A Critical Look at the LGBT Movement–
Rice University – Feb 5, 2014
Thank you so much to Rice University for the opportunity to be here tonight. It’s great to be back in Houston, where I have been many times, and where I have many friends. I will forever have searing memories of the weeks many of us spent getting ready for and protesting at the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston. Who can forget the ladies in their mink coats in 100 degree weather. Or the distorted faces of the delegates that AIDS activists confronted, and how nasty they were. Or the policy attacking us as we marched in the ACT UP Health Care is a Human Right action. I remember my anger as Pat Buchanan ‘gay-baited’ the Democrats, calling the 1992 Democratic Convention the “greatest single expression of cross-dressing in American Political history.” He went on to denounce LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, progressive values, liberal ideas throughout his speech, and concluded “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” It was a different day from this, wasn’t it?
These days, I find myself in three kinds of conversations about the LGBTQ movement – the first is an astonished, pleased, excitement at the progress made on marriage equality. This conversation is initiated by all sorts of people, LGBTQ and non-gay, family members and allies, who marvel that the dominoes of discrimination seem to be toppling after the 2013 Supreme Court Windsor decision, every day brings some news. We smile, shake our heads incredulously and say “Isn’t it amazing, can you believe it? Alabama, Oh my!”
The second conversation takes place with donors thrilled because, as one leading donor said to me, “When we get marriage equality here, we will pretty much be done.” His comment attests to a pervasive fallacy – among supporters and opponents of gay rights — that marriage is the hinge, the axis, the turning point after which all other rights will simply be undeniable if not fully realized.
The third conversation occurs among social justice activists, especially those working at the grassroots or local level, or in the Midwest, Southwest or the South, those working with queer people of color, with social service organizations dealing with youth homelessness or bullying. Here one hears optimism tinged with worry at the precarious position LGBTQ people still occupy.
Each of these conversations exposes the opportunities and pitfalls facing the LGBTQ movement, and together they form the basis of my talk tonight.
I want to argue to you today that the fight for LGBTQ rights and liberation is far from over; that it is fraught with danger; that it is intimately tied to a larger power struggle underway in this country and around the world; and that its success requires new generations and old to continue strong investment and commitment to its outcome. Whether the LGBTQ movement can secure a future free from violence, persecution and discrimination for LGBT and queer people in the US and around the world depends entirely upon the contours of the movement we create over the next ten years.
The questions facing the LGBTQ movement today are not just about whether marriage or nondiscrimination laws, rights or justice, assimilation or transformation should be its goals. The questions that confront the LGBTQ movement today are about our understandings of community and power — for whom and against what are we fighting?
Having worked in the LGBT movement for over three decades, it feels like a bit of a miracle to witness this moment of advance. How did this happen? And what is the current situation of LGBTQ people? Homo/momentum is undeniable and its parameters can be sketched quickly across five dimensions: existential, legal and legislative, cultural religious, and political. A review of each of these dimensions illustrates the progress and peril facing the status queer.
Existential. Queerness certainly required consciousness to come into being. Bayard Rustin identified this aspect of the movement in a brilliant talk in 1986, titled “From Montgomery to Stonewall.” He noted, “There are [several] burdens which gays, along with every despised group whether it is blacks following slavery and reconstruction, or Jews fearful of Germany, must address. The first is to recognize that one must overcome fear. The second is overcoming self-hate. The third is overcoming self-denial. The fourth burden is more political. It is to recognize that …[o]ur job is not to get those people who dislike us to love us… [but rather]…to control the extent to which people can publicly manifest antigay sentiment.”
Acceptance and self-esteem required of queer people a transformation of self even before they could transform society – to counter the incredible shame and stigma associated with being gay. It’s important to remember the depth of this cultural stigmatization because it has not disappeared. One sees its impact in the high levels of suicide among queer youth – especially transgender youth. Indeed, a significant reason why the LGBQT movement remains mobilized and active is that queer people continue to experience the stigmatization, family rejection, religious intolerance, government bigotry, and internalized shame.
Since the 1950s, LGBTQ activism has organized itself around four arguments against homosexuality – that queer people are sick, criminal, immoral and sinful. Against each argument the movement deployed the tactics of education, protest, litigation, research, advocacy, support and community building.
