“The class divide is evident in the different between those who attend the fancy black tie dinners that raise political monies for our national organizations, and those who use the services provided by our social service agencies. You see the former represented in the media and on the L word; but you will not even see the latter referenced in a footnote to a report on poverty. The GLBT poor are invisible. So is the GLBT working class.
A version of this presentation was given at Miami University Ohio in March of 2004 ©2004 Urvashi Vaid
I want to speak to you tonight as an individual – as someone who spent more than 20 years working nearly full time in the GLBT movement. What I have to share are my views, and not those of any organization. The GLBT movement is a broad coalition, not a mono-tonal, one-point of view movement. It harbors great political diversity, from left to right. My own perspective is grounded in feminism, anti-racism and liberal or progressive values.
We live in interesting times. The presidential election campaign is hotly under way and has already brought many surprises – from the unexpected strength of the Dean campaign to its rapid collapse; from the stunning sight of a once overwhelmingly popular president sinking from the weight of his apparent mendacity to revelations about his background that surprisingly did not emerge as loudly the first time he ran; from the interesting campaign of Dennis Kucinich, the only true progressive in the race, to the duplicitous campaign of Al Sharpton, who, as a Village Voice and NY Times articles revealed has been taking money and significant strategic advice from Republican party operatives previously affiliated with President Bush.
It is a great year for any student and participant in politics – because there are so many unexpected stories and twists, most of which still lie ahead. In this moment, is it any surprise that as the pressure mounts on the Administration to tell the truth to American, to disclose and not hide basic information – like whom it is meeting with to set energy policy or what financial interests are held by the people it has appointed to the new intelligence commission. As the pressure on them intensifies, the strategy is to change the subject.
I find it entirely predictable that a Republican Party controlled by right wing extremists, and guided by the machiavellian expert of wedge issue politics Karl Rove, would announce that it is going to focus this year – not on the loss of jobs (280,000 in Ohio alone during the past three years), not on the 41 million Americans without health insurance, not on crumbling inner city public schools which get no new money but are required to follow the federal mandates of no-child-left-behind, not on the urgent needs of millions of people who are unemployed and cannot find work, not on the pressure on students like you who are having to figure out how to deal with higher tuitions and struggling families – not on any of these issues: but simply on war and the equally urgent national priority of denying gay and lesbian people the right to marry.
The President’s State of the Union address made his priorities clear: after the war and terror, he thinks the most important problem facing this country is that two women somewhere in Lexington Massachusetts might be able to get married to each other after May 17th of this year (when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision goes into effect). As he said on Meet the Press, he is a war president, who has launched two wars overseas, is fully prepared to launch more if he thinks they are needed, and he is willing to broaden the cultural war against gay people at home. GLBT equality has become the designated remedy in the survival tool-kit of the Administration.
This interesting cultural moment, and this very distracting GLBT movement, are what I want to talk about tonight. I want to reflect a bit on the broad political climate facing the GLBT movement today and I want to talk about the state of that movement – its accomplishments, its challenges and its current main divisions. It is my view that the broader climate impacts GLBT rights profoundly and that to win our full freedom, we must be engaged in a much more meaningful way to create a more just and progressive society for all, not just pursue civil rights for some.
Broad Context: Status quo of the Status Queer?
Those of you just tuning in to the front page news that the issue of GLBT marriage is making may be tempted to think that the battle must be pretty far advanced to be waged on this enormously difficult level: but the truth is that the civil rights battles of GLBT people are far from won on many fronts that are far less controversial than marriage.
- Can I get fired simply for being a lesbian? In 14 states I cannot, but in 36 I can. There is no federal law which bans discrimination against gay employees. Ohio has no statewide laws banning discrimination in employment or housing or public accommodation. Ohio has instead the unfortunate national distinction of being known as a state willing to take away people’s civil rights for no good reason. After the city council in Cinncinnati outlawed discrimination against gay people in 1992, the righ wing sponsored a ballot initiative in 1993 that amended the City Charter to prohibit any future recognition of gay rights. The same strategy was employed last month in your state’s passage of the hideously broad and destructive anti-marriage law: it not only bans gay marriage, but negates domestic partnership or any other equal rights for gay partners. It was opposed by the business community in this state, major newspapers and apparently many civic leaders – but how and why did it pass? Because here in Ohio there is no movement of gay and straight allies strong enough to fight back against prejudice.
- Can I serve my country as a lesbian? Nope, not unless I lie and say I am not. Each year, under the military’s hypocritical policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” nearly 2000 people are persecuted and with-hunted out of the military. Its so senseless that at a time when we need skilled language translators, when the military and the intelligence community admit they have a shortage of such staff, the military fired more than 12 linguists because they were gay.
