13 June 2011

The marriage vacuum and the future of the LGBT movement

I've been doing some thinking about the Uniting Against Hate conversation I was involved with last night. It's led me to some reflections -- not altogether uplifting -- about the state of the LGB[sometimes]T rights movement, and where we might go from here.  

At some point in the conversation, I noted that lesbian, gay and bi people have been known to be especially transphobic, and haven't really been the advocates for trans rights that they could be.  An audience member questioned me about that observation, and expressed an alternative view.  In my response, I noted that there were, indeed, abundant examples of the LGB leaving behind the T, the 2007 debacle over the Employment Non-Discrimination Act chief among them.  My critique was (and is, and has been for some time) that the focus on marriage rights above all else has done a huge disservice to other, frankly more important fights.  Marriage is a policy goal of the relatively well-to-do who can afford such things.  Sadly, too many in the LGBT community (such as it exists), have other, far more pressing issues to deal with.  I constantly harp on the four issues that the Sylvia Rivera Law Project so poignantly mapped out:  healthcare, education, employment, and housing.  

In this all-marriage-all-the-time environment, too many people have been left out:  rural folks, inner city folks, trans folks everywhere, youth everywhere, immigrants.  The professional LGBT movement has become a movement for the affluent, by the affluent.  And if you're white, then even better.  

I'm not trans, but there are many inspiring trans people in my life.  I grew up in a small town in an abusive working class home that eventually became a single-parent home where we struggled to make ends meet.  Someone from a small town nearby where I was raised came up to me last night.  He congratulated me on being able to leave.  

As I noted last night (and have written before), I was outed in high school in 1998, the same week Matthew Shepard was beaten.  In the intervening weekend, Matthew Shepard died.  The guidance counselor at my school did a rough estimate of 200 or so threats made against me in a week.  I assure you, marriage was the furthest thing from my mind.  My first consideration was survival.  

I've managed that survival bit quite well.  I was a first generation college student and graduate student.  I live in the self-appointed center of the universe.  I have a good job with good benefits.  I could adopt a cocktail party strategy of activism, aimed only at my own betterment.  Easily.  

But I don't.  I can't.  Primarily because I still remember being afraid.  

In the entire history of humanity, cocktail parties have never successfully been deployed to make a single step towards justice.  Not one step.  

As I reflect upon the histories of the early LGBT movement I've read, and recall the radicalism infused in the early movement, I note that some of the few remaining radical survivors of the late 60s and early 70s have expressed astonishment that a movement that started out eschewing traditional relationship structures and denouncing imperialist violence as a continuation of domestic oppression ended up putting most of its energies into getting married like straight people and being allowed to fight wars.  Somewhere along the way, that movement must have lost its moral compass.  

A group of people that survived the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis and the intentionally lethal neglect of the Reagan and first Bush administrations should have never, ever, ever stopped prioritizing the healthcare needs of our community.  Now a new generation is growing up, without the first memory of those years, and they're making the same sexual choices that fueled the earlier crisis.  The National Transgender Discrimination Survey found HIV infection rates in trans communities at hundreds and even thousands of times higher than the national average.  Yet when was the last time you got an email from a mainstream LGB organization asking you to stand up for healthcare?

Last fall, six young people committed suicide.  Sadly, they were six in a too long string of LGBT people of all ages who have been making the same choice for centuries.  Why did it take those six deaths for us to realize that maybe we should finally get serious about making our schools safe?  Is our movement complicit in their deaths by our years of negligence on that issue?  Have we even asked the question?

We've seen national and, like recently in Maryland and Tennessee, state and local uproar over whether or not employment discrimination should be outlawed on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression -- or some combination thereof, lest we be too forward.  LGB groups have said "we'll go ahead and get our rights now, and come back for you.  Promise."  With friends like that...

Here in DC, our moronic Office of Human Rights just proposed rulemaking that would allow for housing discrimination on the basis of sex absolutely everywhere.  Who or what defines sex they leave a mystery.  While living in North Carolina, Elijah and I sat approximately miles apart in a rental office when trying to get an apartment, knowing we could be denied a lease for being gay.  Why is it even a question that people need safe housing?  

Oh, right, these questions exist because we've spent the last 15-odd years battling for the right to be just like our oppressors, and then go shoot some folks overseas.  

I can't help but think of all the squandered energy.  All the wasted opportunities.  And all the positively harsh consequences of so much inaction on such vitally important issues as the most basic human rights and human needs.  Instead, the movement picked absolutely the most contentious issues they could possibly find, that would simultaneously benefit the smallest number of people imaginable, and went full throttle.  Somewhere along the line, the needs of the many were tossed aside in the name of the privileged few.  Those six youths may just be the first salvo of the innumerable repercussions of that choice.  

Fighting for survival isn't sexy.  It isn't glamorous.  There's no open bar, and there's a good chance nobody "important" will show up to pay lip service to the effort.  

But isn't it time we did it anyway?

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