Alex Blaze

Confusion: How the LGBT movement still refuses to have a real ideological debate

Filed By Alex Blaze | June 10, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement

This post is all after the jump since I'm really just responding to a few of the mini-debates from these past couple weeks (concerning certain LGBT orgs). I quote the dictionary so don't click to read the full post and then call this boring.

Ideology, tone, and tactics

I'm not jumping in this debate since all of Gay, Inc., looks the same to me (the burden of proof is on the people saying they're changing politics, and three months isn't enough time to judge, just to provide constructive criticism), but if you're going to discuss, consider specifying whether you or someone else is criticizing:

  1. Ideology
  2. Tone
  3. Tactics

Ideology refers to a belief system about the way the world works and a vision for how it should work. Tone refers to the emotional side of politics, how hot or cold one is, how patient or impatient one is, as well as how committed one is to working to change the status quo. Tactics refers to concrete actions taken, as well as the effectiveness of the same.

These are three independent concepts, and they're worth discussing separately. A person can be criticized for the efficacy of their actions while both she and the critic agree on a vision. Or sometimes there's a disagreement on ideology but an agreement on action (I saw quite a few different kinds of people go to the NEM, for example). Or maybe there's a difference in tone and that's it (common in my home away from home, the blogosphere).

Radical vs. Reformist: It's about what you believe

The term "radical" is specifically about ideology. I hate to go to the dictionary, but from some of the commentary I've seen both here and elsewhere, well.... Here's the relevant definition of "radical":

c : of, relating to, or constituting a political group associated with views, practices, and policies of extreme change

And here's "reform":

2 : a removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors

Notice the difference? Radicalism wants to fundamentally change society, the way it thinks, talks, understands reality, and acts. Reformism wants to correct specific wrongs while keeping basic structures in place. Neither term gives any specific prescriptions, but they both refer to different classes of ideologies.

For example, for the problem of employment discrimination against LGBT people, a reformist response is ENDA, as well as more-comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. A radical response would include anti-discrimination legislation and also call for an end to at-will employment, increased organizing to shift power away from employers to workers, and a larger safety net so that LGBT people who lose their jobs can still live a half-way decent life.

If two groups of people have the same ideology, then they are both radical or they are both reformist (or conservative, etc.). A group of people with a reformist ideology can't be "radical" based on their tone or actions; the word just doesn't work that way.

Little space to discuss ideology

The reason I post this is because ideology generally gets ignored in discussions of the LGBT movement. We all agree (or so it seems) on the same vague idea of equality, which will happen roughly when a certain list of legislation is passed, and the debate is on how to get that legislation passed. Not only is that mentality a major turn-off for people who would otherwise want to be involved in the movement, it's also keeping us from advocating these positions effectively or really even understanding why they're important (and they may just not be all that important).

We've instead conflated identity with ideology, saying that if you're LGBT in some way you have to believe X, Y, and Z are good ideas. In its more annoying form, this sort of identity politics causes people to call anyone who disagrees a "homobigot" or "self-hating" (both useful terms in the appropriate context). In its more common form, this is the main reason we don't even feel a need to ask what sort of legislation will help us, whether the changes needed will all come from legislation or litigation, etc. It short-circuits that debate and offers up a complete package that you either have to take or leave.

Part of what we do here at TBP is to provide space for ideological debate. A movement cannot subsist on accusing people of being "pro-gay" or "anti-gay" alone; eventually it has to understand the hows and the whys of these issues beyond the talking points.

And that's part of what bugs me about this recent discussion of GetEqual, with them positioning themselves as ideologically opposed to HRC: they're pretending like they're filling a niche in the movement that they're not. Actual radical queers that I know aren't signing up for GetEqual actions, and there are reasons for that that are worth debating.

Here's a quote from Robin McGehee that makes it clear that their differences with HRC aren't ideological:

Your thoughts and visions of MAJOR collaboration [between LGBT orgs like HRC and GetEqual] are EXACTLY what I hope we all will begin to build and see out of our movement as we move step by step towards equality.

Here's Heather Cronk:

The onslaught of an unpredictable LGBT direct action outfit is the best blessing that the movement could ask for -- while HRC is in White House meetings, GetEQUAL hands them a "radical, unpredictable left" that can take the blame for crazy shenanigans while the moderate and reasonable orgs sit nicely at the table and negotiate.

