A fervid imagination sometimes entirely upsets and supplements the plain and obvious teachings of common sense. In the glass of enthusiasm, fiction is often mistaken for fact, and what exists, somehow or other, is confounded with what ought to be. A state of mind analogous to this, leads some of our friends to assume that all distinctions founded upon race or color have been forever abolished in the United States, and that all special efforts recognizing a different state of facts, are uncalled for, out of time, and hurtful. “There are no colored people in this country” said a highly poetic friend of ours, not long since. … This delirium of enthusiasm is very pleasant to those possessed by it, and it would seem unamiable to disturb if did it not sometimes stand directly in the way of needed effort.
—Frederick Douglas, “Seeming and Real,” October 6, 1870
In a traditional circus, the ringmaster stands in the middle of the ring wearing a tall, colorful top hat. It’s his show. Part of his act is entertaining the audience by having wild beasts perform tricks. Ordinarily, the audience would fear the beasts, but the ringmaster controls the animals by leashing them or using professional, often armed, animal trainers. The animals aren’t enjoying entertaining the audience, but are performing as trained. The circus often dresses the wild beast in colorful costumes. Sometimes such animals as bears ride tricycles or even bicycles.
The cover of Gloss Magazine’s Official Program Guide of the Folsom Street Fair 2011 illustrated San Francisco’s white gay circus. The ringmaster was in the center. He was a smiling white man wearing a tall and colorful top hat. He controlled a muscular, powerful-looking, animalistic Black man by a leash. The Black man wore colorful pants and may be said to look “tamed.” At the foot of the ringmaster, a hairy Latino man sat on a tricycle. He had been trained to hold his leash in his mouth. He, too, wore a colorful costume. Thus, it seemed that the magazine equated both the Black and Latino men to circus animals for the white ringmaster’s performance and photograph.
According to the guide, the Folsom Street Fair was the big event of San Francisco’s Leather Week. It was “the grand finale of a long week’s worth of kinky parties . . . Only in San Francisco will you see leather pride banners lining the grand boulevard of Market Street—and a huge leather pride flag in the Castro.” (Castro neighborhood is the center of San Francisco’s white gay community.)
In his Journal of Broadcasting (Volume 12, Number 2, 1968, pp. 97-116) essay titled “The Ambiguous Mirror: The Reflective-Projective Theory of Broadcasting and Mass Communications,” legal scholar (and then-member of the FCC) Lee Loevinger presented a broad theory of contemporary mass media and society. According to his reflective-projective theory, a community is not formed by lines or boundaries, but by common ideas, interests and culture. This commonality must be seen and accepted by a majority in the community. The role of mass media is to convey that commonality. The leather community is still forming and has no formal structure, official language or definable geographical center, etc., so it must rely on its mass media to establish itself. (For example, the San Francisco “leather community” only had a week to show itself to the world with parties and leather pride banners lining Market Street.)
According to the reflective-projective theory, mass communications is like a mirror to society. Loevinger wrote (in a version of his essay), “While the mirror can pick out points and aspects of society, it cannot create a culture or project an image that does not reflect something already existing in some form in society.” That audience is composed of individuals who project their own ideas, attitudes and feelings on what is reflected. Loevinger goes on to write: “Even among our mass media there are differences in the ability to perform the function of unification and common culture building. Magazines, to an outstanding degree, and even newspapers, are written and published for particular groups and classes of society.”
For example, magazine covers act as mirrors because their editors carefully select covers that will attract their intended readership. They reflect their readers’ attitudes and desires—apparently even entertaining white supremacist and racially oppressive ones.
Given this history (as well as the history of America), the publishers of the Leather Week’s official guidebook should have reasonably assumed that most African-American gay men would either be offended or uninterested in being equated with trained beasts. But rather than censor such a representation, it was on their magazine cover. According to the reflective-projective theory, “Basically all mass media are censored by the public since they lose their status as mass media if they become too offensive or uninteresting to a large segment of the society.” If the organizers of Leather Week had been worried about offending and turning off African-Americans, they would have censored that cover.
The Gloss Magazine cover mirrored an aspect of San Francisco’s African-American gay history and their struggle for respect. For example, the year before the Gloss Magazine cover, a Black gay organization wrote an opinion piece for San Francisco’s largest gay newspaper, protesting a popular white drag queen who performed in blackface and stereotyped and mocked Black southern women (Pride and Shirley Q. Liquor, Bay Area Reporter, June 17, 2010). The Badlands Club was accused of discriminating against African-Americans. Even as protesters picketed the club, most of those lined up to get inside were white men. A 2009 study by the San Francisco Department of Public Health found that African-American men were devalued in San Francisco’s gay community—even by other African-American men. For years, men complained of the paucity of images of African-American loving couples in the gay media. When a referendum passed by public vote (Proposition 8, preventing same sex marriages), angry white gays reportedly attacked African-Americans—even those protesting Prop. 8 with them.
The ringmaster often smiles and waves to the crowd. When he poses for pictures, he might proudly display the animals—sometimes even using tricks to get them to look at the camera.
Yet it’s not “only in San Francisco” during Leather Week that we have seen such mass media representations of African-American men as savage. In his 1919 essay titled “The Souls of White Folk,” scholar W. E. B. DuBois wrote, “Slowly but surely white culture is evolving the theory that ‘darkies’ are born beasts of burden for white folk.” He pointed out that without our realizing it, pictures and media put the theory of despicable “savage half-men” into our minds.
Yet the Gloss Magazine publisher could reasonably defend the cover for including a “diversity” of men. He could argue that the cover was “inclusive” of Black men. He could even argue that the cover allowed a freedom of sexual self-expression unique to San Francisco. However, this circus of “diversity” and “inclusiveness” entertained whiteness. It eroticized the age-old offensive stereotype of Black men as dangerous beasts, to be captured, tamed and exploited by a civilized white man for the white man’s pleasure and entertainment. The Gloss Magazine cover became, to borrow from W. E. B. DuBois’s essay, another step in the evolution of the theory that Black men—and now Latinos—are beasts and savage half-men.