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The Shirley Q. Liquor Saga: What a Racist Minstrel Show Says About Queer Politics (Long)

Also see Mark's post on Shirley Q. Liquor here.

Charles Knipp is a white gay man who dresses in drag as a black woman, using classical “blackface” themes (dark makeup, huge lips, the most offensive and demeaning stereotypes). Knipp’s show may be worthy of disdain and outrage, but the response to his show from all sides says some important things about the state of politics in the queer community. While the response from Knipp’s defenders is appalling in its naiveté and contempt for black suffering, the response from many of his detractors points to major weaknesses in radical queer organizing.

First, let’s talk about Knipp’s defenders. I have not seen Shirley Q. Liquor live, but I have heard some YouTube clips and, I’m sorry, but Knipp’s performance is unequivocally racist and disgusting. I have heard every excuse and rationalization of Knipp’s performance his apologists could think of. His defenders say that the show is actually inviting us to “laugh” at racist stereotypes (similar to the excuses offered for the Snickers ad campaign). Knipp’s defenders also say that his minstrel show is okay because some black people, especially RuPaul, think it’s funny. Others argue that because his show has some basis in reality (there actually are black women who are similar to Liquor), that the show should go on.

If the gay community represented the cutting edge of anti-racist politics, and my friends and I had not encountered racism in the gay community so much, I might say that these justifications were wrongheaded, but understandable. If the gay community were mature and sophisticated on race issues, I would say, yes, maybe we can laugh at racial stereotypes. But the gay community does have serious problems with racism, and consequently excuses for Knipp have been made by people who do not live in reality, but would rather see the world through the fantasies of American white supremacist discourse.

In white supremacist Candy Land, segregation and racial discrimination are over. In this alternate universe, they ended when Martin Luther King made some speech about “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” subsequently warming the hearts of white people in Congress who out of the goodness of their white hearts bestowed upon us Negroes civil rights. In white supremacist Candy Land, racism and discrimination are so over, in fact, that we can proclaim that “gay is the new black.”

Blacks, who by and large still suffer from segregation in education and housing, experience widespread discrimination in employment, have to deal with a wage and unemployment gap that has not gotten much better since the 1960s, and must continually face injustice in the so-called criminal “justice” system, have simply disappeared from the radar of many gays. Black oppression has taken a back seat to the oppression white gay men, some of whom proclaim that gay oppression is not just comparable to racial oppression, but has supplanted racial oppression!

Now let’s take the Shirley Q. Liquor minstrel show in the context of a world in which blacks still suffer from widespread racism and discrimination. You really do have to take that seriously in order to understand the outrage. Read the comments at Jasmyne Cannick’s website about Shirley Q. Liquor and you will notice that there are few comments about the concrete nature of racism—there may, in fact, be no comments about this. I do not recall a single comment about how the stereotypes promoted by Knipp reinforce a destructive and deadly regime against black Americans in this country. Instead the comments were about how this show “offended” black people and how blacks should not be “offended.”

So I want to say this to the oblivious, uncritical philistines who defend Knipp very clearly: This is not about my feelings or the “feelings” of any other black person. This is about the pernicious culture of racism that still exists in this country. We are pissed off because Knipp is reinforcing a racist culture which has real, concrete effects on the people we love. It is only people who live in the la-la land of white supremacy that talk about being offended and so-called “political correctness” as if these were the only issues.

And it has been well established that the fog of white supremacist ideology blinds everyone, regardless of race or color. Do a little more research on the black experience in America beyond the whitewashed (pun intended), high school black history surveys we are spoon-fed and you will see that black political consciousness is uneven, and in all historical periods there was a segment of the black community that apologized for racism and argued against decisive action to end racism. So citing people of color who support or reinforce racism to justify racism is just silly. I don’t care if RuPaul supports Knipp, and I don’t care how many blacks you trot out to defend him. That show is racist, period. That this pedestrian “some-people-of-color-agree” argument is continually brought up despite its obvious weaknesses is really a testament to the failure of anti-racist activists to make their voices heard.

