1. Transgender people are the queer community's unexamined sacrificial lamb on the altar of acceptance by straight/cis/conservative society.
Wednesday morning, The Advocate posted this question as a poll on their website:
Would you support the Employment Non-Discrimination Act if gender identity protections were again taken out of the bill?
I love the Advocate. I read their site every day. They cover lots of issues that are interesting and need attention, and often get unfairly criticized for things beyond their control.
But, seriously: WTF?
ENDA's hitting some stumbling blocks, no doubt about that. But it's not related to gender identity. Since the beginning of the House's work on ENDA this year, it's been clear that gender identity was going to be included, and, if the bill doesn't get passed, it will have nothing to do with transgender protections, which are polling quite well and almost no Reps or Senators have mentioned as an issue.
In 2007 we had a huge debate on this topic because the House wanted to offer up those protections as a way to get the ENDA through the House and.... Well, it wasn't really clear what they wanted to do after that, and it never even made it through the Democratically-controlled Senate.
Who cares, many people thought back then. It's just the transgender people. It's not like they're anything like us gay people in the first place.
Hence all the references in my previous post to rich gays being "nothing like me"; the references to me being brave and free-thinking, since the pro-ENDA split crowd loved to call themselves that because apparently believing something is one thing, being a brave believer means you're right; and all the arguments about dropping trans people from the movement replaced to attack rich gays.
Part of what I was raising was that if the standard is that we're fighting for people who are "like me," then why are transgender people the ones getting offered up as sacrificial lambs? There are plenty of people who are LGBT who live their lives less "like me" than the average trans person.
Anyway, that poll and several of the longer discussions these past few weeks on Bilerico showed me that, no matter the political situation, there are some people who are looking to convince everyone else that dropping transgender people is necessary. It makes their howls of "pragmatism" ring empty considering there's nothing pragmatic about it right now.
2. We don't have the power to determine, in a conversation on this site, the priorities or make-up of the LGBT movement
I've been reading more and more lately about the make-up of the LGBT movement, and there seems to be a fairly basic assumption that, if we came to a conclusion in the comments somewhere, that X group could be dropped from the movement. They would have to go home, regroup, and never call themselves queer again.
That was part of the point of my post the other day. I said:
These folks have nothing in common with me, so can we please start having endless discussions about cutting them out of "LGBT"?
The stress was on the "endless" nature of those discussions.
So the question I want to pose to all those people who left angry comments about me wanting to drop rich people from the LGBT (one wonders how excited the same cis-people would have gotten if I posted about dropping gender identity from ENDA): how do you think I would go about doing that? How would that be written into law?
Would we put an income cap on the ENDA? Would it apply to pay before discrimination or after discrimination? Would it be based on wealth? Would you have to have your assets audited before the EEOC would look at your case?
Similar questions apply to dropping transgender protections from the ENDA. The equations aren't as simple as "sexual orientation = LGB protections" and "gender identity = transgender protections." To me, the cultural and social links that hold "LGBT" together are intuitive, and, as Lamba Legal famously pointed out two years ago, the concepts are also linked when it comes to the law. You can't really separate out the T all that easily, so I took the idea to absurdity.
More importantly, though, is the assumption that anyone here actually has the power to kick a segment of the community out. Sure, we can do what we can to make others feel unwelcome (we're very good at that), but actually forcing transgender or rich people to stop advocating against discrimination?
(Even if we got HRC to change their name to "No Rich Snobs Allowed," they'd still argue that they're allowed one rich snob since the name is plural, and it would all be downhill from there.)
Instead of thinking of the movement as at all organized from the top-down, with a clear set of enumerated goals, it should be thought of as an organic body, with people participating with both time and money as they can, various projects and orgs starting and ending as interest increases and decreases, and priorities being set by how people want to spend their time and money in the movement.
As in, we can get everyone in the movement together for a day, they'd vote for an agenda that, perhaps, puts state-level marriage fights on the back-burner, but then a lesbian couple in Michigan who wasn't invited would just mess everything up by suing the state for marriage.
As much as we talk about the priorities, goals, and make-up of the movement, we don't have absolute power over it. Especially not us peons.
3. The way we talk about queer politics is ill-equipped to deal with questions of class and money
In that big, queer wish list (DADT repeal, DOMA repeal, ENDA, etc.), do most of us ever even consider what would actually improve our lives and what wouldn't? Or are we more concerned with LGBT folks getting a bigger piece of the pie, getting our much-deserved pinata of rights and protections, and getting recognized as a bona fide minority that experiences real discrimination?
The way we discuss homophobia, transphobia, and biphobia, usually as overt "discrimination," leaves little possibility for addressing the way people use money to secure power and influence at the expense of other people who share their same identity. As one person put it in the previous comment thread: "Equality means same" (emph. his).
