Queer Love Interests of Color and the White Gaze

The recent trend of writing LGBTQ+ love interests of color might be more harmful than you’d think.

Julia Noni / http://www.julianoni.com/

LGBTQ+ stories have historically been (primarily) white tales. While the presence of queer characters of color has increased from “next to none” to “well there’s definitely more than two” in recent years, LGBTQ+ characters of color still cannot hold a torch to the prevalence and reach of their white counterparts. Through the battles of positive representation, LGBTQ+ people of color are sidelined at best and entirely erased at worst.

But surely the recent trend of injecting queer love interests of color into otherwise entirely white casts and storylines fixes this? Instead of reading (or watching) two white people fall in love, the text — and therefore, the story itself — is made more inclusive by this flawless choice…right?

Well.

What seems to be an unquestionable — and, dare I say, “unproblematic” — solution to QPOC invisibility is actually far more complex than white creators seem to believe. Queer characters of color are not interchangeable with white queer characters, and the lack of nuance that accompanies their inclusion makes the haphazard attempt at “diversity” almost insulting.

The Queer Love Interest of Color is many things at once. They are the racial Maniac Pixie Dream Girl of the white queer narrative. They are attractive because all love interests are required (by law) to be. They are the perfect foil to the main character: mature where they are childish, experienced where they are naive, intelligent where they are carried through life via luck alone. They have a special interest or talent and may be, depending on the will of the writer, very aware of systematic racism. They share their culture’s food and/or non-English language with their partner. They can also serve as a “guiding light” to our queer main character, holding their hand and comforting them as the white lead grows and furthers their understanding of themselves. The Queer Love Interest of Color is teacher, sex guru, endlessly loving, and sometimes entirely disposable, easily replaced by a white love interest after furthering the lead’s development.

The Queer Love Interest of Color, however, dares not to challenge their partner's views more than twice during the storyline. And they absolutely do not spend more than one scene experiencing or discussing the intersection between their race and their LGBTQ+ identity.

The truth is that queerness does not operate the same way for white LGBTQ+ and LGBTQ+ people of color. The identity is, and always will be, intertwined, if not by the self, then by society. Despite being a substantial experience in the lives of many QPOC, the struggle of merging culture and/or religion with queer identity —for example, the pain of being rejected by queer groups due to racism and of being rejected by cultural/ethnic groups due to homo/trans/various -phobias — hardly makes a dent in the narrative for the Queer Love Interest of Color.

The issues faced twofold by QPOC barely receive on-page acknowledgment. Despite this, any queer reader of color would recognize that the Queer Love Interest of Color has experienced some level of this, simply by existing (because that is the nature of oppression, especially racism. It finds you the moment you manifest in the world, and sometimes even sooner).

But these experiences are erased and minimized, sidelined by the narrative’s focus on the internal strife and character development of the white lead, whose struggles — by virtue of being the lead — are de-facto portrayed as the most important in the narrative.

The issue here, if not immediately obvious, is the implication that:

A) the Queer Love Interest of Color babysits the white lead while simultaneously coping with compounding racism and various other -phobias, as well as,

B) their knowledge and experience implies that the Queer Love Interest of Color has already endured the hardships currently haunting the white lead, but the audience has been denied the chance to see that, as the Queer Love Interest of Color is not the one whose story is being told — or, perhaps, not worthy of being told.

The relationship between the white lead and the Queer Love Interest of Color rarely delves into the topic of interracial dating, let alone the nuance of interracial queer dating, which compounds further stigma and bias on top of the already tumultuous nature of cisgender, heterosexual, alloromantic interracial dating.

And nevermind how queerness can be differently expressed by LGBTQ+ people of color — these love interests of color will usually share similar experiences and opinions to their white counterparts (this is not to say that there are absolutely no similarities, in any case, between QPOC and their white counterparts, only that the most commonly portrayed QPOC is the person that aligns most closely with white LGBTQ+ individuals' opinions and methods of expression).

The other major question, the one I often return to as an audience member and read, is this: where are the queer circles of color? Why are these love interests always in white spaces, never having made even mention of QPOC spaces? Could it be because the creator has not realized that there could be, in fact, queer spaces devoid of white faces? (Again — this is not to say that diverse queer spaces don’t exist — of course they do. But it is interesting that these are the most common spaces depicted).

Because of this, the perceived “inclusivity” of the Queer Love Interest of Color only stretches as far as the white author feels comfortable portraying. Very rarely does this inclusivity stray from the overarching white lens of the narrative. The Queer Love Interest of Color is a character of color shaped and molded by the wants of the white audience and the white creator.

The Queer Love Interest of Color is not a character that is meant for the queer audience of color. It is a character meant for the white gaze.

In an era of diversity prevalence, the reigning mindset seems to be quantity over quality. Good representation will often only bare the qualifier of “at least you tried” (fun fact: apparently, you can now write racial slurs if your project is a period piece! Just throw an “it’s for accuracy” blanket over it and you’ll be fine).

Harmful representation can go beyond in-text racism. It expands to include erasure; it expands to include using identities as little more than aesthetics.

The Queer Love Interest of Color has cocoa brown skin, or chocolate, or espresso — or bronze, if the white author has been told not to use food to describe brown skin. She spends her time entirely with a singular group of friends, which can be described as a primarily white group, besides one or two other POC (but still, the white characters are safely in the majority). Her name is Amber, or Bea, or something more creative, Calliope. She is talented and flawless and when her white girlfriend discovers racism exists, the Queer Love Interest of Color is understanding and patient and kind. “This is why we have the Black Lives Matter movement babe,” she says, with her arms around her girlfriend, and the cue card rises for the Black queer audience to cheer.

Ashia Monet is a speculative fiction novelist. Her debut novel THE BLACK VEINS is available now. Follow her on Twitter @ashiamonet + Instagram @ashiawrites

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