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What Does the 2012 Election Mean for a Burgeoning Queer Movement?

Tammy Baldwin celebrates 2012 victory with a big grinAs I read some of the big “LGBT” movement voices celebrating their victories for marriage equality last night, and talking about how much easier the road ahead will be, I want to encourage my peers to refocus our energies for the next four years on sustainable radical change that is beneficial to queer and trans people–not only the gays and lesbians in traditional families.
I’m glad that we’re pushing ahead on certain grounds.  I have many friends in Maryland who are extra-legally married or plan to marry now that Question 6 has passed, and I’m happy for them.  I’m glad that we have a lesbian Senator, and more pro-equality representatives at different levels around the country.  But since I’m pretty sure the marriage equality has its feet and its dollars and will push on no matter what, I want to make sure we use this momentum to also push forward goals that benefit a broader queer constituency.
Race & Immigration: The more research we see on LGBT populations, the more we learn about the needs and barriers of LGBT people of color.  People are certainly talking about this–one example is the ARC’s Better Together initiative.  But I want to make sure that racial justice is seen as an inherent part of the queer movement, not a fringe issue.  I want to make sure that we’re more nuanced in how we think about identity and also that we practice what we preach on the ground.  I want to see queer people fighting the concentration of environmental toxins in low-income neighborhoods and on reservations, and I want to see us putting our best foot forward on immigration.  I want those of us who call ourselves queer activists and are white to do more work on racial justice and to ask ourselves hard questions.  I was inspired by Ignacio Rivera’s speech at Transcending Boundaries two weeks ago to think hard about what being an ally means–as they explained, it’s not just the big pushes or the little things you do but it’s about consistency over a lifetime, and this is what we need to do as white queer individuals and as a multiracial queer movement.
Prisons: We’ve been talking a lot about prisons lately, since the release of the PREA final rule in May.  I’m glad to see that a number of groups are gearing up for training and education around LGBT prison populations, and especially trans populations.  I want us to also keep doing work around prison abolition, and to work in coalition with other movements to revolutionize how we treat crime in this country.  We need to look at the school to prison pipeline and also at how trans people of color and other homeless queer youth are fed into the system.  We need to look critically at policies on sex work.  One of the saddest things for me this election was that Californians did not vote in solidarity with sex workers, but I’m hoping we can move the ball on that issue.  If you’re curious about what stake the queer movement has in prison abolition, check out the newest and final book in the Against Equality series, Prisons Will Not Protect You.
Trans Rights:  I’m relatively optimistic about the work that will be possible in the next four years around trans rights with the Obama administration still in power.  I’ve been impressed by how quickly the ball is rolling on administrative victories that may seem small, but in fact have a significant impact on trans people’s rights to privacy, housing, and health care.  But these are still not central issues, and one of the big things a queer/trans movement can do right now is push hard on making trans rights a central plank of both liberal politics and American values.  We also need to do the dirty work of implementing federal policies in our local communities, and of pushing for more local ordinances and state laws that protect trans people.  There’s also plenty of work to be done on awareness of trans people and the range of trans identities, whether you’re a blogger or a journalist or simply someone who can sit down and have a conversation on the topic.  The goal is not only to pass laws and regulations, but to shift the conversation so that anti-trans discrimination isn’t something you can argue for in polite conversation anymore.  Unfortunately, we’re just not there yet.
Local Organizing:  At Transcending Boundaries I presented a workshop with Stephen Ira called “Marriage Is Not the Movement,” where we discussed the potential of a queer/trans youth movement and talked about alternatives to the heavily funded national marriage movement with local organizers and ordinary queer folks.  I was struck by a point that V, a trans person living in Boston, brought up about micro-local organizing and institutions.  V’s experience is that Boston itself actually has a lot of really good institutions for, say, homeless trans youth, but one or two towns away it will be a vastly different picture.  I’ve also noticed that a lot of the really fabulous, radical organizations with amazing models for leadership and sustainability are tiny and micro-local, maybe five volunteers serving 100 people in a given neighborhood.  I don’t think this is a bad thing.  Perhaps a successful queer/trans movement strategy necessarily combines these tiny efforts with innovative ways to share resources and network online, rather than working from the top down.
Sustainability: Finally, I think we have to consider the big green elephant in the room.  Any movement needs money.  All the energy, creativity, and innovation and the world can’t make change out of absolutely nothing, though a lot of us are wizards at doing it dirt cheap.  The problem as I see it is that this is a fractious movement.  We have people in national offices who know about traditional non-profit organizations and development, and we have a lot of people at the local level who don’t have those skills and are disillusioned with the big organizations for good reason.  There are a lot of ways to fund a queer/trans movement, and I think we can do it in a diversified way.  Those with skills can lend them to their local communities, whether it’s a knack for moving money through building relationships or writing small grants to get projects done.  Creative people can work on new ways to fund and sustain work that don’t rely on big money.  One thing I’m personally working on is getting together a queer/trans resource wiki, where people can advertise the skills/space/stuff/time they have available to other members of the queer/trans community and avail themselves of the resources others have to offer.  If you want to get involved with outreach on this, just let me know!

