Rainbow Rant: Rainbow racism

We can’t say we don’t know about the racism festering in queer and trans institutions like Equitas Health

Joy Ellison
Tanner Gray writes a letter to Equitas Health at their former booth now being used as a protest space during the Community Pride event in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021.  “I used to be a patient at Equitas Health, and even thought I never experienced any racism myself, I am very disappointed in them because [health care] should be a place that is a safe space,” said Gray.

Nothing about the news of racism at Equitas Health is a surprise. The systematic discrimination and mistreatment of Black employees at the organization has long been an open secret. More than that, it is a bleeding wound that has never been given a chance to scar, let alone heal. 

Racism festers at the heart of many Columbus queer and trans institutions. This is hardly a shock; it shouldn’t be a matter of more than a cursory debate. Equitas Health exists within a larger American system built on a foundation of anti-Black exploitation and dehumanization. No person or institution in this country can fail to internalize prejudiced attitudes or go unshaped by systemic advantage and disadvantage. Queer or trans identity provides no protection or absolution. 

Racism within queer and trans institutions isn’t much different from racism anywhere else. Former Equitas employees said they left the organization because of harassment, limited opportunities for advancement, disparate treatment and lack of institutional power. Rainbow racism is just as ugly and just as damaging as any other manifestation of systemic white supremacy. If anything, as Bob Vitale told the Dispatch, the sting of being hurt by your own community means that rainbow racism can cut more deeply.

What is unique about racism in queer and trans spaces is the depth of denial practiced by white queer and trans people. Too often, white queer and trans people act as though our own experiences of violence and prejudice prevent us from harboring racist attitudes. We tend to believe that our experiences of queerphobia and transantagonism cancel out our white privilege. Many of us use our LGBTQ identities as a shield, or worse, a weapon.

Generations of Black queer and trans people have been pointing out this dynamic. James Baldwin wrote, “I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, in a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly.”

Queer and trans people can’t say that our Black community members have not tried to explain this to us. 

There is one other way that racism within queer and trans communities is distinctive. White queer and trans people who do recognize racism within our communities often act as though that knowledge in and of itself is a blow against discrimination. 

All sorts of white people engage in this sort of self-aggrandizement, certainly. But the specifics of the situation at Equitas – that the institution can pay so much lip-service to anti-racism while continuing to harm its employees of color – shows that queer and trans people may have a special flair for knowing we have a problem without doing anything meaningful about it. 

We can no longer say we didn’t know or that we deserve credit for simply knowing. The only question becomes what we are going to do.

As ever, Black queer and trans people are leading the way. To begin the process of transforming our community institutions, white queer and trans people need to listen and support them.