- Can I keep custody of my own child, become a foster parent or adopt a child in need? It all depends where I live. In Alabama, the same judge who illegally put the 10 Commandments up in the public, secular court house, ruled that a lesbian mom could not get custody of her own child. In Florida just a few weeks ago, the courts denied a legal challenge to the state’s anti-gay foster care law – ruling in effect that kids without homes are better off without qualified, loving families.
- What about school policies – can I make sure that my gay child, cousin, niece or nephew or brother or sister is safe in school? In most places the school yard is a bullying minefield for young people, and the torture that effeminate boys or butch girls experience is shameful.
- Can I get health insurance for my partner on my health plan, visit my ill partner in a hospital? Make critical decisions about her health care? In Not in most parts of the country, and even if I have legal documents, not without being subject to the whims of different institutions, all of which have different policies.
GLBT rights remains an aspiration, not a reality in most parts of the country, but progress is being made. Today, 14 states have laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Hundreds of Fortune 500 corporations have good workplace policies – because nondiscrimination is good business practice. Hate crimes are condemned by all sides of the political debate, and gay people are more and more seen as truly who we are: part of the fabric of american life, in all its complexity and diversity.
The main argument of our day illustrates the way change is happening at multiple levels. The struggle for same-sex marriage is on one level about whether and how to recognize GLBT relationships. But it is also about something even more profound: about the full moral acceptance of GLBT people into their individual and cultural families. In a sense it is not surprising that this would become a central issue – the core of gay and lesbian difference is that we love and form intimate relationships with people of the same sex. Securing legal protections and family recognition for those intimate relationships is an essential part of our full and equal participation in society.
Time does not permit me to explore the intra-community conversation around why some gay people would choose not to get married, and question why and whether we should pursue this. You should know that we have rallied around this issue despite these reservations.
So why do gay people want to get married? For two main reasons: First, because gay people want to affirm their commitments to each other. Marriage is a social status that legitimates relationships – it says to others, hey I have made a lifelong bond with this person and I am committed to them. Gay people, like all others who fall in love, want to make this commitment, to have it recognized by family, community and society. Second, because marriage brings with it a host of responsibilities (duties) and privileges that gay people want to access. Marital status brings benefits. These are exactly two of the reasons that critics of gay marriage inside GLBT communities are so frustrated that marriage has become the top burner issue for the movement today. They argue why should anyone have to marry in order to get access to health care or other benefits – marital status should not be the requirement.
The issue of GLBT relationships has long been on the agenda of the GLBT movement. Law suits have been filed since the 1970’s seeking marital recognition – under state law, common law, federal law – and most have failed until the 1990’s and these past few years. The state-law suits, as well as a strong public advocacy campaign launched by prominent writers and intellectuals in the GLBT community, and bolstered by grassroots organizing by a coalition of groups called Freedom to Marry has kept the issue in the news for most of the past ten years.
I think there are three main reasons that state courts in places as diverse as Hawaii, Vermont, New Jersey and Massachusetts are concluding that their state constitutions require equal protection for same-sex relationships as for opposite sex relationshios. First, state constitutions vary and are often more expansive than the federal constitution in their grant of rights. It is the job of state courts to interpret these constitutions. States have all powers reserved to them that are not explicitly granted to the Federal government under the US Constitution – and the right to set marriage laws is one such set of powers. In Massachussetts, when the highest court of the state interpreted that state’’ constitution on and held that state law required Mass to provide the same spousal or marital rights to gay couples as to straight couples, it was not engaging in judicial activism: it was engaged in its legitimate duty.
Another reason state courts today are more willing to make a decision to accept marriage is that the country’s understanding of GLBT people has changed dramatically in the past two decades. GLBT have come out of the closet in every family, in every corner of the country, in every racial and ethnic community, in every country of the world. And as we come out and live our lives, we are educating our families, neighbors, coworkers, faiths, communities and governments that we share a huge amount in common with non-gay people, that we contribute many wonderful things to society and that we are good and often moral people. The cultural visibility we have gained – be it via broadcast media in the L Word through the experience of two decades of HIV AIDS which devastated gay communities in the 80’s and 90s — has been the source of all our political progress.
Finally, I think judges are interpreting state and federal constitutions in favor of gay marriage and gay equality for one main reason: it is legally the right thing to do under established principles of constitutional law. The Supreme Court issued an amazing decision in Lawrence/Garner v. Texas, overturning the 1986 Hardwick decision it and admitting that it had made the wrong decision in the first place. In Lawrence, the Supreme Court said there was no constitutional basis to make private, adult consensual same-sex activity criminal. It argued that people have the right to form their intimate relationships free from government interference. And it set the stage for todays debate on marriage. It is interesting to note that until state court decisions started going against the will of the right wing oligarchy that is running this country, they were all campaigning for states rights. But now that state courts are showing they are not just rubber stamps for racist policies, like the Southern state courts were, the right wing has suddenly become a fan of federal courts. rabid right wing ideologues.
