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LGBT Activists Look Beyond Marriage To A Bigger Gay Agenda


Advocacy group GetEqual protests the Human Rights Campaign's honoring of Goldman-Sachs with a Corporate Achievement Award.

CREDIT: Flickr/NoHoDamon

“Community, NOT commodity!” chanted an “OccuPride” contingent that interrupted—then joined—San Francisco’s Pride march this summer.

Along with similar groups in Chicago and New York, the San Francisco group carried signs denouncing corporate sponsorship of Pride parades and events. Even as parade marshals shooed them away from the float of Pride sponsor and health-care corporation Kaiser Permanente, San Francisco protesters shouted out condemnations of the HMO’s refusal to cover transgender health care.

The small groups of protesters were the noisiest aspects of an undercurrent in the LGBT movement, one that has always looked beyond same-sex marriage or even antidiscrimination laws. Instead, activists are focused on a broader program that strikes at all societal injustice, from economic marginalization to the predatory prison system—all with an understanding that LGBT people are disproportionately affected by these injustices.

At this End of (LGBT) History moment, with the president himself signing on to support same-sex marriage, there is a rumbling of dissatisfaction with both the movement’s present and its apparent future. At the heart of this dissatisfaction are two burning questions: Are same-sex marriage and employment protections enough? What do we do if they are not?

Inclusion or Transformation?

A divide within the LGBT movement is nothing new, Professor Sarah Schulman told Campus Progress. “There's always been a question of whether the society's going to change us, or whether we're going to change them. This is as old as the movement.”

Schulman’s most recent book, Gentrification of the Mind, addresses what she says is a final separation of those eager to gain access to exclusive societal institutions from the needs of a disadvantaged LGBT population hungering for liberty and autonomy. The former’s utopia would look much the same as our current world: simply add a smattering of gender and sexual minorities at most levels of society.

For people inculcated in the language of neoliberalism, the alternative is hard to fathom. What could be more progressive than simple inclusion, which already riles the right wing? But, as Schulman implies, the LGBT movement has historically fought for much more than simple nondiscrimination; it’s fought for a world better for everyone in it.

“I continue to think that it’s very important that we talk about the issues with the faces of the people who are most impacted by the injustices at the fore,” said Aisha Moodie-Mills, an analyst with the Center for American Progress, our parent organization. “Because what we’ve done, for better or for worse, is we’ve created a movement that has an upwardly-facing,very anglo-ized, male, middle-class or upper-middle-class public face. The challenge for that is that it’s hard to build solidarity when you’re talking about injustices and tragedy, and you’re doing so with a silver spoon in your mouth.”

Moodie-Mills founded the Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality initiative and co-authored a report on the particular needs of black LGBT people called “Jumping Beyond the Broom.” Her report found that, beyond marriage inequality, black LGBT people face unfair punishment in schools (and resulting high levels of juvenile incarceration), massive health disparities, police harassment, dangerous jail conditions, domestic violence, housing discrimination, and high levels of HIV/AIDS.

Moodie-Mills said it is important for the LGBT movement to avoid falling to infighting, but she also recognized the necessity of calling out organizations blind to the needs of more marginalized members of their own community.

Tensions between mainstream LGBT organizations and more radical elements of the gay community have been running high this year, with notable gay heroes slamming what they say is a myopic agenda.

“One of the most important and central questions is whether or not we are a progressive movement and whether we care about other communities and other issues," veteran activist Cleve Jones said to the EDGE Boston earlier this year. Jones worked with Harvey Milk and founded the AIDS Quilt; he now commits his time to labor organizing and seeks to strengthen ties between labor movements and the LGBT community. "A movement that seeks to advance only its own members is going to accomplish little. I want to be in a movement that transforms the lives of millions of people."

Some activists have a more hopeful perspective. Center for American Progress LGBT Research and Communications Vice President Jeff Krehely told Campus Progress that there's a real concern about economic justice even among those who aren't members of marginalized populations. "We are already seeing a commitment to these other, non-marriage issues from some of the donors who are also bankrolling advocacy for marriage equality," Krehely said.

Still, Jones singled out the Human Rights Campaign for particular criticism, over its alliance with corporations on LGBT benefits, notably Occupy Wall Street bête noire Goldman-Sachs. For its part, Occupy Wall Street responded as one might expect: In front of an April gala to present Goldman with its Corporate Achievement Awards, activists gathered in protest.

“The HRC ostensibly stands for social justice and social equality, and they were honoring and recognizing this company that exists because of inequality—and that seeks to maintain inequality,” Brandon Cuicchi told Campus Progress. Cuicchi attended the protests, and credits Occupy Wall Street’s queer caucus with his new, broader outlook on LGBT issues.

Or maybe it would be better to think of it as a queer lens for broader politics, something that defies our predominant neoliberal ideology's demands that we fragment progressive causes, isolating “gay rights” from the other struggles of the world.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg touts his credentials as an LGBT advocate because he supports marriage equality, even though his proposed budget earlier this year would have slashed services for homeless youth, among whom queer youth are disproportionately represented. (After protests, the funding was restored.) The HRC awards Goldman-Sachs, though they may have had a role in the housing crisis (which, yes, affected gay people, too), as they offer trans-inclusive healthcare—never mind that, thanks to a lifetime of discrimination, few transgender people will ever work for the bank.

