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Sierra Mannie: It’s Time For You To Lip-Sync For Your Life

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By: Joey Nolfi
Twitter: @joeynolfi

Sierra Mannie, it’s time for you to lip sync for your life.

The song you’ve chosen to present to us is a bitter one. The lyrics to “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture” (which can be found by clicking here ) are passionate and fiery, though narrow-minded and ill-informed. They make the point that homosexual Caucasian males don’t have the right to “act black”, as you’ve put it, because they’re white and therefore automatically endowed with a clear path to a long, prosperous, privileged life.

Of course no one has the right to steal or mock someone else’s culture–especially the select few people who undoubtedly do this to black people. It’s wrong. No one is denying that. We all see where you’re coming from and where you started. The problem, however, is that you drove your point into the ground by dragging another culture through the mud by making grand assumptions and insulting generalizations (that derailed your initial point) for the sake of the argument.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first verse of “Dear White Gays” goes a little something like this:


“Maybe, for some of you, it’s a presumed mutual appreciation for Beyoncé and weaves that has you thinking that I’m going to be amused by you approaching me in your best ‘Shanequa from around the way’ voice. I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t care how well you can quote Madea, who told you that your booty was getting bigger than hers, how cute you think it is to call yourself a strong black woman, who taught you to twerk, how funny you think it is to call yourself Quita or Keisha or for which black male you’ve been bottoming — you are not a black woman, and you do not get to claim either blackness or womanhood. It is not yours. It is not for you.”


That sounds incredibly spiteful, but I don’t blame you after the harsh critique you’ve received from the judges. Your runway outfit was, however, falling apart at the seams, my dear, and now the hem of your critique is tattered and ankle-length, when it could benefit from a bit more time, experience, and craftsmanship to extend it to the length of full red carpet realness.

Perhaps you should stop laying claim to all inequality and all struggle. You belong to neither exclusively. Struggle isn’t yours alone. You do not get to revel in your inequality only to use it as a license to box in other similarly-oppressed people. “White gays” as a whole are not the problem in this picture. You do not get to use and objectify inequality as an exclusive accessory, and as a tool to write edgy think-pieces that insult instead of inspire. You objectify things such as race and gender and take it upon yourself to make assumptions about ALL gay white males and define the lines. You’re segregating. The only thing “Dear White Gays” says is “You can only sit here. You can’t sit there,” though the factors you cite (Madea, Beyonce, names, an inflection of the voice) do not belong to or represent the black community exclusively. Still, this does not give someone the right to marginalize a black woman by assuming she’ll respond more positively if she’s called “girl” in casual conversation, and I truly believe that’s what you’re trying to say in “Dear White Gays,” it just gets lost in the steam of your anger.

The second verse is just as grating as the first, but still you make your best attempts at lip-synching through what you think you’re supposed to be saying, doing, and defending:


“Black people can’t have anything. Any of these things include, but aren’t limited to: a general sense of physical safety, comfort with law enforcement, adequate funding and appreciation for black spaces like schools and neighborhoods, appropriate venues for our voices to be heard about criticism of issues without our race going on trial because of it, and solid voting rights (cc: Chris McDaniel).”


and


“At the end of the day, if you are a white male, gay or not, you retain so much privilege. What is extremely unfairly denied you because of your sexuality could float back to you, if no one knew that you preferred the romantic and sexual company of men over women. (You know what I’m talking about. Those “anonymous” torsos on Grindr, Jack’d and Adam4Adam, show very familiar heterosexual faces to the public.) The difference is that the black women with whom you think you align so well, whose language you use and stereotypical mannerisms you adopt, cannot hide their blackness and womanhood to protect themselves the way that you can hide your homosexuality. We have no place to hide, or means to do it even if we desired them.”


I advise you to tell this assertion of black struggle over the struggle of others to Matthew Shephard. Hit a road block? That’s because he’s dead. Murdered in Laramie, Wyoming for his sexuality, for inciting a “gay panic” in two heterosexual males who took it upon themselves to end his life after inserting themselves into his with only violent intentions coursing through their veins. Matthew Shephard made no attempts to hide who he was. Hiding is dangerous. Silence is death, but dying as a victim of an ignorance-fueled crime–as who he was, refusing to change for anyone at the risk of his own life–is valiance in the face of injustice and hatred.

Tell this to all the gay men who are called “faggot” as they walk down the street. Tell them that your struggle is worse than theirs. Tell this to the gay people in your life who have to endure a colleague, a coworker, or a classmate saying something is “so gay” because they lack the empathy and vocabulary to describe something for what it really is, tedious and vapid.

Tell this to the gay men and women of states like Texas, Florida, and your very own Mississippi that do not offer any state level protection to LGBT employees.

Your “us-versus-them” rhetoric is dangerous. I think your intention was an “all-of-us” one, but your lack of empathy painted you into a corner and left you there.

