What Roy Moore, Eminem, & Queen Bey Can Tell Us About the “Last Acceptable Prejudice”

It has now been a year since Donald Trump became President. While I am still much more concerned for my friends and students of color under this regime, as a gay man it’s been almost two decades since I’ve felt so threatened. As a white cis gay man, after Pulse, when Trump tried to scare us into voting for him, I and most of my friends didn’t buy it. We knew what he was attempting—by then, as now, we all had Martin Niemöller’s poem inscribed into our consciousnesses—and in the last year we have been proven correct when one looks at the various anti-LGBTQ behavior of POTUS, including his embrace of the current anti-LGBTQ “religious liberty” argument.

Another conservative white male who has me thinking about my gay self under threat from 17 years ago is Roy Moore. The hypocrisy of his history of anti-LGBTQ stances framed as “protecting” children from us mixed with his penchant for fourteen year old girls is nothing new to us as queer folk; since the Bible’s “clobber passages” (the passages which have been interpreted as condemning homosexuality) were set in ink, the most pious followers have found it easy to enact laws which kill us and maim us and burn us, have found it easy to grab and abuse and terrorize our bodies at will because of the protection of their narrow interpretation of the Bible. Once these allegations came out and Roy Moore was seen as under attack, the most fringe of the right came out to defend him, such as this woman who has demonized Democrats in her mind to the point that sexual predators would always make better senators. This wouldn’t be that unnerving by itself, until one considers that (1) this woman is part of the same people who came out in droves to put Donald Trump into office, (2) POTUS (a man who has publicly admitted to sexually harassing women) has made essentially the same judgment, and (3) as of this moment, 43% of Alabama voters plan to make the same judgment at the polls.

All of this has brought me back to a book I picked up back in 2000, Homophobia: A History, in which Byrne Fone argues the following:

Over time people have found sufficient cause to distrust, disguise, assault, and sometimes slaughter their neighbors because of differences in religion, nationality, and color. Indeed, few social groups have been free from the effects of prejudice, but most warring factions—men and women, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, blacks and whites—have been united in one eternal hatred: detestation of a particular group whose presence is universal. Religious precepts condemn this group; the laws of most Western nations have punished them. Few people care to a admit to their presence among them.

This group is, of course, those we call homosexuals. Antipathy to them—and condemnation, loathing, fear, and proscription of homosexual behavior—is what we call homophobia. Homophobia sometimes seems to be virulent in, and perhaps even unique to, Western culture. Studies of sexual behavior in other cultures, past and present, have rarely discovered the social, legal, moral, or religious disapproval of homosexual behavior common to so many eras of Western history. Indeed, in modern Western society, where racism is disapproved, anti-Semitism is condemned, and misogyny has lost its legitimacy, homophobia remains, perhaps the last acceptable prejudice.

In 2000, this analysis felt visceral to me; it was only six years earlier that the first mainstream ad, an innocuous IKEA ad featuring a gay couple discussing furniture for their first place together, had aired, being restricted to after 10pm, the time reserved for more controversial and racier content since it was assumed children were in bed, because, you know, seeing two middle class white guys talk about buying furniture might make your kid gay. Six years later we would be marching in the streets to protest the proposed Marriage Amendment; this was of course, after being subjected to a presidential campaign in which the hatred of us as homosexuals was used to not only bring together white religious voters to the polls for George W. Bush, but was also used to make attempts at wooing religious African American and Latino voters to pull the lever for the Republican nominee. As a young white gay man, unaware at the time of the privilege my white skin afforded me, I felt attacked on all sides, from all factions; it felt like, as Fone argued, that other identities had banded together in their hatred of the homosexual.

