A version of this presentation was given at the Queer Asian Pacific Legacy Conference on March 6, 2004 in New York ©2004 Urvashi Vaid
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
W.H. Auden September 1, 1939
This is a talk about justice and affirmation. About where we find ourselves and where we can imagine being. About the broad political context shaping our lives today as API queers, internal dynamics of the GLBT movement and API people within that. And how we can organize.
Several broad dynamics shape the work of all who are concerned about economic, racial and social justice today. First, we face the reorientation of domestic and foreign policy into a war-time mobilization and the explicit linkage of US economic global domination with US political global domination. Second, the long term impact and legacies of the fiscal policies of the past two decades. Third, the transformation of democracy into plutocracy, or even worse into a pre-fascist authoritarianism. Fourth, the power of politically-coordinated backlash movements. And fifth, the rise of religious fundamentalism and the threat it poses in the US and worldwide.
Reorientation of domestic policy and foreign policy
9.11 resulted in a massive militarization of American society; the dramatic re-orientation of fiscal priorities at the national level, cutbacks in domestic civil liberties and freedom, the launching of two wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) so far, and the implementation of the new doctrine of “pre-emptive attack as one of our chief foreign policy strategies. These factors clearly affect GLBT activism as political space to protest and organize has shrunk, and the role of government in the care and provision of anything but police and military services is weakened.
The impact of the new focus on terror enables a series of agendas to be advanced, one of which is the very legitimate and urgent need to reduce the threats of violence and danger that terrorism poses. To achieve a goal we all share, we are told that we must live with: dramatic cutbacks in public access to information, in government transparency and loss of individual freedom; increased surveillance on the lives of ordinary people and of nonprofit advocacy organizations– citizens are asked to snoop on each other program, librarians must report what library books you checked out if asked; domestic spying and covert operations are being authorized and we will not know their scope for years to come; the creation of a new agency with a vast bureaucracy and unlimited powers – run as a political adjunct to the White House; severe damage to freedom of expression, freedom of action and freedom of association; to privacy rights; to the right to be left alone by governmental regulation – a right that most of us truly cherish even as we campaign for government investment in our communities; and the pursuit of a dangerous foreign policy that is pre-emptive, hostile to diplomacy, manipulated to achieve domestic political objectives and dangerously rooted in notions of elitism and western hegemony.
The Patriot Act – passed by Congress in such a rush that people admitted they had not even read it—was on the drawing boards long before 9/11. That attack provided the political cover to the right to enact the policies that shred constitutional rights….what have we lost? Much of our 4th amendment protection against unlawful searches and seizures – the Act permits warrantless searches and even without disclosure. Increased ease of wiretapping without warrants. The denial of right to an attorney for US citizens (Padilla). The curtailment of free speech – from government officials sending subponeas in Iowa to secure information on all those attending an antiwar meeting at Drake University to public haranguing and demonization of dissent. And an erosion in the balance of powers between executive, judicial and legislative branches
An unprecedented wave of detention and assault on immigrants, especially south asians and muslims has been launched. The sweeps, the forced registration of permanent residents and citizens; and lawful immigrants, has resulted in massive anxiety, unease and pain to thousands of families in this country who have nothing whatsoever to do with terror – but are merely trying to survive. Changes in immigration policies are making it harder for all sorts of immigrants to get visas and stay – this is a convenient impact because there are many on the right who have favored more restrictive immigration policies – this national crisis has given them the opening to implement their pre-existing agendas. The needs of legal representation, translation, visitation access, help to these families are real and the damage done to thousands is unconscionable. And these needs – which many of you are heroically trying to meet — remain largely untended.
Fiscal Policies of the right:
In two years, the current Administration has squandered a multi-billion surplus into a $2 trillion deficit (and that Congressional Budget Office figure from this past week does not include the cost of war and reconstruction). A key reason for this is not in fact the war on terror, but the war on taxes launched by the administration. Why this obsession with taxes? One level of it is Freudian – his father said read my lips, no new taxes and waffled so the son who in all ways seems determined to finish the father’s agenda will never waver on that. This is not good public policy, it’s a cry for therapy. On a deeper political level, the tax agenda is the chief strategy of the right to defund government, to destroy the liberal social policies of the past century.
These fiscal policies and cuts affect GLBT and HIV organizations deeply. Every part of our agenda requires funding – from service organizations, to youth programs, to community centers to alcohol and drug treatment programs to anti-violence programs, to law enforcement training.
We are not used to seeing the crisis of politics in America today from the lens of the term “plutocracy” Kevin Phillips in his fascinating book, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, defines plutocracy as “government by or in the interest of the rich” (p. xi).
Historically, extreme disparities in income and wealth result in “high levels of political corruption and a voter belief in the captivity of government to private interests. (Phillips, xii). And we can certainly see that today – from Enron to Arthur Anderson to ImClone to the bail-outs of the terribly managed airline industry – on whose boards and lobbying staffs the wives and cronies of some of the political decision-makers in Congress sit.