Cuicchi has come to understand that LGBT existence is just one element of a whole humanity, and cannot be separated from relationships of domination and subjugation by race, economic situation, and disability, though it presents unique challenges to those who experience it.

As Queers for Economic Justice co-director Amber Hollibaugh told The Nation: “If we can’t survive in our queer identities without being profoundly punished, then the price of the recession is that we’re killed on the streets; we’re not sheltering our children; we have no health insurance—that is what the price is in this kind of economy out of control, and that’s a queer issue.”

Those at the Center

No issue has galvanized the broader-tent radical activists—and underscored the differences between them and the gay institutions—more than the case of CeCe McDonald. McDonald is a young, black transgender woman from Minneapolis now serving two years on second-degree manslaughter charges after surviving a brutal, hate-motivated assault in which a white-supremacist assailant died.

To advocates like Jai Dulani, McDonald is the perfect example of why a broader agenda is necessary.

Dulani is the co-director of FIERCE, a New York organization run by and for queer youth of color. Most FIERCE organizers and clients have experienced homelessness; many find that their interactions with law enforcement and the justice system have similarities to those of McDonald. As a result, FIERCE focuses on building power and extending power to make the West Village safer for queer youth of color; the primary dangers in their territory are aggressive police and a neighborhood with aspirations of “upward mobility.” 

“We've consistently been fighting for the rights to organize people and for our values that say, owning property is not how we define community,” Dulani told Campus Progress. “We are stakeholders in this community and when people talk about cleaning up the West Village, it's always code for pushing out and imprisoning our folks.”

Dulani describes a community under siege: Police abuse is rampant, with young people selected for stop-and-frisk based on their gender presentation and race; access to medical care and safe places to sleep is limited; and the services that do exist are dehumanizing and dangerous.

“The fact that people are targeted with violence and when they defend themselves they are arrested and sent to prison, it just completely reinforces this idea that queer people of color are so dehumanized and that the systems in place are not really set up to protect us,” Dulani said.

The CeCe McDonald case did not initially capture the attention of mainstream LGBT rights organizations, including the Human Rights Campaign. HRC Communications Director Michael Cole-Schwartz said hadn’t heard of the case, though he assured this reporter that he would look into it. That a case involving a poor, trans woman of color had slipped the notice of some larger organizations doesn’t surprise grassroots activists, who often view such larger groups as deaf to the needs of criminalized communities.

“The most well-funded gay and lesbian rights organizations, the ones most visible in corporate media, sometimes add little tiny pieces of programming or lip service about racial and economic justice at the edges, but the center of their work is aligned with state interests that maintain militarism, capitalism, policing, and criminalization,” law Professor Dean Spade told Campus Progress.

Spade is the founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a collective that offers legal help for transgender people and mobilizes on a variety of issues relevant for trans people who are economically or racially disadvantaged.

"When various movements turn their resistance primarily to winning 'legal equality,' they tend to win wins that don't provide actual relief for the worst conditions on the ground, and instead the legal window dressing for those violent conditions just changes,” Spade added.

From here to where?

The real concern of advocates is that certain battles, like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and marriage equality, will be won, victory will be declared, and no further progress will be made. Two men may be able to get married, but if they’re black, they may still be subjected to police harassment and violence while two married women might face heightened economic hardship. Urvashi Vaid, writing for the American Prospect, called this possible future “a partial, conditional simulacrum called equal rights.”

Vaid laid out an alternative mantra, one that aligns well with that of Spade, Dulani, Moodie-Mills, Hollibaugh, Jones, and those rowdy Occupiers: “No Queer Left Behind,” whether on the basis of racism, economic predation, homelessness, or sickness. And for these advocates, not being left behind means more than legal equality—it means full and complete humanization.

To many of them, there are also questions about the form matching the function. Dulani is skeptical about a top-down, lobbying approach like that used of most mainstream gay organizations.

“There's an over-reliance and assumption that focusing on these policy changes or these legal changes are the primary strategy when historically it's grassroots organizing and demands from people power that have actually changed and shifted the landscape of equality in the country,” Dulani said.

That grassroots organizing and those demands—often held up in a revolt against intolerable conditions—come from the margins.

“The people who fought the cops at Stonewall—queer and trans people of color, poor people, criminalized people—took a huge risk rising up together and propelled queer politics to a new place,” Spade said. “And yet they were excised from who's understood as the subject of the movement as a white-centered, professional gay and lesbian rights politics emerged.”

If gay politics loses the most marginalized, in other words, not only will it fail to achieve real change for all LGBT people—it may also stagnate. With big wins on marriage equality seeming inevitable, some activists see the movement at a crossroads: Will it serve a limited agenda, or that of liberty and justice for all?


Correction: This article incorrectly named Jai Dulani's title; he is co-director of FIERCE. We regret the error.

Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.

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