And that leads me to my point about Liquor’s critics. As angry as I sound, one might think that I approve entirely of the response to Knipp’s minstrel show. I do not. I think the uproar over Shirley Q. Liquor illuminates serious problems among the radical current of the queer movement. Our responses show that radicals have officially prioritized peripheral, cultural expressions of heterosexism in their conceptualization of political activity.

The bulk of queer radical organizing seems to have coalesced around haphazardly attacking cultural expressions and symbols (e.g. Macy’s for removing gay mannequins, Shirley Q. Liquor, Snickers ads, politically wrongheaded events by the LGBT community). The problem is that, traditionally, cultural expressions do not seem to be the focus of political action by radical groups. Historically, successful radical groups such as SNCC, the Black Panthers, ACT UP, etc seem to have coalesced around issues that concretely struck at the heart of the white and heterosexual supremacist superstructures respectively (e.g. voting rights, segregation in businesses, police brutality, urban poverty, and criminal indifference to AIDS).

Radical politics should always entail responses to cultural expressions and sharp critiques of them, but responses to cultural expressions cannot replace work that actually gets at the core of discriminatory and bigoted structures. This kind of work must be our priority, but judging from what I have seen from many radical queer groups, we have it backwards. I am not suggesting that we ignore cultural expressions that disparage people of color or queer people. Rather, I am arguing for a re-prioritization where the cultural field is no longer primary field in which we confront heterosexual supremacy.

And so, abstractly speaking, Shirley Q. Liquor may be worthy of protest. In the context of queer activism, the response looks problematic to me. It reflects a disturbing tendency among radical queers to focus most of our attention on cultural expressions of homophobia and racism. But until we begin organize, in a systematized and consistent fashion, around issues that concretely deal with oppressive structures, we will just be spitting in the wind. We may get clubs to stop hosting Shirley Q. Liquor, but we will do little to address the structures of white supremacy.

George Takei on Tim Hardaway

This clip from Jimmy Kimmel Live shows a mock public service announcement by gay Japanese American actor George Takei in response to the homophobic remarks made by ex-NBA star Tim Hardaway.

I initially thought the clip was quite funny until Takei made reference to Hardaway's "smooth chocolaty head." And then I wondered. Is this still funny?

I wondered if, in this context, Takei's remark was racist. I wondered if the skit would have been just as effective had no reference been made to Hardaway's skin color. As well, I wondered if Takei was somehow confronting a homophobia specific to African American heterosexual men by employing a messy strategy of fighting one form of discrimination (homophobia) with another (racism).

Does Takei's comedic sketch touch upon an ugly societal truth that holds the notion that it is somehow less offensive for a gay person of color to make a racist remark than it is for a straight white person?

One thing I am sure about is that whenever I hear any reference to skin color, the complex question of what racism is emerges inevitably in my consciousness.

cnn reports on homorevolution tour

Queer hip-hop artist takes back the word Faggot, launches homorevolution tour. CNN Video

Youth & Bullying News

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that schools are legally obligated to protect LGBT students from discrimination and bullying in the same way employees are are protected in the workplace. -

Bullying Moves From Playground To Internet (Providence, Rhode Island) Ryan Patrick Halligan was bullied for months online. Classmates sent the 13-year-old Essex Junction, Vt., boy instant messages calling him gay. He was threatened, taunted and insulted incessantly by so-called cyberbullies.

My thoughts: I think New Jersey got it right. Cyber-bullying is not the issue - you can't prevent bullying all together. What you can do is let kids know it is okay to be gay and you are there for them. You can let kids know there are consequences for any kind of anti-lgbt bullying. I doubt Ryan Patrick would have killed himself if he had known there were pro-gay supporters all around him. And I also doubt the bullying he endured was limited to just the internet. Straight kids who get called gay through myspace do not kill themselves over it. Gay kids who feel threatened, isolated, and unsupported - kill themselves at a rate 5 times that of their straight peers.