This changed with the election of Barack Obama. He needed to have his mind changed on some issues like gay marriage, but here was a president who openly courted the gay vote and followed through on being an ally after being elected. His allyship was not perfect; but it was a period in which, after so much fear and marching under George W. Bush, we finally had some breathing room. And then the Supreme Court decreed that we did actually have the right to marry. For the older white guard like myself, these victories, something we had been fighting for for so long, brought introspection and, for some of us, awareness of our movement’s long-standing racism and the realization that something had to change within the movement, that the center left meritocratic view of anti-racism and identity politics (of which Obama was both poster boy and ambassador) was always going to leave our trans and queer family of color behind at the margin as we white cis members moved closer towards the center. This realization of intersectionality, this wokeness, made the passage above from Fone seem almost quaint to me, of a particular time, like pay phones or Must-See-TV or commercials that only played after 10 pm. These other identity markers, race, ethnicity, class, gender (non) identification, were much more important now. What Fone talked about, our universal hatred in an open way no longer allowed for other marginalized identities, at least for those of us privileged to live on the liberal coasts, had been forced out of the mainstream through our strategy of simply being out and proud, had been exiled to the dark and isolated corners of extreme right wing websites. Until Donald Trump. Until Roy Moore.

The threat I feel from the Right is no surprise; my only surprise is at my own naivete in thinking that we had actually successfully pushed homophobia into the margins. However, I am now also feeling a similar threat on the Left.

On National Coming Out Day, Eminem released a freestyle which attacked Trump. I had friends who reposted it from Woke Folks, as well as left leaning thinkers and artists I admire, the most notable being Junot Díaz, whose talks which so deftly mix craft with issues of white supremacy I have used in my classroom when the majority of my students were Dominican. (In Díaz’s defense, it did not take him long to take this post down). And nowhere in any of these posts was any conversation about Eminem’s history with the word “faggot.” Nowhere. On National Coming Out Day.

This is remarkable to me because Eminem has used the word “faggot” in his lyrics and defended that use extensively his entire career, so extensively that gender theorist Riki Wilchins in 2003 coined the term “the Eminem exception,” which argues that Eminem “doesn’t call people ‘faggot’ because of their sexual orientation but because they’re weak and unmanly.” Therefore, rather than the word being used in the traditional homophic sense which would result from, and help continue, the kind of abuse and regulation of us as a queer community that Fone argues, “faggot” is instead used, on an individual basis, in order for one straight male to emasculate (and therefore render powerless) another straight male. This argument was so persuasive that, as young gay man first learning my identity’s history as well as the basics of queer theory, at the time when Eminem was at the height of his relevance, I had trouble articulating my opposition to Eminem’s use of “faggot” as I encountered, on many occassions, gay friends and acquaintances who were Eminem fans. I was made to feel uptight, too politically correct—after all, Eminem says himself he is not homophic. His performance with Elton John complicated this, giving these gay Eminem fans an easy reason to contradict my opposition.

In 2007, Dude You’re A Fag was published and an article from it was anthologized in some first year writing books. I use the article at times towards the end of my first year writing classes. It discusses how adolescent masculinity manifests itself with the use of word “faggot” and uses the “Eminem exception,” among many other arguments and sources, to build its own argument. I break the article up into its main ideas and create discussion questions which are then distributed to groups of students in the classroom, one of which is researching the “Eminem exception.” At this point most of my male students are aware of this exception even if it’s never been named for them; and some of them were Eminem fans during their adolescence while also thinking they were, if not an ally, at least not homophobic. Sometimes there is a gay student in the group who gets this discussion question. When I come around to preview their answers, after the exception is explained the gay student may say something like “That’s still not right” or (if he is more forthright) “That’s bullshit.” Once the group presents its research to the class, I then give the counterarguments to this exception, the counterarguments I could not articulate all those years ago because I simply didn’t know enough about myself as a gay man yet. I tell them:

“First, as a gay man, if someone, or a group of people, are beating the crap out of me, they will most likely be yelling ‘faggot’ at me as they beat me up. There is also a guarantee that they were calling me ‘faggot’ before they began beating me up. Therefore, the continued circulation of the word ‘faggot,’ no matter how anyone intends to use it, is a constant, real, and physical threat to my body. Second, why does Eminem, or any straight person for that matter, get to decide how ‘faggot’ gets used? It has never and will never be a threat for him or any straight person. As a white guy, is it okay if I use the n-word as long as I say I don’t intend to use it in its traditional sense, if I don’t mean it the way it was used before, during, and after lynchings?”

