Phil Reese

What's so mutually exclusive about being radical and being rational?

Filed By Phil Reese | August 29, 2009 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Media, The Movement
Tags: Gay Inc, opposites attract, polar opposites, politics, radical queer politics, radical vs rational, radicals

I am the biggest queen you never met. I love Madonna and dancing and fashion and cooking and all of the shallow, stereotypical things that the nonpolitical superficial sissies are interested in. I long for the day that I won't have to even think about queer politics, and I can wander my Malibu mansion in Versace with my sugar daddy and my custom Maserati or Bugatti and listen to my vintage Madonna vinyls while cooking French cuisine in my expensive kitchen with my scantily clad pool-boy.

But since, as of yet, it's difficult for me to reach my worry-and-imagination-two-sides-of-the-same-coin1.jpgAmerican dream when I can't even keep a job if I'm gay, I choose to fight. So which camp to fight in? The far left, tear-the-system-down, reject-all-authority, kill-the-straight-man camp; or the non-threatening , champagne with the Senators, cigars with executives, compromise, don't make waves, 'Gay, Inc.' camp?

I've always been a gal who hates to have to choose between two things she really wants. I'd like to have a little bit of both.

In his South Florida Blade piece, "Radical vs. mainstream queer politics," Father Tony really articulates this conundrum for me, and I realize that this is probably the same pickle a lot of us gays find ourselves in.

My Secret Political Fetishes

I attend church, I love my capitalist life, and I not only hold an HRC membership, I was actively involved in local leadership in the organization back in Michigan for years; I've done the rubbing shoulders with Senators, pass the caviar, won't-you-please-consider-lukewarm-support-for-us-again-this-year-while totally-not-passing-our-bills thing. And I loved it. I grew up in a political household and jumping into the process and participating as one of the cogs within it felt really good, but also afforded me the opportunity to learn so much and help get things done; maybe not in D.C. (obviously) but once I got home, locally and on smaller issues.

While I like being a cog, I also have a need to take a crowbar to the system and crush the machine. I enjoy marching and subverting the system. I hate privilege and arbitrary authority over me, and I am freaking angry--right down to my core! And I want to express that. I grew up listening to punk rock and reading subversive literature. There's no getting around it, I want to participate in some anarchy. I want to riot. I want to loot and plunder and finally let out this bitter rage. Regardless of the consequences, I'm ready to fight by any means necessary.

The Conundrum

Each of these extremes indulge a part of me. I want to feel I belong and that I'm part of the system and that I have stature, on one hand. On the other, I want to destroy. I want to announce my hurt to the world so loud no one can ignore it. However, beyond pandering to my personal emotional needs, both these camps serve a great function in the LGBT rights movement. The radicals keep us all honest, they call out 'bullshit' when it needs to be called, and they keep fresh ideas coming in. They also often times get distracted--a meeting about Hate Crimes, quickly devolves into an exchange about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' which becomes a fight about militarism, imperialism and capitalism--and shoot themselves in the foot by following actions that earn public support with actions that promptly lose that support.

After the radicals get the ball rolling, however, the nice non-offensive camp takes that momentum to the halls of leadership and negotiate change on the system's terms. And they are successful--not so much in D.C.--but we have seen plenty of success on state and municipal level to unequivocally say that working the system does, in fact, work! However, they get so caught up in the system they begin to get too cautious to change anything; they work so hard to get their access, they're afraid to lose it, so they become paralyzed.

When this happens, radicals come back once again to activate people back into action. They put pressure on the system, and the folks in power turn to the suit-and-tie gays they're comfortable and familiar with and say "Uh oh, what do we do now?" The process begins anew.

Like It or Not, Both Sides Need One Another

Both camps need one another--for better or for worse. Without the one, the other stalls and begins spinning their wheels. I, like father Tony, like to keep a foot in both camps for this reason; for what they can achieve together. Now that I've seen Father Tony is like-minded, I realize there must be more of us out there - button down, dimple-cheeked, silk tie lobbyists that fantasize of throwing a garbage can through a pizza shop window - or dread-headed, patchouli-musked, bohemian skirted lesbian radicals that dream of donning a power-suit, briefcase and $200 hairdo to shake hands with Carl Levin.

We can all be a little bit right and a little bit left if it fits and it gets us to the goal. Today, show a little love for the person at the other end of the spectrum from you, and recognize we all want liberation, and we're all working very hard doing what we believe to be the right thing to get there.


