The Transformative Promise of Queer Politics

choiThe lieutenant has handcuffed himself to the White House fence. Defiant in his camouflage fatigues and black beret, his arms outstretched against the black iron barrier, he protests the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Images of the gay soldier soon pepper the blogosphere and reel across TV news shows, quickly becoming a symbol of gay activists’ growing impatience and frustration with the Obama administration.

The March 18 protest action of Lt. Dan Choi—an army linguist facing pending discharge following his decision to come out as gay on Rachel Maddow’s popular news show on MSNBC—and of discharged Capt. Jim Pietrangelo, who also locked himself to the fence, followed a rally against the military’s ban on openly gay service members. Choi and five other service members were arrested for cuffing themselves to the fence once again on April 20, and six others again on May 2.

In an age of gay and lesbian activism characterized most visibly by highly respectable inside-the-Beltway efforts to convince lawmakers of gay couples’ acceptability to the mainstream, the soldiers’ edgy direct actions sparked a flash of recognition and perhaps delight in leftist activists yearning for a revival of the high-profile, militant, grassroots actions associated with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in the 1980s and Queer Nation in the 1990s.

But the flash faded fast. Here’s why: even though the protesters’ edgy tactics mirror the tactics of radical groups of decades past, the goal of the action fits neatly within the conservative, assimilationist aims articulated by mainstream LGBT lobby groups. Soldiers chaining themselves to the White House fence may on the surface resemble the ACT UP members who disrupted the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour‘s live broadcast back in January 1991 by chaining themselves to Robert MacNeil’s desk with signs declaring “The AIDS Crisis Is Not Over.” But whereas the ACT UP activists were fighting for their lives in the face of homophobic societal inaction on AIDS, Choi and his compatriots are fighting for a nearly opposite goal: the right to participate in an institution that is killing people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in wars that most progressive activists consider unjust. What a change from the 1960s and 1970s, when gay liberation was closely entwined with the broader, anti-militaristic vision of the New Left.

The story of Lt. Choi’s protest action is a useful entry point into a discussion of the current trajectory of gay and lesbian organizing because it emblematizes one major reality of the post-Proposition 8, Obama-era activist moment: the widespread sense of urgency and upsurge of grassroots mobilizations, including direct actions like Choi’s, in pursuit of the assimilationist (rather than radically transformative) goals of inclusion in the military, inclusion in the institution of marriage, and fuller inclusion in the national workforce via federal nondiscrimination legislation.

I definitely don’t mean to suggest that the current moment is devoid of radically visionary activism; in fact, several of the organizers I interviewed—as well as grassroots activists published in this issue of Tikkun, such as Dean Spade, founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and INCITE! cofounder Andrea Smith—argue that a simultaneous but less visible upsurge of radical grassroots work is also under way. Far from the modest, assimilationist agenda of D.C.-based lobby groups such as the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the agenda of these small grassroots groups includes work on the interlocking issues of violence and discrimination against queer and trans people, the exploitation endured by all within the global economic system, the neoliberal drift toward the privatization of formerly public institutions and resources, the growth of the prison system and the mass incarceration of black and Latino youth, homelessness, and the criminalization of immigrants. I will touch on the transformative promise of this radical, multi-issue work later, but first I want to fill in the picture I have sketched of the mainstream gay and lesbian movement and give it some historical context.

Historical Trends in LGBT Activism

Back in 2000, respected historian John D’Emilio, who also served as founding director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in the mid-1990s, wrote an essay that sought to characterize, in broad strokes, the historical shifts in the core outlook and strategic approach of the gay and lesbian movement from the early 1950s to the start of the twenty-first century. Of course this schematic overview of history unavoidably glosses over many complexities, but it still offers a useful vision of the broad dynamics of gay and lesbian organizing. The piece, “Cycles of Change, Questions of Strategy,” identifies the following phases, which I have summarized and combined with information on trans organizing drawn from scholar Susan Stryker’s research:

  • Give Us a Hearing (1950s through mid-to-late 1960s): Activists facing homophobia and invisibility in laws, institutions, and social life, struggle “to break the consensus that viewed homosexuality as dangerous, deviant, and wrong.” Transgender people and cross-dressers contend with ordinances against cross-dressing, which cities started passing in the 1840s. The first organized transgender group, the Society for Equality in Dress, is founded in 1952.
  • Here We Are (early 1970s through mid-to-late 1980s): In an attempt to constitute a gay and lesbian collectivity following the energizing June 1969 Stonewall Riots against police violence—in which drag queens and trans people of color played a major role—activists emphasize the importance of coming out of the closet in their efforts to build community and establish a solid movement constituency through the creation of gay bookstores, hotlines, health clinics, churches, synagogues, etc. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual people organize pride parades and work to repeal sodomy statutes, win protections against discrimination, and counter police harassment in order to make openly gay identity possible. Trans people organize support groups, newsletters, and health centers, often facing hostility from the gay community. The Combahee River Collective, a black feminist lesbian group in Boston, releases its influential statement on the interlocking systems of “racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” and develops a form of integrated analysis and practice that continues to inspire radical activists today.aids
  • AIDS Activism (mid-1980s to early 1990s): AIDS tears through gay communities in the United States. More than 41,000 known U.S. AIDS deaths occur in 1993 alone. Gays and lesbians work together in desperation, engaging in “spirited public advocacy to combat the epidemic and the discrimination entwined with it.” ACT UP uses confrontational direct action tactics. A diverse array of AIDS activist groups accomplish a ban on discrimination against people with HIV, make medications more affordable, and counter prejudice and misinformation through public education. A coalition of trans and gay activists gradually strengthens. Transgender Nation, an activist group in San Francisco, forces local queer groups to respond to trans concerns and organizes a demonstration at the 1993 annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association to protest the pathologization of transgender identity.
  • Let Us In (starting in the early 1990s): Efforts shift toward a demand for inclusion in mainstream society and the institutions associated with family, school, and work. Lesbian and gay adoption and co-parenting rights, gay marriage, the creation of safe spaces in schools, inclusion in the military, and national antidiscrimination legislation all rise to the fore. As Stryker notes, another “let us in” occurs as well: a push by transgender activists for recognition of the contributions they have been making all along, and a call for gay activists to pay more attention to trans issues. During this period some intersex activists also begin to seek recognition and inclusion in the LGBT movement. In 1993 the Intersex Society of North America is founded to support and advocate for people with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t fit the typical parameters of female or male, particularly seeking to prevent unwanted and invasive sexual surgeries. Though intersex activists sometimes have found it useful to coalition with queer and trans groups, the “LGBTI” lumping does not always make sense, because many intersex people see intersex issues as a medical condition rather than an identity category.

When I asked D’Emilio how he would characterize the present moment in relation to his schematic, he said the “new phase of post-Prop. 8, post-election-of-Barack-Obama, resurgent activism, which revolves around the theme of equality, is still very much in the mold of ‘we want in’ or ‘we want access’ or ‘we want the rights that all should have'”—there hasn’t been a twist in sensibility significant enough to demarcate a new era. But “what is new at this moment,” he added, “is the renewed, widespread sense of outrage and frustration which may not have been there or as overtly there a few years ago,” and which has sparked an upsurge of grassroots activism and organizing energy. “There’s certainly a new emotional tone of impatience,” he said. “I’m thinking ‘we want this now’ would be the new catchphrase, if there is something new.” He observed that some of the urgency of the present moment resulted from the shock of the 2008 passage of Proposition 8, a California ballot initiative that rewrote the state constitution to ban gay marriage. The loss of the right to marry in California has provoked much more outrage than the adoption of barriers to gay marriage in states that never allowed it.

A Cultural Sea Change

Sweeping changes in the visibility and acceptance of gay, lesbian, and bisexual (and to a significant but lesser extent, trans) people have occurred since the “out of the closet” movement of the 1970s. I’m not just talking about Ellen DeGeneres’s earth-shattering “coming-out” episode in 1997 and the flurry of sympathetic gay and lesbian sitcom characters and pop culture celebrities that have since entered the public eye. I’m also talking about the shifts that created the conditions of my own life.