It bears repeating that the US constitutional framework is built to check and balance the power of the three branches of government and to protect minority rights: the executive does things but the legislature must ratify most of them and acts as a check on tyrannical rule; the legislatures have the right to make laws, according to the will of the people, who can fire them if they do not like the job they are doing; and the courts are charged with making sure that the legislatures and the executive do not do things that are banned under the broad principles of the constitution – they act as the protectors of minority interests and rights. Courts make different decisions than legislatures because judges are not subject to the same pressures and obligations as legislators. The people who want to convince you to reign in the judges are asking you to sign away the right of independent review: they want to own judges the way they own politicians.
These recent legal decisions stir up so much emotion because they, and the marriage issue itself, represent a huge shift in the basis for opposing homosexuality. For decades, until Lawrence and the Massachusetts decision, the basis for opposing GLBT rights was both legal and moral. The government and the churches actively stigmatized homosexuality. Legal discrimination is steadily being eliminated as fair-judges and law makers realize there is no civic basis for denying equal rights to people because of sexual orientation. And the moral question is being tackled by many others both inside faith traditions and in the secular sphere.
Why don’t people want GLBT people to get married? Two reasons: a fear that some thing they have will be harmed or taken away because of the extension of this right of marriage; and religious opposition. The polls on this issue can be read as vindication of both of these reasons. Various polls have produced the following range of numbers – when asked if they support or oppose gay marriage, the Washington Post reported in early February that 41% of people say they are supportive and 55% opposed. But when the question is posed as civil unions, 46% are supportive and 51% opposed. (Reuters, 2/5/04). Other polls have revealed similar uneasiness about marriage, and greater support for civil unions and equal benefits policies. TO me these data suggest that people’s uneasiness about the status has to do with factors external to their view of gay relationships – they actually are willing to say gay relationships should not experience discrimination, but not to grant them marital status.
Today, it is mostly religion that is relied on to justify denying civil rights and equal protection under the law to GLBT people. Let us examine the religious opposition more closely because even here there is more complexity than fundamentalists would have us acknowledge.
Two years ago, I spoke before almost 400 pro-gay Presbyterians at the bi-ennial national Conference of Presbyterians – a gathering of more than 10,000 people. In the small dinner, I was extremely touched by the courage of the mostly heterosexual crowd of committed lifelong Presbyterians. Many were conservative in their political views, lived in small towns in the heartland, and yet were engaged in the most profound debate within their congregations and their denominations on how best to minister to GLBT people in the denomination. I met a 60 year old father of a lesbian daughter who was facing charges of heresy in an intra-denomination judicial proceeding because his church had performed a same-sex union. More than 15 people were facing such charges at that time. What was going on? A theological struggle, and a struggle for denominational control between those with a literalist and fundamentalist interpretation of scripture, and those with a more historical and in-context view of what the Bible really says about homosexuality. I am not qualified to argue the theological point, but let me note that there are serious scholars and practicioners of good will and deep faith who are engaged in trying to shed light on issues of sexuality and the church. Terrific web sites like Religious Tolerance.org provide useful resource guides into the issue – and strive to present a balanced view.
It may surprise people in this room to realize major religious denominations and traditions support and publicly campaign for the full civil rights of GLBT people: the Unitarian Universalist Church, the United Church of Chrst, the Quakers, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (reform Judaism), all work actively to support GLBT equality. Other faith traditions, like reform Judaism, and allow their ministers to perform same-sex union ceremonies. The Anglican church is in deep debate about the appointment of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. Meanwhile, openly gay clergy serve as Conservative and Reform Rabbis, have been ordained in the Presbyterian Church, exist and are fighting for recognition in every major denomination from American Baptist to Lutheran to Morman. The extremely moving “Stoles Project”, gathers the stoles (or ministerial vestments or scarves) of clergy who have lost their jobs due to anti-gay persecution in their denominations – the Stoles project has more than 2000 such stories it has collected.
Important voices seeking tolerance and inclusive policies are being raised inside denominations, often by openly gay and lesbian clergy and rabbis. One such voice is the Reverend Peter Gomes, an openly gay, African American Baptist minister who serves at Harvard University. Reverend Gomes recently wrote an extremely thoughtful analysis of the marriage fight in Massachusetts, in which he argued from the perspective of religious history that the status of marriage in the Massachusetts was from the time of pilgrims seen as a civil right, and not a religious right – and that therefore the decision of the court should be seen as upholding this civic tradition.
