Two events this month highlighted why alternative sexuality communities, which pride themselves on an ethic of broad tolerance, remain so overwhelmingly white. First, a January 31 story in Jezebel publicized the decision of porn mogul Joanna Angel to portray an Asian character by putting a white actor in yellowface. In Burning Angel's porn parody of The Walking Dead, white actor Danny Wylde was cast in the part of the Korean-American character Glenn, with his complexion yellowed and the skin around his eyes taped back into narrow slits.
Meanwhile, in Portland, a second controversy exploded when white drag performer Chuck Knipp was booked at the Portland Eagle for a show featuring his alter ego "Shirley Q. Liquor." Knipp's persona as Shirley Liquor has been controversial for years. As Liquor, Knipp enacts the crudest of racial stereotypes about black women: Shirley is a lazy welfare queen with 19 children with names like Chlamydia, Cheeto, and Kmartina, all with different fathers. Shirley is known by her catch phrase "How you durrring?" and performs songs like "Who's My Baby Daddy?"
The most notable thing about both events was not the initial incidents, but how the communities responded to them. People of color were asked to "prove" that Knipp's act was racist; they were told to "lighten up," and be less politically correct; Knipp's supporters ignored the historical legacy of blackface, claiming that it was no different than when black actors like Dave Chappelle portrayed white characters onstage. Much of the conversation took place on the Eagle's Facebook page and has now been deleted. However, Portland activist Emi Koyama has preserved an excellent archive of screenshots preserving some of the most egregious examples.
Just before the Eagle decided to cancel Knipp, they posted an incoherent and resentful tirade against their critics:
Joanna Angel's response to her critics was similar to that of the Eagle. On her blog, she immediately dismissed people who objected to Danny Wylde's yellowface portrayal as a bunch of oversensitive prudes:
Alright, I know some of you lame asses were offended by me turning someone non-Asian into someone Asian, but Danny is an important member of the BurningAngel family and I really wanted him in this movie -- and he actually has a lot of similar features as Glenn and made the most sense to play him. Around election time, I aged Danny about 60 years and turned him into Joe Biden. In Evil Head, we gave him an '80s-looking wig. I was not doing this to make fun of anyone of any race -- I did this because it was a parody. So all you over-sensitive PC people: calm down.
The same arguments were trotted out to defend Burning Angel as with the Shirley Q. Liquor incident. AVN attempted to "help" the situation by first telling everyone that they should lighten up because it was just a porno. Also, they said, it shouldn't be any big deal because there's lots of anti-Asian racism in porn, as demonstrated by titles like Shrimp Fried Pussy, Dim Sum Pussy, and Yellow Fever.
Discussion of both events has died down from Twitter and Tumblr, and some people might think that bringing it up again now is flogging a dead horse. The problem is that it's not dead at all. The racism in LGBT and alt-sex communities is a persistent problem, and it doesn't fade away as quickly as Twitter arguments.
Knipp isn't some random person the Eagle stumbled upon and decided to book for a lark. He's been performing the character since at least 2002, when his act was protested in New York and Boston. In a 2007 Rolling Stone interview, Knipp claimed that his yearly income from Shirley Q. Liquor performances was $70,000 to $90,000. The same article also reported that Knipp (as Shirley) was invited to perform at the wrap party for Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Controversy also erupted when he was booked to perform at Southern Decadence in 2008. The real problem is not that the Eagle booked Knipp's act as Shirley Q. Liquor; it's that his act has been nurtured by white LGBT communities for over 10 years. Judging from the response to the Eagle controversy, many are willing to keep him on the stage for another 10 years, at least.
One thing that makes it impossible to discuss racism in queer and kinky communities is that white liberals have crafted their own mythology of racism. Breach this mythology, and you can be dismissed as being "too P.C." or "hysterical." The mythology comes in two parts: First, racism is something that uneducated, poor people living in the South do. It's segregated water fountains and Bull Conner turning the water hoses on black people, and comes from living in trailer parks and listening to too much country music.
The second part is that the solution to racism is to ignore race. Again and again, in discussing the Shirley Q. Liquor and Burning Angel situations, people tried to affect "race neutral" perspectives. After I posted a link to one of the first commentaries on the Eagle, an old friend replied, asking why it was racist for an actor to create a character of another race. To even ask the question that way, of course, requires that you ignore over 100 years of blackface and yellowface performances as staples of white supremacist policies. And yet, variations on that question came up again and again. The Eagle's original response is an excellent example: All history and modern reality is tossed out the window to ask why people don't get angry that the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence wear pancake makeup.
One of the most significant responses to the Portland Eagle came from renowned writer and educator Mollena Williams, who served as International Ms. Leather in 2010. In a 13-minute video titled "Blackface is Racist. Period," Williams expressed her fury at the leather community's betrayal of people of color, and women of color specifically:
When I was in the midst of understanding the breadth of what was happening yesterday, I started writing to other people of color and other black women specifically, and what was horrifying to me how many of us just sort of shrugged our shoulders and said, "Well, that's how it is." And it's horrifying that that's how it is. And it's horrifying to me that, I for a day tempered my rage because I was too worried about being accused of being pointed at as the angry black woman. This stereotype that because of who we are, we are over-sensitive, we are over-reacting, and that we just need to -- note the irony -- "lighten up" and fucking relax because it's a joke.
The entire video should be watched by every white sex nerd, BDSM perv, queer, and sex-positive person around. It is important not only because of what Mollena says but also that just saying it represented great personal risk. Black people who show anger are routinely dismissed and marginalized by white liberals and conservatives alike.
But an even better reason is that sometimes the best thing white people like myself can do is shut up and listen to those who literally have skin in the game. That can be one of the hardest and most uncomfortable things in the world. But to build a just community, we're not allowed to just show up when it makes us feel good. We have to be there when it's awkward and uncomfortable and we desperately want to be somewhere else. If we're not willing to take responsibility for the ugliness in our own communities, we'll still be talking about Shirley Q. Liquor in another 10 years.