As a child in the 1980s, I attended an elementary school with a handful of “out” teachers and administrators in Madison, Wisconsin, a city well known for its liberal culture. Some of my classmates’ parents were out as bisexual, lesbian, and gay. Only one or two adults in my immediate community ever made overtly homophobic comments, though the topic of homosexuality certainly made some awkward or uncomfortable. As an adult I am part of communities of queer people comfortable with adapting to friends’ transitions from one gender to another, social circles in which babies are growing up using the gender-neutral subject pronoun “z” and possessive pronoun “hir” (or a new, singular use of “they/their”) for genderqueer people who prefer them, and professional environments in which there is no fear of losing employment due to sexual orientation or gender identity. What a far cry from the era of the Stonewall Riots.

Obviously my life experiences are not the norm throughout the United States, but the generational shift in attitudes concerning homosexuality and non-normative gender presentations means the arc of history is bending in this direction. When I asked Tim Stewart-Winter, a historian of modern U.S. politics and sexuality, about the dynamics of the current moment, he noted that the percent of people in the United States who say they know a gay person is the highest it has ever been (58 percent, according to a 2009 USA Today/Gallup poll), and there’s a high correlation between knowing you know a gay person and supporting gay rights.

At the present moment, same-sex marriage is legal in five states and the District of Columbia. And in 2007, our society passed an employment nondiscrimination milestone: the majority of people in the U.S. now live in cities or states in which they can’t legally be fired for being gay, thanks to local laws that have been passed in the absence of a national Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

A Sea Change in Religion

LGBT rights activists have also won major victories in the realm of institutionalized religion, simultaneously struggling to reject or reinterpret religious texts used to support homophobia and to win acceptance as participants and leaders in their religious communities.

arkSome Christian denominations are facing full-scale splits because so many of their adherents support the ordination of openly gay people. In 2008, several years after the Episcopal Church consecrated Gene Robinson, its first openly gay bishop, Episcopalians watched conservative adherents break away to form a rival church. And in 2009 the 4.6 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church of America rocked the mainline Protestant world by voting to allow people in committed same-sex relationships to serve as clergy.

Meanwhile Muslim groups such as Al-Fatiha have organized conferences and led debates on the merits of establishing a gay mosque. Al-Fatiha grew out of a listserv for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning Muslims founded in 1997 by Alam Faisal, an activist in Washington, D.C., and it went on to create chapters in the United States and internationally. Queer Muslim blogs and message boards have spread like wildfire, creating space for new conversations and communities to develop. The documentary A Jihad for Love has sparked further engagement with the issue as well.

Within Judaism, openly gay, lesbian, bi, and trans people can now be ordained in the Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal branches. Tikkun assisted in this struggle for inclusion by challenging the Jewish Theological Seminary’s anti-gay ordination stance and, more broadly, calling on the Jewish community to support LGBT rights, recalling how Jews and gays were both forced into the concentration camps of Europe. Anti-gay sentiment remains strong in Orthodox circles, but even there some attitudes are shifting. Back in 1993, when we published an article entitled “Gayness and God: Wrestlings of a Gay Orthodox Rabbi,” the essay’s author, Rabbi Steven Greenberg, insisted on remaining anonymous. Eleven years later, he wrote under his own name: “The Orthodox community is just beginning to seriously address the question of gay and lesbian inclusion. The most important catalyst for change has been the documentary film, Trembling Before G-d, released in the fall of 2001, in which seven characters struggle with their homosexuality and their love of Jewish tradition.”

Current Landscape of Mainstream LGBT Activism

These days marriage equality, employment nondiscrimination, and the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” are major priorities of Washington-based advocacy groups such as the HRC, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Improving the media portrayal of LGBT people is a major focus of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Meanwhile the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network helps students build gay-straight alliances (more than 4,000 have been registered so far) and works to end student bullying and harassment. HIV/AIDS issues and religion-based homophobia are additional areas of concern for the National Black Justice Coalition, while the National Center for Transgender Equality fights anti-trans violence and discrimination, including the frequent violence and denial of medical care endured by trans people in prison. The 200,000-member national network of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) coordinates with its D.C. office to mobilize support for national bills; it has recently been putting grassroots pressure on lawmakers to ban employment discrimination and to prohibit anti-gay and anti-trans discrimination in adoption and foster care placements. Dozens of LGBT groups associated with different ethnic groups, groups for disabled queer people, and LGBT religious groups have also sprung up.

