Being gay and working in emergency shelter - Generocity Philly

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Nov. 26, 2019 10:49 am

Being gay and working in emergency shelter

Guest columnist Andrew Huff considers what it means for a white, housed, gay man to be in solidarity with Black men experiencing homelessness.

Solidarity isn’t about trying to empathize, but instead recognizing points of intersection, says guest columnist Andrew Huff.

(Photo by Nicholas Swatz from Pexels)

In a previous article, I wrote about what it means to be a white man working in an emergency shelter whose guests are predominately Black men. Now I want to talk about what it means to be a gay man working in this same shelter, because even though it’s still me, it’s a very different experience.

When I walk into work at Bethesda Project’s Church Shelter Program for chronically homeless men, the guests in the shelter see a white, housed, gay man. When I see them, I see mostly Black men, some of whom might be gay, experiencing homelessness. But when we step out into the world, something very peculiar happens. When the rest of the world sees us, they often see the same thing: predators, perverts, trash. These men and I find ourselves on the same eerie boat, in the thrashing backwaters of the American imagination.

But the thing is, I have enough relative privilege that I could push these men overboard and get myself to shore. Which is to say, I could assert to the world: “I am better than these men,” “Yes, they’re struggling, but that’s nothing compared to being gay,” “Of course they deserve support, but my struggle comes first,” etc.

Or, I could consider what political activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis has described as “the intersectionality of struggles.”

I could consider the possibility that if we have to be on this boat together, then let’s be on this boat together. I could consider what it means for a white, housed, gay man to be in solidarity with Black men experiencing homelessness. This choice matters; this solidarity matters — because the American imagination seems to be thrashing harder and harder these days.

Let me clarify at the outset that intersectionality of struggles is not equivalence of struggles. A Black, homeless, heterosexual man’s experience of emasculation, oppression, and the denial of human rights is an entirely different — and, in my opinion, higher — order of magnitude than my experience of these things as a white, housed, gay man. A Black, homeless, gay man’s experience of them is an even higher order of magnitude, while a Black, homeless, transgender man’s experience is yet another order higher, as is a Black, homeless, transgender, disabled man’s experience. These orders of magnitude matter. So do the points of intersection: we each know emasculation, oppression, and the denial of human rights.

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In thinking about what we do with these intersections, I’ve also realized that solidarity is not necessarily a matter of empathy. As the poet Claudia Rankine writes in The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning:

[…] there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.

Now add to that the daily strain of being homeless, being transgender, and being disabled. I can appreciate the magnitude of that experience, but no, I cannot empathize with it. And perhaps that’s okay — perhaps I don’t need to fully comprehend the intricacies of a person’s lived experience in order to realize that he deserves better than emasculation, oppression, and denial of human rights.

In that sense, solidarity isn’t about trying to empathize, but instead recognizing the points of intersection in our experiences and then working together for our mutual liberation.

Here’s what it looks like for me and the men in the shelter: Homelessness is a condition of extreme material dispossession, but for many men it is also the condition of mourning — mourning the loss of their masculinity, the loss of power in their world.

It is being told daily by shelter staff: no sitting here, no sitting there, no sudden movements, no touching the fans, no touching the lights, no touching anything, no extra dinner, no privacy, no standing here, no standing there, no raising your feet, no raising your voice, no voice at all.

I do not know that experience, but as a gay man I do know how it feels to live in a culture that repudiates your manhood. Solidarity means that I see homeless men’s struggle to reclaim a sense of masculinity as my own struggle, and it means I will not emasculate them in order to claim power in my world. It means I share my management power with them, so they can decide for themselves, as men, where to sit, where to stand, how to manage the fans, the lights, the food, etc. It is a process in which I claim my masculinity by helping them reclaim theirs.

Solidarity also means that I see myself personally invested in racial justice.

In his essay Blacker Than Thou, Kevin Young says: “When you are black, you don’t have to look like it, but you do have to look at it. Or look around. Blackness is the face in the mirror, a not-bad-looking one, that for no reason at all some people uglify or hate on or wish ill for, to, about.”

Well, as it happens, you could also say that when you’re gay, you don’t have to look like it, but you do have to look at it. Or look around. Because gayness is the face in the mirror, the tone of your voice, the walk down the street, the hands clasped, or the kiss goodnight, that for no reason at all some people uglify or hate on or wish ill for, to, about. Racism and homophobia are expressions of the same impulse to Other, degrade, and dominate — and so until we are free of racism, then as a gay man I will not be free.

I also recognize, as Davis has pointed out, that this freedom is about more than civil rights — true freedom also involves certain material rights, such as education, free healthcare, and affordable housing that facilitate the pursuit of happiness.

In fact, Article 25 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights describes the right to housing, which the United Nations has further elaborated on as the right to adequate housing. The chronically homeless men I work with have been denied this right by a government that does not guarantee adequate, let alone affordable, housing to its citizens.

As a gay man, I know the indignity of being denied basic recognition as a human being and thus worthiness of human rights. So I recognize that the struggle for realization of the right to adequate housing — and, beyond that, affordable housing — is also my struggle, because it is the struggle to be seen as fully human and given that which all humans need to thrive.

As a white, housed, gay man, I make choices about whether I recognize Black homeless men’s struggle for liberation, and how I position my own struggle in relation to theirs. I could see this as a competition — and engage in a delusional attempt to claim the trophy: Blacker Than Thou. More Homeless Than Thou. More Oppressed Than Thou. They could respond in kind.

But what if, to paraphrase Toni Morrison, we could unite against the shit that weighs us all down?

We are not predators.

We are not perverts.

We are not trash.

We are good, decent men.

We have human rights.

We have a right to adequate, affordable housing.

We have a right to be here.

We are not the problem.

The problem is in the American imagination.

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