“No clergy of any denomination are required to wed anyone of whose union they do not approve: There is no civil right to be married in church or with its blessing. The civil law is just that, and the distinction between it and ecclesiastical law is as important as the necessary distinction between church and state. Surely, after two years of protracted debate between church law and civil law in the child-abuse scandals we should appreciate the necessity of these distinctions. It is to the civil rights of the citizens of Massachusetts that the Supreme Judicial Court responded in the Goodridge case, and this was no attack on the church, nor on religion. It was recognition that the social custom restricting marriage to heterosexuals, a custom long sanctioned by church and society, was no longer to be regarded as consistent with the rights of citizens under the constitution..” (Boston Globe, February 8, 2004)
Reverend Gomes makes two key points in this piece, first that the scriptural basis for acceptance of GLBT people needs to be discussed and debated; that moral case needs to be made. But at the same time, the fact remains that America is a secular or “civil” society, and civic life is not the same as religious practice, nor should it ever be. As the Columbus Dispatch noted in an editorial dated February 3rd of this year: Religious objections are powerful, but not all-powerful. The US is a secular society, not a theocracy, and public policy is built on constiotutional principle, not religions ones, though these sometimes overlap.” (Columbus Dispatch, 2/3/04).
What is the GLBT Movement?
To this point, I’ve spoken about the external realities of a GLBT movement –- the legal and religious obstacles it continues to face as it pursues equality. But let’s talk for a few minutes about the movement itself. What is it exactly? Whom does this “movement” represent? What are its values?
The modern wave of the civil rights movement for GLBT equality in the US was formally born in the 1950’s with the formation of two groups: the Mattachine Society, founded by Harry Hay in LA, and the Daughters of Bilitis, founded in SF by Del Martin. (A footnote to this history is that Del Martin and her partner of more than 40 years, Phyllis Lyon were the first to be married in San Francisco this week, in newly recognized, and largely symbolic, civil marriage ceremonies that SF Mayor Gavin Newsome authorized this week. Newsom said he was motivated to step into this debate on marriage after watching President Bush attack same-sex marriage in the State of the Union address.) For most of the 50’s and 60’’s the movement was led by mostly small, coastal-based and mostly local groups run by extremely iconoclastic people – to be out in the 1950’s required a strong personality able to withstand scorn and censure, and to lead with courage.
In the late 1960’s and 1970’s, this nascent movement exploded nationwide, sparked by frustration at longstanding police harassment of gays, and inspired by the arguments and strategies of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. The Stonewall Rebellion in June of 1969, a riot motivated by a police raid on a bar called Stonewall, signaled the emergence of a more militant and younger activist, and its aftermath saw the founding of the intellectually influential, but organizationally insignificant, Gay Liberation Front.
The early 1970’s also marked the founding of the major civil rights institutions of our community – institutions which still exist to this day, like LLDEF and NGLTF (both founded in 1973). The 70’s was a time of firsts, the first civil rights laws at the local level, the first out gay elected officials, the first MOW. They also marked a rising wave of anti-gay backlash and the emergence of religious fundamentalists into politics. The two were not coincidental. Right wing religious fundamentalism grew through its exploitation of resentment and uneasiness over race, gender and sexuality. (See Jean Hardisty and Sara Diamond). IT continues to thrive through a divisive focus on hot-button issues, especially those that can divide wedges between communities that might otherwise come together as a voting bloc and defeat conservative right wing politicians, The wedge issue used by Bush’s father was race: he used the effective “Willie Horton” advertisement against Dukakis to win white Southern voters. The wedge issue of George W Bush is marriage. With it, he hopes to split socially conservative black and hispanic voters from the democratic party; and he hopes to energize his own right wing base to turn out in large numbers.
The only way to defeat the wedge is through education and organizing, and that has been the gay community’s experience in this decade. Our experience reveals that when we do grassroots, door-to-door education and organizing, we can defeat even tough anti-gay ballot measures. Thus the movement has won ballot battles in Miami Dade County; in Spokane WA; in Flint Michigan. IT will have to win in many more states this fall and beyond if the anti-gay Constititional amendment is passed.