The closing of the political process is an issue that is of vital importance to GLBT people and to those outside the political power structure (people of color, women, poor people) because we are still trying to achieve political representation and political clout. Experience with jurisdictions that have passed campaign finance reform or public financing measures reveals that opening up of the process often opens up the politics too.
Advocates of social, racial and economic justice have for decades has faced powerful backlash movements – against feminism, racial justice movements, GLBT rights, immigrants, social welfare policies etc. Every gain in justice and equity has been resisted and generated a counter-movement. What is different today from this long-term reality is that the leaders of these backlash movements are now in political power – in every branch of government.
Be clear, that this backlash has a more inclusive face than the old racism and the old sexism. Examples: War in Afghanistan being justified as a women’s liberation fight; where were they for two decades when they built up the Taliban?; or the California Racial Justice Ballot Initiative and Ward Connerly’s strategies which promote “color blindness” but would harm people of color. We need to be careful of these cunning arguments and deployment of inclusive messages by the right – they mask the same old structural hierarchies that keep women in the home and in circumscribed roles in public life, and that keep African Americans second class and in poverty, and that keep immigrant labor flowing but immigrant people always worried and as targets.
GLBT people understand backlash movements, we have been dealing with these movements for decades. It’s important for us to continue to prioritize our fights against the right.
Religious fundamentalism in Government
Religious fundamentalism on the rise worldwide. My issue with that is not a dispute over the legitimacy or validity of people’s faiths – but a disagreement over what protects religious liberty the most, and the danger of religion mixing with political power. Theocracy is what the current Administration is imposing in the US – in a creeping, incremental insidious manner as well as through more overt policy changes like Charitable Choice. Constitutionally, the establishment clause disables a government sanctioned religion; it has enabled religious pluralism to an unparalleled extent in the world. Establishing an official Christian religion – or a Judeo- Christian religion – risks turning America into the violent, authoritarian, fundamentalist regimes we now disdain.
State of the GLBT Union
Several things stand out when we look at the state of the GLBT union. First, the struggle against homophobia continues – and we are in the middle of a new Stonewall, a new wave of energy and activism that will – despite setbacks – push down many remaining barriers to the full equality and human dignity of GLBT people worldwide.
The struggle in the headlines is for civil marriage, but the issues underlying it remain: the need for civil rights laws, the urgent problem of hate violence, the challenge of addressing homophobia in schools, the need to address the impact of gender dualism and recognize gender identity, the imperative to support progressive religious traditions and leadership, the value of creating spaces for ourselves to self-determine, learn, grow and build solutions to our communities problems, the lack of recognition for our families of choice and self creation.
The agenda of the GLBT movement is almost the same as it was twenty years ago – with one major exception – the issue at the front burner is not hate violence or anti-discrimination laws, but same-sex civil marriage. I strongly support same sex marriage – and strongly urge each of you to be involved in this moment in this fight. The issue is not whether or not I will get married – the issue is having the choice, the freedom, the opportunity to do so. The issue is not whether all benefits should be tied to the couple form – health and education and other benefits clearly should not be so limited. The issue is that people in committed relationships ought to have the same access to benefits and the same duties as heterosexuals. This issue is not about assimilation to heterosexual norms. It is about our recognition by and within the US constitution – the recognition of the principle that every GLBT person like all people who live in this country deserves equal protection under the law. You and I have serious work to do in this year, my friends.
We have to defend our lives and stop this new effort to amend the US constitution. Have each of you called your member of congress, written an email, called your local and state representatives. IF not, please do it this weekend. Just do that at least.
We must speak to our families about this issue. When I brought up the issue in my family gathering a couple of months ago, there was mostly silence – but also support. The silence made me realize how important it was to challenge the comfort zone we had fallen into – a sort of” we know you are, and we love Kate but we don’t have to do anything to affirm you or act in any way different about your life.” This is the silence we must ask each of our straight friends, our straight families, our straight communities of faith, our straight workplaces, and our straight allies to break. They need to act – to speak out, to write their elected officials, to say things in private to other straight people – in a supportive way. And we must encourage, insist, organize, midwife, plead, cajole and demand that they do so.Third, we must get prominent API leaders in business, religious and other sectors to speak out in support of equal rights for GLBT people. The time of silence must end.
Another big challenge before the GLBT movement has been with us for many decades. It is very clear that the GLBT movement today is racially diverse – there are thousands of POC groups all over this country. But the movement’s leadership institutions still lacks racial diversity and the GLBT movements agenda still speaks far too little about the widespread inequalities that exist within the GLBT community and in society at large. We need to change this pattern – and you and I have the power to do this, not someone outside this room.
