Excerpt from Still Ain't Satisfied
An acquaintance baited me with a question at a dinner party not too long ago. “So, is the movement over?” she asked loudly, displaying in her tone her contempt for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement.
I was surprised at the hostility behind the question. We were at a good friend’s house, and my interrogator was someone from whom I had not expected that derision. Because I was not interested in embarrassing my hostesses, I demurred, “Gosh, what do you mean over? Not in my mind.”
“You know, now that we have won marriage,” she taunted, “it’s over, done, right?”
We were dining in Massachusetts so she was marginally correct about marriage. But it was a hostile question, posed by an African American lesbian whose civil rights credentials are unimpeachable and who, while not an active participant in the LGBT movement, had long been an ally. It was a revealing moment.
I smiled and said, it was far from over as she well knew and no one around the dinner table was going to stop working till we won it all and that meant racial, economic, social and gender justice. Ultimately, her girlfriend told her to stop being so rude and the conversation moved on.
But as we moved on, I had to admit that while my answer was true to the views of my dining mates that particular night in Provincetown, the question of “when is it over” would be answered very differently at other queer dining tables. LGBT people differ in their views about the society they are fighting to achieve, about the forces arrayed against the full acceptance of LGBT people, and, therefore, about when the movement will in fact be successful.
Equality as a goal is not enough?In a book written 15 years ago,(1) I argued that if the LGBT 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 LGBT people, but that would not ultimately transform the institutions of society that repress, denigrate and immobilize sexual and gender minorities. I still believe that diagnosis.
The formal, largely legal, and very liberal forms of equality that the LGBT movement has pursued over these past 15 years has become far less substantive than the demands the movement made in the 1970’s or even the 1980’s. From a demand that LGBT people be able to live a public life in a world in which queer sexualities were not only tolerated but celebrated, the LGBT movement now seeks the much narrower right to live an undisturbed private life. From an exploration of LGBT difference, the movement has turned into a cheerleading squad for LGBT sameness. And from an LGBT movement that was deeply engaged in the big arguments and fights of its day, the movement has become an island onto itself. In my lifetime, LGBT organizations have moved away from actively working for reproductive justice, both lesbians and progressive gay men fought for these rights throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s; challenging racism, which was a central plank at its first national March on Washington in 1979; working for economic justice reflected in the pro-union coalition building done by Harvey Milk and activists in the late 1970’s to the Coors beer boycott and the queer presence with the United Farm Workers. No longer would we find at a major anti-war rally the huge queer presence that was there at the 1981 demonstration against the war in El Salvador, or the 1982 anti-nuclear demonstration, or the women’s Pentagon Action. No longer is there are many openly LGBT organizational voices in the demands for a new urban policy, for housing access, health care reform rather, today’s mainstream LGBT movement is strangely silent on the broader social justice questions challenges facing the world, oddly complacent in its acceptance of race, gender and economic inequalities, and vocal only in its challenge to the conditions facing the status queer.
This impoverishment of ambition and idealism in the movement is a strategic error. It misunderstands the challenge queer people pose to the status quo. It shamefully avoids the responsibility that a queer movement must take to advocate for all segments of LGBT communities. And it is deluded in its belief that legal, and deeply symbolic, acts of recognition, like admission into traditional institutions like marriage, or grants of formal equal rights within the current form of capitalism are actually acts of transformation that will end the rejection and marginalization of LGBT people. Without a deeper and more substantive definition of equality, without a deeper and more honest appraisal of the limits of the traditions to which LGBT people seek admission, without a willingness to risk gains made for the opportunity to create a world that truly affirms the intrinsic moral and human worth of sexual and gender variance, the LGBT politics currently pursued will yield only a conditional and marginal simulation of freedom, one which will always be contingent upon “good behavior”.
What has been achieved??There is a heady optimism in the US, borne out of the recent successes of the LGBT movement, and its remarkable ability to turn even defeat to rededication and advancement. This optimism is grounded in real change. Five gains fuel this optimism:
First, policy wins for LGBT equal rights in the US have been dramatic and significant in the past year. (DADT was repealed, several state and local ordinances enacted, defended and pursued, advances made in court cases on marriage, the reversal of the Justice Department’s plans to defend DOMA- are all great examples of progress).
