Why “Queer Eye” star Karamo Brown is anxious about his male privilege

Why “Queer Eye” star Karamo Brown is anxious about his male privilege
Image: Alex Rhoades
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If you’ve used Netflix in the past year, you may have come across the jubilant Karamo Brown.

He’s one of the “Fab Five” on Netflix’s Queer Eyea reboot of the Bravo series Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which ran from 2003 to 2007. Each of the crew of five gay men revamps people’s lives; Brown is the “culture expert.”

Many know him as the guy who makes everyone cry—and for good reason. Brown, 37, spent 10 years working as a licensed social worker in the Los Angeles area, before becoming a producer and TV personality. He’s unafraid of vulnerability, and intent on helping other men unpack their insecurities and differences in judgment-free spaces.

Having grown up as a black, gay man in the American South, and in becoming the first openly gay black man on television on MTV’s reality show The Real World in 2004, Brown has spent decades actively confronting and defying stereotypes, while laying bare his own insecurities.

In 2016, he worked under the Obama Administration to create policy and legislation that would help support LGBTQ youth outside school, Parents.com reports. He also began his own nonprofit, 6in10.org, which provides mental health support for gay and bisexual black men living with HIV. He’s the father of two sons, both of whom he’s actively raising as feminists.

In conversation with Quartz, Brown explains why gender equality is among his top priorities, how racial and gender liberation intersect, and why it’s okay for men to get frustrated while being allies.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too? 

Workplace gender equality has always been important to me, even prior to the Me Too Movement. As a gay man of color, I understand the importance of standing in solidarity with women. Though our struggles may be different, the desire for equality is the same. What the Me Too Movement reinforced for me is that I have a responsibility to consistently assist in creating safe spaces and networks of support for women and men who are apprehensive to speak up against the harassment they have received.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? How do you define your feminism?

I have always identified as a feminist. But more importantly, I constantly teach my sons what it means to be a feminist. I tell them often feminism does not mean feminine… it means equality. I make sure they understand that women do not need our protection or special treatment, unless it’s what they ask for—just as men don’t need special protection or special treatment unless it’s what they need. I teach them their anatomy doesn’t make them superior in any way to women. Simply, women deserve fairness, equality, and respect.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality? 

I first recognize my privilege as a man and then support the women around me in gaining equal opportunities. If I have the “mic,” I pass it to those whose voices largely go unheard because they are not given the opportunities.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

The biggest threat to men is toxic male behavior that stops them from fully respecting themselves and others. It’s time that men start understanding we are stronger as humans when we support and respect each other. And that “gender norms” or “idealized gender specific behavior” is destructive to us all because it’s limiting. Men can and should be expressive, emotional, vulnerable, respectful, strong, and providers… as women are all those things as well.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so? 

I do have conversations with my male peers about sexism often. But what I realized is most men don’t truly understand sexism or how their actions can be seen as “everyday sexism.” I help them to first realize there is an infinite number of hierarchy-building double standards they subscribe to that are based solely on gender that they need to recognize and fight against. For example, men are studs for having multiple partners yet women are sluts. When I hear my guy friends say that, I help them to understand why that language is sexist and what they can do to change their mindset and actions.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

I have anxiety that I am not going to be able to check my privilege in the moment and end up adding to the problem. I was born into certain social norms that I fight against daily but by no means am I perfect. I am constantly checking in with myself and the cis/trans women around me to make sure my behavior and language is respectful and supportive. We all must do the work daily.

7. What do you wish your female co-workers, and women at large, knew about you? 

I am open to learning what they need so that I can support them. There are many men who don’t know how to support women and are afraid to ask. I’m asking because I know the fight for gender equality takes all of us working together.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

It’s okay to feel frustration, but you can’t allow criticism to stop you from working to do what you know is right… which is fighting for gender equality. Find a group of people who support you and are willing to educate you. We all need to support men and women.

9. If you could take back one thing you’ve said or done that contributed to bias at work or at home, what would it be? Why? 

When I was younger, I acted as if I knew others’ struggles and would speak for them. I don’t do that anymore. People need to be in control of their own narratives.

10. What’s your best advice for young men today?

Understand that we all play a role in the fight for gender equality.