My insecurities with my own privilege are complicated by how I am positioned within an urban gay male population that celebrates youth, whiteness, and physical appearance above all else. That I am young, white, and benefit to some degree from what Hugo Schwyzer and others might call “looks privilege” is something I recently came to realize more clearly. While I’m all too aware of the racism that circulates throughout gay male populations, it was actually talking to men affected by it that ultimately broke my heart. And I still don’t understand it. But I do know that, while I may still be harassed for being gay (including harassment from other gay men), I currently embody a level of privilege that makes me uncomfortable. Though I navigate a society that judges how legible my masculinity is at any given moment, I am also aware that, when I’m in what might be called a gay space, there really aren’t any ways that I feel noticeably oppressed. In these spaces, I am that straight white male figure in the broader society who ruins everything with his patriarchy. And that sort of terrifies me.

My post also generated some responses on Twitter, and one queer black man in particular was offended by the absence of race in my writing. And while this was just a short introduction to the research I did, I totally get it. And I agree. And I wish I had included something about it, even just to acknowledge that I KNOW race exists and that men of color experience unique forms of harassment because of their race and sexual orientation. But, I didn’t. That doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about it, and that doesn’t mean I don’t care about those experiences. I had to start somewhere, and unfortunately my work, to him, read as a piece exclusively written for the white gay male. I’m sort of glad he challenged my privilege like he did (in 11 consecutive tweets). It’s something I need to acknowledge, because I’ve been too uncomfortable with it in the past. Writing about—and recognizing—privilege can be productive, too.

What’s not productive is pointing out what’s missing and then moving on. It was always an easy comment to make in classes throughout graduate school—this was a great article, but what about an analysis of race? Or, the author didn’t talk about sexual orientation at all. What about intersectionality? And while it’s important to talk about what’s missing from any discussion, it’s also important to recognize what’s being added. I’m not sure that my research is amazing, but I appreciate the positive feedback and the constructive criticism I’ve received. And I appreciate, perhaps above all else, the ways it has forced me to view my own privilege—something I’ve been oddly uncomfortable with for so long now. I need to stop trying to measure it, as if it’s in any way quantifiable, and instead encourage others—people who don’t normally think about privilege—to think about theirs as well.

Patrick McNeil is finishing his Women’s Studies master’s thesis at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. His work focuses on whether and how gay and bisexual men experience street harassment and how this form of harassment intersects with and diverges from the gender-based street harassment of women. You can follow him on Twitter at @patrickryne.

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