You’d have to be a pretty rotten person to criticize Lea Delaria, also known as the ONLY famous butch lesbian, ever. Luckily for you though, dear readers, I am just such a rotten person.
The video above, which shows Delaria engaging in a shouting match with a confused sounding elderly Jamaican guy has been celebrated as Delaria showing her “Big Boo attitude” and demonstrating the right way to deal with annoying subway preachers to the rest of us. But when I watch the video, I see something different. I see a rich, famous, powerful woman bullying someone who is poor and powerless. I see a dark skinned foreigner, who may be suffering from mental illness or dementia, being harangued about the bible by someone with an agenda he doesn’t understand. The guy has no response, beyond attempting to continue with his spiel. He is not a theological scholar. He is not the leader of any church or the holder of any political position. He may very well be homeless- the only street preachers I’ve ever met in person were members of the homeless community, whose ranting gave a sense of status and purpose to their otherwise grim existence. When I see one, I feel sorry for him, and try to treat them patiently and with compassion- and I’ve got a hell of a lot less power and influence than Lea Delaria does.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had this feeling about a viral video. I’ve felt it every time I’ve watched the ones that show an affluent, attractive white woman confronting, shaming, or publicizing the inept catcalling of poor black men in the name of feminism. I’ve kept quiet because I’ve never experienced any substantial amount of street harassment, and because I don’t want my objections to be taken as pro-catcalling. But those videos give me a sick feeling in my stomach, because the women who make them and the women who share them don’t seem to understand who actually has the power and privilege in our society, and who actually doesn’t.
Racism is real. Sexism is real. So is homophobia. We could argue for days about which out group has it worse, but in the time we spent doing that we’d be pretending that these isms exist in a classless society, (or, worse, using poor people as tools as we deployed our arguments). It should be clear to everyone that a homeless person, of any race, sex, or orientation, has vastly, unimaginably less power than any affluent person. It should be beyond dispute to say that a poor person with mental illness or addiction issues is in the very lowest strata of our society. And yet, somehow, our belief in the power of racism, sexism, and homophobia allows us to cheer when a privilege person berates a poor one. It makes us blind to what is really going on, which is the exact opposite of the thing we think we’re seeing.
People in power are intimidating. It’s HARD to speak against them, or stand up for yourself in the face of them. So, it’s understandable that activists would rather find some poor unemployed schlub and have him stand in for all the Wall Street bankers, all the political leaders, all the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and leaders of religious factions. But just because something is understandable doesn’t make it acceptable. The role of activists is to fight for the weak against the powerful. It’s simply not good enough to go and find a Judas goat among the homeless, make a viral video of somebody haranguing them, and then call that a victory over oppression.