What’s Sex Got to do With…Race?

Individuals with a non-normative gender or sexual identity, as well as a race which is constrained by society in different ways, experience this matrix of identity in a very different way than the rest of society. This concept is called refracted identity, and refers to individuals who have more than one socially stigmatized identity, which then affects how they are able to maneuver and function in the world.

In Krista McQueeny’s article, she describes white lesbian women as having a non-refracted identity because their sexuality is often the first non-privileged identity they hold, sexuality then stands as their most prominent means of social identification. On the other hand, African-American lesbian women often describe themselves as members of their African-American community or church before considering their lesbian identity as a defining feature of who they are. Thus, refracted identities serve to complicate how society labels and understands individuals of multiple non-privileged identities, and also how those individuals view and label themselves.

The idea of refracted identities can be tied to our study of the sexualization of asian male bodies and “down-low” African-American male culture. Asian males who are heterosexual, even, feel a compulsion to perform and to display their masculinity. This may mean working out or focusing on other physical features of the body. In our discussion of “down-low” culture, we learn that black men participate in this culture, often while holding girlfriends or identifying as heterosexual in order to fit better into their cultural identity as a black male. These men perform homosexual acts and put themselves at greater risk by not using protection.

An example from my own experiences is one of my friends from high school, Vernell, who is both African-American and identifies as gay. People at school did not believe him when he told people he was gay, because he is a large African-American male with no adherence to effeminate stereotypes. Even though he outright told people what his sexual orientation was, they did not see his racial identity as coherent when understanding his sexuality, so they simply chose to ignore his sexuality altogether.

Do you think refracted identities have more of an effect on how individuals see themselves or on how society views them?

When it comes to refracted identities that result in harmful practices, such as “down-low” culture among African-American males, is it a public health concern that we address the social structures which cause these communities to be present? Or can effective remedies only be found from within African-American culture itself?

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