The Blog

Liberation or Consolidation? Queers at a Crossroads

As lesbians and gays we are on the precipice of what could be called our largest wins ever. I am just struggling to understand both how and why we were able to divorce LGBT equality from a larger conversation about feminism, race and class in society.
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Like many of my generation, I spent the mid to late 1980s deep in the closet, in my case at a suburban St. Louis high school. Unlike many, in 1987 I had the opportunity to escape, as, that fall, I was bound for college in New York City, where I pretty immediately became a queer activist. My first summer back from college I attended Growing American Youth in St. Louis, the local LGBT support group, but it was not always an uplifting time. One suburban police force had a "Fagbusters" patrol modeled on Ghostbusters, where they arrested those having trysts in the Park, including one of the group's members. One group leader was in some kind of legal trouble, and another was in the closet. Things were a lot different then, even in New York City, where at the end of my sophomore year, another campus leader and I got death threats with a bullet attached. And of course, I was around to watch the generation of men slightly older than me be decimated by AIDS.

Being a student at an allegedly world class university in New York gave me unfettered access to some of the country's top movement thinkers, leaders and elders. One leader I will never forget was Darrell Yates Rist, founder of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, who died of AIDS in 1993. Rist taught that homophobia and misogyny were inextricably linked, and certainly my fellow activists and women's studies classes seemed to bear that out. Straights are threatened by queers because we defy traditional gender norms, and only by defeating misogyny and sexism can we achieve a world without homophobia. Feminism was not only the right thing to do; it was in gay men's direct self-interest.

After coming out, I was able to engage in a larger, vibrant world of radical struggle. Many of my closest comrades engaged in intersectional work around race, class, gender and sexual orientation. We built large coalitions that attempted to disrupt the status quo on campus. We marched against the War; in my last year on campus we marched from the Upper West Side to the United Nations on the day the First Gulf War broke out, and by the time we got there I am certain there were at least 100,000 people streaming out of their homes down Broadway to join the movement. It was my on campus queer organizing that attracted the interest of the AFL-CIO and got my application noticed in 1993 to become a union organizer.

Maybe I also lived in a bubble at that time, because I saw in my world women's equality moving forward by leaps and bounds. In the 1990s when I began to work as a labor and then community organizer, my first two supervisors were women. Small start-up abortion clinics in St. Louis were merged into Planned Parenthood and became much more mainstream. Lesbians and gay men continued to move on a path together. Doorways, the premier HIV housing organization in St. Louis, was founded and run by a lesbian woman.

Here we are, 25 years later, and in many ways, women's equality seems to have stalled, with women earning 77 cents on a dollar that men earn, while facing an increasingly bleak chance to control their own bodies. Even in progressive fields like organizing, strong women are continually labeled "bitches," whereas men who possess the same characteristics are considered "tough leaders."

For folks of color the last 25 years have been equally bleak. Incarceration and poverty rates of African Americans are at record highs. Deportations of undocumented immigrants also reached highs under the current administration, and we are faced with an increasingly widening wealth gap between rich and poor, unseen since the Gilded Age.

As lesbians and gays we are on the precipice of what could be called our largest wins ever. Marriage equality is inevitable; it is just a matter of when, and Growing American Youth had 600 kids marching in the Pride parade.

Yet in some ways, our wins ring hollow for those of us who are not heteronormative gay men. At there very least there is much to do.

I do not want you to misunderstand. I am touched and moved as the barriers fall. I ran around St. Louis with a friend of mine looking for a bar to play ESPN 7 or whatever it was so I could watch Jason Collins debut on the basketball floor.

Last Fall, I officiated my baby brother's wedding, and survived the grueling on-line certification process, where the on-line ministry needed not only my name and address, but my phone number and email as well (ah the sanctity of marriage...). As I was waiting around the New York City Clerk's office to get my certification to perform weddings in New York State, I was overwhelmed by the diversity of couples seeking marriage licenses. Same-sex and opposite sex, all races, young and old, with kids, relatives, friends and various levels of festiveness. To see so many couples win marriage equality moved me to tears.

