Coalitions and hypocrisy

Another rewrite from the original blog. First publication date 10/24/2007.

As regular readers know, I’m not at all interested in matrimony of any flavor, because of my quirky radical feminist conviction that marriage is one of the major institutions of the oppression of women. So when this line jumped out at me,

In short, many people today don’t yet get how “marriage defense” is discriminatory to gay people. They don’t get how the denial of rights, benefits, and protections to a group of people is bigotry.

of course my first thought was, “What I think many gay rights advocates don’t get is that were same-sex marriage to be achieved, it would still deny ‘rights, benefits and protections’ to a group of people–single people, don’t you know.”

I remember bringing that up with a proponent of same-sex marriage, a friend of mine whom I would call “liberal gay.” I mentioned the political reforms suggested by Betsy Brown in her fantastic article, “A Radical Dyke Experiment For the Next Century: Five Things to Work For Instead of Same-Sex Marriage,” and my friend dismissed me with, “Oh, that’ll take too long.” Which I imagine is what many mainstream gay rights proponents would say to any critique of their single-minded focus on achieving marriage rights–that trying to secure for everyone the rights and privileges that heterosexual married people now enjoy would be too cumbersome and time-consuming. Society isn’t ready for it. We’re willing to accept that same-sex marriage will only expand special rights to one segment of our constituency–it’s still worth the expenditure of a big chunk of our not-inconsequential yearly budgets. Or so I imagine they would say.

Now I’m reading that “LGBT organizations from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network are demanding that either a trans-inclusive ENDA be put forward or none at all.” ENDA, for those of you who came in late, is the Employment Non-Discrimination Act which would provide “groundbreaking workplace protections for millions of Americans.” This is not worth supporting because it doesn’t include gender identity protections–but same-sex marriage IS worth supporting even though it leaves single people–including many unpartnered gay men, lesbians, and transpeople–out in the cold? What is the logic here?

This made me think of something Roseanne Barr said backalong about lesbians and gays:

Never once in my 54 years have I ever once heard a gay or lesbian person who’s politically active say one thing about anything that was not about them. They don’t care about minimum wage, they don’t care about any other group other than their own self because you know, some people say being gay and lesbian is a totally narcissistic thing and sometimes I wonder.
I’ve never heard any of them say anything except for “accept me ?? cause I’m gay.” It’s just, it’s screwed. It’s no different than the evangelicals, it’s the same mindset. They want you to accept Jesus and you guys want us to all believe it’s ok to be gay. And a lot of us, a lot of them, I do, I don’t give a damn who anybody has sex with, as long as they’re not underage and an animal. I don’t give a damn, it’s none of my damn business. I’m just sick of all the divisiveness, it’s not getting any of us anywhere.

In the original version of this post I called this analysis “cringeworthy” and “a spectacular demonstration of boneheadedness.” And I still think her analogy is bad and severely lacking in nuance, especially because I know tons of lesbians, myself included, who are politically active in all kinds of causes–in fact, I know many more lesbians (and straight women) who are active in causes that are not “about us” than I do lesbians who are active in the mainstream gay rights movement. (That’s probably some indication of who I hang out with, but no less true.)

But given how events have unfolded in the almost 10 years since this post was written, what Roseanne said about divisiveness was actually quite prescient.

Because the agendas of gay rights organizations overwhelmingly represent the interests of male, white and/or wealthy people–in other words, the interests of those who would belong fully to the dominant class if not for their gayness. Lesbian-feminists including myself have long been critical of the mainstream gay rights movement for the ways in which it fails to account for the interests of lesbians. Just one example of this is a letter I read years ago in Bay Windows, the Boston-area gay newspaper, which expressed concern that the gay rights movement was being “watered down” by concerns about abortion rights. I can see why gay men would have no stake in the availability of abortion, but last time I checked, lesbians are women, and as such we are still vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy, even if at lower rates than our straight sisters.

And this critique doesn’t even begin to address lack of awareness on the part of the gay rights movement of the reproductive concerns of women for whom poverty, forced sterilization and the resources and right to care for their children are often more pressing than the availability of abortion.

So on the one hand, it is necessary that reform-minded civil rights organizations focus on the concerns that seem most directly relevant to their primary constituency. It’s also hardly unusual for an identity-based movement to focus on the rights that the most privileged people within it are lacking. Roseanne’s charge of “narcissism” could probably be leveled at almost any reform movement and have some truth to it. But on the other hand, it is also true that the mainstream gay rights movement has missed many opportunities to ally itself with other movements–for example, where are they when communities of color are being targeted by racist immigration laws? Isn’t immigration one of the reasons they give for why gay people need to be able to marry each other? Seems like a perfect issue to create alliances around–and I’ve heard nary a whisper of such a thing.* And now these same gay rights organizations are going to dump a bill that could provide workplace protection for gay and lesbian people because it doesn’t include “gender identity”? I can’t imagine what on earth that could be about.

Unless it’s this:

I have no insider information leading me to this conclusion, but, I think that gender identity was finally added to ENDA out of shame and fear. Neither the Congress nor the lead gay groups wanted to be seen as anti-trans, even though some of them clearly knew that adding trans was a death-blow to ENDA. So they did it anyway. Their calculus wasn’t about including a vital, core member of the gay community (otherwise trans would never get dropped). And their calculus wasn’t that we could win even with trans included (because in today’s America, that’s simply not true, and they know it). The calculus was one of fear and shame: I.e., If we don’t add trans to the bill, we’re going to get beaten up and labeled bigots.

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*Universal health care, another great example of a missed opportunity to form coalitions with other groups concerned about access and affordability.

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