“We are #ProudBoys.” If you scrolled through Twitter days after the first presidential debate, you probably came across a tweet along those lines. Or perhaps you saw that #ProudBoys just happened to be trending nationally on Twitter.
Anyone familiar with the group might have initially been shocked. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Proud Boys are a group of “self-described ‘western chauvinists’” who often spout white nationalist, anti-Muslim, and misogynistic rhetoric. To make things worse, a few days prior to the hashtag’s notoriety, Donald Trump had told the group to “stand back and stand by” during the presidential debate when Chris Wallace had pressed him to condemn white nationalism.
But the trend was actually an effort by gay men to “queer” or “reclaim” the Proud Boys hashtag; #ProudBoys had been flooded with images of (mostly white cis) gay men with their romantic partners. According to the Washington Post, some notable people that hopped on the trend included Andy Cohen, Bobby Berk, Matt Bomer and even the official “Canadian Forces in the U.S.” account.
Obviously, the intentions behind the effort to “reclaim” the hashtag are mostly good. On Oct. 1, George Takei tweeted about how filling the hashtag with images of “gay guys … making out with each other or doing very gay things” would “mess [the Proud Boys] up real bad.” He added an additional hashtag, #ReclaimingMyShine.
But was #ProudBoys a hashtag for gay men, especially cis white gay men, to “reclaim” in the first place?
To reclaim is to take ownership of a word or idea that had previously been used against you. Take, for example, “the f-word” slur against gay men. To this day, I remember when a boy I hardly knew haphazardly hurled the term at me in fifth grade. The injury in the word came from the fact that the LGBTQ+ community did not originally conceive of the term; rather, it was used exclusively by others to attack the community.
But #ProudBoys is different. Even if their rhetoric does include homophobic attacks, the core of the Proud Boys’ agenda lies with misogynistic, white supremacist and xenophobic rhetoric. They even co-opt gay issues when it comes to their larger goals of white nationalism. The Southern Poverty Law Center gives an example of when a leader of the Proud Boys said, “Sharia law ain’t it. … Throwing gay people off roofs ain’t it. You are a disgrace.”
I am not arguing that the group is not homophobic; rather, I’m pointing to the fact that being gay and being a white nationalist are not mutually exclusive. While not universally true, there are definitely examples of gay men who hold xenophobic, racist, misogynistic, transphobic or other prejudiced beliefs. Thus, there is almost irony in white gay men “reclaiming” a term associated with white supremacy, even if it is also associated indirectly with homophobia. To do so seems to ignore the sexism, transphobia and racism predominantly perpetuated by cis white men within the LGBTQ+ community and the world at large.
Take the issues that major LGBTQ+ organizations focus on, such as same-sex marriage and military service. While these issues are arguably important, it is important to also note the other issues such as housing instability and violence that continue to disproportionately impact Black and brown LGBTQ+ individuals, especially trans women and gender-nonconforming people. For instance, according to a 2019 study by Dillbary and Edwards, Black male pairs were the least likely to be approved for a mortgage relative to a white heterosexual baseline. White male pairs had the smallest difference in mortgage approvals from a white heterosexual pair.
Racial inequality further extends into issues such as health equity. According to the CDC in 2018, Black people and African Americans accounted for 37 percent of all new HIV diagnoses among gay and bisexual men in the United States compared to 27 percent among white gay and bisexual men. In an opinion piece for NBC News, George Johnson writes, “While Black queer people are still fighting for survival, white queer people were fighting for marriage equality.”
Perhaps Johnson put it best in his piece when he wrote, “Although we all share the same oppressors, white queer folks must come to terms with the fact that they play a role in the harm experienced by Black and Brown queer folks.”
Choosing to “reclaim” #ProudBoys may be an attempt at parodying a harmful group. But in “reclaiming” #ProudBoys, white gay men insinuate diametric opposition to the original movement and therefore absolution from the harm it has created. This ignores the fact that no matter how opposed they are, all white men, including white gay men, will continue to benefit from the white nationalist and supremacist aspect of the Proud Boys’ agenda.
So is it actually an act of resistance for white gay men to say “we are #ProudBoys”?
AIDEN LEE is a rising senior in Pauli Murray College on a gap year. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.