Second, public opinion continues to shift in favor of LGBT human rights. Support for same-sex marriage has become the marker most identified with shifts in opinion, and it has moved much farther in support. A national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted 2/22/11 3/1/11 among 1,504 adults, found about as many adults now favor (45%) as oppose (46%) allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. It found that opposition to same-sex marriage has declined by 19 percentage points since 1996, when 65% opposed gay marriage and only 27% were in favor. There continues to be a wide partisan division on the question of same-sex marriage. Currently 57% of Democrats favor making it legal, while only 23% of Republicans agree. (2)
Similarly, “a March 2011 telephone-survey of 1005 adults by ABC News and the Washington Post found
. 53 percent of those polled supported same-sex marriage while 44 percent remained opposed; support was highest among younger Americans and lower among conservatives, Republicans, and evangelicals
.From a low of 32 percent in a 2004 survey of registered voters
Third, significant actions have been taken by governments around the world in greater support for LGBT human rights and to call for an end to criminal laws and penalties for sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). In 2006, Norway introduced a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that was supported by 54 states; in 2008, a joint statement initiated by Brazil and introduced by Argentina was signed by 66 states at the UN General Assembly; and in March 2011, “Colombia delivered a Joint Statement during General Debate (Agenda Item 8 Follow-up and implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action) [at the Human Rights Council] that called on States to end violence, criminal sanctions and related human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and urged the Council to address these important human rights issues. The statement was delivered on behalf of a broad grouping of 85 States from all regions of the world.” (4) Shifts made by US State Department under the Obama Administration have been especially noteworthy and helpful from work around world through embassies to support LGBT activists, to UN advocacy, to pressure on countries to not enact or do repressive policies, to USAID and State Department shifts in funding all big changes. LGBT human rights have gained in specific countries, even as there are significant challenges and set backs in others.
Fourth, there has been a shift in the religious based opposition to LGBT human rights reflected in the widening support for LGBT equality from all parts of the religious and ideological spectrum (Episcopal church, denominational fights everywhere, Catholic support for LGBT same sex marriage is surprising and high in a number of recent polls in the US; greater organizing and visibility by pro-LGBT faith leaders). Even the Holy See and deeply anti-gay religious leaders have publicly come out against violence based on SOGI.
Finally, demographic changes seem to be in favor of greater acceptance. Younger people are on the rise as a population in the US and globally and their attitudes towards LGBT issues are more open. Recent data on Latino attitudes suggests that LGBT advocates might also benefit from more tolerance from these communities than had previously been expected. Data on shifts in Catholic public opinion are even more dramatic, revealing that large majorities support equal marriage rights for LGBT people. However, some data have shown that attitudes of young African Americans are not as positive towards LGBT people as the attitudes of their white or Latino counterparts.(5)
The LGBT movement has made HUGE strides and will continue to make progress toward formal legal equality. This progress is an amazing story and one in which I take great ownership and prideI have dedicated 30 years, so far, to its achievement. Nothing in this argument should be heard as deriding or minimizing the importance of formal legal equality it is a necessary first step, but it is not enough. Winning these battles for equal rights is not the same as winning the new world which once was and should again be the LGBT movement’s objective.
The Trouble with Equal?The word equality has many expressions in the movement some groups work for “immigration equality,” “Marriage equality”, “workplace equality”, others fight for equal access to social services and public systems or equal treatment and equal protection under the law. The names of many organizations have the word equality in them “Out and Equal”, Equality Florida, Equality California, Mass Equality, Americans For Equal Rights (AFER) and the ubiquitous logo of the largest LGBT political organization has queered the equal sign itself.
But what is the content of this often-used word? For the LGBT movement today, equality means the formal recognition of LGBT people in all legal codes, equal access to all institutions and systems in society, and equal protection under one standard of law. Formal legal equality is represented in the goals of nondiscrimination and integration of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression into all frameworks of law, policy and public institutions.
