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I suppose I should not be surprised that even in 2013 we are still hearing debates that compare racism, the lives of people of color, and the Civil Rights Movement with homophobia, the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBT), and the modern LGBT movement.
It is somewhat ironic that the efforts of President Barack Obama – our first (half) Black president and the first sitting-President to support same-gender marriage – have sparked such debate about race versus sexuality. Back in 2007, he won my support over my initial favorite candidate, then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, because he addressed anti-racist advocacy, anti-homophobia advocacy, and the need to heal the wounds between Black and LGBT communities. Wow!
Since the historical 2008 election, we have seen variations on the debate that compares racism and homophobia, civil rights and LGBT rights, and people of color and LGBT people. As recent as January, we still see the strange question, “is gay the new black?” And, on a recent CNN panel, various commentators and political leaders were asked, “are gay rights the same thing as civil rights?” Fortunately, the first two panelists to respond, LZ Granderson and Roland Martin, noted that, of course, the LGBT rights movement is not the same as the Civil Rights movement; but, “civil rights” refer to the equal rights and status of all people, not just people of color.
No One Wins The Oppression Olympics
Comparing these two communities and their past and contemporary movements for equal rights do many a disservice for a at least three reasons. First, no one wins the “Oppression Olympics.” Taking the time to decide whether people of color have it “worse” than LGBT people is futile. With both groups facing prejudice, discrimination, and violence throughout history and today, what difference does it make whether one group faces “more,” or faced it for a longer period of time? It would be impossible to measure oppression in the first place.
Second, participating in the “black vs. gay” and similar debates gives more weight to the efforts of groups that are both racist and homophobic (and sexist, and classist, and transphobic, etc.) who intentionally attempt to “divide and conquer” various marginalized groups. The National Organization for Marriage (NOM), an organization at the forefront of efforts to prevent marriage equality, has actively fanned the flames of resentment within Black and Latina/o communities toward LGBT people. Then, a double standard for homophobia, such that “black homophobia” is used as evidence that Black people are behind-the-times or even un-evolved, while persistent homophobia in white communities goes unnoticed. In fact, conservatives have been (successfully) pitting minority communities against one another for decades.
Third, “black vs. gay” continues to mask that there are a significant number of people who are Black and gay, Latina and lesbian, Asian American and bisexual, and American Indiana and two-spirit. Whereas some members of communities of color are LGBT, efforts to secure the civil rights of Blacks, Latina/os, Asians and Pacific Islanders, and American Indians necessarily implicate LGBT rights. All people of color are not treated equally if our LGBT relatives and friends are prevented from marrying their same-gender partner, are vulnerable to discrimination in the workplace and housing, and so on. Similarly, the efforts of LGBT activists cannot stop at legalizing same-gender marriage, for too many LGBT people of color are disproportionately affected by poverty, ongoing racial discrimination, and the resultant mental health problems.
And, a quick history lesson: the earliest efforts for LGBT rights in the US date back to the 1950s. While Civil Rights activists were beginning their efforts that evolved into a national movement, so too were Homophile activists. When the more radical efforts of the Black Panthers emerged in the late 1960s, so too did those of gay liberation activists leading up to and then taking off with the Stonewall Riots in 1969 (which were led by Black and Latina/o transpeople and drag queens). Gay cannot be the “new Black” because LGBT activism is far from new; and, neither being Black nor the racist oppression that Black people still face has become old or a thing of the past.
But, the supposed black-versus-gay divide is old, and frankly a little tired.
On The Root, Cord Jefferson raised the commonly asked question: if lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people want to gain the acceptance of the heterosexual majority, why do they dress and behave in ways considered unacceptable, far-fetched, and hypersexual? http://theroot.com/views/where-s-pride-pride-parades
This question holds considerable weight, whereas LGBT and queer people continue to fight the stereotypes of being consumed by sex, as well as more damaging stereotypes (e.g., pedophilia). Jefferson makes allusions to the images of Black Civil Rights activists wearing suits and skirts, making clear their message that Blacks, just like any other race of people, are good, moral, upstanding people who deserve the same shot at success and happiness.
What Jefferson probably doesn’t know is that gay activists have taken on that approach before – Homophile activists in the 1950s. Recall the activists in front of the White House, dressing conservatively and “appropriately” for one’s biological sex. Their successors challenged this assimilationist strategy, just as Black Panthers challenged what they saw as assimilationist strategies of Civil Rights activists. What Gay Liberation and Queer Nation activists have in common with the Black Panthers is the realization that the system within which assimilationist activists work will never grant them full equality. Although the contemporary LGBT movement is one that is largely assimilationist, seeking space and equality within the existing oppressive system, LGBT and queer culture as we know it finds strength in challenging heteronormative standards of sex, gender, sexuality, relationships, style, and entertainment. One of the most notable challenges to heteronormativity is drag culture. By challenging repressive expectations of gender and style, LGBT and queer people are challenging repressive expectations for relationships, sex, and sexuality.
Marriage equality is likely the biggest issue for LGBT and queer rights today. I know a number of LGBT and queer people who have not taken part in the movement for marriage equality whereas they see it as misguided – such emphasis on obtaining access to an already oppressive and exclusive institution which will not yield greater equality for LGBT and queer people, nor affect other issues (e.g., sexism, racism, classism) that plague LGBT communities. If it’s not obvious, I’m of this perspective as well. While I’m closely following the marriage equality movement and a strong advocate for granting access to same-gender couples, I don’t see marriage as our top priority right now. But, there is something to be said for the pride culture among LGBT and queer people with respect to marriage. By playing with gender, in a sense, subverting traditional and conservative understandings of it, LGBT and queer people are loosening the restrictions on marriage.
For example, a different-gender couple in New York married: http://www.365gay.com/video/male-couple-snookers-nyc-into-officially-marrying-them/ However, because Kimbah Nelson is not officially considered female by the state, though she identifies as a transwoman, and Jason Stenson is male, the state revoked their marriage license, as it does not currently issue marriage licenses to same-gender couples. If Nelson were to satisfactorily transition to be recognized as female by the state, the two could legally wed – though, they would still be challenging the traditional understanding of marriage as “one man and one woman.”
On the way to dropping me off at this summer’s DC Pride, my mother asked me the very question that Jefferson raises. At first, I brushed her off, accusing her of being jealous that she didn’t feel comfortable enough with her gender and sexuality to participate in a gay pride parade. But, when she pressed again, asking how LGBT and queer people expected to gain respect and acceptance while enjoying colorful, sexual celebrations, I told her that this is our “fuck you” to heteronormativity. In order to gain full sexual liberation, LGBT and queer people must challenge the repressive heteronormative standards of sexuality. What good does acceptance do us if we still have to play by the heterosexual majorities’ rules? Is that true equality? I don’t think so. So, I say we need to continue to celebrate ourselves with as much color and as little clothing as possible. Pride should be as gay and gender-bending as possible. We can save the suit-and-tie and skirts drag for the courts and congress.