Interestingly, each argument operates against LGBTQ people to this day. For example, forty years ago, in 1974, the US LGBT movement focused on scientific ignorance and changed the APA’s characterization of homosexuality as a mental illness. Yet ideas about homosexuality as mental illness, or gender identity variance as a medical disorder persist. Just last year, a global panel of mental health experts recommended to the World Health Organization that it remove 5 homosexuality related classifications in the International Classification of Diseases.
The elimination of state-sanctioned anti-LGBTQ codes has been extremely recent in the US, with laws criminalizing same sex behavior held unconstitutional only in 2003, and the ban on military service eliminated only in September of 2011, and still not eliminated for trans people. But criminal laws remain in place in 78 countries, and new laws have been enacted in recent years as does over-policing, police harassment, over-incarceration, and abusive prosecutions, against trans and queer people of color in particular.
Questions about the sinfulness and immorality of homosexuality persist and are vigorously debated. Despite the efforts of an active faith based movement, queer being is still denigrated as inherently sinful, wrong and immoral by many people. The airwaves in Texas and every state are filled with people condemning LGBTQ people and blaming them for every horrible problem in this country. This discourse seeks to define LGBTQ people as dangerous, and to ostracize them from legal and cultural protection.
Transgender people encounter even more negative attitudes as a recent national probability survey of heterosexual attitudes concluded “…[Attitudes]… were significantly correlated with higher levels of psychological authoritarianism, political conservatism and anti-egalitarianism, and (for women) religiosity— variables that are also consistent predictors of sexual prejudice. These patterns suggest that negative attitudes toward transgender people may have their psychological roots in strong support for existing social conventions, power hierarchies, and traditional values…” The researchers called for a deeper look into several questions including the extent to which “violations of the “natural attitude” toward gender are also viewed as a form of moral transgression that extends beyond the realm of gender to encompass a gender-variant person’s overall character.”
The continuing challenge to achieve moral equality can be tracked in the data points of the annual General Social Survey (GSS) or Gallup polls that continue to show that large numbers of people still consider same-sex sexual relations morally wrong. As recently as 2012, the National Opinion Research Survey reported that 43.4% of all Americans think homosexual acts are always wrong, a number that has fallen from a high of 75.6% feeling this way in 1987, but which still represents a significant constituency. The generation gap is significant – with people over 65 holding more negative opinions towards same sex behavior and marriage equality.
In short, despite coming out and the changes it has brought, the existential dimension of queerness remains contested on many registers
Legal and Legislative
A second dimension through which change for LGBTQ freedom can be tracked is through changing laws, policies and court decisions. The juridical focus of the LGBTQ movement has yielded legal and political victories. President Obama signed an executive order in 2014 that bans discrimination in federal contracts and affects millions of people, key aspects of the federal DOMA were struck down by the Supreme Court, the ACA includes SOGI, every federal agency is working to include LGBTQ people in its mission, 21 states have nondiscrimination protections; 18 of these include Trans people. Since the 2013 Windsor case court decisions (federal and state) have struck down aspects of state bans on same-sex marriage in over 60 different decisions, and 37 states and DC now recognize marriage equality, with active battles underway in several others. In April, the Supreme Court will consider the applicability of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause to sexual orientation (in the marriage case that will be argued in April of this year).
Yet, legal and legislative progress towards LGBTQ equality is neither comprehensive nor unidirectional. Many states have no legal protections based on SOGI including, Ironically nearly 15 of the states that recognize marriage, allow no other form of LGBT rights protections. There still is no federal law banning employment discrimination, only 21 states allow LGBT people to adopt, more than ½ states lack any bullying protections and there is no federal law, and despite the high incidence of documented violence against transgender persons, only 15 states have hate crime laws that include gender identity (30 have laws including SO). In TX – 11 municipalities have passed non-discrimination based on SOGI, 1 on SO alone, but there is no state law banning employment, housing, public accommodation and other kinds of disc based on s/o and G/I (Wikipedia); and the movement awaits the outcome of the marriage case’s appeal in the 5th Circuit.
Clever forms of backlash legislation are being attempted by religious-right and Tea-party politicians, as the NY Times reported last week. These bills include measures that would ban any state employee from performing a wedding ceremony, measures that would allow state officials to opt out of doing their jobs because of their private religious beliefs.
Legal equality remains far from achieved, and its benefits are not accessible to all parts of queer communities.
Cultural. To tackle prejudice, the LGBQT movement has engaged in both dialogue and representation that have led to changed cultural perceptions and increased visibility.