The 1980’s marked a major transformation of gay politics with the emergence of HIV AIDS in the gay male and bisexual communities. HIV was a worldwide epidemic from the start, and like it is today, affected women and children far more than it affected gay men. But in this country, the disease was disproportionately present in gay male populations and that meant that our conservative, Republican government in the 1980’s (Reagan and Bush I) were reticent to say much less do anything about it. This governmental indifference in the face of a huge personal and community tragedy radicalized millions of gay and straight people about homophobia, and helped to build and strengthen the gay movement. GLBT groups developed strong Washington presence, fought aggressively in the courts and Congress, and began to organize in state capitols. Motivated by the twin threats of AIDS and the right, the GLBT movement established itself in all parts of the country, and developed a thriving set of community institutions: bookstores, bars, social clubs, newspapers, choarl groups, sports leagues, churches and denominations, businesses and much more.
The 1990’s marked another turning point for GLBT rights: acceptance by mainstream politicians and the demand by many that transgender people be fully included in our movement’s agenda. President Clinton became the first US President to embrace the gay community – he appointed many openly gay people to his administration, issued executive orders banning discrimination throughout the federal government and spoke out repeatedly against hate violence and bigotry. But he also failed to get rid of the anti-gay military policy and signed in 1996 the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which says that state level gay marriage will not be recognized by the federal government. I think the hallmark of the 1990’s was the cascading cultural visibility we achieved in TV, film, music, government and all aspects of social life. Famous and ordinary people came out by the millions. Exit polls showed the power of the gay vote: 4-5% of those voting self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual in exit polls from 1992-2000. The exit polls even showed that ¼ to 1/3 of the gay vote went to republicans in each of the elections during this time; gay republicans in 2000 claimed that 1 million gay voters voted for George W. Bush. (See Log Cabin Republican statements).
The emergence of GLBT conservatives should not surprise anyone. As more people came out, more people of all kinds came out – and the previously progressive dominated gay political movement became more mainstream. A key illustration of that is the emergence in the 21st century of the Human Rights Campaign as the largest gay rights organization – with a $20 million budget and a symbol that gave a “Brand” identity to gay rights – a purple equal sign; there are more than 140 local GLBT community centers, over 40 anti violence projects, scores of youth service programs, hundreds of school oriented projects and a large HIV/AIDS service movement. A vibrant transgender rights movement began to form across the country in the 1990’s and has raised the visibility of the gender binary itself as an oppressive social construct. The transformative potential of the TG movement has not yet been realized and indeed has been resisted by the mainstream movement.
I want to share two intra-community debates to illustrate key tensions that exist in the GLBT movement. One is an argument over what we mean by civil rights and whether we are part of a broader social justice movement. The other is the ongoing challenge of how we address the GLBT community’s own internal class and racial diversity.
What is a GLBT Issue?
You might be shocked to learn that the question of whether Justice is a “gay issue” is a hotly argued one within the GLBT movement, and one that our failure to answer in the affirmative leaves the GLBT political significantly isolated from a broader civil rights community. In a sense this is an old argument: what should go on the GLBT agenda and who decides, It surfaces in each decade of our struggle. In the 1960’s the movement fought about Vietnam and civil rights; in the 1980’s about abortion rights and the ERA; in the 1990’s about welfare reform and immigration; and in the 1990’s and again in the past year about the Iraq war. In rare instances when progressively led GLBT organizations take a position on an issue that is not immediately or exclusively about sexuality, they are attacked by those on the right and center for diverting attention and focus from the cause by working on a “non-gay issue”. Bayard Rustin made the same argument criticizing Dr. King when King came out against Vietnam.
This fissure was evident in the intra-community debate on the Iraq war during the past year. The argument began because several national and grassroots GLBT organizations took a position against the US invasion of Iraq – these groups include National Youth Advocacy Coalition; International gay and Lesbian Human rights Commission; Basic Rights Oregon; NGLTF, AFSC GLBT concerns committee, Audre Lorde Project among others.
In contrast, other GLBT organizations and some individuals came out strongly for the war – these include Log Cabin Republicans, individual gay rights advocates like Andrew Sullivan and many writers who are part of a web site called Independent Gay Forum.
Finally, some organizations restated their neutrality on this issue, as David Smith of the Human Rights Campaign said, “”We believe such a statement [for or against war] would fall outside our specific mission, which is to ensure that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people achieve equality in today’s society.” (Advocate, 3.18.2003, “Taking To the Streets,” by Noelle Howey).
The argument over what is or is not a GLBT issue thus breaks down into three positions: those who see the GLBT movement as part of a broader movement, call this the “Justice” position; those who pragmatically or ideologically argue for a narrow set of goals, in what might be termed a “Just-Us” position, and the middle-of-roaders, who try to calculate the costs and benefits to their own narrow interests and argue do nothing, who might be termed the “coalition of the unwilling.
The Justice argument:
- This is at its core a human rights argument. Some in the GLBT community believe that the GLBT movement is one part of a broader social justice movement that seeks both recognition for previously excluded minorities, but also seeks redistribution, and a more just society for all. This view sees sexuality as part of a broad spectrum civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights. In this view, the goal of the GLBT movement is to achieve a more just society, through its work on sexual rights.
