In the past few days, the drama surrounding B. Scott‘s correspondent duties for the 2013 BET awards has reignited with the leak of a series of internal BET e-mails.
In a nutshell (although I suggest you check out the links above) B. Scott is trans* person who first became famous on the Internet and than transitioned into the mainstream. He uses masculine pronouns while dressing in a “feminine” manner. BET asked him to be a “Style Stage Correspondent” for the 2013 BET awards. The day of the awards show, BET demanded that he change from his previously approved wardrobe into more “masculine” clothing and, even after he complied, drastically reduced his role in the show and time on camera (it should be noted that BET had worked with B. Scott on two previous occasions without questioning his wardrobe). They, at the time, claimed that it was because he arrived late to the event.
The recently leaked e-mails not only prove that allegations of lateness were false, but that BET planned to discriminate against B. Scott well before the event actually took place.
“I don’t want ‘looking like a woman’ B. Scott,” BET music programming president Stephen Hill allegedly wrote before the June 30 awards show, according to emails obtained by TMZ. “I want tempered B. Scott.”
The network’s vice president, Rhonda Cohen, reportedly replied, “I can speak to him about being less ‘womanly.'”
After Scott made public his allegations of discrimination, BET’s vice president of digital marketing, Monique Ware, evidently advised her colleagues on how to “spin” the controversy, according to another email reviewed by TMZ.
“The spin should be he was late for a live show and subsequently replaced and it would have been awkward in a live show to have the person assuming his role removed and him inserted,” Ware reportedly wrote.
But then the email suggests that such a “spin” might not be the whole truth: “Unless we can make public the reason we didn’t want him dressed the way he normally does, I would stay away from suits, suit selections, etc.” (from The Advocate.)
Let’s unpack this, because there’s a lot going on here. Historically, both trans* people and people of color have been pushed to the margins of the LGBTQ community, and we can’t have this conversation without acknowledging that uncomfortable truth. Today’s LGBTQ movement, at least in this country, is largely the domain of white, gender-conforming gay men. This has created an (erroneous) idea that there is no overlap between the Black and LGBTQ communities, completely negating the realities of countless queer people of color.
First, let me make it clear that I am neither trans* nor Black. This entry does not claim to speak for members of these communities but rather to look at this incident as evidence of larger societal issues. I look forward to feedback from people who know more than I do about the daily lives of trans* people of color in the comments section.
A person like B. Scott causes so much scandal because he refuses to fit anywhere. His gender identity does not conform to the binary, as evidenced by his choice to use masculine pronouns. He refuses to be “all the way” male or “all the way” female. While this sort of queering of gender is subversive in any almost any US context, it is perhaps exceptionally so at the BET awards. Much of modern hip-hop culture is bound up in ideas of hyper-masculinity, performed through styles of dress, styles of speech, and a discourse of hyper-sexuality directed at women. Hip-hop masculinity (as well as masculinity in general) has a lot invested in the idea of the gender binary and heteronormativity.
“Ok,” you say, “But that’s hardly news.” You’re right. Normative masculinity is always threatened by non-normative gender and sexual identities regardless of racial context. Nonetheless, one of the things that is especially distressing about this particular case is precisely the racial context in which it plays out. As mentioned above, people of color are often made to feel unwelcome in the “mainstream” (read: rich and white) LGBTQ community. And, it would appear that B. Scott and people like him are equally unwelcome at the BET awards. While we should certainly not take the BET Awards as the definitive measure of “acceptable behavior” in Black culture, such a highly publicized incident at such a highly publicized event will, inevitably, send a message to the people watching that broadcast.
I can’t help but wonder where the future B. Scotts, clandestinely watching the BET Awards in their mothers’ high heels, are going to feel that they belong. The onus is on ALL of us to make those little queer kids feel welcomed, loved, and supported. This effort has to come just as much from white LGBTQ culture as it has to come from BET. It’s up to white LGBTQ people to work to create spaces in which racial diversity is not only accepted by sought after. This does not mean inviting people into white spaces. It means completely rethinking queer spaces and working together with people of color to build them from the ground up.
And it’s also up to BET to work to show its audience a world in which a person like B. Scott is not only accepted by embraced as a whole person, not in spite of his differences but because of them. A media platform like BET has the potential to show millions of people that Black and queer are not mutually exclusive.
But this problem is bigger than BET, and the racial divisions in the LGBTQ community, it’s bigger than hip-hop masculinity. What I find most distressing about all of this is that, while it’s clear that BET behaved atrociously, and most likely conspired to both humiliate and discriminate against B. Scott, it’s not actually clear that they did anything illegal. As federal non-discrimination legislation currently stands, we are offered NO protection from employment discrimination based on gender identity or sexuality. ENDA has only finally come to a vote in Congress after being introduced virtually every year since 1994. I don’t claim to know the legalities of B. Scott’s particular case, but if he is capable of making a successful employment discrimination claim, he is one of the lucky ones.
We live in a country where it is, federally, entirely legal to look someone in the face and fire them for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans*. Beyond what tacit and overt messages of discrimination may be sent by BET, or the white-dominated LGBTQ movement, or by anybody else, our own government is overtly putting its stamp of approval on anti-LGBTQ violence. And make no mistake, folks. Work-place discrimination is violence. Being rendered unemployable on the basis of your very being is violence. Being denied the possibility of gainful employment and then being villanized for using public assistance is violence.
So, while I think BET deserves to pay through the nose for their discrimination, that won’t be enough. Even if this one event is the flashpoint for a whole new era of LGBTQ inclusive BET programing, and even if the insular white-dominated LGBTQ community miraculously opens itself up to welcome and validate the lived experiences of all our of brothers and sisters, it will not be enough.
That little boy in his mother’s heels will need a lot of things. He’ll need support, love, and acceptance. He’ll need to grow up knowing that he’s special, not strange. But even if he has all of that, and I hope that he does, he’s going to need one more thing: a job.