Wednesday, June 18, 2008

About That "Gay Community"

In making my usual rounds at various marriage defense sites, I came across some links and citations to the arguments of marriage defender David Benkof. According to his website, Benkof is "openly bisexual" and opposes marriage equality. After perusing some of his archives, I found that I agree with him on some issues and appreciate his willingness to at least search for common ground on others.

That being said, there is much to take issue with in many of his arguments. Today I am going to critique one article of his that I've seen cited a few times in the marriage defense blogosphere. I take issue with it mostly because his arguments don't accurately reflect the "gay community" that many of us know and because it is illustrative of the larger purpose of his blog: "...getting the gay leadership to return to more pressing LGBT issues for our community." Such a statement is profoundly problematic on several levels, which I will explain below.

But first, he begins the article (titled "Protecting the most vulnerable LGBT people") by claiming that "many American communities - such as the Catholic community, the Jewish community, and the African-American community - put a lot of resources behind helping the worst-off people with those doesn't work that way in the LGBT community." Rather, the "gay community's" top priority is marriage, which comes at the expense of more important issues. Supporting this claim as to what "the gay community's" alleged top priority is, is a juxtaposition of the high rates of HIV/AIDS among gay men with a claim that the Human Rights Campaign's (HRC) website allegedly references "marriage" 5 times more than it mentions "AIDS."

His proposal to "fix" this "problem" is for "gay and lesbian organizations [to] cut their 'marriage budgets' in half, and spend the leftover money and staff time working on issues that affect LGBT people who are poor, sick, of color, immigrants, in prison, and otherwise in dire straits, thereby ignoring the irrelevant fact that such people are unlikely to ever be able to afford to go to $275-a-plate dinners at fancy hotels where people wear tuxedos and bid on lavish trips in silent auctions." Remember this in a couple of minutes.

Now, I certainly agree with Benkof that our community is affected by issues other than marriage equality. There is not exactly a shortage of injustices perpetuated on our community. But to say that we- gay people- are different from other minority groups because we don't help the "worst-off" among us is unbelievably inaccurate. Benkof issued a challenge stating that he would "love" to hear a defender of the "gay community's current priorities" take on his proposal. My intent here is not to play that game. Rather, as Mr. Benkof's arguments as to what the "gay community" and its alleged "leadership" is and currently is doing are inaccurate, I hope mostly to correct.

1. The LGBT Community is not Monolithic

First off, the LGBT "community" is far from monolithic as I'm sure this bisexual marriage defender knows very well. Much has been made of Benkof's alleged statuses as "bisexual" or "non-practicing homosexual" or "ex-gay." Yawn. I care less about what labels people use to describe themselves and more about what they're arguing and how they use their labels to advance different agendas. But yeah, we get it. Marriage defense blogs love to cite pretty much anyone claiming to be a member of the LGBT community who opposes same-sex marriage. I suppose they believe it gives their anti-gay arguments more "credibility"- sort of like how conservative groups love citing African-Americans who oppose affirmative-action. Snore. Don't tell me who or what you are, tell me what you believe and why.

See, what this diversity in our community means is that there is no uniformity of thought, priorities, or beliefs among gay people or "gay" organizations. If someone could point me to the one and only authoritative organization responsible for setting out the "gay community's current priorities" I would be happy to read it. Although, I can't make any promises about shifting my priorities accordingly. While Benkof cites HRC (calling it the "nation's biggest gay political organization"), I suppose I missed the memo explaining that HRC was the only "gay" organization that mattered or was doing work for the "gay community." I suppose I also missed the gay election where we voted HRC into a position of "gay leadership."

In reality, LGBT organizations are quite numerous, have varying missions, and have different priorities from each other. Sometimes, they even disagree with one another.

2. What is the "Gay Community" Doing?

When Benkof claims that the website of the Human Rights Campaign discusses "marriage" five times more than it mentions "AIDS" and concludes from that statistic that the "the epidemic has been de-emphasized by the gay community," or when he claims that "gay leaders" are too busy worrying about marriage than they are about other "more important issues," let's all take a step back and remember that LGBT organizations other than the Human Rights Campaign exist.

A quick internet search of one's own, in fact, allows one to rattle off a list of many quite prominent LGBT organizations that are dedicated to improving the health and wellness of the LGBT community specifically. While the budget of HRC hovers around $24 million per year, the budgets of most of these other organizations are comparable, if not larger, than that. Combined, these gay organizations are dedicating much, much more money towards health care and other non-marriage issues than HRC is dedicating to marriage equality. (These nonprofit organizations have Annual Reports and Form 990s that are available for public viewing detailing their budgets. I refer anyone to those for specifics on what the "gay community" is doing for some of its "most vulnerable.")