They see their work as supplementing the work done by HRC. Someone with a different ideology, a different vision for a queer-accepting world than HRC's, would not want their work to advance an agenda they don't agree with. While their tone and actions are different and worth endless debate (even better, if you're defending their actions, why don't you participate in some of them? The GetEqual folks are friendly and the goal of their organization is to help others become activists), their ideology is fundamentally the same.

That is, if a radical group of activists who managed to put together some effective demos found out that HRC was telling Obama and Congressional Democrats that all they needed to do was pass ENDA or something to get the radicals to stop, these radicals would accuse HRC of co-opting their actions. They wouldn't see it as part of some big movement towards "equality" (equality itself being an inherently reformist goal).

This is nothing new in American liberal politics. Just look at our last Democratic presidential primary, which was sustained on the differences in tone and identity and personal history of two candidates with identical ideologies. There was plenty of heated debate during that primary season, just none of it on anything of importance. And look how that turned out - some people were actually surprised that Obama wasn't a leftist like them.

These sorts of debates are important to get people committed to a cause, and both the LGBT movement and the larger left-ish movement is avoiding them when really neither should. It's counterproductive - the left is historically sustained by a deep and complicated, yet clear, ideological understanding of the world in the face of a rightwing that tries to confuse and lie and throw crumbs at people so that they can advance their very simple goal: get money and power to the already rich and powerful.

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I'm not so sure we can simply dismiss the right as power to the rich and powerful anymore, Alex. IMHO, we're seeing something a lot more complex: frustration with the federal government's seemingly inability to get anything done, a growing concern over the issue of illegal immigration, the constant threat of worldwide terrorism... an in-general lack of stability in society, period, that many folks, on both the left and the right, wish we didnt have to endure as we progress to the next very uncertain part of our history. No one knows where to look for guidance anymore, because, frankly, no one can be trusted to provide that guidance in any meaningful form.

And it's showing up even within our own little movement: the HRC has proven itself near worthless, with a leader who appears more interested in appearances than anything else. GetEQUAL is too radical for some folks, too tame for others. And our representatives in DC? The less said of them, the better.

So what have we got? Right now, from where I'm sitting, not a whole lot.

Perhaps I take the right's rhetoric less seriously than you do. Their positions, from tax cuts to deregulation to increased power for the church, all center around giving more money and power to the wealthy and powerful. Even if they complain about government getting nothing done, their solution is to make it do less (small enough to drown in a bathtub!).

That's why they tend to be richer than people in general. Yes, there are working class conservatives, because a movement can't win elections without them, but that doesn't change the fundamentals of conservative ideology.

But that's just it: the last election round demonstrated that the right isnt just the rich anymore. It's (if you will) trickled down to the middle and lower classes, all of whom are feeling frustrated and impotent. They see tax cuts as a God-given right, even as the debt grows more and more and more substantive. They want less governance, even as they scream for DC to fix the mess in the Gulf. The new law in Arizona? If anything, it *hurts* the wealthy, because for decades, they've depended on that cheap labour... so they would be the last to want the illegals out of this country.

Yes, I do see it a lot more seriously, because people are responding positively to this mindless rhetoric. Common sense -- again, as demonstrated in the last election cycle -- takes a back seat when white-hot patriotism ladled over national paranoia becomes the political platform du jour.

Yes to "We've instead conflated identity with ideology, saying that if you're LGBT in some way you have to believe X, Y, and Z are good ideas."

And much else here, including:
"the left is historically sustained by a deep and complicated, yet clear, ideological understanding of the world in the face of a rightwing that tries to confuse and lie and throw crumbs at people so that they can advance their very simple goal: get money and power to the already rich and powerful."

Which is exactly why I (along with many others) charaterise HRC, GetEqual etc *AS* the right in the U.S. - it's easy to set yourself up as the left if you pretend that the Westboro Church and the Mormons are your only opponents. But take away that easy ideological caricature, and the picture gets more complicated. Hence, as you put it, "A movement cannot subsist on accusing people of being "pro-gay" or "anti-gay" alone; eventually it has to understand the hows and the whys of these issues beyond the talking points."

Incidentally, Mattilda made a similar point today on this great appearance on NPR today:

I'm perennially bemused by analyses of the different politics of different LGBT orgs - when, in fact, they're fighting for exactly the same right-wing agenda: marriage, hate crimes legislation, and a justification for war (cloaked as a fight against DADT).

Which isn't to say that those issues don't actually represent forms of inequality or oppression - there is, after all, evidence of queer-bashing - it's the solution to the inequalities they represent that make these kinds of politics so retrograde and problematic.