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I'm going to put aside all the issues with the stereotypes you've packed in here. And the issues with the vastly oversimplified picture of politics and change that you've outlined (where politics, apparently, is some kind of a tag game where teams just pass the baton on to each other). I'll also put aside the fact that positing such simplistic differences reduces the vast complexity of contemporary queer politics to a terrain where people are jostling for terms like "radical" and "rational" (and as if one cannot be the other).

I'll simply note that that the "radicals" and the "mainstream" are different for, ah, radically different reasons than the ones you've posited here. In your analysis, both sides are fighting for the same things but just by different means. The truth is a lot more complicated.

The rads I know, and of whom I'll consider myself a part, would never *be* for hate crimes legislation. They're not for marriage, and they're not for DADT. There *are* great differences in the HRC crowd and the non-mainstream crowd, and those differences run deep and reveal profound ideological schisms in what some of us call a "movement."

Those ideological differences are erased in your post. That's not just unfair to both sides; it erases a rich and complex history of LGBTQ struggle and rewrites it in vastly oversimplified terms. In that you're actually doing a disservice to both "sides."

"We all want liberation," yes, but our definitions of liberation are vastly different.

I think we can all agree to be grateful that Peggy Noonan is nowhere in sight or hearing distance today.

I don't get the reference, but I feel like I want to. Peggy is neither a radical nor reformist queer woman, so what gives?

You already figured out what is important for you Alex.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 30, 2009 12:26 PM

Yasmin, thank you! As usual, you've said it better than I ever could. And you've gone directly to the heart of why the criticisms in this post are so totally off the mark.

As for me, I can't set aside the stereotypes. The "far left, tear-the-system-down, reject-all-authority, kill-the-straight-man camp"?! Puh-leeze! Watch FOX News any? Even allowing that you may be aiming for hyperbole here, the use of such a tired cliche--and there are many others, but this is the one that stopped me--immediately discredits any argument you might try to make in the piece.

Moreover, I find it very interesting that you've responded to other comments in this thread, but not the first--and most substantial--comment.

You make a good point. I responded more directly to Yasmin (I sent her a message through f'book, and asked to add me) I appreciate ALL of the imput, regardless. I haven't exactly responded to EVERYONE here, but surely I should say that Yasmin makes a very valid point, but my post wasn't exactly trying to get to the heart of radical action. Then again, I do recognize I make a sort of false analogy here. I think Tobi fleshes out a little bit more seriously what was at the heart of my silly post--despite some slight differences. I mean no disrespect to either camp--but in fact want to honor both.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 30, 2009 2:42 PM

Thank you, Phil, for responding.

For me, as you probably gather, the fact that you want to honor both camps did not come across in your piece. Perhaps this is partially due to the fact that your criticism of the left echoes what the very powerful establishment echo-chamber pounds 24/7 into the consciousness of our society--to such tragic detriment. As well, your identification with what you term as the "Gay, Inc." comes across far more strongly than any sense that you really want to change what leftist radicals find so utterly wrong with society.

And finally, IMO, there is at this time in history absolutely no moral equivalence in the goals of the left and right in this country, yet the mainstream media continues to conduct business-as-usual as if there were. In fact, it has been verified by non-partisan studies that conservative viewpoints receive far greater representation in all forms of mainstream media than do progressive viewpoints. This reality is perpetuated, in part, due to the acceptance of this moral equivalence. Your piece, moreover, rests on that assumption. Again, IMO and no offense meant, a person who wanted to honor what progressives stand for would simply not make such an assumption.

There's a lot my piece DOESN'T say. Its a pretty dern complex issue that I think we could take days and volumes covering, that I was reducing down to (as close to) 800 words as possible. I tried to use the both sides' rhetoric for one another in the piece, but I did end up favoring the less radical side, you're absolutely right that its because its what the media feeds us on a constant basis. There was a lot I didn't cover. I did argue in favor of polite participation in the system, without even defending if that effed up system is even worthy of preserving. And that's a debate that needs to be happening and is--just not in my silly little tongue-in-cheek piece. Is the system I'm advocating partnering with severely flawed, hegemonic, racist, sexist and homophobic? Yes. I hope we're all doing our part to question. But while this piece is meant to be fun, its not satire--these are things I believe we can do in the mean time while we're trying to fix this ugly beast. That's why I like to question folks who dismiss radical ideas as well--all the great changes that have been made in our civilization--things part of our every day--started out as radical subversive thought. On all sides, refusing to aknowlege possible valuable input and strategy from the others is just as backward as when it happens to our views and won't help us win. Am I a radical? Many would say yes. Many would say no. But whether or not I've earned my radical credentials, I'd much rather ally myself with them, and learn and grow, than stay in my comfort zone and ignore the power of synthesis that occurs from extending from my comfort zone into someone else's world. Consider this post my attempt to extend my hands out in both directions. And remember... I was wearing a smirk when I was typing. (My apologies for the spelling errors, I'm typing on my phone, on the elliptical, at the gym)

This is how I've often felt. The multiple styles, approaches, theories, and ideologies often look like they are making proponents of another strategy look bad, but there are times when each strategy is the best tool for the job and when the job is best served by a combination thereof.