Coming out and talking about it have been the most successful tools to combat anti-gay sentiment. Indeed, there is now a randomized and peer reviewed study that proves that even a 20 minute conversation with potential voters had by an openly LGBTQ person can have a lasting impact on their decisions on gay rights.
This aspect of LGBTQ momentum is evident in public opinion shifts in favor of LGBTQ human rights, across all issue areas. According to MAP, “A May of 2013 Gallup Poll found that 75% of Americans have a friend, relative or coworker who has come out to them as gay or lesbian, compared to…58% just 10 years ago.” Far fewer people say they know someone who is transgender. Support for same-sex marriage is the marker most often identified with these positive shifts in opinion, and there is now slight majority support for marriage equality. In TX, more than 63% of the people support recognizing same-sex marriage. (Equality Texas web site)
Yet public opinion gains should not obscure the resistance still present, evident for example in the fact that one in three Americans (30%) disagree that consenting relations between same sex adults should even be legal. It is also evident in the high levels of violence LGBTQ people encounter. Transgender persons and cisgender women especially bear the brunt of bias motivated violence. The Transgender Murder Monitoring Project has documented over 1,612 murders of transgender persons globally from 2008-2014, with 226 murders reported in the first 11 months of 2014 alone. Data on violence against LGBTQ people in the US are reported annually by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects. Their 2013 report cites more than 2,000 incidents of violence, ranging from murder to assault. Interestingly only 45% of those who reported violence to NCAVP member organizations reported to the police. This may in part be due to the fact that 32% of those who reported complaints to the police reported hostile reactions. Trans women are 4 times more likely to experience violence from police than LGBTQ people.
The struggle to change the cultural perceptions of what same sex love and gender variance mean is far from over.
Religious. Another driver of cultural momentum stems from change in the attitudes of religious denominations. It may surprise you to learn that every legal rights gain made by the LGBTQ movement has been helped by the mobilization of, and support by, people of faith. This has been the result of massive organizing for decades by pro LGBTQ and LGBTQ people of faith. MCC has been a leader in this fight.
The demand for moral equality made on behalf of LGBTQ people by faith based allies contests the denigration of homosexuality and gender variance as sinful, immoral, and unnatural. It engages doctrine, tradition and practice in every faith tradition. The pursuit of reform has led to huge changes in denominational policies towards LGBTQ people – Inside Episcopal, Methodist, Unitarian Universalist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reform and Conservative Judaism, and even Catholic churches.
As a result of this organizing and of the larger cultural work we have been doing, there has been a sharp shift in attitudes of members of every religious tradition on LGBTQ issues. Pew notes, “Among people who are religiously unaffiliated, a solid majority have supported same-sex marriage since 2001. And among Catholics and white mainline Protestants, roughly six-in-ten now express support for same-sex marriage. Support for same-sex marriage also has grown among black Protestants. Support among white evangelical Protestants remains lower than among other religious groups.”
Today all of this progress is threatened by a new creative argument that pits the individual exercise of religion against the reach of civil rights laws. This is a new tactic thrown up by the religious right to thwart progress on LGBTQ rights and women’s rights. It is part of the cultural war of which Pat Buchanan spoke. We cannot mince around this fact – it’s a fight for cultural and political control and secular values are losing.
The First Amendment protects the free exercise of every religion – free from government restraint and regulation, and it also protects individuals from the establishment of a particular religion by government. Few people contest the fact that churches, synagogues, mosques, and religions of all kind should have freedom to practice their faith, and that religious institutions might even be exempt from civil rights laws — if these laws that may violate their faith traditions. But what has happened in recent decades is that this free exercise right is now being claimed (under the rubric of so called – religious liberty) by non-religious institutions, by business owners, and by all sorts of individuals who argue they should be able to opt out of observing laws with which they disagree. In Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court held that the owners of a corporation could claim religious beliefs to opt out of a requirement to cover contraception as part of the insurance they provide their employees. As Columbia Law Professor Katherine Franke noted, the Supreme Court majority held that “when it comes to a complex social context like the workplace, where the employment relationship is mediated by a thick web of rights and responsibilities, secular laws must yield to the corporate owners’ religious faith when they come into conflict.” However, holding that civil rights laws that violate religious tradition must yield to that tradition moves society dangerously towards privileging religion and recognizing the precepts of religious tradition as law.. It opens a path toward the establishment of a state-sanctioned religion – and it is a very dangerous precedent.