I've been meaning to write something about what constitutes the left/radical section from the right/normative one in LGBT and other politics, so I'm glad you got this out there.

I think, Sean, that GetEqual is too *noisy* for some people. They're really not promoting anything different than HRC is. Matilda's interview positions Queer as radical and HRC/GetEqual as reformist (while she didn't specifically mention either organization).

One thing I learned in ACTUP two decades ago is that the LGBT communities mirror the politics of the population at large.

"The left" in the LGBT community is as small, disorganized and marginal as "the left" in the society at large.

The only sustainable LGBT is be straight down the middle, equal civil rights and the lot.

The discussion of class within the LGBT context alienates as many people as it magnetizes.

Whether the focus is on ENDA or DADT or housing protections or same sex marriage, there is not critical mass for successful radical queer action.

The only "radical" political debate in the LGBT community is how reformist we can be at once, shall we go incremental or for an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

We can't expect a radical politics to successfully arise from the LGBT community that are not gaining traction in the population at large.

Civil rights reforms are nothing to sneeze at, and noisier groups like GetEqual are necessary not optional in order to open the Overton Window to expand the range of political terrain in play making more ambitious gains possible.

Back in the day conservative homosexuals whined that ACTUP was too noisy and in your face, now nobody cares how noisy we were as they survive AIDS.


I agree with a lot here, but I think we talked in another thread about the Overton Window, which is about ideology. Imagine if there was a large call for affirmative action by queers, maybe ENDA would seem like less of a milestone and be easier to pass?

What would LGBT need affirmative action for? The nature of structural discrimination against LGBT is very different than that faced by blacks or women. Discrimination against us is much more sporadic than against people of color or women for a variety of reasons.

Drilling down further, the nature of discrimination between LGB and T are distinct because the discriminators see us as different and react as such.

Like Zizek writes, the most dangerous aspects of ideology is the nature of the dominant ideology to camouflage against the background of reality. That which governs our daily lives through conventional wisdom and custom yet is indescernible has more to do with reproducing aspects of dominant oppression than we'd imagine.

In this general instance, that ideology is clearly that of capitalism, but in the specific case, we would do better to address the ideological imperative that mindless rank and file queers cannot figure our way out of a paper bag unless charismatic leaders working for a 501(c)3 lead us to freedom.

Critiques of capital abound but like the weather, everyone is talking but nobody is doing much about it. There are clear models for participatory democratic political organizing, no wheel need be reinvented or conjured up from scratch here.

And those models are as threatening to the disempowerment upon which capital divides and conquers without invoking the "black" magic words of the Cold War.


Marcos wrote that "Discrimination against [LGBT] is much more sporadic than against people of color or women for a variety of reasons."

I'm not sure that this line of thinking holds up. In terms of the law, LGBT people are perhaps the last segment of society for whom legal discrimination is still remarkably widespread. Find me a law anywhere in America where blacks are specifically discriminated against.

I also don't buy the argument that, unlike people of color, LGBT can "hide" or "pass." Since when is that a good thing? Hiding and passing are very specific forms of discrimination that are forced upon us by an oppressive hetero-normative society. If you were black, but could somehow make yourself white in a given setting, would you? Should we ask you to?

>> "I also don't buy the argument that, unlike people of color, LGBT can "hide" or "pass." Since when is that a good thing?"

I dont think that's what Marcos is saying. Rather, what he *is* saying is that laws against us are applied capriciously, at the whim of whoever happens to be in power. Some places, they'll look the other way when your partner is in ER; others, they'll demand you be a married spouse or a blood relative. In some jurisdictions, if you so much as jaywalk and they find out that you're gay, your punishment is much more severe.

And yes, we *can* hide. We *can* pass. It's so easy a child of seven can do it (Quick, someone bring me a child of seven!). No, it doesnt make it right. But given how very, very poisonous some parts of the US can be, it's less about denial as it is survival.

Thank-you Alex for furthering the conversation about our so-called Movement.

Sean is correct we can't "trust" anyone, but I don't believe we should. It is a mistake to simply rely on trust. I prefer understanding. The problem with that is apathy or more accurately disinterest. About 90% of the LGBT Community is NOT interested in our dysfunctional movement. It's a bad show. It isn't based in any careful analysis or accountability, it is mostly based on "historical tactics" and expressions of "anger" and "frustration." Both of those are understandable, but are they effective.

