The white queer community has a long history of failing black people — either supporting their oppressors or giving a free pass to bad people merely because they haven’t harmed the LGBTQ spaces white people inhabit. Look no further than “Gays for Trump,” or the racism within dating apps and gay bars, to see white queer people using their privilege in spite of their marginalization, hurting others in the queer community who don’t have such access and power.
Ellen DeGeneres made another contribution to this sad trend yesterday, airing the first major interview with Kevin Hart following his loss of the Oscars hosting gig. From the jump, it was very clear this was a PR move on Hart’s behalf — of all TV shows, you choose the one that happens to be hosted by one of the most prominent queer people in television. It makes sense. You have a heart to heart with Ellen, and perhaps apologize as she helps you understand what you did wrong and whom you hurt.
Unfortunately, that is not what happened.
What we saw instead was a six-and-a-half minute monologue where Hart bemoaned being the victim of hateful internet trolls. Rather than talking about his hurtful words, he discussed how he apologized over and over again — an apology that none of us have ever been able to locate. He talked about how the tweets were a decade old, although he made anti-gay comments long after those tweets, which he also didn’t address. After finishing his monologue, Ellen gave him something she had no right to give: a free pass.
What would it have looked like if Ellen instead hosted black queer activists to speak about the issues we are facing from white supremacy and its effects on how the black community views LGBTQ people? Why not have one of us there with Hart to ask him the tough questions she was unwilling to ask? What if Hart was pushed to consider the people who are black and queer who were harmed by his words? In our community, anti-gay words often translate to action by others with violent tendencies.
Why did none of this happen? The answer is simple. Friends will always protect friends — especially when they personally aren’t the ones being harmed. Hart has had multiple chances to learn and refuses to. For that, Ellen gave him a pass and is working hard to get him hosting the Oscars.
Watching Ellen absolve Hart was disappointing, but not surprising. Even someone like Ellen, who once lost her show and livelihood due to anti-gay sentiment, is unable to see how the ability to always bounce back is a privilege typically reserved for white people. Just a few weeks ago, many of us got a chuckle when Ellen sat staring like a deer in headlights as Chelsea Handler attempted to explain white woman privilege to her.
I don’t expect Ellen to have range on topics like this anymore — even her stand-up routine now jokes about how out-of-touch she is — but I do expect her to know when it’s not her place to protect and support people who have hurt members of the LGBTQ community — people whom she doesn’t speak for but knows exist.
That’s the big problem here. Not only is she basically forgiving Hart on behalf of people she doesn’t speak for, she is also using her power get him to the highest levels of the industry. She has created a situation where her whiteness will not only protect Hart but continue to give no recourse to the black queer community when we express our hurt.
Which brings us back to Hart and his critics. He keeps claiming he’s the victim of online haters, but the actual damage is nonexistent. His new movie comes out next week (the Ellen sit-down was nicely timed), he is still wealthy and powerful, and he continues to be booked and busy. And anti-gay sentiment rarely ends careers — look no further than the rap industry, which has gotten away with it for decades. Hart has not been and will not be harmed, and he could have avoided all of this had he put his pride aside for a few minutes and offered a genuine apology when all those hateful comments first resurfaced.
Instead, he only said sorry after losing the Oscars gig, despite claiming over and over again that he had apologized in the past. In reality, what Hart keeps claiming is an apology was this statement in 2015:
I wouldn’t tell that joke today, because when I said it, the times weren’t as sensitive as they are now. I think we love to make big deals out of things that aren’t necessarily big deals, because we can. These things become public spectacles. So why set yourself up for failure?
This is not an apology. This is recognition that you may lose some of your bags for publicly being anti-gay, so you won’t do it anymore. This does not mean that you aren’t anti-gay, and actually leads one to believe that you still are, but can just control it better. Sometimes an apology needs to be an action. An apology needs to look like change and support.
As upsetting as all this is, I want people to learn from it. For white queer folk, be better advocates for your black counterparts. Our shared marginalization has to trump (no pun intended) the protection of your whiteness. You also need to know you have no place absolving those who harm black queer folks. For people like Hart, talk to the community you “talk about” so damn much. Have an actual conversation with a black queer person if you really want to learn, change, and grow.
The damage has been done, but there is always space to fix it. That is a choice both Ellen and Kevin have the power to make.
George M. Johnson is a black queer author, journalist, and activist whose YA memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue is set to debut in January 2020.