The point is not to equate the black struggle with the gay struggle in every instance (there are varying degrees to both), but instead to embrace our differences and find community in shared oppression and acknowledge that regardless of whatever group society has assigned us to, we are all fighting a battle. Racism exists. It’s terrilble. Sexism exists. It’s terrible. This diversity in our collective, shared experiences as Americans being oppressed by the majority is what makes our culture as a nation so powerful. This shared struggle and mutual respect for one another is what it means to be American. No one is demeaning the struggle of any particular race—certainly not yours, as black people have had it hard over the years—and that means you shouldn’t demean the struggle of others, because ignoring the gay struggle makes your argument (that cultural appropriation is wrong) get lost in the process.

How you have written your opinions on white gays as fact is so problematic. You have no place or authority to tell others how to live their lives or how to endure their struggle. You do not get to say that your struggle is more important than someone else’s just because you’ve encountered a few assholes along the way. One group’s oppression is no less valid than another group’s because of the color of their skin. You don’t have to keep score because Americans have been working hard to promote equality to make sure no one has to. You say  “black people can’t have anything,” but I don’t think that is fair to the members of a community who have worked hard to succeed.

Especially people like Halle Berry, Denzel Washington, Mo’Nique, and Hattie McDaniel. These Americans prove that black people can have Academy Awards. Whoopi Goldberg, Lupita Nyong’o, and Maya Angelou prove that black women can make it in industries that are dominated by white men and dictated by the male preference. Barack Obama’s presidency proves that our country is breaking down walls and changing the future of diversity in America for the better.  He is proof that black people can have the most powerful position in the world.

To say that black people can’t have anything is to demean the leaps and bounds by those who have fought to achieve. Your words demean the accomplishments and perseverance of an entire race of people for the sake of grinding your axe over the way a few men (who happened to be gay and white) talked on Vine the last time you scrolled through it.

The characters you drop in “Dear White Gays,” the “attitude” you cite, and the stereotypes you acknowledge are only your perceived notion of what black culture is. On what day and at what conference did every black person decide that Madea was an ideal representative of the community?

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Let me tell you this: Madea is not only a camp character, she is a heterosexual black male dressing in societally-coded “female” attire; essentially, Madea (and Tyler Perry, the man under the wig) is appropriating the quintessentially multi-racial, multi-cultural, all-inclusive umbrella that is the art of drag.

No one talks about drag being filtered through the lens of straight culture to fit the “tastes” of the black culture you assume elevated Madea to some level of universal representation for the black community. Still, Madea as a character reduces drag to a cheap joke. Look at the funny man in the funny dress. Yet, drag culture perseveres. Drag culture endures. Drag culture ignores this sort of trivial squabbling about what belongs where and who can do what.

Would you be offended if I used the cast of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” using every opportunity they have to talk about “shade” as a means to springboard a campaign against all black women to stop appropriating queer drag culture and its vernacular? (Hint: You’ve done it yourself in “Dear White Gays.”) I ask you to re-visit Paris Is Burning and think twice before you consider using the terms “shade” and “truth tea” before you write a piece about appropriating another’s culture.

But, even still, it’s ok. The gay community will not attack you for finding worth in something from their culture.

The bottom line is that things you cite as being “black” are superficial at most. A name. A movie character. An accent or way of speaking. A bit more life experience will teach you that being a part of something–whether racial, sexual, spiritual, or just plain human–is more than skin deep. It’s seeing the man under the wig, but still giving him two snaps and a crisp dollar bill for celebrating the dynamism of his taste without labeling it as appropriation in a reactionary bout of masked hatred.

Back to the stage. It’s almost over. Your lace-front is receding as you dip into the final bars of the song. You’re beat. You’ve lip-synched for your life. You’re sweating before the judges. The heel on your studded Jimmy Choo is giving out. But was it enough? Was throwing the gay white male struggle under the bus for the sake of promoting your own prejudice—thinly disguised as a critique of what a few gay white men have done—worth it?

Won’t you rip off the drag and strip away the ugliness you wrote and understand the acceptance of struggles other than your own? Or will you hang on to the faint, dated chorus of “Dear White Gays”? Either way, you’re going to have to join the ranks of all the queens–male and female–that have struggled before you, regardless of race, color, or sexuality.

Your points about cultural appropriation are valid. Of course someone who is white cannot possibly understand the full extent of the racial injustices black Americans must endure on a daily basis. No one is denying that. However, your critique of gay male culture and your insistence on making grand assumptions and assertions over the entirety of it is nothing but ignorance in bad, click-bait day drag with horrible foundation and a bad Shangela blend.

Now, sashay away.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Rayon, Ja’mie, and the Transitioning Face of Oscar?