I am just struggling to understand both how and why we were able to divorce LGBT equality from a larger conversation about feminism, race and class in society. I am struggling to understand how the faces of the movement switched from feminists who shouted down the patriarchy and radical fairies to investment bankers and neoconservative mayors. I suspect that this was a slow and deliberate strategy that revolved around money. Let me give you some examples. A number of years ago, Missouri's main LGBT advocacy group pulled questions about a woman's right to choose from their candidate screening endorsements. Marriage equality groups large and small embraced the messaging consultants as the way to sway voters, and spokespeople were more often than not white men in tuxes in pastoral setting when applicable. The largest LGBT group in the country, the Human Rights Campaign, chose one of the worst upholders of predatory capitalism, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, to be a spokesperson for marriage equality. In a bout of further chutzpah, the Human Rights Campaign honored Blankfein during the year of Occupy.

The LGBT movement's wins have been huge. I doubt in 1989 I could have conceived of full marriage equality, or 600 kids marching in Pride in St. Louis. But now we are at a crossroads. The die of history has been cast. We can consolidate our wins and spend the next few years on implementation fights, adopting children, bickering about the tax code, fixing the bugs on Or we can view marriage equality as the gateway drug. If society will bend to let the queers get married, maybe people have some longing for some more fundamental societal transformation?

After all, were we fighting all these years for just a seat at the table? Did we want pride parades sponsored by Wells Fargo and Monsanto, like the one in St. Louis? Did we want to be assimilated into a society that harassed us, shamed us, killed us and exiled us from our families? Many of us created our own families, our own social norms and, of course, many, many of our own subcultures.

When I came out of the closet in 1987, I did so because it was who I was, and then it had the side benefit of liberating me from society's expectations. It is because I am queer that I have been able to consistently buck the system and organize for 25 years on economic and climate justice issues. It is because I am queer that I am able to say to people that I am not interested in meeting society's expectations of having a permanent partner. It is because I am queer that I do not have to choose to organize in and around circumscribed issue areas, but can do intersectional work.

And it is because we are queer, that we can acknowledge that marriage equality is inevitable, and take on the harder stuff of fundamentally reordering society. There is no road map to doing so and no one has all the answers but below are a few ideas. I hope that this piece serves as one thinkpiece of many that discusses how we can engage in both the debate and act of moving forward a radical intersectional pro-queer agenda.

Caveat, in many cases I recognize that this piece speaks more to cis-gendered white men, because they by and large continue to control many of the resources, money, organizational might and mainstream analysis.

So, as someone who has recently engaged in queer, climate, class and community organizing, here are some thoughts on campaigns:

Relationship Campaigns: We live in a world where the state confers a long list of benefits on married couples. We should fight for those benefits to be in the public good. I ought to be able to confer those benefits on a friend, a roommate-whether we are romantically involved or not, a play brother or sister or any of the myriad of ways I wish to blend my friends into their family. Lower income folks tend not to live in traditional nuclear families, and immigrants have always had a broader view of family, we need to work at the intersection of queer and class.

Fights against Economic Inequity and Discrimination: For most of us, capitalism is simply not functioning. Life is simply a struggle, and even the slightest glitch can throw things off, even for the erstwhile middle-class. Come out sophomore year of high school and while dealing with that you create some holes in your academic performance, which then affects the possibilities of a college education. Pick a fight against some bully at work and lose your job. Feel excluded from some job possibilities because you are non-gender conforming. Our hold onto making ends meet is tenuous, and the fights are interrelated. We need an economic system that works for all of us, not just the privileged few. So what to do. Well some of it is already happening. The most dynamic union organizing campaign in the country, fast food organizing, is filled with a disproportionate number of queer workers, go join them in the Fight for 15 and a Union! An equally disproportionate number of Dreamers were Queer as well, and likened coming out as undocumented with their other coming out stories. So join them and blockade some deportation centers. Or help families fight foreclosures. Start a chapter of Queers Against Banks. But fight and resist.

The Attack on Women: This is written for the gay cis-men out there. If you really think you and your marriages are safe, you are, so long as you continue to butch it up. Virtually no men are deciding whether to wear a dress or pants at a wedding. Virtually no boy is allowed to consistently wear pink, or wear the clothes he wants if they are too "girly." Oh and you think that a system of medical education that refuses to teach doctors how to help women control their education is a system of medical education that will create doctors with whom we can have truthful conversations about our sexual practices, or authentic conversations about feeling like we are in the wrong body? So what can you do? Engage in clinic defense, disrupt anti-choice legislators, crash schools and provide guerrilla sex education. Do what is needed to be done to defend our sisters.

