Sunday, November 18, 2007
Where's the Revolution?
TransGriot Note: This essay was originally published in The Nation's July 5, 1993 issue and posted to the Nation's website on January 1, 1998.
by Barbara Smith
When I came out in Boston in the mid-l970s, I had no way of knowing that the lesbian and gay movement I was discovering was in many ways unique. As a new lesbian I had nothing to compare it with, and there was also nothing to compare it with in history. Stonewall had happened only six years before and the militance, irreverence and joy of those early days were still very much apparent.
As a black woman who became politically active in the civil rights movement during high school and then in black student organizing and the anti-Vietnam War movement as the sixties continued, it seemed only natural that being oppressed as a lesbian would elicit the same militant collective response to the status quo that my other oppressions did. Boston's lesbian and gay movement came of age in the context of student activism, a visible counterculture, a relatively organized left and a vibrant women's movement. The city had always had its own particularly violent brand of racism and had become even more polarized because of the crisis over school busing. All of these overlapping influences strengthened the gay and lesbian movement, as well as the political understandings of lesbian and gay activists.
Objectively, being out and politically active in the seventies was about as far from the mainstream as one could get. The system did not embrace us, nor did we want it to. We also got precious little support from people who were supposed to be progressive. The white sectarian left defined homosexuality as a "bourgeois aberration" that would disappear when capitalism did. Less doctrinaire leftists were also homophobic even if they offered a different set of excuses. Black power activists and black nationalists generally viewed lesbians and gay men as anathema--white-minded traitors to the race. Although the women's movement was the one place where out lesbians were permitted to do political work, its conservative elements still tried to dissociate themselves from the "lavender menace."
Because I came out in the context of black liberation, women's liberation and--most significantly--the newly emerging black feminist movement that I was helping to build, I worked from the assumption that all of the "isms" were connected. It was simply not possible for any oppressed people, including lesbians and gay men, to achieve freedom under this system. Police dogs, cattle prods, fire hoses, poverty, urban insurrections, the Vietnam War, the assassinations, Kent State, unchecked violence against women, the self-immolation of the closet and the emotional and often physical violence experienced by those of us who dared leave it made the contradictions crystal clear. Nobody sane would want any part of the established order. It was the system--white supremacist, misogynistic, capitalist and homophobic--that had made our lives so hard to begin with. We wanted something entirely new. Our movement was called lesbian and gay liberation, and more than a few of us, especially women and people of color, were working for a revolution.
Revolution seems Like a largely irrelevant concept to the gay movement of the nineties. The liberation politics of the earlier era, which relied upon radical grass-roots strategies to eradlcate oppression, have been largely replaced by an assimilationist "civil rights" agenda. The most visible elements of the movement have put their faith almost exclusively in electoral and legislative initiatives, bolstered by mainstream media coverage, to alleviate discrimination. When the word "radical" is used at all, it means confrontational, "in your face" tactics, not strategic organizing aimed at the roots of oppression.
Unlike the early lesbian and gay movement, which had both ideological and practical links to the left, black activism and feminism, today's "queer" politicos seem to operate in a historical and ideological vacuum. "Queer" activists focus on "queer" issues, and racism, sexual oppression and economic exploitation do not qualify, despite the fact that the majority of "queers" are people of color, female or working class. When other oppressions or movements are cited, it's to build a parallel case for the validity of lesbian and gay rights or to expedite alliances with mainstream political organizations. Building unified, ongoing coalitions that challenge the system and ultimately prepare a way for revolutionary change simply isn't what "queer" activists have in mind.
When lesbians and gay men of color urge the gay leadership to make connections between heterosexism and issues like police brutality, racial violence, homelessness, reproductive freedom and violence against women and children, the standard dismissive response is, "Those are not our issues." At a time when the gay movement is under unprecedented public scrutiny, lesbians and gay men of color and others committed to antiracist organizing are asking: Does the gay and lesbian movement want to create a just society for everyone? Or does it only want to eradicate the last little glitch that makes life difficult for privileged (white male) queers?
The April 25 March on Washington, despite its historical importance, offers some unsettling answers. Tho comments that I've heard repeatedly since the march is that it seemed more like a parade than a political demonstration and that the overall image of the hundreds of thousands of participants was overwhelmingly Middle American, that is, white and conventional. The identifiably queer--the drag queens, leather people, radical faeries, dykes on bikes, etc.--were definitely in the minority, as were people of color, who will never be Middle American no matter what kind of drag we put on or take off.
A friend from Boston commented that the weekend in Washington felt like being in a "blizzard." I knew what she meant. Despite the fact that large numbers of lesbians and gay men of color were present (perhaps even more than at the 1987 march), our impact upon the proceedings did not feel nearly as strong as it did six years ago. The bureaucratic nineties concept of "diversity," with its superficial goal of assuring that all the colors in the crayon box are visible, was very much the strategy of the day. Filling slots with people of color or women does not necessarily affect the politics of a movement if our participation does not change the agenda, that is, if we are not actually permitted to lead.
I had had my own doubts about attending the April march. Although I went to the first march in 1979 and was one of the eight major speakers at the 1987 march, I didn't make up my mind to go to this one until a few weeks before it happened. It felt painful to be so alienated from the gay movement that I wasn't even sure I wanted to be there; my feelings of being an outsider had been growing for some time.
I remember receiving a piece of fundraising direct mail from the magazine Outlook in 1988 with the phrase "tacky but we'll take it" written next to the lowest potential contribution of $25. Since $25 is a lot more than I can give at any one time to the groups I support, I decided I might as well send my $5 somewhere else. In 1990 I read Queer Nation's manifesto, "I Hate Straights," in Outweek and wrote a letter to the editor suggesting that if queers of color followed its political lead, we would soon be issuing a statement titled, "I Hate Whiteys," including white queers of European origin. Since that time I've heard very little public criticism of the narrowness of lesbian and gay nationalism. No one would guess from recent stories about wealthy and "powerful" white lesbians on TV and in slick magazines that women earn 69 cents on the dollar compared with men and that black women earn even less.
