(White) Gay Pride

& White (Gay) Pride:

subjectivity, agency, and the phallus

By Kohei Ishihara

Balloons of every color of the rainbow are tied together
on either end of a large plastic banner, proclaiming in bold
colorful letters “PRIDE,” a word that means different things
to different people. Behind the two young men holding the
banner as they march down Christopher Street, are a group of
men and women, young and old, wearing colorful rainbow
colored outfits and Pride paraphernalia. The parade, however,
is not the only event to watch. The crowd is filled with a
fascinating diverse group of people: young and old, effeminate
and masculine, woman, man, and transgender. But most of the
people are fixing their gaze on a group of white gay men on
the side of the street. Half-naked and gorgeous, these men
celebrate their Pride; dancing, hugging, and kissing each other.
One man stands out from the rest of his Abercrombie-like model
friends, all wearing khaki shorts. He is wearing boxer-briefs
the color of the American flag and the rest of his entire body
is painted in those five colors: red, blue, yellow, green, and
orange. Colors which represent diversity. Colors of which I
am suspicious. But nevertheless, I am glad that these
Abercrombie-model men are able to celebrate their sexuality,
to celebrate their Pride. But sometimes I get suspicious,
for I do not know if they know what they are proud of.
Sometimes I do not know what I am proud of.
I look through the Pride Guide 2000, and look at the
various events ranging from activism to sex parties. The cover
of the guide catches my attention. A well-built white gay male
in a farm-boy motif, naked except for a cowboy hat, has that
word written across and over his penis....placed just right so
that you can not quite grasp and take in all that it seems to
offer, but nevertheless you feel its presence. Those words
written on his penis; his penis, HIS words. I am confused.
I am suddenly interrupted, and may I admit curious, when I
see a poor black man approach me. He seems displaced amongst the
images, music, and words circulating the parade and reverberating
through the crowds. I am curious, I am a little shaken. He
comes to me and pulls out from his bag a sheet of cloth with
Pride buttons layered and organized in rows. I say ‘no thank
you,’ but the man next to me decides to purchase one with a pink
triangle and words that I can not make out. The black man sells
a Pride button to the white gay man. The customer laughs and
slips the button in his pocket. Slips it away as if he just
purchased it to support the black man. After all, there is only
so much community service one can perform during Pride day (1).