See, only analyzing what the "gay community" is doing by observing what HRC and the other mysteriously unnamed "large organizations" that Benkof "cites" is quite an omission. Major portions of the budgets of the above health-focused "gay" organizations that I have cited go towards providing medical care, behavioral health services, case management, and prevention efforts for people living with HIV/AIDS or at-risk for acquiring the disease and go towards other health issues our community faces. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to see these organizations talk much about marriage at all.

I am curious as to why Benkof fails to acknowledge all of these other organizations and the good work that they are doing for the less fortunate members of the "gay community." I mean, seriously, I could go on with non-HRC organizations...

In addition to these health-specific LGBT organizations, we have organizations dedicated to immigration rights, family rights, international human rights, discrimination in the military, transgender advocacy, and more. And, while racial/ethnic minorities are represented in the above groups, the "gay community" also includes the numerous organizations existing specifically for LGBT persons of color.

Do none of these organizations matter since they are not HRC? I encourage Mr. Benkof, and anyone who believes in his inaccurate generalizations about the "gay community," to better inform themselves as to the variety of work that the "gay community" is doing. In fact, let's take a moment to give kudos to all of these organizations and the LGBT persons and allies who support them.

*Round of applause*

But let's go back to the silent auction issue that is often mocked. Denouncing HRC and branding marriage equality as an elite "upper and middle class" and "white" concern, whether intentionally or not, vilifies gay men and lesbians who seek equality. Yet, in addition to affecting upper-class gays, the lack of marriage equality particularly affects low-income LGBT persons. Rich gays, after all, can hire an attorney and obtain at least some of the protections of marriage. Poor LGBT persons unable to afford attorneys cannot do so. Thus the less well-off gays and lesbians are left without domestic partnership agreements, wills, and advanced directives in addition to lacking health insurance, social security, and other benefits that married couples often receive by virtue of their legal status. So, to say that marriage equality is only of concern to upper-class gays is an out-of-touch and unrealistic analysis. Yes, poor LGBT persons face unique sets of problems, problems that many LGBT organizations are trying to address, but that doesn't mean that marriage equality is of no consequence to them.

Furthermore, many of these non-marriage LGBT organizations, like HRC and virtually every other major nonprofit organization, also put on "$275-a-plate dinners at fancy hotels where people wear tuxedos and bid on lavish trips in silent auctions." The proceeds of such "middle- and upper-class" events, of course, go specifically towards advancing the mission of the organization- which in the case of LGBT health care organizations is to provide medical care for poor, uninsured, and indigent members of the LGBT community who have HIV/AIDS and/or cannot afford health care.

Because members of the "gay community" care about our community, it has been my experience that thousands of LGBT persons in the city in which I live regularly donate to and support non-marriage "gay" causes. Not all of us are able to attend the fancy dinners, but we give what we can. In other words we, like members of other minority groups, try to help the "most vulnerable" members of our community contrary to what Benkof believes and inaccurately says.

Just because a person is or was gay or bi, it doesn't make him an expert on everything gay. Nor does it give him free license to defame our community by vilifying us as less compassionate than other minority groups- while ignoring the good work that so many members of our community do. It would be convenient to marriage defenders if all this marriage equality hooplah could be chalked up to the workings of an elitist monolithic White Upper-Class Gay Movement (tm), but the reality is much different and much more nuanced than what Mr. Benkof presents.

3. Organizations Have Unique Missions and Scopes

Taking Benkof's claim to be concerned with "more important" LGBT issues at face value, and at this point I have no reason not to, I find it curious that he would take these concerns to iMAPP, where he also posted his article (direct link unavailable). Keeping in mind the fact that every organization has a unique scope and mission, does Benkof believe that iMAPP, an organization which opposes same-sex marriage, will stop worrying so much about the marriage issue and help him fight for a more just society for the most vulnerable LGBT persons among us? Is iMAPP going to start fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic alongside the LGBT organizations who have been doing so since the early 1980s often in spite of virulent anti-gay rhetoric from "family values" organizations?