The LGBT movement pursues a strategy tested and proved by other civil rights movements (especially the black civil rights movement and the women’s movement) of arguing for equal protection under state and federal Constitutions, promoting inclusion in all legislative frameworks of LGBT people, and seeking an end to forms of public and private discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
In recent years, some LGBT advocates have added a new dimension to the legal conceptualization of equality rights. To address the fact that LGBT oppression lies deeper than legal resistance alone, and expresses itself as a condemnation of queerness as immoral or sinful, the term moral equality was coined. It created a goal-oriented framework for the culture-shifting work that must be done within and beyond faith based institutions, and through media, popular culture, art and educational strategies. Moral equality contests the denigration of homosexuality and gender variance as sinful, immoral and unnatural. Its impact can be documented in the changes in denominational policies towards LGBT people a direct result of the organizing done by pro LGBT people working inside Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reform and Conservative Judaism, and even Catholic churches. But the continuing challenge of achieving moral equality can also 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 In 2008, 56% answered that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are always wrong.(6)
But as social movements that have come before the LGBT struggle have clearly shown, formal equality and even progress towards greater cultural recognition of one’s humanity can be achieved while leaving larger structural manifestations of inequality and deep cultural prejudice intact. Thus, after the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts, A. Phillip Randolph observed that the black civil rights movement suffered from the “curse of victory” where equal rights had been achieved but “blacks still were not equal in fact.” (7) The civil rights movement was split on the way forward with Dr. King proposing a focus on economic rights and Bayard Rustin pursuing a focus on building a progressive electoral coalition of which the black vote would be an anchor. But the civil rights movement’s leadership acknowledged then what is painfully evident today that formal equal rights were a crucial first step, from which the struggle for black empowerment, freedom and respect had to enter another stage. The achievement of civil rights made the gap between formal and substantive equality even more clear.
Similarly, the women’s movement by the late 1980’s had achieved many of the formal legal gains it sought, despite the failure of the passage of the federal Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). These achievements changed opportunities for women and over time they changed many cultural attitudes. However, thirty plus years later, formal equality for women has not ended the glas ceiling for women in top jobs, not produced equal pay for equal work (men still earn $1.22 to every dollar a woman earns), did not transform women’s role in families, nor has it brought an end violence against women by producing a new consciousness of respect for women among men.
Equal rights and equal protection are claims for access to the protection afforded by law and governmental regulations. But they can be granted without disturbing any of the hierarchies, institutions and traditions that perpetuate the idea that LGBT difference is unnatural, wrong or harmful to society. The current LGBT mainstream, in effect, asks no more than the right to be equal to the average straight person trapped within a structurally unfair, racist and heterosexist system.
At a minimum the first lesson of the limits of equality politics for queer activists to heed is that winning equality ought not be seen as the end-point of any struggle for liberty. Equality as it is pursued by the LGBT movement within the constitutional framework of civil and political rights is essential. It will win LGBT people the right to fight back against invidious discrimination. It has and will win LGBT the right to be regarded as people entitled to equal opportunity, fair treatment, and access to all parts of our society. But these forms of access and opportunity will not on their own upend the hierarchies of privilege, prejudice and power that condemn LGBT people because we are gender non-compliant. That requires a more disturbing goal, one that challenges the traditions to which we so desperately seek admission.
There is an uneasy relationship between most social justice movements and notions of tradition be they embodied in traditional culture, traditional family, sacred tradition, or inherited teaching that is accepted as the natural order of things. We stand against traditions, yet we stand inside of them. We argue for new worlds, radical new possibilities even as we pursue accommodation and renovation of the status quo to make ourselves more comfortable. Constitutional notions of equality embody an acceptance of tradition here defined as transmission of order, of the way things should be, and its acceptance by the person to whom that order is transmitted that will not protect LGBT people in the long run, but will in the short run.
A more substantive view of equality would re-introduce into LGBT politics a set of aspirations that have dropped off the LGBT agenda. And this brings me to a second concern about the kind of equality politics the LGBT movement pursues. It is a politics that has been emptied of the redistributive aspirations it once advocated. Equality as it is currently articulated in the LGBT movement represents a politics of compliance with liberalism/capitalism rather than a critique of the exclusions these systems perpetuate. The queer historian Lisa Duggan in her excellent book The Twilight of Equality notes, that “the false promise of the “equality” on offer through liberal reform [is that of an] equality disarticulated from material life and class politics. (8) Duggan suggests that the LGBT movement has settled for pursuing “a model of a narrowly constrained public life cordoned off from the private control and vast inequalities of economic life.” (9)
The fact that equal rights and profound inequality in resource distribution, material opportunities and life chances exist for LGBT people is evident in the growing amount of data that show the great economic range of experiences to be found within LGBT communities. These data show that as civil rights (like nondiscrimination protections) are achieved, they do not impact the economic or political context in which LGBT people. This is an era in which there are wide and growing gaps in income, a growing lack of access to health insurance and life-supporting social service systems, and these contexts affect the ability of LGBT to assert our newly enacted rights, to engage in political mobilization and have true opportunity to experience the “freedom” that has been won.