Dialogue on Racism

MOCAA at The Multicultural AIDS Coalition and Fenway Community Health present:
“A Conversation in Black & White: Racism in Boston’s Gay Community”
Location: Atrium and Lincoln House Room in United South End Settlements, 566 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA 02118
Time: Tuesday February 27, 2007. 6:00-8:30pm (6:00-6:30pm, Meet & Greet in Atrium over light Hor'Deveurves; 6:30pm-8:30pm Meal & Dialogue in Lincoln House Room)
To incite dialogue between Boston’s Black and White gay men, and reveal the barriers to equitable race relations.
It's bound to be an interesting and powerful evening! For more information, please contact Josh Gambrell at

Stop Shirley Q. Liquor!

Connecticut has cancelled a scheduled performance(innews) by Shirley Q. Liquor (wiki) the drag character played in black-face by a white gay male for predominately white gay male audiences. Congrats to the Ban Shirley Q Now (myspace) group that recently played an important role in protesting this racist idiot.

This is just further evidence that there is so so so much work to be done within the LGBT community as far as issues of racism and social justice go - and there is a total lack of leadership on these issues when it comes to organizations like HRC who so far, not surprisingly, has remained silent on the issue of Shirley Q. Liquor. NGLTF has joined the nationwide movement to ban Shirley. GLAAD has also condemned the racist. Unfortunately Shirley apologist RuPaul doesn't seem to get it.

As I so often ask our community about issues of injustice - where the fuck is the outrage?

Rise Up!

As published in In Newsweekly Thursday, Jan. 15:

Last week some members of the gay community criticized those of us who were outraged over the blatantly homophobic advertisement that Snickers aired during the Super Bowl. They said we overreacted. They said we were acting too flamboyant and whiny. And the editor of my own paper wrote an entire column supporting the idea that our community should follow the example set by Mass Equality and just "calm down."

Another writer for In Newsweekly called the Snickers ad "great," and criticized the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) for spending precious money and resources to object to it. How much time and money does everybody think it takes to shoot out a press release or post a blog entry? How can writers and editors of major LGBT publications promote such complacency? Continue Reading>

Protest Mitt Romney Feb. 15

What: calls on all MA citizens to PROTEST! Mitt Romney will announce his candidacy. We will let the country know that he was a terrible governor, and Massachusetts citizens do not want to see him run this country. Bring creative signs that express why you don't want to see Romney as president.

Date: February 15

Where: Boston Convention Center

When: To Be Announced

Boycott Mars Inc.

Watch some of the "players' reactions"

Snickers Poo Poo Statement to the New York Times:

“As with all of our Snickers advertising, our goal was to capture the attention of our core Snickers consumer, primarily 18-to-24-year-old adult males,” said a spokeswoman for Masterfoods, Alice Nathanson. “Feedback from our target consumers has been positive, and many media and Web site commentators on this year’s Super Bowl lineup ranked the commercial among this year’s best.”“We know that humor is highly subjective and we understand that some consumers have found the commercial offensive,” Ms. Nathanson said, adding: “Clearly that was not our intent. We do not plan to continue the ad on television or on our Web site.”

"Yeah, well, any idiot could have told them that homophobia ranks pretty high up
there with some members of the 18 to 24 year old adult male crowd. So does
racism, Jew-hating, and the sexual harassment of women. Is this what we can
expect next from Snickers?" - AmericaBlog

Where is the apology to the LGBT community? Clearly they could see that having football players act grossed out while watching two men kiss was supporting the rampant homophobia in sports today.

Mars Inc. does not care that they have to pull this ad - they already had 95+ million people watch it on TV and on the web. It was already a successful campaign. They are playing dumb, and they are playing a poor public relations game. Please continue signing the petition that we will use in conjunction with a media push for a full meaningful apology, and boycott to draw attention to homophobia in the media.

And let us not forget that surprise surprise Mars inc./Masterfoods USA is a huge Republican run company.

Snickers Promotes Violence Towards Queer People

Update: Snickers pulled the web site with the ads. Hopefully they will make an official statement soon. Of course at this point they have already shown millions of people how to be violently homophobic. They should really take action to repair the damage they've done.

Using a painfully tired theme for humor, Snickers (Owned by Republican run Mars Co.) aired a homophobic and trans/gender non-conforming-phobic advertisement during this year's Superbowl. They also set up a homophobic website to go along with it where they feature several horrific advertisements. In one ad two men physically beat each other after accidentally kissing. activists played an instrumental role in getting a homophobic 7UP ad cancelled a few years ago. Let's do it again!