When I look around this room, I see hundreds of powerful queer Asian leaders and organizers. We need to assert our leadership and support each other as we go forward to take leadership. For a start, we need to recognize and raise the visibility of, and strongly support those Queer API’s who are providing excellent leadership in both queer and straight organizations,in academia and throughout the progressive world – I am talking about people like: Glenn Magpantay, Joo Hyun at Astrae, Kris Hiayashi at ALP, Patty Chang, John Manzone, Doreena Wong, Ruth Vanita, Dipti Ghosh, Deepak Bhargava, Scot Nakagawa, and scores of other leaders who are doing the daily job – without the recognition and respect they deserve. These organizers are leaders in the women’s movement, the economic justice movement, the global justice movement, in the prison reform movement, the human rights movement, the civil rights movement, the health care movement and so much more. Why are they not more visible to each of us? Why do Asian media, GLBT media, mainstream media perpetuate the veil of invisibility we have worked so hard to lift?
To build power, we must – each of you — get involved in both GLBT and straight civil rights, social service and social justice institutions, not just the ones organized for people of color but all sorts of groups – be they legal, political clubs, social groups. We especially need to get ourselves on Boards, leadership committees and staffs of groups that are working on behalf of Asians – the mainstream asian communities we come out of. We need to take the leadership of those organizations as out GLBT asians.
If we are working in corporate America we need to be out and involved in changing the policies of the institutions in which we work – to demand from them what we also are demanding from government – respect, fair treatment under one standard of law.
We have to acknowledge as loudly and work as directly on homophobia in our communities of origin as we have and do work on racism in mainstream GLBT communities. In groundbreaking work on the failure of Black politics to adequately lead on the AIDS epidemic, political scientist Cathy Cohen articulates how intra-group inequalities in status lead dominant populations within otherwise marginalized groups to inhibit and try to police the behavior and power and voice of the more marginalized sub-populations. Cohen rejects the label of homophobia to describe this intra-community, disenfranchisement – what she calls secondary marginalization. Rather she characterizes this process as a one of “policing” the boundaries of the identity in question – in this instance blackness.
We can see these dynamics in the GLBT movement today and within API communities. Still marginalized in the outside world, and fighting vigorously against inequality, the dominant groups in the movement (white, upper middle class and male) vigorously resist recognizing that there is horizontal inequality within our communities. They resist the expansion of the movement’s agenda into what they argue are “other issue” issues that are not seen as directly affecting them, or are seen as needlessly stigmatizing them because of race or gender. So a vigorous policing of the boundaries of what is and what is not a gay issue takes place again and again, with cyclical fervor within the GLBT community. Within communities of color, the question of who is a “real” or “authentic” representative of the race or ethnicity is one that is used to silence the leadership of queers. The insulting insistence that we do not exist, that somehow homosexuality is a “Western” thing or a “white people’s thing” is a lie that needs to be challenged by you and me.
Finally, we must challenge the notion popular in many communities that the GLBT community is not a part of a broader justice movement. In the past year, the question of whether war is a GLBT issue has been heatedly debated online, in living rooms and conversations, and by columnists in a variety of GLBT media.
The work ahead for GLBT progressives
The left has lost the battle of ideas to the right because it has failed to adapt the market to its needs. For several years I have argued that we must work to achieve a socially responsible capitalism as our explicit goal. Economic development goes hand and hand with freedom – as Amartya Sen so powerfully argues in his book Development as Freedom. This means that a GLBT movement has to think about issues of poverty, equity, social welfare – these affect our own people – most of whom fall along the same distribution of income that the rest of the country experiences – only a fraction of us are wealthy and upper middle class, the majority of us are middle to working class and significant numbers of us are poor. But we must also engage an economic agenda in our movement because of this integral link between economic development and freedom.
The moment we are in requires us to take political action this year in numbers we have never demonstrated, in ways we have never achieved, in forms we have never considered. We must all of us who can – be registered to vote, be donors to the campaigns of those who will defeat this Administration’s agenda of bigotry, and be active volunteers whether or not we are donors. Politics is about grunt work – door to door voter contact, phone banks, stuffing mailings, organizing pickets and letter writing campaigns, visiting elected representatives, as the title of Francesca Polleta’s book about grassroots organizing says, Freedom is an Endless Meeting. We have to be in the game –if you are a cultural worker great – do art about politics – just for this year. If you are a student, get involved on campus and in your community off campus. Even if you give one hour a week, do something specific that will help us all achieve the kind of society we want to see in this country.
Those of us in GLBT institutions, working in HIV organizations, doing social service work, working in government, working in large organizations and corporations must ask ourselves to do more as well. Are we visible? Are we out? Are we insisting that our institutions represent and validate our lives? Are we creating representative and accountable institutions – what would that mean to create such structures? There is a large agenda of institutional reform within the nonprofit sector that needs to be engaged – it is not the same as the political agenda I spoke of a minute ago, but it is as important in the long run to create democratic and accountable organizations as it is to create a democratic and accountable political order.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.