But to what end does that sameness extend? More and more it's becoming clear that, in our attempt to be equal, we're really just asking to be able to buy into massive, large-scale inequality so long as there's no difference along the lines of gender identity or sexual orientation. If all that the language we developed as a community calls for is an end to substantive discrimination along the lines of immutable identity, then we aren't going to be able to address power and the way it operates, both inside and outside the community.
That's because class doesn't work well with the politics of raising up identities. There is no poverty version of gay pride, girl power, or black is beautiful. It reminds me of an exercise we used to do back in my ID politics survey class in college, where people were told to make up a list of privileges we'd lose if we were a minority in any group, depending on what that group was for that unit (and members of that group were asked to do the opposite, and imagine what would change if they were members of the dominant group). It was a great activity for starting discussion, especially when we were talking about sexism. But when we got to the unit on classism, that framework proved futile. "If I were poor, I would have less stuff." It's easy to see why being poor is less fun than being rich, and it's hard, even offensive, to try to turn being poor into a badge of honor for everyone.
It reminds me of Michel Foucault's criticism of Marxist-based movements in France in the 1960's and his disillusionment with the fact that their political language simply wasn't set up to even begin to discuss sexual liberation. There have been some attempts to discuss pleasure as the liberator of the proletariat, pleasure as a commodity, etc., but it really doesn't jive with reality as intuitively as Marxist criticism works with, say, labor or free trade.
Just as his criticism was necessary several decades ago, we need to realize now that the language of identity politics and discrimination and rights is ill-equipped to discuss class and money. As Naomi Klein put it in No Logo:
Poverty wasn't an issue that came up much back then; sure, every once in a while in our crusades against the trio of 'isms, somebody would bring up "classism," and, being out-P.C.-ed, we would dutifully add "classism" to the hit list in question. But our criticism was focused on the representation of women and minorities within the structures of power, not on the economics behinds those power structures. "Discrimination against poverty" (our understanding of injustice was generally construed as discrimination against something) couldn't be solved by changing perceptions or language or even, strictly speaking, individual behavior. The basic demands of identity politics assumed an atmosphere of plenty. In the seventies and eighties, that plenty had existed and women and non-whites were able to battle over how the collective pie would be divided: would white men learn to share, or would they keep hogging it? In the representational politics of the New Economy nineties, however, women as well as men, and whites as well as people of color, were now fighting their battles over a single, shrinking piece of the pie - and consistently failing to ask what was happening to the rest of it. For us, as students, to address the problems at the roots of "classism" we would have had to face up to the core issues of wealth distribution - and, unlike sexism, racism or homophobia, that was not what we used to call "an awareness problem."
Hence the ridiculous of attacking the issue with the language of identity politics, assuming that rich people are a discrete class and everyone else is "normal."
And that's the issues with trying to import same-ness into the LGBT community - we're going to end up inevitably replicating the same power structures found straight society.
4. Wealthy people's values are already over-represented in the LGBT movement
To be clear, the out-sized representation wealthy people have in decisions make that affect the priorities, goals, and make-up of the LGBT community isn't avoidable. As I stated above, thinking of the LGBT movement as a finite group of people that either is or was democratically controlled is a fantasy. It never was democratic, nor will it ever be. In fact, that's what I was referring to when I said:
And LGBT activists have, for reasons that completely escape me, fused our populist and radical movement with people who want DOMA repealed to escape the federal estate tax. It wasn't organic. It wasn't democratic. I don't ever remember being asked if I wanted to be lumped together with these people.
Trust me, the reasons that LGBT activists generally listen to the desires of wealthy LGBT people doesn't escape me: they provide the funds that keep most of the LGBT nonprofits going. And that's not a bad thing. There are quite a few accomplishments in the march towards queer liberation/LGBT equality that wouldn't have happened if activists and lawyers weren't able to work full-time on making them happen, thanks to the wealthy LGBT donors. (Seriously, thank you to anyone who has donated to an LGBT org that's gotten results, like Lambda Legal!)
What it does mean, though, is that the way decisions are made in the community and with relation to our activism are generally skewed towards the decisions the wealthy donors want.
It's rare to see this addressed in the community. To address that would require us to finally understand that not everyone who identifies as LGBT has the same needs. Transgender people have made some LGB people vaguely aware of this, but, when it comes to class, it's generally assumed that the same politics of identity and focus on ending discrimination along the lines of sexual orientation and gender identity is shared by everyone in the community. Everyone who's "gay," it's assumed, has the same vision for a homophobia-free world, and, since we're not trained to articulate goals along the lines of class, there aren't many who challenge that.
It's easy to think that. Before I started working on Bilerico, I generally equated the LGBT movement with same-sex marriage. It's no wonder: if we only think of inequality as blatant, stated discrimination against a minority group, then same-sex marriage (followed by DADT) is the biggest, most obvious source of LGBT oppression.