UPDATE: HRC calls for Snickers to pull the Wrench Ad and the Player Comments - but not the full campaign. Typical! The ENTIRE campaign is homophobic HRC!

More HRC Shame - >
Today Joe Lieberman (endorsed by HRC over Ned Lamont) sided with the Republicans to block all discussion of the Iraq war. When will HRC drown in its own shame?

Phase Two of the Subjugation of Gays Begins

LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Public universities and local governments can't provide health insurance to the partners of gay employees without violating the state constitution, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Friday. Read more here.

Our local moral crusaders in Massachusetts have been pushing the fact that they are bigots to the side, and have formulated the argument that people of the state have the right to vote on important issues, like marriage equality. They say that they are not intolerant of others, yet when Michigan's Supreme Court stripped gays of their same sex partner insurance, here is what Tyler Dawbin of Article 8 Alliance had to say, "Thank you, Michigan."

You see, it seems clear now that the whole protection of marriage argument is a ruse, and is only phase one of a war campaign that ends in the utter subjugation of the gay community. To people like Tyler, we are not worthy of anything from the government, and his comments that he would favor same sex unions and benefits now all seem to be a lie.

Sit back and relax GLBT across America, I'm sure someone is fighting this cause for you, right? This methodology is working so well, right?

"It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace-- but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!" ~Patrick Henry, March 23, 1775

Get a Dictionary, This Was NOT a "Hoax"

On their 10 pm broadcast tonight, Fox 25 News--that pinnacle of cool-headed, even-handed reporting--decided to call the Aqua Teen Hunger Force publicity disaster that brought Boston to a standstill today a "hoax." This is a prime example of the irresponsibility and recklessness that passes for "journalism" in America.

Let's be clear. A hoax is something deliberately designed to deceive. For this admittedly ill-conceived publicity stunt to have been a "hoax," those responsible for placing these Ignignokt (yes, it is Ignignokt, not Irr) devices would have had to have intended to deceive the public into believing that the devices were bombs. There is incontrovertible evidence that this was not the case; it was clearly a marketing campaign by Turner Broadcasting. Was scattering weird looking electronic devices around when we live in a basket-case society that's afraid of its own shadow a stupid idea? Perhaps. Was it a hoax? NO!

With all the sanctimonious talk about bad publicity stunts, local officials pulled a few outrageous publicity stunts of their own. The arrest of Peter Berdovsky, the art student who coordinated Cartoon Network's effort in Boston, is beyond ridiculous. Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley seems to have been the first person to have used the word "hoax" to describe what happened today when she announced that they had arrested Berdovsky at a press conference earlier today. Berdovsky was charged under Chapter 26 Section 102A 1/2 and one count of disorderly conduct.

Chapter 266, Section 102A 1/2 applies to "whoever possesses, transports, uses or places or causes another to knowingly or unknowingly possess, transport, use or place any hoax device or hoax substance with the intent to cause anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort to any person or group of persons..."

If Coakley actually believes that Turner Broadcasting and Berdovsky intended to cause the pandemonium in Boston today, I have to question her sanity. She knows full well that this was a marketing scheme gone awry and she knows that this particular Cartoon Network campaign was publicly revealed on the internet weeks ago.

Interestingly, in her press conference, Coakley, citing Chapter 266, Section 102A 1/2, said that the law Berdovsky is charged under deals with placing a "hoax" device (and I quote verbatim) "in a way that results in panic or discomfort, etc."

Did you catch that? I think she was about to state what the law actually says: in order to be culpable someone has to place the device in order to (i.e. intending to) cause panic, discomfort, etc. She then corrected herself to say what she wishes the law says--that one has to place a device that merely "results in" panic or discomfort. Listen to the press conference again.

Now I understand that people are angry because of the gridlock, chaos and fear this obnoxious ad campaign caused. But that anger is no excuse to create scapegoats out of struggling art students and to stretch laws to their breaking point so you can appease public fury and look like you're doing something decisive. We have enough of that foolishness on the federal level.