27LETO1_SPAN-articleLarge-v2We’re conditioned to assume that identity and labels go hand in hand.

As consumers we pick at endless rows of grocery store displays, weaving in and out of a sea of familiarity in dozens of uniform rows across the immediate horizon.

Everything is there, and everything is convenient.

The way we digest movies largely follows the same pattern all the way through to awards season. Films are produced, they’re released, and they’re marketed to specific audiences. They succeed or they fail.

It’s funny that studios seem to process us the way we gobble up their films. We fall into demographics, clusters of numbers, ages, attendance figures and statistics; labels placed upon us so they can determine which standards of beauty to uphold and which norms to re-enforce. Anything to make a buck on the status quo.

Oscar campaigns seek to funnel those we see onscreen (and those who craft the fantasy from behind the lens) into their respective categories, to be voted on by the Academy, which bestows a prestigious label on one member from each category: victor.

One thing that hasn’t been a luxury of convenience is the avenue of expression the minority voice has at its immediate disposal. In 2014, teenagers in Florida are being murdered for being black and listening to loud music; in Texas, those who oppose the state’s ban on same-sex marriage face majority opposition to the tune of 57% percent (according to a survey by Public Policy Polling).

As much as movie studios and television networks treat their demographics like guaranteed, sliced-and-served morsels, people are not wonderbread slapped onto a shelf or saccharine pudding fudged into tiny plastic squares.

Labels have become a tool for both sides of the debate. For the oppressed, labels identify their “other”-ness and embrace it; for the oppressor, they’re used to alienate.

It seems that the very industry within which minorities often find their voice also comes under the most scrutiny for upholding societal standards. Big-budget films and the studios which release them generally funnel their products into four affective categories, films that:

a) Ignore minority existence, whether intentionally or unintentionally

b) Bolster traditional gender, race, and identity roles because that’s what the dominant majority is used to

or

c) Both

2013 saw the release (and triumph) of three prominent black-themed, black-created films that bucked the system: Lee Daniels’ The Butler proved that “black” subject matter has commercial staying power; Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station won the hearts of audiences and critics alike, storming critics circle awards at the end of the year; Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is on the verge of potentially becoming the first black-themed film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The clout is undeniable, and the tide seems to be turning in the favor of a “New Black Cinema” movement of sorts.

The voice of the LGBT community is one that shares the spotlight of inequality, yet is often misunderstood by the dominant majority far more than racial minorities. For every The Butler, there are twelve Blue is the Warmest Color controversies; sexual stigma follows simply follows gay-themed films, and we as consumers and critics have ourselves to blame.

The Oscars aren’t innocent on this front, either. So blatantly was the tide of 2005’s awards season turned against Brokeback Mountain when Crash took the Academy’s top honor out from under it. Is the Academy ready to hear the LGBT voice beyond decorating heterosexual actors taking on the “ever-courageous” task of playing *gasp* a gay character?

Dallas Buyers Club, a 2013 film nominated for six awards at the upcoming Oscars, seems like the perfect transitional film for a still all-white, still prominently-heterosexual, still predominantly-male voting base not unlike the one which upset Brokeback Mountain at a time when history could have been made.

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), a homophobic, bigoted man in Texas who contracts AIDS as a result of his promiscuous, drug-using ways.

Using Ron’s homophobia as a base, the film then systematically deconstructs his fear of the LGBT community as he copes with his diagnosis. His struggle with AIDS is closely mirrored by that of Rayon’s (Jared Leto), a transwoman he met while at the hospital. Initially hostile toward her, Ron’s relationship with Rayon is further founded on the prospect of business (he eventually uses her to sell non-approved treatments for AIDS-related ailments on the street), and the hostility he feels toward the gay community lessens to the point where he actively campaigns against the FDA and its regulations.

The film sort of passed with the Academy because of the general “safeness” of its plot. In their eyes, it’s ok for old white men to like this film, seeing as its protagonist is a heterosexual male who “enters” the gay community for personal gain, using a transgender woman as a tool for business instead of, say, enjoying her company. The gay community is seen as an impenetrable barrier or obstacle for Ron. He doesn’t want to associate with it, but bites the bullet for a quick buck.

His tune changes, though, and he quickly forms a friendly bond with Rayon. In one powerful scene that takes place as the pair shop at a grocery store, surrounded by uniform displays and generic products soldiered next to each other in perfectly-aligned fashion, Ron forces a bigoted former-friend to shake Rayon’s hand. It’s a beautiful scene which cements the equal-plane understanding of each character. Rayon shows Ron a side of himself he didn’t think existed, and Ron shows her an equal ally in the battle against discrimination, as he now knows what it’s like to be discriminated against.

It’s not merely the presence of a trans character that makes Dallas Buyers Club such a revolutionary film. Rather, it’s the screenplay’s unwillingness to let Rayon become defined by her status as a transwoman that allows the film to thrive.

