“I am not a member of any LGBT movement that narrows its focus away from ending sexism, racism, and economic injustice.”
A version of the prepared remarks below was given at the Annual Award Dinner of SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) in New York City on October 25, 2010. The Ken Dawson Advocacy Award was presented to me by Virginia Apuzzo.
Thank you. I was 21 years old when I first heard Ginny Apuzzo speak. It was 1979, and it probably was in Boston. From the minute I heard her speak, I was smitten. Women did not claim their political power, their space in the mainstream world as out lesbians, their intellect or their humor as boldly as Ginny did (and still does). She said things persuasively and with eloquence, she was tough and strong, and yet completely warm and accessible. Over the past three decades, I have learned so much from you, Ginny; it is a real honor to have you here to make this presentation. Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you also to SAGE’s Board, and to Michael Adams and the staff, for this generous recognition. I am thrilled to be here with Edie Windsor, who is amazing and inspiring. And I am deeply touched to receive an award named after Ken Dawson, another early leader in the LGBT movement who I was lucky enough to work with and to learn from. Ken was a kind and gentle man. I don’t think I ever saw him raise his voice or be really snarky about someone, which in the movement context in New York in the 1980’s was quite remarkable!
I’m also delighted to receive a SAGE award one year after my partner in life of 23 years, Kate Clinton, got one! There was definitely something good I did in my previous life that led me to meet Kate in this one – and yes, she is as wonderful at home, as she is as a writer and a comic. Thank you, Kate, for your love and constant creative inspiration. Any recognition I receive in key measure belongs to you as well.
I also want to recognize and thank my sister, Rachna Vaid for being here. She is here with my niece Kaveri Vaid and nephew Shantanu Vaid and their respective partners Isaac Leamer and Leah Weisberg. And I want to thank my beloved friends Susan Allee and Karen Krahulik. I have been blessed with the support of my queer family and family of origin throughout my life and I’m glad so many of you are here tonight.
People in this room, and indeed our entire LGBT liberation and women’s liberation movement, once prioritized and fought fiercely to create the space for very different ideas of manhood and womanhood, of gender and sexuality. It was not just a fight to allow space for transgender people, although I believe that was and remains a critical part of our effort. Rather, our vision of gender and sexual liberation was to see it as a part of the democratic freedom to which we believed each person should have access.
We fought for freedom in the way that Walt Whitman wrote of it, the freedom to live whole lives, to treat each other as comrades, equals, friends. We “celebrated ourselves” and built institutions to affirm and value aspects of our gender and identities that were dehumanized, denied and shamed by the mainstream. We fought for choice – for self-determination and for independence from state and religious dictates about how we should live our lives. And we built a global social movement to counter the idea that we were abnormal and unnatural, criminal and sinful, unworthy of human rights and dignity, unable to make family or form commitment. We made HUGE progress. It is remarkable how far we have come.
Yet, along the way, we have made a number of compromises that warrant our consideration. We separated ourselves from feminism to the impoverishment of the LGBT liberation movement. The Patriarchy – a dated 1970’s word that remains relevant — remains strong and thriving: look at the condition of women and men. Women still earn 30% less than men in the US, are still under-represented at all political and economic tables of power; women in the US and around the world still experience enormous incidence of violence and brutality; and femaleness is still denigrated and hated in many parts of the world. And let us also be clear that the Patriarchy chains and contains men as ferociously as it does women. Men are shamed, humiliated and violated in a million degrading ways to conform to a shallow form of humanity known as traditional masculinity. Every culture enforces destructive ideas of manhood on men, wrapped up in notions of tradition and religion – from the Promise Keepers to the Taliban.
We have “progressed” from creating an LGBT politics centered on our own dreams and experiences of otherness in the 1970’s and 1980’s, to a politics that is all about our desire for sameness and our longing to belong in the 1990’s and the present decade.
The focus of our movement changed from making ourselves comfortable with the non-traditional notions of sexuality and gender, of power and equality, of justice and freedom that we embodied, to making 51% percent majorities comfortable with us. We began to try to fit in to the heterosexist world, instead of committing to expanding justice and freedom for all. We endorsed D’Amato and other anti-choice zealots. Instead of showing the straight world how we can help it heal itself from the damage of sexual abuse, lies, sexual shame, deadening and roles — we insist to that world that we are no different from it in any way, that no fundamental change will be required if we are allowed into existing structures of family, economy and governance.
The social service organizations in our communities provide a window into the truth that LGBT people are not all wealthy, nor all working in Fortune 500 corporations. Yet, we have gone from being a movement deeply concerned with the internal inequalities in our own communities, inequities that privilege some and prevent others from realizing full freedom, to being a movement that is almost entirely represented at the national level by people who argue that when “we” win marriage and military admission, when “we” win ENDA, “we” will have won.
Absent from our discourse is a consideration of how disparities around income and economic condition form new dividing lines between those who are able to experience the formal “rights” we have won and those who still live without any semblance of equality. What is the experience of homophobia of the LGBT person who has no health insurance, or who cannot choose their health care provider, or who cannot send their kids to private schools, or who cannot supplement their SSI with private dollars for the home health care aide?
We neglected to build relationships of depth and meaning with our allies in communities of color. We have under-resourced the parts of our communities that are people of color, indeed only 2 of the heads of more than forty national organizations are POC.
We’ve compromised so much that in the name of a gay and lesbian movement, we have groups inviting misogynists and racists like Anne Coulter to “pro-marriage” fundraisers, we have come so far that some of our own people in the name of LGBT rights target champions of human rights like Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi, while endorsing idiots like John McCain and Meg Whitman. We have come so far that we, who once fought against the unfair characterization of LGBT people as criminal and illegal, are part of a community in which some would abandon defending that same principle when it comes to immigrants.
As one of the people in this room who fought very, very, hard in a wide range of social movements to bring ideas of justice and equality, of human rights and human needs to this point, and as someone, like many of you, who intends to keep on fighting, I must tell you that these deviations from principle, these silences, these moments in which core values of justice are sacrificed for pragmatism or opportunism do not sit well with me.
I am not a member of any LGBT movement that narrows its focus away from ending sexism, racism, and economic injustice.
There is nothing inevitable nor unavoidable about a reactionary turn in politics – fascism often comes about quite legally and with the consent of majorities. I hope that the LGBT movement, with our friends and families, organizes firmly against the Right-wing in all of its forms. I hope that we organize from the perspective that we stand against traditions of all kinds, that we never forget that we have been outsiders to family, government and the economy and that the price of admission to the world should not be erasure of our experiences of exclusion, not be the erasure of our difference, much less the abandonment of our imagination and aspiration for a truly different social order.
As Walt Whitman wrote in the Calamus poems (34) in Leaves of Grass:
I dreamed in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks
Of the whole of the rest of the earth,
I dreamed that was the new City of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love – it led the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.
The success of the LGBT liberation movement lies in our never losing sight of our freedom to dream different solutions to the dilemmas facing our world.
It lies in our radical compassion, our robust love and the effective deployment of our power to build a new and more egalitarian City of Friends. Thank you.