Recently, a new twist emerged in this stand-off between religious and secular rights. The Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) came out for what they called “a balanced approach” that ties their support of LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws in employment and housing, to a recognition that no individual religious exercise must be outside the reach of these laws. “Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles called for governments to seek balance when considering nondiscrimination laws. “Today, state legislatures across the nation are being asked to strengthen laws related to LGBTQ issues in the interest of ensuring fair access to housing and employment,” he said. “The leadership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is on record as favoring such measures. At the same time, we urgently need laws that protect religions against discrimination and retaliation while claiming the core rights of free expression and religious practice that are at the heart of our identity as a nation and our legacy as citizens.”
Oaks, a former Utah Supreme Court justice is quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune arguing “When religious people are publicly intimidated, retaliated against, forced from employment or made to suffer personal loss because they have raised their voice in the public square, donated to a cause or participated in an election, our democracy is the loser… Such tactics are every bit as wrong as denying access to employment, housing or public services because of race or gender.”
This trade off is problematic – because it conditions support for human rights upon the state’s acceptance of Christianity. The fight for secular – non religious – space is a global one – and the LGBTQ movement and women are on the front lines.
The question of religion is not just political or a constitutional, it is also personal. The operation of ant-LGBTQ religious bias in people’s lives around the world is still painful. A few weeks ago, I happened on a show on television called the L Word in Mississippi. It was a simple documentary that took us into the lives of a half a dozen or so lesbians living in contemporary Mississippi. Each one of the people featured was facing family rejection, religious denigration and ostracism. The cultural struggle for understanding is lagging the political struggle for rights.
Political. A final dimension in which LGBTQ progress and resistance can be mapped is in the political arena – the LGBTQ movement actually has political power in the US, in European countries, in Latin American counties, and it is using that political recognition and participation to a advanced at the international level.
Globally, support for SOGI have advanced through queer the advocacy within the human rights framework. The breakthroughs at the global human rights level have been quite recent – within the past decade. The Human rights Council issued a first-ever report detailing discrimination based on SOGI in December of 2011, and in 2014 adopted a resolution against anti-LGBT violence and discrimination. Of course, everyone should be aware of the backsliding underway in many countries, which have affirmatively legalized discrimination through court decision (India) or legislation (Russia, Nigeria, Uganda).
In the US, at least, the LGBTQ movement has achieved that power by organizing political money. Under the leadership of the Gill Action Fund, the LGBT movement has created a political giving strategy in state-level elections. IT has built a cadre of political donors willing to invest heavily to punish as well as to praise, and it has educated these donors to focus their giving in particular states that are in play legislatively or in court cases. As a result, there is a greater level of political access won for these donors.
Political power is not an immutable commodity held by a social movement. It ebbs and flows. And its presence cannot be taken for granted. Just look at the new wave of anti-marriage laws being proposed in states like Oklahoma, South Carolina, NC and Texas – these laws would allow publicly paid officials to opt out of performing marriage ceremonies if their private religious beliefs did not support marriage, they even seek to forbid any public official from issuing a marriage license.
In my book Virtual Equality, written 20 years ago, I argued that if the LGBTQ movement ignored the broader dynamics of racism, economic exploitation, gender inequity, and cultural freedom, it would achieve what other civil rights movements in America have won – a partial, conditional simulacrum called equal rights, a state of virtual equality that would grant legal and formal equal rights to some parts of the LGBQT community, but that would not ultimately transform the institutions of society that repress, denigrate, and immobilize sexual and gender minorities. I stand by that diagnosis.
The Trouble with Equal
There are two major challenges to broadening the focus of the LGBT movement and they are both internal. They are challenges that have to do with how we answer the question for whom are we fighting? They have to do with poverty and with race.
A critical part of queer work ahead involves enabling all parts of our communities to experience freedom, opportunity and dignity in their daily lives. Data show that significant parts of queer communities experience economic hardship, over-policing and gender-based bias – these issues are a vital part of the goal of achieving lived equality for all parts of our communities.
What data do I refer to? The ground-breaking analyses on LGBTQ poverty by the Williams Institute released in 2009 and 2012 prove these points, as do data gathered by the National LGBTQ Task Force and NCTE in the National Transgender Survey, and analyses of the American Community Survey (ACS), the Current Population Survey.
These data reveal:
• 7.6% of female same sex couples and 4.9% of male same sex couples live in poverty
• 24% of Lesbian and Bisexual women make less than the federal poverty line” :
• 15% of transgender people have incomes less than $10,000 year, compared to 4% of the US population in general, and face unemployment rates 4x higher.