Does My Queerness Look Gay to You?

person in a skirt aiming a gun and smiling with text "not gay as in happy, but queer as in fuck you"Those not in the know tend to substitute the word “gay” in for queer.  Self-defined queers might be described as gay or lesbian in media profiles, for example, and queer struggles are often re-framed as “gay” or “LGBT.”  This pisses me right off.

What’s the relationship between gay identity and the queer movement?  Well, I would argue that the queer movement isn’t really about being gay anymore.  In a lot of places gay people are fairly accepted these days.  The degree to which this is true, of course, varies, and I don’t intend to downplay the seriousness of sodomy laws carrying death sentences, of homophobia in many cultures and communities, or of bullying in schools.  But to some extent, at least, there is an understanding that a certain segment of gay people–generally upper-to-middle class white men with traditional family structures and a dollar to burn in some Global North economy–are “just like you and me.”  Mainstream media outlets employ at least some respect when talking about the gays, and policy changes at every level make it easier and easier to be gay in this country.

Where, then, does queerness come in?  In my observations, I’ve found that the queerness is about something other than being gay, and that many queers have little in common with your average gay person.  Now, in some cases, a queer person comes to the queer movement because of same-sex attraction, but the impact of that attraction for a queer in the way I’m using the word is very different from the impact on a relatively privileged gay person.  Many queers are drawn to the movement, and to the term as an identity marker, because it emphasizes the role that privilege plays when we look at how being out as gay affects an individual’s life.  The queer movement tends to emphasize the role of family in the lives of queers of color, the intersection between the prison-industrial complex and the specific experiences of (usually) young trans women of color, the role economic advantage plays in whether a queer person has access to needed government services, etc.  Claiming “queer” is an act of defiance that says “this is about more than gay or straight, this is about the fucked up system and where I reside within it.”

I don’t mean to give queers a pass here.  A lot of people surely just like the word.  A lot of queers do fucked up racist, ableist, imperialist, classist shit.  The way I’m talking about “gay” and “queer” here doesn’t necessarily line up with how the words are used in mainstream parlance.  But I think there is something going on that’s worth looking into.

Last week, a friend of mine put up a solid piece on the Huffington Post, providing some historical and literary context around Barney Frank’s use of the word “Uncle Tom” to describe gay republicans.  Maya’s piece was straightforward and honestly shouldn’t have generated that much criticism.  Frank was wrong.  Slavery was a specific fucked-up thing that happened to a specific population, and no one else has the right to appropriate it.  Move on.

But, as is the case when it comes to the Internet, HuffPo readers were not inclined to move on.  They were inclined to comment, and comment they did, masquerading as reasonable rhetoricians but making disturbing arguments in fact that reveal a lot about what’s wrong with certain privileged gay folk.  In a word: entitlement.

Raise your hand all African Americans living in slavery nowadays:

Now, raise your hand all LGBT people being discriminated thanks to the GOP:

The idea that comparing the gay experience to the black experience is somehow “inappropriate” is true, but not in the way the author thinks: Gays have it worse:

You don’t have to come out to your parents as black.
You don’t get kicked out of the house when they find out you’re black.
You don’t have the school telling you to “act less black” when you’re bullied for being black.
You don’t have your children taken away from you for being black (anymore).
Nobody will try to “pray the black away.”

“But…but SLAVERY!” Yes, slavery was very bad. But let’s not forget that gays used to be summarily executed. Yes, slaves were killed all the time, but people had a use for them. Up until recently, gay people were simply killed outright.

And let us not forget, when we rescued the people in the concentration camps in the aftermath of World War II, the gays were sent to prison. After all, it was still illegal to be gay.

we get it African Americans were the only ones struggling for equal rights in america…will that make you happy?….now can you get out of the way?

“…the fact that the experience of slaves and the experience of gay and lesbian people in this country are not comparable”

True, at least slaves got to live. LGBT people were often just killed, and in many other countries we still are.

“Precious few things come close to matching the horrors and indignities of the practice of slavery”

What about torture and wrongful execution?

I agree with most of the article, but the old “black people had it worse than LGBT people” thing is bogus. We’ve all faced the same hatred from the same groups of people for the same old reasons. We’re on the same team in my book regardless of race, sexuality, gender identity, or whatever as we’re all part of the oppressed segment of humans.

