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Who Gets to Believe in Parks Denton?

When people who know nothing of the catfishing scandal that enraptured Gay Twitter for the past week hear the name Parks Denton, they find it difficult to hide their incredulity. It’s the type of name celebrities give their kids, or the kind of goofy name found in Japanese role-playing games. No matter how conventionally handsome and flirtatious he was, how did so many men think someone named Parks Denton could exist?

At this point, everyone has a catfishing story or two and felt that mix of anxiety and betrayal in the aftermath. I had a devastatingly handsome man on Grindr compliment a picture of me in a cycling jersey. Did I have any more photos of myself in and out of gear, he wondered? I was flattered by his attentionbut it also set off warning bells.

As a man of color, I have enough experience of being brushed past, looked through, and talked over by men that look like him to understand the rarity of his enthusiastically messaging me so a red flag was raised for me. And thanks to Google’s reverse image search, my cause for suspicion was valid: the photos were stolen, belonging to a young Australian swimmer.

And it’s within this story that Parks Denton found his success across (parts of) Gay Twitter. Like many other men of color, I noticed that the Parks Denton drama had a race-related tangent: the account rarely (if ever) spoke to any men who didn’t present as white. A gay white man who only speaks to other gay white men isn’t exactly novel, but it dawned on me that the efficacy of the con related to a blind spot many gay white men have for one another.

Gay male culture is built upon a racial hierarchy where white men sit atop: white men may be rejected on an individual basis, but men of color face rejection on a structural basis. For a man of color to break through these barriers, he must be that much cuter, or fitter, or funnier, or richer, or cooler to be seen as viable, and even that does not guarantee passage. He comes to realize that many gay men will write him off forever merely for his skin color.

This behavior is backed by research, including historical data from OkCupid around how gay white men messaged people of color significantly less than they messaged other gay white men to newer findings, such as how on Twitter, people appear to cluster and predominantly interact with people of the same ethnic background.

A conventionally handsome white man who breaks this order with interracial interactions pings the radar of seasoned men of color, who’ll triangulate what this attention meansas I did when the fake-swimmer messaged meand weigh the behavior in front of them against their set of experiences. Our spidey sense is further honed from other times receiving attention in a benignly racist manner: being fetishized for the color of one’s skin and having to negotiate all the societal stereotypes that come attached with it. Men of color have to constantly ask themselves, “Who do you think I am, and what do you want from me?”

White men do not generally have this, as they can, to a certain degree, expect other white men to sleep with them, or at least to find them potentially attractive. On Twitter, it’s not unusual to see a white man share a selfie documenting the commonplace or everyday and still rack up hundreds or thousands of likes. Few men of color can reasonably expect to put in such minimal effort for a similar level of validation. Had the Parks Denton account shown a man of color, we probably wouldn’t even be having this conversation.

Watching the Parks Denton issue unfold, I began to think about this reliability white gay men can access and how it played a role in their gullibility. In gay male culture, sexual attractiveness remains the defining engine of our economy. We have taken up the thinking that few things are worse for gay men than being deemed unfuckable: to be unfuckable is to get exiled away from the center of gay male society. Nudes in a way are a form of currency, demonstrating one’s value, serving a similar purpose to the accumulation of wealth in capitalism.

For gay white men to exchange nudes with a conventionally-handsome white man strikes me as standard practice, an affirmation of their place in the hierarchy. To believe in this system that validates your value through thirst traps is then to believe that a Parks Denton can exist and would flirt and find one attractive and together to demonstrate the free, easy exchange of sexual power.

By rarely interacting with men of color, the fake account smartly understood (intuitively or not) that to betray this was to lose some of its power. There are geographical (and bodily) spaces where only whites can enter. Although, some less stridentor more calculatinggroups will admit one or two men of color to inoculate themselves from accusations of racism.

For some reason, while thinking about how Parks Denton swindled his victims, my mind went to Bernie Madoff, the iconic fraudster and financier. Many people lost their money to him because they had placed faith in a capitalist system and took the gamble even if it seemed to too good to be true. The system is broken, but it appeared better to opt in than to exit it. It may not make much sense that a nondescript selfie can rack up 400 likes or that an account named Parks Denton is flirting with you, but what’s the alternative, right?

And this isn’t about white gay men, really, but the belief in whiteness itself. It’s the belief that powers Goop vagina eggs, voter suppression, the blind eye to the murders of trans women of color, and all lives matter. I’m not arguing that flirting with Parks Denton is in any way equivalent to those things, but instead that that’s the system that allowed a Parks Denton to thrive. It’s the kind of magical thinking that allowed him to be real until he wasn’t.