After the attempted muzzling of trans* folks and undocumented queers last week at the marriage equality rally in Washington, D.C., there has been a lot of heated rhetoric about HRC, and marginalization within the LGBT justice movement. This subject is not new, but the recent publicity provides a great chance to talk about how and why such marginalization proliferates, as well as strategies for greater inclusion and reprioritization.
The main reason for how and why, I'm afraid, is no novel revelation: Money makes the world go 'round. Is it any coincidence that the steady progress for LGBT equality follows the wake of our increased presence as a target market of the corporate world? Those members of our community who are able to prove themselves valuable participants in our economy are the ones who gain a seat at the table. Money talks.
Queers started gaining more socially respectable visibility in the final third of the 20th century, and it did not take long for companies to realize gay couples were more likely to fall into that much-courted cash-cow category: DINKs -- Double Income, No Kids. It's easy to envision the covetous drool whelming the maws of skeezy, palpitating, pinstriped marketing execs.
When companies market or reach out to a marginalized group, the group feels seen, appreciated. Loyalties form. Business relationships form. Eventually, investments are made. The company and market come to rely on each other financially. Soon, the company uses what power it has to protect what has become a valuable market -- it institutes tolerant policies, its media/advertising presence grows more progressive, it donates to political campaigns, it awards grants to non-profits and donates to charities. The marginalized group comes to see these companies as allies. This sounds positive at first blush. However, this entire relationship is built on money, and it is only the interests of their market, i.e. those with disposable income, that are represented. Those without disposable income, often those intersecting identities of oppression, cannot buy in. Their interests are not represented, because their interests are not valuable.
LGBT rights organizations are still headed mostly by whites, men and the cisgender because they're the ones with the most scratch. That's no secret or leap of logic. However, there are broader, more covert forces that produce and protect that all-too-familiar outcome -- primarily, the prejudicial hegemony of Western capitalism.
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself: "OK, Comrade Cordes. Chill out. Capitalism may have started out prejudiced, but it's not the 18th century anymore. Capitalism is not some meticulously mapped-out global oppression conspiracy." To this I would respond: You're right. The dominance of the owning class comes about not through sinister, calculated capitalist plans for financial oppression (I mean, I hope not usually) -- it is just the default outcome of the system.
Our economic principles and societal foundation were set up by and for white, racist, wealthy, able-bodied, straight, cis men, and those institutional biases are still present to this day. They're present in our legal code, our tax system, our education system, they're all tied into capitalism to deliver income, security, education and other social privileges to certain groups over others ... Or do we think statistics like these just result from the same unrelated coincidences year after year after year? It's a certain type of person around which societies' founders and leaders create and shape our institutions of education, law, property, employment, etc., and that person is not trans*, not black, not foreign, not poor ... this is not done purposefully (again, I hope not usually), it's just the lens through which those founders and leaders see the world.
Unless everyone involved in each step of capitalism's functioning -- sourcing, production, investment, payment, management -- maintains awareness of this fact and makes just representation and reward a priority, the scales' tendency will tip back to the default. It's a problem that's more about astute education, vigilant awareness and social conscience, and less about pure greed, which is how many critics of capitalism misguidedly simplify the issue. Though, to be fair, there are undoubtedly a few Gordon Geckos out there as well.
Yes, Non-profits Too
Now you might be thinking: "OK, capitalism might be flawed, but lots of organizations are focused on social justice and do not care solely about profit. In fact, Drew, there's a whole industry of socially conscious organizations called non-profits! And not all of them are run by wealthy white men!"
Correct. But unfortunately, that's not so simple either. Even those non-profits with diverse leadership and completely just, altruistic goals are liable to be swallowed up by the machinations of capitalism. To explain how, I'll use a statement from INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, a national activist organization of radical feminists of color, and make my own explications in italicized parentheticals. Brace yourself for some balloon-bursting.
