Cardboard Castles and Other Amenities...

I am really interested in using different forms of cultural action to help build better communities. Communities are a vital social model, allowing us to tackle problems beyond the ability of individuals with the focus of a defined (usually relatively small) group of people. How do the arts and cultural work in general help communities grow more sustainable futures? If you have a cool website or project or your own ideas on these subjects please let me know.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Marriage equality, Not That Queer and Quite a Bit Racist

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage, homophobia, and racism in response to the passage of Prop 8 in California and the narratives of homophobia within communities of color, specifically African-American communities. Originally, I thought to address these as two separate issues. However, I am beginning to see how they are inextricably linked through a racist, classis, anti-queer pro-marriage equality movement.

First, let me offer a working definition of queer in this context. Starting, where all things start, with Wikipedia, queer:

..has sociopolitical connotations, and is often preferred by those who are activists, by those who strongly reject traditional gender identities, by those who reject distinct sexual identities such as gay, lesbian, bisexual and straight, and by those who see themselves as oppressed by the heteronormativity of the larger (gay and lesbian) culture (emphasis added.)

This last point is important. Queer, to me, refers to all people who are oppressed by the normative tendencies of the tradition glbt community, including poor people, people of color, trans and gender-queer, and anyone who lives in family units not defined by single-partner sexual relationships.

Is the struggle for marriage equality anti-queer? Yes, because as Nancy D. Polikoff, Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law, points out in Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, gaining legal marriage rights for the LGBT community is the wrong way to obtain access to health care, hospital visits, etc. To many families are left out (see her introduction [PDF] for examples of people who have been fucked because their family does not fit into the narrow definition of single-partner sexual relationship.) Furthermore, as Polikoff points out,

Winning marriage equality in order to access our partners’ benefits makes little sense if the benefits that we seek are being shredded.

As the employer-paid healthcare system is crumbling around us, it makes more sense to struggle for universal healthcare than it does to fight for marriage equality. I know, I know, healthcare is not the only problem marriage equality will alleviate. For example, marriage equality will allow glbt married partners to gain social security partner benefits, child adoption, ect. However, this benefit will only be experience by a minority of Americans. Again Polikoff,

U.S. Census findings tell us that a majority of people, whatever their sexual and gender identities, do not live in traditional nuclear families.

Let’s start fighting for a system that benefits all.

Not only does the pro-marriage movement leave out many queer families, but it ignores the fact that for many queers, especially the poor and queers of color, there are larger issues, such as a discriminatory criminal justice system, racist immigration laws, and low-income housing, to name just a few. A story from Crag Willse, of Make Zine, may help to illustrate how many queers have been positioned outside of traditional gay politics:

…A few years ago, two propositions came up for vote in California: Prop 21 and 22. Prop 22 said something like, “In the state of California, only marriage between a man and a woman is legal.” ... Prop 21 was a “juvenile justice” bill that lowered the age at which children can be tried as adults, added time to prison sentences for youth affiliated with gangs, and redefined gangs in such a broad way that any youth of color just hanging out together could be defined as such. Many organizations in LA campaigned simultaneously against both propositions, recognizing links in these battles as being about social and economic justice. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center only campaigned against Prop 22. They did nothing on Prop 21...

When the Center decided to do no work on Prop 21, they decided that youth incarceration is not a gay issue. They effectively positioned the needs of the youth with whom I worked outside of gay politics. The Center’s work was a crystallizing moment of defining who constitutes a legitimate glbt community, and whose needs our organizations will represent.

Thus we can see that traditional glbt organizing has failed to fight for pressing issues facing many members of the queer community.

Not only has the mainstream glbt community failed to support the struggles of poor people and people of color, the way it has gone about organizing for marriage equality has alienated many communities of color and has made efforts for queer acceptance in those communities even harder. Kenyon Farrow, in Is Gay Marriage Anti Black??, makes the argument that the “hijacking of Rosa Parks,” and other cultural icons from the black civil-rights movement, in the marriage equality movement ignores the historic racism within the glbt community.

…There have always been racial tensions in the gay community as long as there have been racial tensions in America, but in the 1990’s, the white gay community went mainstream, further pushing non-hetero people of color from the movement…

The reason for this schism is that in order to be mainstream in America, one has to be seen as white. And since white is normative, one has to interrogate what other labels or institutions are seen as normative in our society: family, marriage, and military service, to name a few. It is then no surprise that a movement that goes for “normality” would then end up in a battle over a dubious institution like marriage (and hetero-normative family structures by extension)…

These comparisons of “Gay Civil Rights” as equal to “Black Civil Rights” really began in the early 1990’s, and largely responsible for this was Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and a few other mostly-white gay organizations. This push from HRC, without any visible black leadership or tangible support from black allies (straight and queer), to equate these movements did several things: 1) Piss off the black community for the white gay movement’s cultural appropriation, and making the straight black community question non-hetero black people’s allegiances, resulting in our further isolation. 2) Giving the (white) Christian Right ammunition to build relationships with black ministers to denounce gay rights from their pulpits based on the HRC’s cultural appropriation. 3) Create a scenario in their effort to go mainstream that equates gay and lesbian with upper-class and white.

Thus, it is not only imperative that the glbt community rethink the issues it is fight for, but rework the strategies it is using to struggle for equality.

This is not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the way to succeed. As Porp 8 proved, the glbt community needs to forge alliances with communities of color. These alliances must be honest and mutually beneficial, not tokenistic and appropriatory (I know, not actually a word,) and will likely result in a change in the issues the glbt community prioritizes. I want to be clear, I DO NOT think communities of color are predominately responsible for the passage of Pop 8 (See 1 and 2) and the narratives stating this ARE RACIST. However, it does point out a pressing truth, the glbt community cannot win equality without the support of people of color.

To conclude, we need to stop the stupid, racist, classis, anti-queer marriage equality movement and start fighting for issues that will actually help all members of our community like criminal justice reform, universal healthcare, and low-income economic development and services. These struggles must find ways to form true alliances between queers of privilege and poor queers of color, which recognize and correct historic disparities of privilege and power. As we celebrate the election of the first African-American president, let us learn the lessons his campaign taught us about coalition building across difference.

If you actually made it this far, thanks! What do you think?

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