Climate: Aside from the fundamental point that, without a habitable planet there really is not much point in doing anything else, climate is an interesting hook around for our opposition. We could discuss greenwashing, the practice whereby corporations spend millions of dollars lauding their sustainable practice, when in fact, they are illusory. President Obama believes that Wal-Mart is making great strides on renewable energy, as they are one of the largest consumers of green energy in the country. Well of course they should be, they are corporation with the largest bricks and mortar footprint in the country. Letting corporations dictate a false agenda goes for LGBT communities as well, in this case known as pinkwashing. The Human Rights Campaign rates the major banks as great places for LGBT folks to work. Companies engaging in any kind of washing, pink, green etc, often engage prominent issue-based organizations, such as the Environmental Defense Fund or the Human Rights Campaign into becoming validators for their campaigns, in exchange for hefty donations. Our enemies certainly have a common analysis of where they need to go and what they need to do to divide the movements, and we should not give them any quarter. So, join the March in New York on September 21st, chain yourself to some mining equipment, or at the very least get your city to divest from fossil fuels. Oh and did we mention that once we change the economic system that finances extraction into something different, the climate crisis will dissipate?

Mass Incarceration: We are incarcerating more people than almost anywhere on earth, generally for minor offenses and victimless crimes. Kids of color often get in trouble with the law early on for innocuous reasons, curfew violations and adolescent mischief. The trouble is easy to find, because of the dearth of public space. If you have money, you can spend money to participate in activities that are closed off to those with families with fewer resources. In St. Louis, this plays out in the small number of walking areas. With malls closed to non-purchasing customers and few community centers, packs of kids roam the same streets where adults want to have nice dinners outside and have an irrational fear of teenagers wandering through the streets. Police crack down on youth, and all of a sudden a criminal record begins. Schools are similar. Those who do not conform to traditional school expectations find themselves faced with a series of increasingly punitive measures, and are part of the school to prison pipeline.

Queer folks disproportionately are engaged in sex work, another crime for which we often have unduly harsh sentences. And for many of us who do not conform to society's expectations we often engage in drug use. There are huge disparities in drug prosecution and sentencing based on race, and queers of color are caught up in this net as well.

As folks who have been wrongly prosecuted for years, we queers need to recognize the endemic racism in the prison industrial complex, and join the fight for an overhaul of the criminal justice system.

Transequality: Equality for those who define their gender as outside the binary falls is in the larger self-interest of self-identified gay men. But, more than that, whether we, as individuals, are comfortable moving outside the box that is the gender binary, we must recognize the need to both support our comrades who identify on the gender continuum, while simultaneously challenging ourselves to step out of our box. Obviously there are structural non-discrimination pieces and not letting the mainstream LGBT movement sell out trans equality in the hopes they will win legislation, but there are also a myriad of campaigns to run where gender manifests but is superfluous. Why do airlines need to know my gender? One of the more interesting campaigns a couple years ago was in Philadelphia, where a group of activists demanded that SEPTA, the transit system, stop putting gender on their monthly passes. Oddly enough, it was the only criteria on the passes. There were no pictures, birthdates or any other identifiers. We do not have to look far to find those campaign opportunities.

Mischief: A couple of years ago, a few of us disrupted the St. Louis HRC chapter's dinner. It was right after HRC had honored Goldman Sachs, and they were also honoring the Governor, who had yet to do a thing about LGBT equality. We were, unsurprisingly enough, chased out of the banquet hall by a scion of a banking family. We published our rationale for our actions on the website of the monthly magazine and invited people to a meeting. There have been numerous other minor disruptions of Pride and other corporate spaces and many others engaging in mischief in their hometowns. Flash mobs, dance parties, banner drops and many more techniques can all spark engaged dialogue with those who share our analysis but do not have a roadmap to act.

Creative mischief-making builds solidarity, creates some fun and most importantly, upsets the new LGBT status quo, before it becomes too entrenched as an agent of the same oppressive social norms and economic system of the heteronormative society.

In the last 25 years, my world has changed in an unimaginable way, and mostly for the better as far as LGBT rights are concerned. The inexorable march towards marriage equality means we get the opportunity to finish the liberation work the generation before mine started, rather than consolidating the gains that make us gender, hetero and capital normative. I hope together we can increase our role in the struggle around intersectional fights, campaigns and, most importantly, a good dose of mischief.