• “Lesbians who are 65 [years old] or older are twice as likely to be poor as heterosexual married couples.”
• 19% — or one in five — of young people in the Los Angeles County foster care system are LGBT.
• Gay and lesbian couple families are significantly more likely to be poor than are heterosexual married couple families. (“Using national data from the National Survey of Family Growth, we find that 25% of lesbians and bisexual women are poor, compared with only 19% of heterosexual women. At 15%, gay men and bisexual men have poverty rates equal to those of heterosexual men (13%)”).
• “Within the LGB population, several groups are much more likely to be poor than others. African American people in same-sex couples and same-sex couples who live in rural areas are much more likely to be poor than are white or urban same-sex couples.”
In light of such information, an LGBT equality politics that ignores the economic context is in the end a politics of exclusion. Redistribution is, in fact, contained in every LGBT policy aspiration. Social services are urgently needed for every LGBT population that is not wealthy, from elders to parents to LGBT youth to young people in college to middle-aged people accessing social service programs like drug and alcohol treatment, mental health counseling, HIV services, and much more. Yet, queer leadership is silent and absent on the tax and fiscal debates in Washington, D.C., and in most state legislatures – despite the fact that the destruction of the safety net, the defunding, and the ever-growing privatization of the state will have severe consequences on LGBT civil society. Queer leadership has not yet used its political clout to fight back against the right wing’s growth, concerned as it is with reaching across the aisle for legislative compromises.
Some may say, “What about the political diversity of LGBT people?” The LGBT movement cannot be about much more than formal equality, they argue, because it would not represent conservative people. Well, it is true that not all queers are progressive, and that anywhere from 25%-33% of our vote has gone to Republican candidates in national elections over the past twenty years. But this data point also suggests why conservative politics should not dominate the far more numerous progressive mainstream of the LGBT movement. Let us admit a truth: beyond a shared basic rights agenda, there is no political unity between progressives and conservatives in the LGBT community. LGBT conservatives may work for the same basic rights as LGBT progressives, but they stand for a very different social, economic, and political order. We are not in the same movement with each other. Rather, we are in an effective and strong coalition with each other to win equal rights.
There is also racial and gender assumption within the mainstream LGBT movement that needs to be acknowledged and challenged. The definition of “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” or “transgender” that the mainstream LGBT movement operates from, the definition of who it represents that it holds in its mind when it speaks of the community, is unconsciously (and at times consciously) limited to white LGBT people.
A story illustrates this point. I was talking with two gay men who are both very generous donors to the LGBT movement, with whom I have worked for years. I told them about a conference I attended of LGBT people of color led organizations. I noted the incredible leaders I met and the creative ways they were addressing issues of survival, care and poverty policy – issues that many LGBT advocacy groups simply do not address.
My friends listened politely and one of them observed “I wonder if it just does not resonate with us as donors because as an affluent gay man it’s not something I think about on my own.” He asked his friend, “What would it mean for us to be moved by that work, would you have to see it and feel it and touch it in some way? What would make the intellectual and emotional connection and enable us to commit large amounts of resources?” My other friend paused and said, “Well. I’d certainly have to see it and feel it and touch it. But I still think it’s not the kind of work I’m inclined towards because it involves a subset and I’m more interested in work that is not focused toward a particular subset.”
I observed that gay white men were a subset too, although they did not see themselves as such, and that instead of seeing one as superset and the other as subset, I found it more useful to get more precise about what we were funding to accomplish. If our funding was aimed at actually insuring queer survival, in getting to the distribution of life chances and opportunity to all parts of the LGBT community, then the question of funding POC or poor communities would not be seen as a sideshow.
The problem this conversation starkly revealed is the way some donors to the LGBTQ movement, and by extension the organizations they fund, have divorced race, economic inequality, and even gender from the project of “gay rights.” The biggest challenge LGBTQ movement faces in becoming a racial justice movement of queers is its narrow understanding of who it sees as the subject of LGBTQ rights.
It’s time to stop making excuses and incorporate racial justice as OUR priority. A social justice framework that explicitly includes a commitment to racial justice is a better resource for LGBTQ movement organizations than a neoliberal politics of equal rights that pretends color (and class and gender and other human difference) somehow do not affect ones life chances as long as “everyone starts at the same line.”