Whereas a film like The Crying Game (an Oscar favorite in its respective year) toys with gender identity as a thematic device to give the film some edge, Dallas Buyers Club‘s screenplay never bullshits Rayon’s existence, doesn’t shove her into any boxes, and certainly doesn’t confine her to heroic status because of her identity. She is not a object of LGBT championing, nor is she an “other”: she’s simply a character.

Rayon is defined by her attitude, her assholish (if you will) demeanor, and the fact that she’s allowed to be herself, which is an imperfect person not merely defined by her sexuality. The fact that she’s allowed to be flawed beyond what the hetero-normative perspective would immediately label a “flaw” (her transsexuality) is where the character succeeds as a positive presence for the LGBT community in film.

While Ron’s’s relationship with her deepens as the film goes on, it’s never motivated by anything more than the bond of friendship.

While Ron is doing a service to gay community, Rayon is never seen as needing a straight man to save or defend her. She’s secure in herself enough to maintain a grasp on equality within their relationship. Issues of “queerness” aren’t at the forefront of her character. She sees Ron as a friend, doesn’t let his sexuality (or what his demeanor and dress would suggest about his “straightness” to a stereotypical mind) precede him, and initially approaches him out of kindness without fear as they both lay in hospital beds, for disease knows no socially-coded bounds.

Rayon’s eventual death is deeply disturbing. We spend so much time with Rayon, absorbing her flaws, watching her paint her face and create the reality she desires that the world won’t let her have without burden. In her dying moments, she remains true to herself. We see quick, abstract shots of her reaching for a mirror and makeup; not as a means to put on a fake face, but to cement her life’s purpose with the identity she embraced, even in death.

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Another unlikely face that (sort of) destigmatized the LGBT community in 2013 was Australian writer-director-actor Chris Lilley and his brilliant mockumentary series “Ja’mie: Private School Girl.” 

The series follows Ja’mie King (Lilley), a 16-year old private school student and her attempts to garner her institution’s most prestigious award, the Hilford Medal. Of course, Ja’mie’s pursuit is offset by her miserably evil ways. The show comes off at once as commentary on the ever-increasing superficiality of the world’s youth, but never emphasizes the fact that its title character is played by a 40-year old man.

Most American critics bashed the series, labeling it a transphobic assault of sorts, insisting that it prompted viewers to see Ja’mie as a monstrous other simply because a male actor happened to play her part.

First of all, the American media and entertainment industry hardly carry the torch for the LGBT community in a way that gives them the right to suddenly defend what they perceive to be unfair representation. Second, the genius of the series lies within Lilly’s abilities as an actor, not his creative decision to don women’s clothing.

There’s a brilliant believability in his mannerisms as he encapsulates and transforms into a 16-year old girl. From the way he maintains childish aura to the attitude, the dialect, the cultural understanding of a younger generation gone sour is embodied in the character. It’s not drag for the sake of poking fun at a man in women’s clothing, it’s simply appealing for Lilley’s ability to become a character he’s created. It’s acting in its finest form. 

The show insists on not placing Ja’mie in situations where the gender-bending would be an easy joke. Instead of seeing a person of trans identity, we’re forced to see Ja’mie as the terrible, manipulative, angry, evil, juvenile, judgmental person that she is. Her actions transcend her physicality. The show doesn’t rely on its lazy, would-be crutch to succeed. 

Whereas Rayon represents the progressive face of transpeople in cinema, Ja’mie’s appeal lies more in how the character is digested by audiences versus the content of the show. The de-emphasis on the fact that it’s “drag” has audiences focusing on more important aspects of her character: how she treats people, how she manipulates every dynamic of her life, and the pure comedic wit of Lilley’s writing.

Australian audiences adore the series, as their audiences are generally able to understand the appeal versus identifying its most superficial parts and ripping them apart because it’s easy to. American audiences–especially those watching movies–could benefit from adopting this mindset.

So, does Jared Leto’s status as a frontrunner in the Best Supporting Actor category speak more to the Academy’s diversifying tastes, or does it speak more to the Academy’s long-standing view of straight men playing queer characters as heroic or stepping beyond their bounds?

I think it’s easier to gauge the Academy’s stance by looking at the Best Actor category, where Matthew McConaughey is currently predicted to win by nearly every major Oscar pundit. In a sense, Ron is the Academy. He represents the old-fashioned, traditional way of thinking that’s made the Oscars a confluence of the same opinion for the past 85 ceremonies.

Dallas Buyers Club represents a point of reference for these members. They can reject his transformation, or accept the minority voice the diversifying Academy around them is attempting to amplify.

Until the envelopes are opened, let’s hope they inspect the mirror as carefully as Rayon and Ja’mie do, or force audiences to do.

No one likes the old white boys’ club label anymore, anyway.