Through this constructed Pride scene, I am going to question
what type of a subject is generated and created in Pride
discourse. Pride discourse, I am defining, is any symbolic
representation or language that is associated with, influenced
by, or relates to gay commercial culture. Pride discourse then
includes such discourses as Queer theory, gay health books, and
gay fashion. Implicit in this is the question, Who is not
represented in Pride discourse? Going into more detail I wish to
examine the type of position this subject is constructed to have,
and in relation to whom. What type of agency does the subject of
Pride discourse have? And where/when/why/how does this agency
manifest itself? To explore these questions, I am going to use
Jacques Lacan’s notion of gaining subjectivity through the Mirror
Stage and Frantz Fanon’s concept of collective catharsis in Black
Skin, White Masks.
The point in questioning Pride is not so much an attack on
Pride as it is a question of the ways in which Pride discourse
intersects with power, race, class, and gender, and to what
extent do these intersections mingle in such ways as to obscure
and thus legitimize white gay racism, white gay sexism, white
gay transphobia, and white gay classism. Though it is
impossible to separate race from class and gender-identity, I
will focus and center on the way in which Pride discourse and
sexuality intersects with race; and more specifically, I am
focusing on men.
To understand the way in which Pride discourse generates a
specific subject, it is useful to refer back to Lacan’s theory of
the mirror phase and subjectivity. To paraphrase Chris Weedon,
Lacan develops and appropriates Freud’s theory of gender
acquisition by stressing how a gendered subjectivity is produced
through language. As his first intelligent act, the child
identifies himself with his image in the mirror. Through
watching his own movements, the child makes a correlation between
himself and the image, and is able to watch and experience
through action the relation between his reflected movements and
the reflected environment. The child’s ego is then split “into
the I which is watching and the I which is watched.”(2)
A secondary split occurs after the castration and Oedipus
complex, when the child has already entered into the symbolic
world. The secondary split occurs through language. In this
case, the child is split between the I which speaks and the I
which is represented in his speech. There is a gap between the I
which signifies and the I which is represented in what is
signified. The child, however, mis-recognizes this split and
sees himself as the author of meaning. And meaning, Lacan
argues, is fixed in relation to the phallus which is the primary,
transcendental signifier of meaning. The phallus controls
meaning and upholds patriarchy. Through a desire to control
meaning and become “the source of language rather than an effect
of it,”(3) the child develops a purpose and drive for language.
Though it is impossible to control meaning and become the
phallus, only men, because of their anatomy, have the agency to
aspire toward the phallus.
It is this secondary split, which occurs and re-occurs after
the castration and Oedipus complex, where I want to focus my
attention. Lacan argues, quite literally, that this split occurs
through language. Lacan argues that the individual enters as a
speaking subject into the symbolic world of language. But
language, a system of symbols expressed through voice, is quite
similar to, and cannot quite be isolated from, other signifying
practices and discourses, such as sign language, art, and
writing. Individuals, thus, go through a constant process of
engendering, building, and re-creating their subjectivity,
through their relation to, participation in, and position within
discourse, not just language.
Viewing subjectivity in this way, Pride discourse can be
analyzed more effectively. In gay pornography, for example, the
men who are glorified and objectified are white. In addition to
being objectified, white gay men are also the subjects of gay
pornography. Aside from the fact that white gay men are the
strongest and largest consumers of gay pornography, studies have
also shown that desire is constructed and figured upon from a
white male. The Pride Guide 2000, in the Pride march scene, has
a picture of a white gay male with the words “Pride” written over
his penis. This clearly shows how a gendered and racialized
subject has been constructed in and through Pride discourse. The
subject, by virtue of his whiteness and his maleness and his
penis, is the only one suitable to explore and gain access to gay
pride. He is the only one for whom the guide is written for.
The conflation of “Pride” and penis represents the white man’s
attempt to gain the phallus, the position of being male and of
having power over meaning and desire.
It is also important not to neglect the relation to which the
white gay male develops his subjectivity. It is through his
relationship to women, people of color, transgendered, and the
poor, that the white man gains his subjectivity. For example,
Richard Fung illustrates in “Looking For My Penis: the Eroticized
Asian in Gay Male Video Porn,” that even when East Asians are the
objects in pornography, they are objects to be exoticized by the
white male subject. In any Pride Guide, you will find that among
the perfected white male bodies, positioned as subjects and
objects of desire, there will be the black drag queen, positioned
as the entertainer; the exotic Asian positioned as a boy in
servitude; and the Latino, known for his spicy flavor. It is
only through these relations, that the white man’s subjectivity
is constructed. At the bottom of this is the fact that Pride
discourses have to be purchased. One has to have a certain
purchasing power to able to access Pride paraphernalia, Queer
theory books, and gay clubs.
In a sense, Pride discourse can be viewed as a mirror. The