- Second, since social justice advocates do not see sexuality as an isolated sphere, they see it as connected to race, gender hierarchies, and other aspects of our lives. Because of these intersections, issues that might not be seen as traditionally or narrowly “gay” — such as racism — belong on the GLBT movement agenda. They affect all GLBT people because we are “raced” beings, as well as because they affect GLBT people of color in particular ways. Progressives recognize that the legal basis for civil rights links us to the rights of women, people of color, African Americans and other minorities.
- Proponents of a justice vision also see GLBT issues and the movement’s policy agenda in historical and evolutionary terms – the agenda broadens because it adapts to the needs of more people’ lives. Our issues are broader because our lives are not closeted into a ghetto and we must reform the institutions we come into contact with: school reform, nursing homes, child care are now gay issues as well as sodomy repeal, sex education on HIV.
- Proponents of a justice vision argued that as a matter of principle, the GLBT movement has an obligation to take a position on broad civil and human rights issues. Proponents recognize that reasonable people will disagree on whether to support or oppose this war, but they stand for the principle that GLBT people have the right and responsibility to speak out on issues of great importance to our country, our community and our lives. The black gay activist Keith Boykin argued in his column on Planet Out, that “War is a gay issue because war affects gay Americans. All Americans, and all organizations regardless of where they stand have a right if not a responsibility to speak out on this issue.” (Planet Out.com/news/feature.html?sernum=480, 3.6.03)
- Finally justice proponents believe it is strategically and morally necessary for LGBT people to work as part of a coalition of progressive allies. And as Mubarik Dahir put it, “We can’t harp about our own human rights and ignore everyone else’s.” (id.) As the AFSC/NYAC statement puts it, “We have a reciprocal obligation to defend the human rights of others, including of peoples severely impacted by US foreign policy.” (AFSC p. 3).
For the Just Us advocates, none of these reasons is compelling. They believe that political diversity requires the GLBT movement to remain narrow and exclusively focused on issues of sexual freedom, a movement for JUST US. They do not want to see what they characterize as “non-gay” issues diluting and distracting from the gay agenda.
- Their principal argument is that the reason the GLBT movement came into being was to fight for nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and perhaps gender identity (although some conservativs do not agree that gender belongs on the GLBT agenda). They construct the “we” of GLBT politics quite narrowly – sexual minorities. All other human differences and forms of inequality should be set aside, we should be and remain a single-issue movement. Just-US advocates acknowledge that there are other forms of inequality, thjey just see those as the business of other social movements not this one. Anyone not willing to prioritize sexuality as their primary issue is defined out of the movement – they belong elsewhere. But as some have pointed out, the notion that the movement ought to focus on “gay rights” leaves one critical question unaddressed: what are those rights and who decides what is appropriately gay or not? As the black gay writer Keith Boykin notes, “Many gays and lesbians still have to face issues of race, class, and gender. Should we seek a different organization for each type of prejudice we experience?” (Planet Out commentary by Boykin, 3. 6.03).
- Just-Us proponents argue that working on “other” issues will dilute the power and impact of our movement by draining much needed resources. Their fears are historically based: to this point, few non-gay allies or organizations have championed gay rights; we’ve had to do it ourselves.
- They also worry that our engagement in “other” human rights fights will further alienate the support and focus we are building for GLBT rights. So one writer argued “….What should a gay rights group not do? … Go out on a limb on a non gay topic, alienate large numbers of people you need to persuade, divide the population unnecessarily and devote energy and resources to a subject far, far away from the issue of gay equality.” (Advocate 2.18.03). OF course, whether one thinks that we are “needlessly alienating” people or building new coalitions depends on which populations each side believes it is trying to win over or attract.