Working on this project, though, has forced me to consider the role homophobia plays in my own life. How does being gay affect me? In terms of relating to society in general, it wasn't a lack of marriage that reminded me every day that I was lesser-than; it was that I had had several jobs where I was certain I would be fired if I came out (and two at which I was because I ignored my better judgement) and that I was generally afraid of showing signs of my sexuality (like holding hands with my boyfriend) in uncontrolled environments for fear of getting the crap beat out of me that constricted me from achieving my potential.
Groups like HRC, which are often (and sometimes unfairly) criticized for only looking out for wealthy LGB's interests, get that criticism not because wealthy people shouldn't be represented in Congress, but because their representation crowds out the rest of us. HRC's yearly budget is miniscule in comparison to other lobbies and interest groups. The reason they're able to even get the time of day in Congress is because many Reps and Senators assume that they represent an important part of the interests of 5% of the population. If a representative actually thought HRC only represented the votes of their 40 or 50 top donors, then they wouldn't even get a foot in the door.
HRC then turns around and sells the resulting access back to their donors. Even the biggest fans of the org must admit that, if it didn't get access, donors wouldn't be writing checks.
After that process, though, people seem to assume that whatever trickle-down activism comes from those wealthy donors in the form of donations to the Ali Forney Center should be enough to compensate someone like me for what's being sold as my vote and my participation in civil society. More to the point, the fact that I don't have a voice in the process, we're told, is unimportant because I should be happy that those wealthy donors are helping me be represented anyway, whether I actually am represented or not.
Criticisms of groups like HRC that accuse them of only caring about "rich, white gay men" miss the mark. The point isn't that a certain identity is being favored, and that's why such criticisms are so easily dismissed. Leaving that criticism in terms of identity politics only elicits the obvious rejoinder: they're addressing the interests of black and poor and latino and Asian gay men and women as homosexuals, everything else is to be addressed by another group, org, or movement. If your complaint is that a certain identity isn't being represented, go find another movement that represents that identity.
Framing the question in terms of power, though, it's more accurate and harder to ignore.
(BTW, this is where most some people started to think that this was proof-positive that I'm a black-clad, European, Marxist intellectual wannabe, not aware, apparently, that black-clad, European, Marxist intellectual wannabes tend to be some of the worst when it comes to worshipping the ground the rich walk on, but hold middle class bourgeois society in contempt.)
5. There are sacred cows and sacrificial lambs in the LGBT movement. Why doesn't that bother more of us?
But the knee-jerk defense of rich people from one satirical call to have them removed from the LGBT movement was revealing in and of itself. It's fairly obvious from reading those comments that there's something more going on when it comes to defending the rich than just worries that they'll stop donating or that we shouldn't kick anyone out of the movement for fairness' sake.
Part of it, of course, is the very American belief that anyone can become rich if they just stopped being so damn lazy. Several people told me that I too could become a millionaire if I just worked hard, moved to an urban center, or waited for inflation to kick in (you know, I'm assuming that the estate tax exemption will be adjusted for inflation before $1,000,000 becomes the average working class savings. But that's just me).
And a bigger part of it has to do with the fact that we Americans love rich people. For all that those Goldman Sachs executives whined earlier this year that people were saying mean things about them as they were looting hundreds of millions in public funds via bonuses as the economy continued to crash, criticism of rich people for being rich is exceedingly rare.
The snooty gossip columns of yesteryear have been replaced by People magazines; now the unwashed masses can read every exciting detail in the lives of rich people. High school popularity is defined by access to the latest trends and best brands, which can only be bought with cash. Even wealthy and powerful people who commit war crimes, destroy the economy while stealing billions, and rape children have friends in major publications willing to go to bat for them, distressed that anyone could even think of trying such wonderful, rich, powerful people.
Power is an aphrodisiac, and we, as a culture, are weak in the face of power's alluring call.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some in the movement who seem all too willing to kick out transgender people for a dollar. There's almost no talk on Capitol Hill that gender identity is the reason Congress is dragging its feet on ENDA, yet the LGBT paper of record is already asking how we'd feel about dropping the T.
Some folks are a little too eager for an opportunity to kick transgender people to the curb, don't you think?
As is clear to anyone paying attention: the LGBT movement has sacred cows and sacrificial lambs. But most people don't pay attention to that.
And why should they? If a group of people is, in reality, preferred to other groups of people, it only happens because we are willing to overlook or justify the ways in which they get preferential treatment. And if another group of people is indeed disliked more than other groups of people, then people would actually harbor ill will towards them and, naturally, think that it's justified.
Anyway, that's what I meant. If you feel like disagreeing now, go ahead. But at least you'll be disagreeing with stuff I actually mean.
And, like the last time, everyone who agrees with me agrees with me, everyone who doesn't comment is assumed to agree with me, and everyone who disagrees with me only proves what a courageous and free-thinking person I am and is proving me right in the process. :)