A Failure to Listen

This past week I was at the Netroots Nation 2015 conference. In the past, this has been one of my favorite progressive events, full of both energy and positivity. This year the theme was intersectionality within the LGBT movement.

I am forced to report that we are failing at it. Horribly.

This realization started with the second panel I attended, titled "We Are One: Overcoming the Shared Opposition of the LGBT and Reproductive Rights Movement." The basics of where both movements stand are easy to see: LGBT rights are moving steadily forward, and reproductive rights are in rapid decline. The group of reproductive rights advocates on stage wasn't so much a panel, as a plea for help.

"We marched for marriage. Where are you for us now?"

"Why are you declaring victory and going home? We're getting hammered by the same people you just fought."

"There were thousands of people at the marriage rally. We can only get a couple dozen for our rights."

"Reproductive rights aren't just a women's issue. Queer women and trans men get, pregnant or raped too."

While I know many transgender women, such as Cristan Williams, who recognize and fight for the intersection of all our rights to health care and bodily autonomy, the LGBT movement as a whole is not standing with many of the people who stood with us in the fight for marriage equality.

This is not a new phenomenon. Prominent transgender women such as Autumn Sandeen, Paula Neira and Allyson Robinson fought DADT and its aftermath relentlessly. Yet when DADT and DOMA were done, the number of staunch non-transgender (cisgender) allies who dedicated themselves to ending the medical ban on transgender service members was a very short list. The indefatigable Sue Fulton and the ever-passionate Fiona Dawson are among them.

More startling at NetRoots was how badly we're doing on race as a progressive movement as a whole, and the LGBT community is no exception.

Publicly, it was shocking to me that Senator Bernie Sanders wasn't prepared to talk about the issues seen as most urgent to the black community. I was beyond appalled that Governor O'Malley possessed so little cultural awareness that he actually used the phrase "All Lives Matter." This is a catch phrase for conservatives who want to side step the deadly and disturbing intersection of race and police forces. I would expect snarky, entitled 20-something white bloggers who blog over at sites like The Federalist or The Blaze to use language like this, not a Democratic candidate for President at a conference full of progressives.

Further inside the conference, there were deep divisions as well. I was blown away that some white LGBT people objected to the fact that there was a Queer People of Color caucus, because the caucus only allowed queer people of color to attend.

Yes, you read that right.

The lowest point for me was at the equality caucus, where white, male, cisgender people were telling queer people of color that their experiences weren't relevant to the discussion, then refusing to recognize their own privilege. I have rarely felt more uncomfortable, and it was certainly the most uncomfortable I have ever felt in a supposedly progressive, queer space.

That's why when the people of color walked out, I followed. If this wasn't a safe space for them, it wasn't one I wanted to be in either.

It is the conceit of activists that if we just could get people in power to listen, and really hear, we could change hearts and minds and make progress happen. It is therefore ironic when we, as leading activists, are unable to open our own minds enough to listen to others when they try to tell us about injustices different from the ones we have experienced.

We somehow expect others to empathize with us enough to be called to action on our behalf, yet all too often lack the empathy and drive to answer other people's calls to action. The magnificent few who do, who dedicate themselves to a cause not their own, are treated well by history.

Lingering social injustices in the United States make the entire fight for marriage equality seem pale in comparison. Women are losing the right to their own bodies, unarmed black people are murdered annually by an unaccountable militarized police force and transgender immigrants are raped with impunity in ICE custody. It feels like we're too busy taking a victory lap to notice we're failing at the intersectionality we're paying lip service to.

It's time to do unto others, as they did for us.