white gay man looks into the mirror (pornography, gay magazines,
Queer Theory, gay health books) and sees his image. He sees
himself as the object of beauty and the subject of HIV/AIDS
discourse. The white gay man also sees his image in contrast to
images of the dark “others.” He then develops a split ego, where
he becomes both the I which speaks and the I which is represented
through his speech and through discourse. He is split as the
subject and the object of discourse. The white gay man, mis-
recognizing himself as one, assumes that he is the author of
meaning. He mis-recognizes himself as what Lacan calls “the
Other,” the position of control of desire. This is all a
fantasy; what Lacan calls “the imaginary.” His lack of power to
control meaning and his split ego create the white gay man’s need
to symbolize control through Pride discourse. This desire, this
frustration compels him to crave the phallus.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon introduces the concept of a
collective catharsis, from which he clearly illustrates the
agency that comes with subjectivity. Fanon maintains that in any
collectivity or in any society there must be an outlet from which
to release aggression. Though each society has its own kind of
catharsis, Fanon highlights illustrated children books and
The Tarzan stories, the sagas of twelve-year-old
explorers, the adventures of Mickey Mouse, and
all those ‘comic books’ serve actually as a
release for collective aggression. The
magazines are put together by white men
for little white men…..In the magazines
the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit,
the Bad Man, the Savage are always
symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since
there is always an identification with
the victor, the little Negro, quite as
easily as the little white boy, becomes
an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary
‘who faces the danger of being eaten by the
wicked Negroes.’(4)
Initially, as Fanon articulates, both the white and black boy
identify with the victor. Through this identification, he is
able to become an explorer, an adventurer. For black boys in
Antilles, Fanon says, there is no immediate problem. But for
black boys in France who are immersed in whiteness and white
discourse, a sensitizing action takes place. The black boy’s ego
collapses. The black boy notices the ways in which he is treated
differently. A time comes when he learns that these “wicked
Negroes” in the magazines are actually him. “He is made
As Fanon has shown, through discourse, a white man’s
subjectivity also gives him a form of agency. Through reading
about explorers as heroes, he is able to become and assume the
position of the explorer. When the white gay man reads his Pride
Guide 2000 and sees himself reflected through the language and
recognizes his body as the subject and the symbol of Pride, he
able to assume the position of the explorer. It is he for whom
the Pride Guide 2000 was written. It is he who can travel and
access the events, services, and discourses.
But how much agency does a white gay man have? Have white
gay men not also been the victims of homophobia and
genderphobia? Are they not members of an oppressed group? Don’t
white gay men deserve to have pride? The answer to this question
is yes. White gay men have been disempowered and de-
phallusized. But it may to useful to take Foucault’s notion of
power and oppression. Power does not manifest from one group and
power can oppress in a multitude of ways. Just as white gay men
can be both the victim in and the accomplice to homophobia and
genderphobia, so can white gay men be the oppressors of people of
color, women, and transgendered. White gay men can both be
oppressed and oppress others at the same time.
Having being displaced from a position of privilege and now
in subordination to the heterosexual white man, the white gay man
may try to take pride in his self and self-image in an attempt to
regain the phallus and free himself from oppression. It is
important to note that the white gay man is trying to reassert
himself back into a position of privilege. The concept of
freedom in the United States has many different meanings. For a
black man during slavery, freedom may have meant the end of
slavery and the right to become a citizen. Angela Davis argues,
that freedom for the white man meant quite the opposite: “The
master’s notion of freedom, in fact, involved his capacity to
control the lives of others.”(6)
In “Re-Placing Race in (White) Psychoanalytic Discourse,”
Jean Walton analyzes Riviere’s patient, a masquerading white
woman who confronts a black man. Through their relation, Walton
says, “As a white woman, her appearing to have the phallus is
culturally sanctioned when it is a question of her relation to a
black man.”(7) This suggests that there is also a racial and
racist component in one’s drive to attain the phallus. Thus a
white gay man not only can have motive to gain the phallus by
virtue of his whiteness, but also by virtue of his whiteness in
relation to people of color.
Shifting back to the scene of white gay Abercrombie-like men:
I often question to what extent white gay men are oppressed and
how their oppression relates to the oppression of people of
color. A bunch of well-built white gay men, surrounded by an
event and discourse that reflects their image, are at an
opportune time to re-claim Pride in their identity. But this
Pride must be questioned. What is their identity? Are they
proud of being gay? Or are they proud of being white gay men?
And in a society that is institutionally and culturally
homophobic, is it possible that they are using their status as
white and male to regain the power that they have lost? And to
what extent does the gain of power mean another’s loss? In a
crowd of black, Asian, Latino/a, Native American, Transgendered,
Working Class, and Lesbian people, Pride, also know as white gay
man’s discourse, becomes a way of re-asserting a white racist
capitalist patriarchy.
Works Cited