Avoiding blackface and Native American headdresses at Halloween is only the first step. Kristian Reyes on why white gay men need to stop co-opting parts of other cultures that suit them.

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It happened when Laganja shrieked “yas, mama”.

It happened when Alexis Michelle had us wincing at her pebbled Native American outfit, complete with diagonally placed hunting bow headpiece.

And it happened when the beloved Raja strutted full throttle down the runway in a Native American headdress.

Cultural appropriation. It happens time and time again in the gay community, and queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race are far from the only perpetrators.

Culture can be messy, it can be fluid, and at times, it can be shared, but let’s get on the same page when it comes to what actually defines cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation occurs when we co-opt aspects of an underprivileged or minority culture and divorce it from its roots for the purpose of costume, fashion, ridicule, or profit.

At times, it’s hard to see cultural appropriation in action.

Take for example parties themed around the ‘Day of the Dead’ (Día de los Muertos).

What we as non-Mexicans perceive as a creative Halloween theme is in fact a 3000-year-old month long celebration of the dead, involving food offerings, rituals, and the construction of alters to family and friends who have died, with absolutely no connection to Halloween until the West deemed it so.

Such is its significance, UNESCO put the day on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2008. Pretty big deal right?  

Yet the West has managed to colonise, butcher, and tokenise its cultural significance.

For many in the gay community, all it takes is a ‘Day of the Dead’ themed party around Halloween for guys to fall down that slippery slope of cultural appropriation, and they often defend themselves with a self-declared justification around cultural appreciation.

Cultural appropriation also involves stealing the vernacular of other cultures.

As someone who identifies as culturally diverse (though I prefer the terms ‘wog’ or ‘brown’), it’s heartening to see white gay guys embrace shows like Pose and Drag Race which celebrate queer people of colour (QPOC) and their narratives.

Those shows demonstrate that when we centre the experiences, stories, and creativity of people in our community who don’t often get the same platforms as us, we widen our scope for empathy and get to reflect on our own privileges within the LGBTI community.

It’s a beautiful shared process of cultural appreciation and connection.

What sits uncomfortably though, is the Laganja effect. By that, I mean the ways in which white gay men co-opt parts of black culture that suit them – like black colloquialisms.

It has brown boys like me cringing when we hear inauthentic accents or an inappropriate turn of phrase from white mouths.

Queer black writer Audre Lorde wrote, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”.

As gay men, we have created our own vibrant community of cultures that we fiercely protect from the distortions of the straight world and the straight media.

We rightfully defend our identities when we are portrayed as anything less than loving, deserving humans. However, part of appreciating other cultures involves actively avoiding caricature and costume.

Aligning ourselves in the gay community with other minorities is about recognising that culture, whether gay or ethnically diverse, does not happen in a vacuum.

Our cultures are connected to oppressive systems that marginalise us, that dehumanise us, and that profit from us when there is a buck to be made.

In championing our own human rights as a community, it makes sense to look to the other marginalised groups in society like culturally diverse and Indigenous communities and extend our hands of understanding, instead of being complicit in appropriating aspects of their culture we find fashionable or cool.

For us in the gay-stream, mostly white and cis community, it’s going to take a level of cultural humility and divestment from whiteness to tackle cultural appropriation beyond avoiding blackface and Native American headdresses.

Our starting point should be an openness to listen to, and connect with, what other cultures believe is important to their sense of identity.

From this point, we can reflect on our missteps and pivot towards new trajectories of queer culture that don’t mimic or denigrate cultural minorities, and which seek a future of accountability to systems of power and privilege.

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