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When news first broke about the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, some lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizations spoke out about the injustice. Some even signed onto calls demanding that Zimmerman be tried for the murder. Now, after the not-guilty verdict, which has freed Zimmerman of any responsibility and thus punishment for taking Martin’s life, even more LGBT organizations have voiced their outrage. Indeed, advocating for justice is the right thing to do.
Trayvon’s Murder As An LGBT Issue
But, is this really something that we should expect of organizations that advocate for equality on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression? Or, as the Queerty article asked of its readers, “Should the LGBT community care about the George Zimmerman trial verdict?“
When I first saw the headline, I thought the answer was obvious — yes! And, other LGBT media were focusing on the organizations that were demanding justice; so, it seemed the question did not even need to be posed. I skimmed the article and then the comments to see if the obvious “yes” and the reasons for it were articulated by others. Fortunately, most of the readers at least said yes, though largely because they could empathize with the injustice in this case as LGBT people.
Admittedly, I was underwhelmed by this response. It felt as though LGBT people — at least the few people answering Queerty’s inquiry — cared about the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin to the extent that they were able to envision fearing such violence because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. I had hoped to see some recognition that this racial injustice affects the lives of LGBT people of color — that that was enough for the entire LGBT community to be concerned that some of its members’ rights have been threatened.
However, I read an op-ed in The Advocate this morning, which help me understand this sort of empathy (which I would better understand outside of this very divisive case). Michelle Garcia, the magazine’s commentary editor, wrote a piece that connects the so-called gay panic defense to the not-guilty verdict Zimmerman received. In the former, there have been cases of anti-LGBT murders wherein the heterosexual murderer argues that he (typically) was momentarily insane because of a sexual advance made by the gay or transgender victim. In a way, they feared for their safety (in line with the stereotype of gay rapists), and thus defended themselves. Zimmerman’s defense for pursuing and killing Martin was that he feared for his and others’ safety. Because the stereotype of young Black men as violent criminals exists, eliciting real fear in whites, it seemed to be enough to justify taking Martin’s life, and letting Zimmerman (and his racial biases) walk free.
I find this take (and this one) convincing. The very laws (i.e., Stand Your Ground) that let white murderers of innocent Black people walk free could let heterosexual or cisgender murderers of innocent lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender walk free. In fact, prior to such broad self-defense laws, and without drawing directly upon them now that they exist, there are several of such murderers who do walk free because of the “gay panic” or “trans panic” defense. Courts and juries have sympathized with privileged people who momentarily felt unsafe (often because they stereotyped an LGBT person as a sexual predator), while offering no justice for their victims — people who live in daily fear of anti-LGBT discrimination and violence their entire lives.
A(nother) Call For Coalition-Building
As such, the unjust murder of Trayvon Martin is an LGBT issue… is a feminist issue… is a human rights issue. In the past few weeks, LGBT people have celebrated major advancements toward sexual and gender equality. In that same time frame, the hard-fought rights of people of color and women have been attacked and, in some cases, successfully eliminated. These setbacks hurt lesbian, bisexual, and transwomen, and LGBT people of color. Thus, they are setbacks for all LGBT people, and all people of color, and all women. And, pessimistically speaking, they are a signal to the LGBT movement that bigots never retire, even as discrimination and violence are outlawed. The very rights we finally secure today may be undermined in a few decades.
This is yet another reminder that single-issue politics are less effective, at least in the long-run. We cannot afford to have white feminists focusing exclusively on the slow reversal of Roe v. Wade, while white gay men continue to blindly celebrate marriage equality, while heterosexual, cisgender people of color exclusively mourn the recent string of racial injustices (Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action, Baby Veronica, Zimmerman’s acquittal, etc.). That is, while women of color, LBT and queer women, and LGBT people of color are exhausted by trying to keep up with all of these issues, and trying to explain to others how they are fundamentally linked. Simply put, we are overdue for successful coalition-building. For, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Dr. King).
By the time the supposed Black vs. gay war had been (re)launched following California’s passage of 2008 Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marrage in the state, I was well aware of oppression within oppressed groups (I ranted back in February about the problematic expression, “gay is the new black.”) In this post, I want to challenge the notion that being a minority automatically makes one empathetic toward other minority groups, and, further, that being a minority makes one immune to oppressing others.
Wow, Was I Naive Or What?
As a young biracial gay feminist aspiring-vegetarian activist, I understood the experience of a minority to include empathy for other minorities and explicit efforts to challenge all forms of oppression. In my case, being of color and gay meant being a feminist and actively challenging sexist oppression, as well as other forms of prejudice and discrimination. This mindset continued into college, particularly when I shifted toward a queer identity. I suppose it only took moving to Indiana and beginning my graduate studies to burst my naive bubble. It only took a few sexist and racist comments at the local gay bar and a growing awareness of the heteronormativity in Black communities (like any community) for me to begin to realize experience with one form of oppression doesn’t translate into advocacy against another. I began to recognize that being a queer man (now genderqueer-identified) did not make my objectification of women any less sexist.
“It’s Okay, I’m Gay”
My intention is to critique this misguided assumption in general, but I use queer folks as my example case here. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen gay men fondle women’s bodies at a bar or party, sometimes with the woman’s explicit consent or assumed consent through her laughter or silence. I’ve even heard such behavior justified by comments like, “it’s okay, I’m gay.” This logic implies that sexism and the objectification of women is merely something of heterosexual men (and I guess bisexual men, too). It has also been extended to justify racist prejudice. (I can’t tell you how furious I was when I met a white gay man who saw himself as a Black heterosexual woman because of his “ghetto”, sassy attitude.) Certainly, this logic may carry over to justify other forms of prejudice: ageism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, religious intolerance, and so forth.
Gay Can Mean Anti-Racist and Anti-Sexist
Today, a gay identity is not merely about sexual behavior – it’s a sociopolitical sexual identity. That means that lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities incorporate an explicit challenge to heteronormativity, racism, sexism, classist oppression, etc. LGBT and queer people, like any other minority, can begin to build coalitions (again) with other minority groups to challenge the status quo. Such coalitions have existed in the past, and I’m certain that a number exist today. But, like the Prop 8 fiasco, it seems that the “divide and conquer” strategy of pitting Blacks against gays against feminists against immigrants is still alive, well, and successful. Not only is coalition-building across minority groups possible, it is necessary now as it was in the 1960s and 70s. Although our President is of color for a change, white heterosexual middle-class able-bodied men still rule the country, yet they’re a numerical minority! But, one could say that people of color, feminists, queers, working-class people, immigrants, and other minorities banded together to vote President Barack Obama into office. Real and effective alliances are possible!