By Sarah Buchlaw
After calling activist Emma González a “skinhead lesbian,” Republican Leslie Gibson withdrew his campaign for the Maine House of Representatives on March 16, as reported by the Washington Post. This is the not the first, nor the last, instance of a powerful white man targeting a woman of color’s sexuality in order to invalidate her opinions and silence her voice.
After Feb. 14 of this year, there are very few Americans who haven’t heard González’s name. A survivor of the Parkland, Florida school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (MSDH), González and her classmates are leading a national movement to demand gun control.
“I am Emma González. I am a bisexual Cuban,” the young activist proudly declared at the 2018 Equality Florida Miami gala, where she and the MSDH Gay-Straight Alliance, of which she is president, were publicly honored.
Commenting on the immense public attention González has received, political newspaper The Hill reported that the activist’s Twitter following had surpassed that of the National Rifle Association (NRA). González’s Twitter following is currently nearing 1.5 million, whereas the NRA sits just under 650,000.
It was this news that former Republican State House candidate Leslie Gibson responded to when he tweeted, “There is nothing about this skin head lesbian that impresses me and there is nothing that she has to say unless you’re a frothing at the mouth moonbat,” according to the Huffington Post. The tweet has since been deleted.
This attack on an teenager by a grown man is more than just highly immature. I see a hateful, violent and calculated attack on González that preys on her gender and sexuality.
I assume that Gibson’s skinhead reference was an effort to equate González’s outspokenness with the militancy of the skinhead movement, and a petty dig at González’s shaved head. The ugliness of calling a non-straight teenage woman of color a skinhead, however, was clearly lost on Gibson.
Although the skinhead movement began as a kind of anti-establishment subculture in the 1980s for punk youth, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) notes that the increasingly racist skinheads “form a particularly violent element of the white supremacist movement” to this day.
The SPLC goes on to recount several horrific examples: “In April 1999, a Mexican immigrant named Irineo Soto Aguilar was murdered in Lakeside, Calif., by three skinheads who crushed his skull with chunks of concrete. In October 2007, a skinhead strangled a 62-year-old gay man in Oklahoma City as a rite of passage in his gang.”
These are just two of several skinhead brutalities in the name of their “racial holy war,” which I’ve highlighted as a reminder that skinheads are notorious for their racist and homophobic violence.
Given this well-known history, calling González a skinhead was not only totally nonsensical but a slap in the face to the many Latinx and LGBT people like González who have been targeted by skinheads. The SPLC website notes that there remain 71 active racist skinhead organizations, four of which are based in Washington.
Excluding critics like Gibson, the American public has shown overwhelming support for the student-led movement for gun control. Several celebrities, for example, have given financial support for the students’ “March for Our Lives,” including George Clooney and Oprah, whom the Los Angeles Times reports each donated $500,000. Vox reported that Amal Clooney and her husband were even among the 200,000 to 800,000 people who attended the March 24 march in D.C.
However important their cause, we can not separate the immense public support Parkland students have generated from the relative privilege they benefit from. According to educational data site StartClass, 61.4 percent of MSDH students are white, which is “drastically different from that of a typical school in the state of Florida, which is made up of 40.2% Caucasian students on average.”
On top of the racial privilege that these mostly white student activists benefit from, many also hold substantial wealth and class privilege; the median household income in Parkland is $130,107 — nearly $75,000 higher than the national average, according to the public data analysis site Data USA.
These facts help explain the resources the Parkland students have to help their cause, as well as the difference in public opinion about their activism compared to that of groups like Black Lives Matter. González is one of very few students with marginalized backgrounds at the forefront of this movement.
These facts have resulted in a large group of students protected from opposition, and a comparatively small group of students like González who are made hypervisible and hyper-susceptible to the backlash.
This is painfully clear when we compare Gibson’s comment on González to the criticism he offered on her white classmate and co-activist, David Hogg. Gibson called him a “bald-faced liar,” according to the same Huffington Post article.
Although accusing an innocent young man of lying about a serious issue is frustrating, comparing Gibson’s comments on González to those about her white male classmate exposes an inherent difference in intent.
I am thankful for the many people whose criticism prompted Gibson to withdraw from the political race, but I am cautious about calling this a victory. Until González’s humanity is as respected as that of her white male classmates, until young women like her no longer have their gender or sexuality used against them and until we begin to listen to the black activists that have been protesting gun violence for years, people like Gibson will remain in power.