My regret is that it's difficult for one person or organization to wear more than one hat.

I was the president of my university's queer alliance group, and as a 15-year-old group that interfaced with the school administration and faculty to advocate for students and employees as well as setting up events to promote interaction and action among students and other groups on campus, I found it extremely difficult to put our organization's name on actions that were more radical, controversial, or potentially viewed as antagonistic and still retain the status and respect that allowed the administration to listen to us without losing face. I had members who wanted to be much more radical and I supported them, but that wasn't the kind of organization I had.

Now that I'm not in an official position anymore, I'm hopeful that I can engage in more radical action because it won't hurt the organization's standing with the administration by association. (And now I get to be the bee in the bonnet asking why we're not being more radical, just to keep the current board on their toes. :) )

And because everything comes back to HRC these days...I still feel that HRC not advocating for gender identity protections as strongly as sexual orientation protections was a mistake (it didn't even help pass the reduced ENDA), but HRC still has a lot of political power and connections as it is, and it's possible that killing HRC would also be a mistake.

When Connecticut's Love Makes a Family decided to disband this year following 2008's court decision to expand the state's definition of marriage, I was very upset; not only would the organization not remain to defend CT's emended marriage laws, but they had also suggested they would next turn their considerable political power towards achieving transgender employment protection in CT. Losing that is a huge setback to transgender activism in the state, in my and many others' opinions. Not that it can't still be done, but it is a setback.

I see power on the radical side of the spectrum as building quickly but with a short half-life, but with the ability to do this over and over again (even if the current crop of radicals gets burned out, there's always a new generation on their heels). In contrast, liberal power builds slowly because it requires infrastructure but can last for a more sustained period because it has infrastructure. Each needs a dollop of the other though; infrastructure without passion becomes stagnant, and passion without infrastructure becomes erratic.

And radical/liberal isn't even the only decision to make! There are so many strategies and options that all come together to create change, and they are all important for different ways. I know that sounds like "you're a unique and perfect rainbow, just like everyone else," but the dynamics among these styles and strategies can either be amazingly toxic or amazingly successful and constructive.

Ddog, you wrote my story for me! Ha! Was also in a University Queer leadership position for some time. Also had a lot of face time with University Administration, that--basically--got us whatever we wanted. Also had to tread lightly. Also took a step toward the radical after I left.

Are you my doppelganger? Switched at birth? :-)

Remember when alternative music was really alternative? A lot of people start out more radical and move toward the middle, I think. That doesn't mean we've lost our radical edge, just a tendency for people to mellow with age.

I agree with much of your sentiment, but before I get to that let me represent a bit of my radical roots that I feel are being ereased in your post.

First off, it doesn't sound to me like you are talking about radical action. It sounds like you are describing direct action, confrontational tactics, and civil disobedience, include property destruction. Those are all tactics, perhaps tactics that radicals participate in more often then "mainstream" folks, but much of your description sounds more like mainstream liberals who want to let their rage out rather than radical activists.

When I critique mainstream orgs it's not simply for trading principles for access, but for chasing flawed policies with the potential to cause harm as well as good and being unwilling to ask for what we really need. It's not just the means we disagree upon, but the ends as well.

I don't want to throw a trash can through a window or "engage in a little anarchy." I want to live anarchist principles and organize in less hierarchial structures. I don't want to hate my privilege, I want to work in an environment where privilege is acknowledged and accounted for.

That said, I believe in a diversity of tactics and often work for those flawed policies myself. Because that's where the confluence of energy is going, because those are the organizations that have money and staff, and because I know that if I work with them, they will be more willing to work with me. I can have an influence on what happens, what strategy is taken, and perhaps folks will fight for my relationship recognition rights after I fight for theirs. Working together is much better than working against each other, by far.

So I hob nob with lobbyists, representatives, and politicos when I help set up fundraisers for democrats. But I don't love it. I don't like caviar and the times when unchecked privilege is rampant I can barely stand to be in the room. And while I may be conscious of my attire, I never wear a power suit.