And, of course, although I have my own opinions on this, I do not answer these questions. One of the purposes of first year writing is to stimulate critical thinking; I ask the questions and each student works those questions out for him or herself. These questions which I force my 18 year old students to wrestle with were nowhere to be found on those posts of Eminem’s freestyle Trump takedown by left leaning thinkers and artists on National Coming Out Day. How could this be? How could all of these “woke” thinkers miss something so obvious? Before we can answer those questions, I want to talk about Queen Bey.

I can’t imagine at this point there is anyone who would argue against the artistic genius of Lemonade. I use parts of the visual album often in class; in regards to Race Studies and intersectonality it, like Madonna’s late 80s and 90s work in regards to white feminism, not only meaningfully engages and fosters critical thinking in my students, Lemonade also grants them access to the academic conversations around these issues. This is why I refer to her in this post as “Queen Bey;” for most left center intellectuals, she is untouchable; she is critical theory royalty. One article on the Left which pushed back when Formation first premiered, argued not against the formalism of that video but its appropriation and commodification of the trauma of Hurricane Katrina as well as aspects of Southern Black identity. The article is a good counterpoint and I tucked it away in my unending list of class discussion possibilities and, unable to find the proper place to present it in class, forgot about it. That is, until the news that Eminem’s new single “Walk on Water,” would feature Queen Bey.

Now, of course, lots of other artists have worked with Eminem. But lots of other artists aren’t Queen Bey. Beyoncé has managed, in a way very few if any artists ever have, to align wokeness with her brand, to commodify wokeness. For most of us on the Left, we have believed that this wokeness was authentic, and that its commodification came afterwards, the positive and wanted results in a neoliberal framework of being a good businesswoman. But what if, as that article pushed back in relation to Formation, this wokeness is not authentic? Of Formation, Shantrelle Lewis argued:

Those beautiful nappy-haired Afros worn by the Black Panther–esque backup dancers are props just like the floodwaters, the submerged New Orleanian backdrop, and the police car that keeps Beyoncé afloat throughout most of the video. Those darker-complexioned little girls who stand beside Beyoncé’s child, the voice of a queer and deceased black man, and a Katrina survivor were all vehicles to use for selling out her next world tour.

I bring this possibility up because, for all of Lemonade’s messages of intersectionality, and Formation’s celebration of not only Blackness, but Queer Blackness, how could Queen Bey then work with Eminem, a man whose brand as an artist is individualized by ‘faggot,’ by the word used to terrorize the queer populations she aligns with in the video? Could it be that her use of the word “slay” is not celebration but appropriation? Only commodification? This is one possible answer. Another possibility brings us back to the posting of Eminem’s freestyle against Trump.

As a gay man I can’t help but remember that Eminem has never actually been taken to task in any real way for his use of “faggot” on the Left, which makes Fone’s argument feel fresh to me again and helps me understand the celebration of this freestyle video. One reason I think that everyone on the Left is so willing to, at this moment in time, keep forgetting Eminem’s problematic use of “faggot” is because they are so scared of what the future may hold. Donald Trump was never supposed to become president. Since then the world has become more hostile than ever before for people of color from Trump’s attempts at “Muslim bans” to his judgment that there were “some very good people” at the white supremacist rally in North Carolina. Some of the same discourses which made me disregard the problems of white supremacy when I felt threatened on all sides almost two decades ago might be affecting straight leaders of color on the Left; this all consuming fear may be blinding them to the negative effects of heterosexist supremacy. Are we all now so scared of what might come from Trump’s election that we are willing to embrace any rebellion, no matter how histrionic, no matter how obviously commodified, no matter how problematic? I hope not.