Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Limits of "We're Just Like You"

Over Pride Weekend, some friends posted a graphic on Facebook that was supposed to emphasize how similar gay people are to heterosexuals. Featuring two white, thin, gender-conforming, well-dressed men seated on a couch, in scary font, it read: "The Gay Agenda: They Pay Their Bills! They Make Dinner! They Go To Work!"

Yeah, I find it funny because it plays on that always-over-the-top meme about The Homosexual Agenda (dun dun DUN!). Contrary to some anti-LGBT activists' fantasy of "the homosexual lifestyle" being a never-ending, hedonistic party of poppers, promiscuity, go-go boys, and anal sex, many LGBT lives are actually quite mundane.

At the same time, notice the image. Two white, thin, gender-conforming, well-dressed men being "boring" together. I realize that is the image that must sometimes be presented in the US in order for LGBT people to prove that we are "just like everyone else" and therefore deserving of respect and equality under our legal system.

However, it remains a message of exclusion. How would the message conveyed be different, say, if the image was of an inter-racial lesbian couple, both of whom were fat and butch? What if one, or both, members of the couple were trans*?

While I recognize the political and legal strategy involved in the "we're just like you" meme, the LGBT movement sells itself short, becomes too conservative, when it becomes fixated on the narrow goal of winning marriage equality. For me at least, the end goal isn't marriage equality, but something more along the lines of liberating of people from the sex, gender, racial, and other stereotypes we are indoctrinated with from the moment we're born due to living in a racist, sexist, heterocentric, homophobic society that wrongly believes the only way a person can be any of those things is if one is in the KKK or Westboro Baptist Church.

In The American Prospect, Urvashi Vaid writes:
"In my book Virtual Equality, written more than 17 years ago, I argued that if the LGBT movement ignored the broader and structural dynamics of racism, economic exploitation, gender inequity, and cultural freedom, it would accomplish what other civil-rights movements in America have—a partial, conditional simulacrum called equal rights. We would attain a state of virtual equality that would grant legal and formal equal rights to LGBT people but would not transform the institutions of society that repress sexual, racial, and gender difference.

The formal, largely legal measures of equality that the LGBT movement has pursued over the past two decades have become far less substantive than what it sought in the 1970s and 1980s. From a movement demanding that LGBT people be able to live a public life in a world in which queer sexualities are not only tolerated but celebrated, the movement now seeks the much narrower right to live an undisturbed private life. From an exploration of queer difference, the movement has turned into a cheerleading squad for LGBT sameness.
 In my lifetime, LGBT organizations have moved away from actively working for reproductive justice, which lesbians, bisexuals, progressive gay men, and transgender people fought for throughout the 1970s and 1980s; challenging racism, which was a central plank at the first national March on Washington in 1979; and working for economic justice, which was reflected in the pro-union coalition-building done by Harvey Milk and activists in the late 1970s, in the Coors beer boycott, and in queer alliances with the United Farm Workers. No longer would we find a nationally organized LGBT presence at a major anti-war rally, as we saw at the 1981 demonstration against the war in El Salvador. Few LGBT organizations are engaged in articulating a new urban policy, seeking a more effective response to homelessness and poverty, or using their clout in the service of universal health care. Today’s mainstream LGBT movement is strangely silent on the broader social-justice challenges facing the world, oddly complacent in its acceptance of racial, gender, and economic inequalities, and vocal only in its challenge to the conditions facing a white, middle-class conception of the 'status queer.'”
Mainstream LGBT organizations, some LGBT people, and the gay bloggers who focus primarily on gay rights (ie- marriage equality) are often not progressives and not interested in social justice beyond achieving the (rather conservative) end goal of marriage equality.

To illustrate with a parting anecdote, I was recently talking to a white gay man about participating in the Pride Parade. He expressed reservations about an acquaintance of his, a heterosexual, white, progressive, feminist woman who had done a lot of community organizing work in communities of color. His concern was that she might feel "uncomfortable" at a gay pride parade.

To me, that really illustrated a disconnect.

Those who participate in social justice movements outside the insular world of Gay Inc know that it most likely wouldn't be her who would be an uncomfortable, ignorant, disapproving outsider at his political rally. The far more likely reality is that it would be him who would be an uncomfortable, ignorant, disapproving outsider at a social justice rally that did not center gay rights.

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