- Just-Us proponents often oppose broadening the GLBT agenda to include welfare reform, national health care, expansion of Medicaid or other social policy issues because they claim these are leftist agendas that do not accurately represent the views of the majority of the GLBT community. They suggest that the movement is being “hijacked” by a left wing minority, often female. So one commentator argued a year ago that “It’s time most gay men and lesbians woke up to the radical irrelevance a few gay groups now epitomize. They represent very few of us.” (Advocate, 2/18/03).In fact, the author is really talking about himself. Those who argue that the left or liberal spectrum is unrepresentative of the gay majority are flatly wrong. The data that we have about GLBT opinion, voting behavior and specifically about GLBT opinion on this war disproves these claims. For one, the pro-war position did not represent the majority of the GLBT community according to the limited polling data we have. A Harris Interactive poll completed just before the war broke out revealed a substantial difference between the views of GLBT Americans on the Administration and on the war. It showed that 2/3 of GLBT Americans lack confidence in the Bush Administration “to make the right decisions” regarding the use or non-use of military force to strike Iraq (compared to 60% of heterosexual adults who are somewhat or very confident in the Administration’s policies. In this survey of 2271 adults, 6% of whom self-identified as GLBT. 56% of GLBT people surveyed said they oppose the Iraq invasion, absent proof from weapons inspectors and without UN approval. This compared with 35% of nongay respondents. (In Newsweekly, 3.26.2003; Data Lounge, 3.14.03).For another, data available from exit polls and other samples in which GLBT people have been asked about their policy positions reveal that over the 15 years for which data are available, GLBT voters consistently and overwhelmingly vote for the more liberal or progressive candidate. In addition, the late political scientist Bob Bailey often made the point that not only was the GLBT electorate a staunchly liberal and Democratic base, but that it consistently very liberal to progressive majority on issues like school bonds, transportation and other “non-gay issues”. (See generally Bob Bailey, Gay Politics, Urban Politics; and his reports for NGLTF Policy Institute). Even the 25-33% of the vote that (depending on the election) votes Republican itself is a mixed bag – containing many social liberals and economic conservatives. This is itself a swing vote and swings away from conservative candidates when the party grows too reactionary (as it did in the 1992 Republican convention).
The point here is that ideology does indeed matter but it is not in fact conservative ideology that matters to most GLBT people. At the state an dlocal level, the GLBT movement is defiantly liberal – it is politically quite independent and willing to vote democrat or republican according to its interests, it supports progressive social welfare policies, and it often makes deep and effective alliances with other communities to achieve gay rights.
Gender, Race, Class and Sexuality
While a pitched verbal battle has been going on between gay conservatives and gay progressives on how broad the gay agenda should be, the argument is largely rhetorical. The truth is that GLBT organizations have not been involved in efforts to address economic and social inequalities in society at large. Nor has the GLBT movement done a great job to address racial and class disparities inside our own community based institutions.
The one area in which we have been successful has been in the creation of a co-gender or rather multi-gender movement. Unlike government, which still has a paucity of women leaders, the GLBT movement is rich in lesbian and transgender women’s leadership. Women lead many different kinds of institutions and all GLBT organizations are co-gender in their boards, staffs, and memberships. But of course sexism still exists, and some have even criticized this incredible accomplishment as bad, arguing that it has “feminized” gay politics and “Emasculated” gay men. These ridiculous assertions are a cry for therapy. The fact that men, women and transgender people work side by side and well together, share power and trust each other is a huge feminist victory and one that should be examined by scholars.
Yet our efforts on race and class have been less successful. Every race, ethnicity, religion, gender variance, sexual minority, class strata, type of ability and disability is contained within the umbrella term “GLBT”. The movement’s response has been “unity and diversity” or “diversity is our strength.” But these platitudes mask the abject failure of most GLBT institutions to meaningfully represent the interests and concerns of GLBT people who are poor, of color, feminist, transgender, to name just a few major differences.
As in the wider society, even to point out the race, gender and class differences with the community invites attacks from conservatives that one is being divisive. These attacks would be easily disregarded if they did not reflect a recurring sentiment, a feeling of being wronged and excluded whenever race based analysis is raised. What I am talking about is something I am sure we all have experienced — the defensiveness that critiques of race, gender and class produce. The creation of multi-racial coalitions requires leaders able to handle racial wounded-ness (on all sides of racial divides) and to provide some vision to address horizontal inequalities. But it needs to be said that horizontal inequalities within the GLBT community are real: class is the biggest of these, and race and ethnicity also produce unique dynamics of discrimination. The class divide is evident in the different between those who attend the fancy black tie dinners that raise political monies for our national organizations, and those who use the services provided by our social service agencies. You see the former represented in the media and on the L word; but you will not even see the latter referenced in a footnote to a report on poverty. The GLBT poor are invisible. So is the GLBT working class.
On issues of racial justice, the visibility of gay people of color at the national level is low, but hundreds of local organizations exist to network this community. Yet the problems of racial bias in our movement remains and is evident in facts like:
• With some notable exceptions, to this day many major GLBT organizations have weak racial diversity on staffs and boards;
• do not have programs that in any way try to identify and meet the needs of communities of color,
• do not take stands on issues of racial justice (like affirmative action policies, or immigration policies).
• Only a handful of GLBT organizations have done any research to try to identity the needs and concerns of non-dominant populations within these communities.
• We do not support autonomous POC organizing – POC groups are not well funded by many major donors of our main communities, are dependent on government funding which leaves many of our groups politically less outspoken and less in the leadership than they want or ought to be.