There are at least four domains in which an LGBTQ movement thinking beyond marriage and towards social justice – would differ from the current version. First, it would focus on inequality more than it focuses on equality. Second, its infrastructure would be decentralized and stronger in the states than at the national level, and its organizations would not just be LGBTQ centered but be progressive with an LGBTQ focus. Third, it would be oriented towards building governing power for progressive values. And fourth, it would retain a central focus on the forces on the right – religious, economic, political and cultural – that stand for authoritarianism, fundamentalisms, political and social repression. Let me speak briefly to these ideas and then close.
Equality and Inequality
A critical part of queer work ahead involves enabling all parts of our communities to experience freedom, opportunity and dignity in their daily lives. Our agenda must focus on lived equality not just legal rights, on how our goals and actions affect the distribution of life chances and opportunities for differently situated members of queer communities. In short the work ahead for LGBTQ movements lies in focusing on inequality rather than equality, specifically the inequalities caused by the present form of capitalism, by structural racism, by the logics of the gender binary and the operation of the disciplinary power of the law.
- An LGBTQ movement that thinks about inequality alongside equality — would vigorously join the fight for social services for poor people and against the neoliberal policies that promote austerity for the poor and prosperity for the already wealthy.
- It would fight for a living wage for all working people and stand with unions as they try to expand workplace benefits to include paid sick leave, and child care.
- It would defend the personhood of women from levels of misogyny, violence and legislative discrimination so high that it’s as if feminism never happened.
- Any movement’s focus on the law as a guarantor of rights must always be conscious of the ways law creates categories of exclusion through its operations. What is legal and what is illegitimate, who is criminal, profiled, surveilled? Looking at these questions exposes additional inequalities in the operation of criminal justice systems – inequalities that themselves emerge out of white supremacist histories, and patriarchal binaries, which an LGBTQ movement focused on justice would more centrally address.
- LGBT people are still criminalized because they are still targeted by the discriminatory structure of our law enforcement systems which disproportionately sweep up poor and vulnerable people, including undocumented immigrants, transgender persons, homeless youth, people with HIV, and ordinary gay men and lesbians who are people of color. This unwarranted criminalization of LGBTQ people manifests as, entrapment and excessive policing, violence against transgender people, profiling and targeting of LGBTQ people of color, excessive regulation of sexual minorities, and over-punishment of youth remain critical problems that have gotten short-shrift in recent years.
- Thirty-two (32) states and 2 territories have enacted harsh and needless criminal laws against people living with HIV (PLWH).
- Transgender people, particularly transgender women of color, are also being funneled into the criminal justice system at alarming rates. In the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey with over 6,000 transgender respondents, 47% of black transgender women reported having been incarcerated at some point in their lives.
- More than 26% of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people who report incidents to the police reported hostile reactions from police themselves, according to the 2012 Hate Violence Report of the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs.
- LGBTQ youth report higher levels of verbal abuse than their heterosexual peers, and are more than twice as likely to report a negative sexual encounter with law enforcement.
- Despite the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), violence of all kinds in prisons, jails and detention centers is rampant, and harshly impacts gay and transgender persons. A study of sexual assault in California prisons published in 2007 found that transgender prisoners placed in men’s prisons were 13 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than non-transgender prisoners with 59% of transgender study respondents reporting being sexually assaulted in a California correctional facility.
- An LGBT movement focused on inequality would address the anti-black racism and colonialism that are pervasive in criminal justice systems. It would foreground by issues of: criminal justice sentencing reform and disproportionate policing and incarceration; disparities in health care access and care; HIV/AIDS criminalization, and wider access to treatment; the ways that the educational system targets and stigmatizes youth of color.
- It would prioritize work on LGBT youth homelessness, suicide, and criminalization.
In short – a justice seeking LGBT movement would be focused on ensuring the survival of all members of its community – and to do that it would strive to end income inequality, violence, and poverty.
A new Queer Infrastructure. To realize lived equality and a just society, the LGBT movement must become stronger, go deeper and reach even wider.
The great leaps forward on LGBTQ rights have been won by a rather quirky and small movement. Funders for LGBTQ Issues (FLGI) noted in a report on 40 years of LGBTQ philanthropy that there were perhaps 50 LGBT organizations in 1969. Today there are about 500 organizations found in the Guidestar database, formal enough to be filing reports to the IRS — a drop in the bucket to the 1.6 million nonprofits that exist.