Kudos to iMAPP if they take on these non-marriage causes. But let's not get our hopes up. See, iMAPP- the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy- is an organization dedicated to "strengthening marriage." Accordingly, non-marriage issues are beyond the scope of this organization's mission. Yet, using Benkof's reasoning, one could argue that it's not legitimate for iMAPP to dedicate its mission solely to strengthening marriage as opposed to fighting "more important" issues that the less fortunate members of the heterosexual community face.

Because I don't seriously expect iMAPP to pick up these causes, my point here is to demonstrate that every organization has a unique mission outlining the purposes of the organization. Just as it would be beyond the scope of iMAPP's mission to advocate for universal health care for children, it would be beyond the scope of HRC's mission to provide HIV interventions to gay men. But, just because HRC isn't doing such work, it doesn't mean no one else in the LGBT community is doing it. Many LGBT organizations are. So, yes, while it's true when Benkof says that "HIV/AIDS is still a major crisis facing the LGBT community," what can we expect HRC to do in light of its mission to "ensure equality" for LGBT persons? Make it illegal for HIV/AIDS to infect gay people?

But seriously, many "gay" organizations spend substantial amounts of money fighting, treating, and trying to prevent HIV/AIDS. HRC spends its money advocating for equal rights which, one has to admit, is still an important issue. I mean, just because other issues are pressing, it doesn't mean other issues are not worth fighting for. I understand the triage concept but, coming from one who opposes marriage equality, the argument that gay people should just stop worrying about discriminatory marriage laws because gay people are being beaten in prison isn't exactly appealing to those who favor marriage equality. It doesn't mean they don't care about these "other issues" or are just over-privileged elites but, more innocuously, they simply believe that marriage equality is also very important.

4. Gay Marriage is the "Gay" Issue Met with the Most Resistance

In a time where same-sex marriage is seen by some as the most important battle of these so-called "Culture Wars", it is not surprising that some people believe that the "gay community" only cares about gay marriage. That issue is the one that certainly gets the most press in the mainstream media. Yet, it is likely that it gets the most press because it is the "gay" issue that is met with the most resistance on the other side. Groups on all sides of this issue are spending millions of dollars to try to secure their favored outcome. It would make things easier, I suppose, if one side just caved in and dedicated all those resources to another "pressing issue." But neither side realistically will do that. Obviously, the nature of resistance is strong opposition.

In terms of the other important issues our community faces, I'd bet that all but the most hateful, bigoted anti-equality groups aren't opposed to LGBT groups providing care to gay men with HIV/AIDS or groups that try to stop gay people from being beaten in prison. The nature of marriage equality is different. Many LGBT people view discriminatory marriage laws as systemic state-sanctioned injustice and "marriage defenders" as cogs who perpetuate an unjust legal system. Likewise, marriage equality is an issue that affects all gay people- not just the rich ones. In a nation and society that prides itself on fairness, tolerance, and equality under law, what more is worth fighting for than those ideals? With a status that confers numerous legal and financial protections, benefits, and rights why would a group denied those things not think it important to fight for legal ability to enter into that status, especially when so much of the resistance is grounded in anti-gay animus, bigotry, and vilification?

I'll end with this. One could do a quick "search" on my blog and conclude that I think marriage equality is the most important issue in the world. Yet, other than blogging, I know what I am doing out in the real world to address the myriad of issues that our community faces. And, I say in all sincerity that I applaud Mr. Benkof if he too is taking tangible steps out in the real world to address these other important issues.

But at the same time, his arguments about what the "gay community" is doing for these "more important" issues are plainly inaccurate. What should bother us all about these inaccuracies is that they perpetuate a myth that the "gay community" is a rich, white, over-privileged blob that will stop at nothing to force gay marriage on the rest of society while we selfishly ignore the grave concerns of the "most vulnerable" among us. This is a myth that anti-gay groups have latched onto, perpetuated, and used to advance their anti-gay agendas. I wonder, in fact, how far this Elite Gay myth goes in perpetuating the injustices wrought by the "other issues" facing the "gay community." And furthermore, why does the onus of caring for "the most vulnerable" gay people rest only on "the gay community"? Where is his challenge to the larger "mainstream" heterosexual community to help the least among us?

Yes, many gay people care about marriage, but at the same time we too dedicate our lives, money, and time to other "gay" (and "straight"!) causes as well. In fact, "gay" organizations are often there for the "most vulnerable" among us when mainstream organizations are too busy judging such people for being gay to provide them with care or services.

For the sake of accuracy, I sincerely hope Mr. Benkof corrects his mis-statements about the "gay community."

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