Tobi, thank you so much! Your comment means a lot to me!

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 29, 2009 1:38 PM

The dichotomy is not between radical and mellow, or radical and abstentionist, or radical and ‘rational’. Those are code words that reveal a basic misunderstanding of the real divisions in movements for social change which are between reform and revolution.

Non-revolutionary reformists do sometimes sink further into the wallow of reformism. Others begin as reformists and detour along the path of ultraleftism or abstentionism on their journey back to becoming reformists. SDS and the political journeys of Maoists and Moscow Stalinists are a case in point.

As the movement loses layers of people it becomes even more critical to organize youth and be a part of their battles even if you think, as I do, that marriage is bogus and reactionary. They’ll figure that out the first time there’s a fart in the nuptial bed and especially when they get divorced but in the meantime they’re pissed at right wing religious types who took away a right they already had.

Similarly we have to support the rights and struggles of GLBT GIs, sailors, marines and air crew even as we aggressively object to the treason of Democrats who support DADT because it’s good for ‘national defense’. They put their agenda at the service of the US military and oil companies promoting genocide from Palestine to Pakistan under Obama’s direction.

Surprisingly, non-revolutionary approaches like reformism, abstentionism and ultraleftism sometimes attract people just as the social situation heats up. The political system that’s been in force since the Constitution was ratified is fracturing, shattering. The fault lines are economic collapse, unwinnable and deadly wars, and for us, the continued successful assault on us by the christian right led by Obama. That exposes, in the clearest terms, the necessity for fundamental, this is to say, revolutionary social change.


Brilliant, Bill! I love it.

By the way, keep up the good fight over at Queerty. I love your comments there, and I know the other commenters jump down your back a lot, but its just because you take them out of their racist little comfort zones.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | August 29, 2009 5:36 PM

Thanks. I wouldn't miss my daily racist bashing at Queerty for anything. Even if it is a little like shooting fish in a barrel - Queerty attracts more racists than any GLBT blog.

"To knock a thing down, especially if it is cocked at an arrogant angle, is a deep delight of the soul." Santayana

I can't remember when I first read that but I've always held it up as a guide to combining politics and pure fun.

Hi Phil--what follows are some thoughts along your line from a Transwoman (me). They became part of my director's notes when directing the "Vagina Monologues" a couple of years ago--Amy

Put those vaginas together!

I want us to put our vaginas together. Let us think for a moment what could happen if an open dialogue were begun. A dialogue about vaginas, and penises, and neo-vaginas, and prostheses, and having both, or none at all. What’s it like? From all sides, what’s it like to want to resist definition by what’s between your legs, knowing full well that it represents the most fundamental identity you can have? This may be a ridiculously naive notion but, isn’t it about time? Evolution is a wonderful process. Let’s evolve together. An equally naive and ridiculous notion is that continuing to stand on your side of the river shouting at the rival tribe is a good way of bringing others into partnership with you. When we shout, the poignancy of our condition is lost or ignored. Oozing self-pity doesn’t work either - acceptance in true partnership with a fellow human doesn’t come by demanding more, the means by which we are feeding our egos is just perceived to be softer. It is shouting “I want what is mine alone” nonetheless.
How do I identify and where do I fit. What’s my place? We all have a place, if we share our unique perspective without demanding that it be yours too, there is a very good chance someone will listen.

Beautiful! Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

I was going to ump in and start talking about oversimplification etc and yadayadayada. But Yasmine really got to the point of a lot of it and Toby got to other points.
Good informative conversation all around though.
as for mellowing with age, I am left of center and more radical than my son who is more slightly right of center and definitely way different from my daughter the law student who is way right of center. I'm the most radical in my family.

Rob, I can't speak for Bil, but I don't think he meant that lefties go GOP with age, but rather the mellowing is just a more chill expression of those same progressive or radical views--perhaps a bit more nuanced and restrained, like a fine wine. But just as complex and full-bodied as the day the barrel was tapped, and perhaps even a bit more potent!

You'd probably fit just fine under those parameters, right?

I can't say I know yet, but I hope that as I grow older in my activism I'm more like a fine wine than vinegar!

Chitown Kev | August 31, 2009 12:18 PM

Phil, this post is downright campy in spirit and gay as all get-out and I love it. The style and satire, more than anything, and the multiple locations that we all individually can inhabit was kinda the whole point.

And, of course, the black civil rights movement was actually very similar in a lot of ways.

Great conversation here, can't comment on it in that much length, at least for now.