This movements progress is miraculous because contrary to social movement theory, the LGBTQ movement has no single vision or frame, it has no underlying and viable economic model, it has no clear vision of government and governance, it has only just begun to develop solid research in the past five years, and its achievement of scale has been done with a tiny level of participation, and support. (Of the nearly 9 million LGBTQ people estimated to be part of the US adult population, very few are actually involved. The Movement Advancement Project estimates that fewer than 4% of LGBTQ people give to the movement’s organizations. Philanthropic giving to LGBTQ organizations remains at .24% of all giving).
The existing queer infrastructure seems on the one hand the to be robust. The Movement Advancement Project (a think tank on the LGBTQ movement) used the Guidestar database to identify 447 active LGBTQ focused nonprofits in 2013. These groups spent more than $726.9 million dollars. The 37 organizations surveyed in depth by MAP in 2014 comprised $209.5 million (or 22%) of this total. These 37 organizations employed 837 full-time and 141 part-time staff and had 677 Board members.
On the other hand this LGBTQ movement infrastructure remains far too uneven and weak. A survey of 44 statewide LGBTQ organizations conducted in 2011 by the Equality Federation revealed that most were under 10 years old; 1/3 had no paid staff and 85% had fewer than 6 staff people. If the two largest state organizations in CA and NY are excluded from totals, the median budget is $140,000. Weaker capacity exists in states like South Carolina, Michigan, Iowa, and Alabama, or even Texas, where we need it most.
To achieve and sustain legal and cultural change, the LGBTQ movement needs a strong fifty state progressive infrastructure. My view is that this infrastructure needs to be both queer specific and progressive.
Queer specific organizing infrastructure is needed to take care of people – the community based social service organizations are what we should strengthen in the years ahead — community centers, HIV groups, health programs, youth support groups, and groups working on community needs at the local level. These groups address the needs and lived realities of LGBTQ people who are not wealthy or mainstream. The irony is that LGBTQ social service organizations require funding in an era where the politics and rhetoric is all about austerity in government spending (except for the wealthy, then the agenda is profligacy).
But the fifty-state infrastructure we need must be broadly progressive, not just queer. LGBTQ statewide organizations cannot survive on their own – indeed they do not — their wins are made in alliance with feminist, labor, civil rights, environmental and other allied movements. A queer-inclusive unified front is needed. The good news is its almost here. From the immigrant rights movement, to the criminal justice movement, to the reproductive justice movement and sexual health movement, to the new Black Lives Matter and Ferguson Action organizing — all have strong queer leadership. This leadership has, as Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrice Cullors notes, “a different kind of politics.” It is exemplified in people like Daunasia Yancey, a leader of Black Lives Matter in Boston, about whom a recent profile noted, “For Yancey, making schools safer for LGBT teens is of a piece with marching against police brutality. All of her work, she says, is toward the same goal: making a space for people like her to thrive in safety. “I’m black and gay,” she said, “all the time.””
But this infrastructure and leadership of the future is not unified, it is poorly resourced, it is almost all volunteer, almost all grassroots, and entirely separate from every national LGBTQ organization except the Task Force.
Building Governing power. A third shift that is essential to make in order to secure LGBTQ equality into the future is to win governing power at the local, state and national levels. Let me say it again. In order to preserve gains made, and to change the policy direction of this country and world, progressives and queer people must win and secure governing power at the state and federal level over the next few decades. We cannot avoid politics.
This engagement with politics has four components: (1) electing progressive candidates; (2) organizing the money to influence politicians; (3) targeted bipartisanship as a legislative strategy and(4) organizing a new electorate. The LGBTQ movement has done a good job on the first three of these engagements – it has targeted progressive and LGBTQ candidates for support and defeated anti-gay candidates, it has built a cadre of political donors willing to invest heavily, and it has educated these donors to focus their giving in particular states that are in play legislatively or in court cases. Since the 1990s, the LGBTQ movement has made a conscious choice to work in a bipartisan manner on legislation – it has split off moderate republicans who support LGBTQ equality. I would note that there is a difference between bipartisanship as a legislative strategy and an uncritical and cynical embrace of conservative family values rhetoric, or allying with anti-choice, anti-labor, anti-Obama, donors and organizations (like the Koch brothers, or Paul Singer who are pro-LGBTQ). The former is a tactic limited to a particular bill or set of policies; the latter has the effect of hurting women, people of color and poor people.