I've never questioned the intention of GetEQUAL. I don't know Robin or Kip and I know very little about their organization. What I do know is that our fellow citizens are willing to support us, but we do nothing in that regard. We ignore them.

I appreciate the idea that we can make the conversation easier (or more easily understood) by speaking directly to ideology, but at some point we need to honestly and objectively determine what works and how we spend our resources.

We have the opportunity to move past many of our differences by making "equality" a "yes" or "no" proposition. HRC "scores" politicians. They should end that charade. You either support us or you don't.

I am glad their seems to be a renewed interest in our Movement. We need to multiply that interest to inspire the 90% of our community that is not engaged. HOW that is accomplished enables us to win our equality in short order.

Despite our differences we owe it to each other and all those who have come before us to figure out how to win. We need to transform ourselves from a numerical minority into a strong majority - one that supports and will stand for the simple human principle of equality. We need people to join us. Only then will we will achieve political and social equality.

All great points! I'm glad these posts have generated well-needed discussion.

iconoclast | June 11, 2010 9:36 AM

The comment above and your response is IMO the problem. You call for ideological debate and discourse. The first person says his opinion. And you immediately attack it and present the correct opinion! You immediately do exactly what the problem is in the LBGT "community" and at bilerico in particular. You ask for comments but when one arrive that does not fit YOUR ideology it is attacked and trashed. Your regular commenters do this every day here. The editors of your blog do it and people like the commenter below Nair make it a sport. How does this advance discourse when the forum purportedly for it is so biased and censorious?

If I may...

I dont see Alex's response as an attack. Anything but, actually. An attack would have been:


His was simply a statement of his opinion, to which I responded, and everyone was civil, and it was all good. Let's not find hardship where it doesnt exist.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | June 12, 2010 1:24 AM

This discussion is a bit vague. Let's get real.

The predominant political ideology our movement is liberalism and its twin ultraleftism. Liberals swing back and forth between being good little reformists and ultralefts in their youth and move right as they ossify. Stonewallers, HRC and LGBT Democrats represent this ideology. Their strategy centers on electing the least offensive bigots and then taking them out to lunch to beg for favors.

Conservatismis next largest grouping, represented by Log Cabineers, mainly rich, mainly Euroamerican right wing Republicans and a whole lot of Democrats. This is, for now, the most class conscious and racist grouping of GLBT folks. Their strategy centers on electing bigots who'll lower their taxes.

Feminism probably ranks third in terms of its impact. Its influence in our communities is as profound as it is widespread and progressive. The connections between the feminist and GLBT struggles as are close as they can get although that's not expressed organizationally or ideologically because of sexism, which alongside racism continue to divide our political life. The GLBT movement will advance only insofar as it can incorporate feminists and their ideas and people in minority communities and their ideas.

GLBT African American nationalist sentiment noticeably increased in LGBT political life with the election of Obama. I don't think LGBT Blacks were ever particularly shy about criticizing racism but now they have a larger impact in exposing it. That was demonstrated by the widespread and very combative rejection of the racist notion that African American voters, instead of Obama and the bungling of EQCA/No on 8 were responsible for the loss of SSM in California.

Religious ideologues continue to represent a problem, in many cases emphasizing personal 'salvation' and reforming cults instead of action for equality. Integrity, congregations like Sha'ar Zahav, Dignity, Imaan and Lutherans Concerned are a few of these groups whose most valuable role IMO is in exposing the extreme forms of salvationism that are a breeding ground for born again and ex gay experimentation.

Although small, socialist and revolutionary socialist ideas are spreading in our communities and in society as a whole. Polls by Rasmussen (1), Pew (2) and Gallup (3) show a sudden and remarkable shift in opinions about the merits of capitalism. Mass homelessness and a 17% Depression rate of long term unemployment may have something to do with that.

Socialists as a rule, and revolutionary socialists as a whole support mass action, movement democracy and the formulation of reasonable but militant demands that can't be met by the Democrats or Republicans. (One thing of note in all the polls is the large number of people who identify as Democrats and who support socialist ideas. It's close to half in all three polls. That's a wooden stake to the heart for the right centrist leaders of the Democrats.)

Ideologies are not defined in blog discussions but in action, on the shop floor, in the fight of antiwar GIs, for choice and immigrant rights and to protect GLBT youth from intimidation, violence and murder. In our community ideological questions won't be solved until we create regional and national assemblies of activists who can vote on them and elect leaders.