These examples are directly connected to assumptions about race and class privilege. In fact, it's gay white men's racial, gender and class privileges, as well as the vast numbers of them who identify with the system rather than distrust it, that have made the politics of the current gay movement so different from those of other identity-based movements for social and political change. In the seventies, progressive movements--especially feminism--positively influenced and inspired lesbians' and gays' visions of struggle. Since the eighties, as AIDS has helped to raise consciousness about gay issues in some quarters of the establishment, and as some battles against homophobia have been won, the movement has positioned itself more and more within the mainstream political arena. Clinton's courting of the gay vote (at the same time as he did everything possible to distance himself from the African-American community) has also been a crucial factor in convincing the national gay and lesbian leadership that a place at the ruling class's table is just what they've been waiting for. Of course, the people left out of this new gay political equation of mainstream acceptance, power and wealth are lesbians and gay men of color.
Our outsider status in the new queer movement is made even more untenable because supposedly progressive heterosexuals of all races do so little to support lesbian and gay freedom. Although homophobia may be mentioned when heterosexual leftists make lists of oppressions, they do virtually no risk-taking work to connect with our movement or to challenge attacks against lesbians and gays who live in their midst. Many straight activists whose politics are otherwise righteous simply refuse to acknowledge how dangerous heterosexism is, and that they have any responsibility to end it. Lesbians and gays working in straight political contexts are often expected to remain closeted so as not to diminish their own "credibility" or that of their groups. With so many heterosexuals studiously avoiding opportunities to become enlightened about lesbian and gay culture and struggle, It's not surprising that nearly twenty-five years after Stonewall so few heterosexuals get it. Given how well organized the Christian right is, and that one of its favorite tactics is pitting various oppressed groups against one another, it is past time for straight and gay activists to link issues and work together with respect.
The issue of access to the military embodies the current gay movement's inability to frame an issue in such a way that it brings various groups together instead of alienating them, as has happened with segments of the black community. It also reveals a gay political agenda that 1s not merely moderate but conservative. As long as a military exists, it should be open to everyone regardless of sexual orientation, especially since it represents job and training opportunities for poor and working-class youth who are disproportionately people of color. But given the U.S. military's role as the world's police force, which implements imperialist foreign policies and murders those who stand in its way (e.g., the estimated quarter of a million people, mostly civilians, who died in Iraq as a result of the Gulf War), a progressive lesbian and gay movement would at least consider the political implications of frantically organizing to get into the mercenary wing of the military- industrial complex. A radical lesbian and gay movement would of course be working to dismantle the military completely.
Many people of color (Colin Powell notwithstanding) understand all too well the paradox of our being sent to Third World countries to put down rebellions that are usually the efforts of indigenous populations to rule themselves. The paradox is even more wrenching when U.S. troops are sent to quell "unrest" in internal colonies like South Central Los Angeles. Thankfully, there were some pockets of dissent at the April march, expressed in slogans like: "Lift the Ban--Ban the Military" and "Homosexual, Not Homicidal--Fuck the Military." Yet it seemingly has not occurred to movement leaders that there are lesbians and gays who have actively opposed the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, military intervention in Central America and apartheid in South Africa. We need a nuanced and principled politics that fights discrimination and at the same time criticizes U.S. militarism and its negative effect on social justice and world peace.
The movement that I discovered when I came out was far from perfect. It was at times infuriatingly racist, sexist and elitist, but also not nearly so monolithic. There was at least ideological room to point out failings, and a variety of allies willing to listen who wanted to build something better.
I think that homosexuality embodies an innately radical critique of the traditional nuclear family, whose political function has been to constrict the sexual expression and gender roles of all of its members, especially women, lesbians and gays. Being in structural opposition to the status quo because of one's identity, however, is quite different from being consciously and actively opposed to the status quo because one is a radical and understands how the system works.
It was talking to radical lesbians and gay men that finally made me decide to go to the April 25 march. Earlier in the month, I attended an extraordinary conference on the lesbian and gay left in Delray Beach, Florida. The planners had made a genuine commitment to racial and gender parity; 70 percent of the participants were people of color and 70 percent were women. They were also committed to supporting the leadership of people of color and lesbians--especially lesbians of color--which is almost never done outside of our own autonomous groupings. The conference felt like a homecoming. I got to spend time with people I'd worked with twenty years before in Boston as well as with younger activists from across the country.
What made the weekend so successful, aside from the humor, gossip, caring and hot discussions about sex and politics, was the huge relief I felt at not being expected to cut off parts of myself that are as integral to who I am as my sexual orientation as the price for participating in lesbian and gay organizing. Whatever concerns were raised, discussions were never silenced by the remark, "But that's not our issue." Women and men, people of color and whites, all agreed that there desperately needs to be a visible alternative to the cut-and-dried, business-as-usual agenda of the gay political mainstream. Their energy and vision, as well as the astuteness and tenacity of radical lesbians and gays I encounter all over the country, convince me that a different way is possible.
If the gay movement ultimately wants to make a real difference, as opposed to settling for handouts, it must consider creating a multi-issue revolutionary agenda. This is not about political correctness, it's about winning. As black lesbian poet and warrior Audre Lorde insisted, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." Gay rights are not enough for me, and I doubt that they're enough for most of us. Frankly, I want the same thing now that I did thirty years ago when I joined the civil rights movement and twenty years ago when I joined the women's movement, came out and felt more alive than I ever dreamed possible: freedom.