But the LGBT movement has not seriously engaged in organizing a multi-faceted electorate – the so-called new American Majority – to win electorally across the country. Indeed many of our own community members and allies remain unregistered, unorganized and unmotivated to vote. This electorate – comprised of voters who are young, latino, African American, LGBTQ, single women, progressive men and women — is available to be nurtured and sustained. It holds the key to the future. But not treated seriously by any party. One has to look only at the failure of the Obama political campaign to turn its Obama for America supporters into a progressive voter coalition – like Pat Robertson did with his base in 1988. The Democratic Party is a part of the problem.
Opposition/reaction. Finally, the largest challenge we face is that there remains a multifaceted opposition to the values and lives LGBTQ people embody. There is a right wing and it says it will never, ever accept homosexuality. There must be within the LGBTQ movement a much stronger focus on right wing’s cultural arguments against homosexuality, and a commitment to maintaining anti-fundamentalist and anti-fascist infrastructure of social media, legal, research and watchdog groups to expose, refute, and defeat the right wing culturally and politically.
There is also another kind of right wing that must be accounted for in the LGBTQ movement’s strategies – and that is the right represented by the political and corporate elites who have invested so heavily in a global order built upon reduced regulation, reduced voice for ordinary and poor citizens in governance, a shredded safety net, and the increased privatization of public goods and services.
Seeing neoliberal economic and political policies as our opposition is not a mainstream view in the LGBTQ movement. But the destructive impact of privatization of government, the reduction of funding for public services and the economic privileging of corporations and private capital at the expense of investments in public goods impact LGBTQ lives.
Indeed recent research by the Association of Women in Development (AWID)’s Project on Challenging Religious Fundamentalisms globally shows how neoliberal economic and political regimes enable the growth of religious fundamentalist movements. AWID surveyed 1600 women’s rights groups globally to ask about how women’s rights activists are facing fundamentalisms everywhere. They identified several factors that contribute to the rise of religious fundamentalisms:
1) Economic factors, like income inequality and poverty, the failure of state institutions and services create an opening for those who speak to people’s resentments about inequality. Often religious movements provide for the care and survival of people – they are there to pick up the slack when government services are corrupt or inadequate. Neoliberal economic policies which favor privatization of government services have created an increased role for religious institutions.
2) Political factors contribute to the growth of religious fundamentalism – in some instances where state actors link with religious fundamentalist institutions to preserve power; or in other instances when religious fundamentalism presents itself as a reformist outsider force that will bring reform.
3) Social factors implicated in the growth of the power of religious fundamentalism include the rise in religiosity among many people, as part of a search for meaning and community, for identity and belonging; a refuge from the anxiety produced by social change; a backlash to the rise of women’s and sexual rights.
The LGBTQ movement, like the women’s movement, needs a central focus on religious fundamentalism and neoliberal economic policies because the impact of both is antithetical to the values, norms and ideals of freedom and justice we seek. Sustaining stronger institutions to monitor, refute and rebut the right wing is essential to a queer friendly future.
In the first of the Calamus poems in Leaves of Grass, the 19th century American poet of the democratic imagination, Walt Whitman expresses how I feel about the queer movement
IN paths untrodden/In the growth by margins of pond-waters/Escaped from the life that exhibits itself/From all the standards hitherto published—from/the pleasures, profits, conformities,/Which too long I was offering to feed to my Soul/Clear to me now, standards not yet published— /clear to me that my Soul,/That the Soul of the man I speak for, feeds, rejoices/only in comrades;/Here, by myself, away from the clank of the world/Tallying and talked to here by tongues aromatic/No longer abashed—for in this secluded spot I can/respond as I would not dare elsewhere/Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself,/yet contains all the rest…
Whitman identifies an experience that queer activists of each era have lived – we walk “paths untrodden” – often in the “growth by the margins” of society. We are non-conformers to “the life that exhibits its self” with all “its standards hitherto published, and its pleasures, profits and conformities.” We followed no maps, invented the language we needed, rejoiced in each other against repression, hostile laws, and violent resistance. To refuse the compulsory heterosexuality into which we were channeled, to begin to create feminist and openly lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender lives was an act of pure invention “Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself, yet contains/ all the rest –”
The LGBTQ movement needs this visionary and brave spirit today. The work ahead to achieve freedom and justice for all requires us to confront inequality, racism and white supremacy in all its institutional manifestations in policing, criminal justice policy, employment, housing and health; it requires us to challenge the gender binary; to resume the fight for sexual freedom and sexual health, against the assertions of government and organized religion.
This is a full agenda for the future. And it is an urgent one – with a place in it for everyone who cares about the achievement of human rights and justice. I look forward to walking these untrodden paths with you.