The non-profit industrial complex is a system of relationships between: the state (or local and federal governments); the owning classes; foundations; and non-profit/NGO social service & social justice organizations. (It) results in the surveillance, control, derailment, and everyday management of political movements. The state uses non-profits to:
- monitor and control social justice movements (through restrictive bureaucratic channels wielding decisive power over what actions do and do not violate the qualifications for various legal statuses like 501(c)3, (c)4, etc.);
- divert public monies into private hands through foundations (through tax breaks for charitable giving);
- manage and control dissent in order to make the world safe for capitalism (by using its bureaucratic leverage, and allowing wealthy philanthropists to influence the direction and goals of the organization through the giving or withholding of funds);
- redirect activist energies into career-based modes of organizing instead of mass-based organizing capable of actually transforming society (i.e., activists' primary concerns become their own careers instead of mobilizing communities);
- allow corporations to mask their exploitative and colonial work practices through "philanthropic" work (i.e., the good PR of charitable giving trumps the bad shit -- see LGBT supporters like Nike, which still exploits foreign workers and faces allegations of child labor, AIG, the crimes of which we are all familiar ... Seriously, look up "LGBT corporate donors" on Google, and then spend some time Googling the name of each company plus the words "abuse" or "investigation" or "exploitation" or "labor");
- encourage social movements (to spend more of their time and resources fundraising and marketing themselves to possible donors, and thus) to model themselves after capitalist structures rather than to challenge them.
So, is it any surprise organizations like HRC routinely lose sight of inclusive justice objectives? HRC is a gigantic, fund-hunting, non-profit behemoth. It has donors to answer to if it wants to maintain its influence and if its employees still want jobs. Those donors want results, therefore, HRC needs victories to prosper. If a victory comes at the expense of the marginalization of a few, well, then in the long run it's worth it because it ensures its continued existence, which will get around to fighting for that marginalized group at some point anyway. Just be patient.
If you thought this was bad, consider the fact that the Supreme Court's infamous Citizens United ruling gave even more direct power to corporate donors by equating their political spending to the freedom of speech that individuals enjoy. The few limitations and restrictions we had on corporate capitalist influence in the social and political spheres are being stripped away. If the voices of queer and trans* people of intersecting identity were going unheard before, the Citizens United ruling may have cut out their tongues.
The fact that the latest manifestation of capitalist marginalization (brought to you by HRC, transphobia and xenophobia) occurred outside the Supreme Court's DOMA hearing illuminates some uncanny and discouraging symmetry -- because even U.S. v. Windsor centers on the queer contribution to capitalism. From Forbes:
The case before the Court involves Edith Windsor, whose partner of 44 years, Thea Spyer, died in 2009 when the federal exemption (ceiling for the estate tax) was $3.5 million and the top tax rate was 45%. Since, under DOMA, the couple was not considered married under federal law, Windsor had to pay $363,053 in federal estate tax.
That's right. The foundation of the marriage equality argument is that we must help super-rich people stay super-rich by avoiding paying more in taxes. Constitutional rights and freedom? Pursuit of happiness? Nope. It's the potential compromise of gay purchasing power that's on trial. We can't allow that money to be taken for social programs or ease the tax burden on the poor and middle class now, can we?
This is the true tragedy of our movement. Our few members whom capitalism favors, in turn, use their power and financial advantage to buy into the system further, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Money begets money. Power begets power. Our acceptance has become synonymous with assimilation into the very institutions that continue to oppress us and other minorities.
Queers of the World Unite
The struggle for trans* empowerment and justice (not just a legal pronouncement of "equality") will be particularly difficult since we lack both the financial clout (we struggle even to find low-paying menial work currently) as well as the numbers to ever constitute a niche market. Therefore, capitalism will not lay the road for trans* justice. It will, in fact, fight against us. If income equates to seats at the table, we won't have very many. We cannot court wealthy donors and corporations that view our existence as beneficial or profitable. We cannot make the "We're just like you!" claim that so much of the mainstream LGBT movement is based upon.
But the good news is: We shouldn't want to.
Equality bought is not equality; it's a sentence in a law book that will provide a handful of discrimination victories in court each year (which, by the way, are very hard to prove, assuming one has the money to bring about a lawsuit in the first place -- a lot of trans* folks are economically disadvantaged, remember). A sentence in a law book will not change how we are treated in everyday life. And subverting who we are and softening how we are perceived to get that sentence written is not equality either.
Equality earned is demanding to be seen as we are. Equality earned is directly addressing the institutions that kill, imprison, and marginalize us every day. Equality earned is individual, inspired, unfunded, grassroots mobilization. Equality earned is a fucking uprising.