Many of the smaller D.C.-based advocacy groups pursue less assimilationist goals than those of the high-profile HRC, but with their smaller size and budgets, their influence is comparatively weak. Widely accused by grassroots activists of prioritizing its own perpetuation and turning its back on poor and working-class gay men and lesbians, the HRC also infuriated trans activists nationwide in 2007 by going back on its promise not to promote legislation that protects only against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, not gender identity. Under intense pressure, the HRC eventually agreed to once again back only an Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that includes protections for transgender people. LGBT activists now report that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has given them some reason to hope for a vote on a trans-inclusive ENDA before the end of this year.

Limitations of the Current Mainstream Activist Model

The current strategic approach of the most influential mainstream LGBT groups limits their scope and effectiveness in various ways. John D’Emilio said the movement’s current focus on goals that will likely require a Supreme Court victory to achieve (marriage equality) or that require congressional action (military inclusion and national antidiscrimination legislation) renders the recent upswell in grassroots energy much less effective than it could be in affecting local institutions and laws—and less effective than it was in the Stonewall era and during the height of AIDS activism, when the focus included many locally achievable goals.

“There is all this wonderful energy at the grassroots level,” D’Emilio said. “But what they’re campaigning for in this ‘get equal’ effort is not well matched to the energy.” He added that his dream would be for younger activists to instead fight for comprehensive sex ed programs “about body, reproductive functions, emotions, and physical desire, and sexually transmitted diseases…. If that were part of the curriculum of what children received in school, it would be hard for homophobia to reproduce itself.”

Another serious limitation of the mainstream gay and lesbian agenda, from a progressive/radical perspective, is the tendency to imagine and pursue LGBT priorities as separate from issues of poverty, immigration, health care, homelessness, and corporate power. These issues are of course materially entwined in the lives of queer people in poverty, queer immigrants, and queer people of color. But they are also intertwined more broadly—it is hard to imagine making truly transformative gains against one type of oppression without simultaneously attending to how it interlocks with the others.

Visions of Radically Transformative, Multi-Issue Queer Activism

What might a truly transformative queer and trans movement look like? In an essay published in 2000 and titled “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” political scientist Cathy Cohen described her initial hope that “queer politics” would constitute “a new political direction and agenda, one that does not focus on integration into dominant structures but instead seeks to transform the basic fabric and hierarchies that allow systems of oppression to persist and operate efficiently.” Looking back to the insights of the Combahee River Collective, she concluded that queer politics had failed to incorporate an adequate analysis of the roles that race, class, and gender play in defining people’s relations to “dominant and normalizing power.”


Credit: Rafael Lopez.

She ended her essay with a call for a process of movement-building “rooted not in our shared history or identity, but in our shared marginal relationship to dominant power that normalizes, legitimizes, and privileges.” Intergenerational groups of activists, often including many in their teens, twenties, and thirties, are taking up that call.

Against Equality, an editorial collective focused on critiquing mainstream gay and lesbian politics, has become one hub for those interested in a more radical, multi-issue approach. “We are committed to dislodging the centrality of equality rhetoric and challenging the demand for inclusion in the institution of marriage, the U.S. military, and the prison industrial complex via hate crimes legislation,” the group’s mission statement reads. “We want to reinvigorate the queer political imagination with fantastic possibility.” Its logo is a yellow more-than sign on a blue background—a play on the HRC’s ubiquitous equal sign logo that communicates the group’s desire to transform society in a way that benefits everyone rather than merely to seek legal equality for gays within a damaging societal system.

Yasmin Nair, a member of the editorial collective who is also an activist with Gender Justice United for Societal Transformation, said the latter group is doing exciting work of this sort in Chicago, simultaneously fighting for anti-bullying initiatives in schools and against the neoliberal privatization and semi-privatization of the city’s public schools. The issues are intertwined because the main idea proposed in response to bullying was the creation of a new “pride campus”—a semi-privatized refuge for LGBT students facing bullying. Instead the group has been pushing for the entire public school system to initiate an anti-bullying program.

Nair has observed a growing momentum of this sort of organizing in recent years and expressed hope about its power. “There is something about being queer and on the left that can actually be transformative,” she said. “It’s not purely a personal issue around marriage, it’s not simply asking for safety from the state or putting our fellow people in prison, it’s not about fighting for the U.S. It includes a radical rethinking of what makes for a just world.”


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