Maya, it is almost as if you have not once stopped to consider that there are forms of slavery besides the African-American experience.

This piece is disappointing at best.

LGBT citizens do not have the freedom to live their lives with the full liberty of every other American citizen.

If I am not free, I am a slave. There is no in between.

Barney Frank, while I am loathe to admit it, was right on this one.

This is why I want the media, and society in general, to understand the difference between “gay culture” and the queer movement.  Because the queer movement cannot be reduced to gayness alone.  Because we have to wake up to the myriad of oppressions that are going on simultaneously all around us, or we’ll lose the bigger fight.  Because sometimes the “gay struggle” isn’t the only struggle, and our humanity demands that we recognize that. Because queer people of color exist, goddamnit.  End of story.


Johnny Weir Comes Out: Why We Need a Queer Movement

“We’re here, we’re queer, get over it!”

This used to be a rallying cry for the gay and lesbian liberation movement, but I think it’s high time we appropriate it for something different.  “Liberation” is supposed to be a lofty goal, a formative moment in the life cycle, but in fact it’s become a prison cell.  The more I hear from the gay and lesbian movement, the more disillusioned with it I become.  It’s time for something new.

Johnny Weir Comes Out, Gay Media Pitches Fit

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  For years, the gay media has been annoyed with American figure skater Johnny Weir for refusing to self-define as gay, while mainstream journalists can’t say one sentence about Weir without a cutesy comment about fashion or mannerisms–all code for “wink wink, he’s a big ole homo.”  In fact, I’m looking over my shoulder right now, waiting for the Associated Press to issue me a fine for not including the adjective “flamboyant” in front of Weir’s name in this blog post.

Yesterday, Weir finally “came out” when selections from an upcoming issue of People magazine were leaked.  What did said gay media, waiting all this time for Weir to finally stand up and be counted, feel about this revelation?  Well, relief, of course, because Johnny Weir coming out means that the gay media can  finally “write about [and] appreciate” him.  After all, without making a public statement about his sexuality, “[h]ow could he be considered a role model?”

Talk about damning with feint praise.  What I find so insidious about that After Elton article, and others like it, is that any closet around Johnny Weir is entirely constructed around Weir by the same gay media that criticizes him for not coming out of it–as well, of course, as the mainstream media that describes his competitors’ talents and masculine strength in an Olympic report while only mentioning Weir’s love for Lady Gaga or his hairdo.

It’s important to note that Johnny Weir never said he was in a closet.  He never said that he was straight or gay.  He consistently uses quotation marks around the word closet, and in response to the leak he Tweeted the following:

I don’t remember ever pretending to be something other than I am, nor do I remember living with my coats inside a wardrobe. I just live.

In a world where heterosexual is normal, queer celebrities are necessarily “in the closet” if they don’t discuss their sexuality in public.  When a celebrity says nothing, the assumption is that he or she is trying to imply straightness. What I find such a shame is what Weir said in the People article about how he was talking about his sexuality now in part because he wants to be a role model to the queer adolescents that are considering suicide.  I find it devastating that someone would have to use the word “gay” to be a role model, but I also see exactly where he’s coming from.  Kids are raised in this black and white, homosexual/heterosexual world.  Even bisexuality is misunderstood, not to mention pansexuality, queerness, and differing gender expressions.  Weir is out there being himself, doing what he wants to do, being a role model for kids–but society’s blinders say that he’s closeted, send a message to adolescents that I doubt Weir himself would ever approve.

Johnny Weir has become one of my role models because he does blur lines of gender and sexuality.  As a genderqueer person coming to terms with my own gender, it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a public figure being so defiant, refusing to let others put a box around his neck.  I love the way he demands that the focus be put on his interests, his projects, his creativity, and not his identity labels.  Even in the People article that tries so hard to fit him into a typical coming out narrative, he stirs that up a bit by talking about different aspects of himself, the things he loves, the traits that transcend a simple gendered picture.

Again: we’re here, we’re queer, get over it.  It’s time for those of us who don’t fit in boxes to start our own movement.

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Why Is Same-Sex Marriage a Priority?

I know I’ve mentioned here before that I get frustrated by the emphasis on marriage and the military in the gay rights movement, two issues that don’t really matter to me personally and in some ways seem less important than other issues (like decriminalization of sodomy around the world, like HIV prevention, like hate crimes prevention, like non-discrimination laws). But aside from that, I was just wondering, why marriage? Obviously it’s an important institution in our society, but I find it interesting that it happens to be the marker of how the gay rights movement is progressing around the world. A lot of countries in Latin America, for example, have really impressive laws about hate crimes and non-discrimination, but that doesn’t get emphasized in the news at all, while a new country getting same-sex marriage is automatically a big deal.