How can these issues be more directly addressed? In several ways. The invisibility of GLBT poor people needs to be addressed through increased data gathering and targeted research. Whether it is the census or your social science research project, we need studies that ask GLBT questions. Examples of recent studies that attempt to address this gap in information come out of the NGLTF Policy Institute – they are a report on welfare reform and how it affects LGBT people, a report from a national survey of participants in 9 black GLBT prides celebrations, and a report from a national survey of Latino Gay men in three major cities. These studies are available from the www.ngltf.org web site. Much more work needs to be done.
Our communities’ can and must also speak up and weigh in on poverty, tax and fiscal policy issues. Our social service organizations – youth groups, housing programs, health clinics, immigrant groups, community centers – have told us that GLBT communities harbor many people in urgent financial need. The statistics are dramatic: AIDS reveals that many people in our communities are low income or poor. In New York City alone, 68% of people with HIV and AIDS get their health care from Medicaid (a welfare program), and a majority of these are gay men. GLBT Seniors struggle to survive on fixed incomes, public subsidies for transportation, Medicare and other basic public assistance – without the benefit of deep family support networks, and with an under-developed community support system. This social safety net is funded by the very taxes that ideologues on the right seek to shred.
Another barrier to the full integration of issues of race, class and gender into our movement is that the LGBT movement operates from a framework of “diversity” rather than from a framework of “intersectionality”. Diversity politics is marked by a focus on representation and inclusion. The problem is that such a politics often focuses on form – linguistic inclusion, numbers of staff, board, people in organizations, structures and symbolic statements of inclusion. It does not get to the deeper levels of policy or program or commitment of the staff’s time on issues of racial and economic justice. It rarely gets us to how “adding” race and gender and class to the mix actually changes the agenda, goals, strategies or operations of a movement. Intersectionality as a framework incorporates the best of diversity politics while immediately suggesting that something beyond inclusion will be required if we believe that race, class, gender and other human difference operate in ways that are intertwined. The challenge of intersectionality is how to develop a useful practice.
Another set of problems around race, class and sexuality is that the social movements organized around race and economic justice have not, until very recently incorporated GLBT people into its field of vision. This is a matter of not merely including the terms in a list of identities but engaging in the research and assessment of policy options to determine how GLBT people of color, GLBT poor people are being affected. The best example of this avoidance is in the continuing failure of the mainstream of many communities of color to acknowledge and deal with homosexuality within communities of color.
These two broad arguments – are we part of a justice movement; to what extent is racism or poverty our issue –are huge fights within the GLBT community both overtly and covertly. They are the obstacles that progressive activists face every day.
So what does Race, class and war have to do with sexuality?
As this talk suggests, the answer will depend on who is asked this question. For conservatives and many moderates, the broader context does not have a hell of a lot to do with a movement for nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation. For progressives, the link is much more integral.
Progressive politics is for many of us a politics of intersection that seeks structural change. It is a politics that believes that institutional racism and sexism are connected to institutional homophobia and to structural economic inequality. And it is optimistic in believing that through democratic participation and debate, institutions which reproduce inequality can be transformed.
Progressives are people who believe, as Amartya Sen argued that freedom enables development and that freedom must be defined as the ability not just to participate politically, but to be able to participate economically. The unfettered market produces violence and inequality that in turn produces tremendous pain for large numbers of people. Progressives believe that prosperity in a society should be shared through mechanisms like free education for all, universal health care, compassionate and focused strategies to assist working people to raise up their standard of living. We believe that hunger and homelessness do not need to exist in a world in which technological advances can allow us to feed and shelter all the people. We believe that an environment ought not to be abused in the interests of short-term bottom lines – and that a focus on sustainable development is both possible and profitable in the long run.
Progressives believe in pluralism — the notion that there are many voices and views in civil society and that these can coexist and flourish, the hallmark of democratic government is that it allows dissent to flourish with the least of regulation. Progressives are people who believe in justice for all under one standard of law. We believe that human rights are vital, essential and that they include racial justice, women’s reproductive freedom, sexual freedom, along with the basic rights to food, clothing, shelter and other aspects of life articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Most of all, progressives believe as Dr. King once wrote, “Peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of Justice. “ Addressing the inequalities that keep millions in the world in poverty and living shamefully impoverished lives is another way to winning security and safety for our nation. The UN Development report for 2002 noted that approximately $40 billion dollars a year could deliver adequate food, water, electricity, and an above-poverty standard of life to the world’s poor. That figure represents a 10% reduction in the annual US defense budget alone.
As Allen Ginsberg wrote “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” Let’s do just that and remake the world.