The Gay Rights Movement Goes to the Mall: Envisioning an Anarchist Alternative to Queer Political Co-optation
By Tom Thomson
Our dreams of liberation, our vision of a society free of homophobia and sexist oppression, have been quietly stolen by our well-connected, privileged leaders in the gay rights movement. In their place, we are handed an altogether different vision, that of a homogenous, affluent “Queer Nation” in which our identities and empowerment are commodities directly connected to our power as consumers, and through which we will all assume our rightful place at the table of the American dream. This goal is incredibly troubling, and not only because it has absolutely no grounding in the harsh realities we face in a capitalist political economy rigidly organized in along hierarchies of overlapping systems of control and repression. But how did a political and social movement with such revolutionary potential and radical beginnings go so completely wrong?
A quick overview of the guiding principles and strategies of the largest, most visible queer political organizations in this country, among them the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, is very instructive in charting the course of the movement’s descent into harmless co-optation. With the simultaneous emergence of the AIDS epidemic and of the fundamentalist Christian backlash against queer empowerment in the early 1980s as its historical context, these prominent gay rights organizations have gradually adopted an “integrationist” approach that seeks to fully assimilate queer people into the American political and social environment. The foundations of this activist project are:
- intensive lobbying of local, state, and federal governments, with the goal of gaining legal concessions such as the strengthening of hate-crimes laws, the passage of laws prohibiting anti-queer discrimination in employment and housing, and legal recognition of queer domestic partnership;
- building alliances with liberal politicians and government officials in both the Democratic and, amazingly, the Republican parties;
- a campaign to convince the heterosexual majority that queer people are decidedly NOT deviants or a threat to prevailing notions of patriarchal social hierarchy-that we are “just like them”-as a response to specific political provocations (the public relations efforts designed to oppose anti-queer ballot initiatives or laws, for example) and as part a broader cultural politics (the appearance of “normal” images of non-threatening, predominantly white and middle-class queer images in mass media entertainment programming).
Accordingly, the contemporary gay rights movement has avoided the opportunity to advance any substantive critique of either corporate capitalism or the power of the state. Instead, the movement has consciously chosen to align itself with the “progressive” factions of the State and corporate America in order, one presumes, to build and safeguard a political power base.
Judging this strategy strictly on the basis of its own logic and merits, the results are mixed at best. Do the victories won through non-confrontational, electoral activism really represent progress for the vast majority of queer people in this society? A variety of realities suggests that such efforts do not. The hate-crimes laws and insurance benefits that constitute the focus of mainstream queer activism have done nothing to stem the dramatic increase in reported acts of homophobic violence. Nor has the growing public acceptance and marketability of queer celebrities served to effectively counteract the resurgence of well-funded reactionary anti-queer organizing within the religious far right. Quite honestly, the lived experience of intimidation, harassment, and violence that brutally shapes the lives of the most vulnerable and least visible segments of queer society-queer youth and poor and working class queers-proves that the organizing tactics and priorities of mainstream queer political groups have resoundingly failed. This failure is the product of internal tensions and contradictions within the gay rights movement, contradictions that boil down to the fundamental incompatibility of a liberation struggle with accommodation to an exploitative, violently oppressive political system and economy.
The Trap of Statist Solutions
Again, the non-confrontational activism of mainstream queer groups, replete with tireless fundraising and incessant lobbying of Congress and state governments, has yielded some concrete results, including the landmark passage of a “civil union” bill in Vermont last year. But the scope and effectiveness of these gains are severely limited for reasons that call the very logic of appealing to state authority as an agent for social change into question. The high priority attached to electoral politics by groups such as the Human Rights Campaign is especially problematic. Even with all of the money and activists’ labor devoted to promoting largely symbolic legislation outlawing some superficial forms of discrimination against queers, the organizational strength of anti-queer churches and groups such as Focus on the Family has managed to work even more effectively within the contours of state power. Numerous states have either overturned anti-discrimination laws or, at the behest of homophobic political lobbying and ultra-conservative politicians, passed overtly homophobic laws throughout the 1990s.
The limitations of state power in protecting the physical safety and dignity of queer people become even clearer when you consider the nature of most homophobic violence and oppression. The state of declared political and cultural war against queer people imposed by the far right is paralleled by an even more dangerous undeclared war being waged against queer people in the streets, in schools, and often within the very institutions of state power, especially the prison system. Over 1,400 “hate crimes” against queer people were reported to the FBI in 1998, a figure that is unquestionably much larger when you take into account the number of violent acts never reported to the police and the narrow, legalistic definitions of hate crimes utilized by the police and prosecutors. The situation for queer youth is especially dangerous; neither law enforcement agencies nor school administrators have shown the slightest inclination to prevent the systematic intimidation and violence queer youth face in virtually all secondary schools. Working within “the system” on the system’s terms has failed, in the most spectacular and absolute way imaginable, to protect queer people from the most devastating assaults we face in a homophobic society. This failure should force us as radical activists to rethink our dependence upon even the “progressive” wing of the state.
The Gay Rights Mainstream as Whip Hand for Capital
The true meaning of the gay rights movement’s steadfast quest to “get a place at the table” becomes even clearer when you examine the role that corporate capitalism plays in determining the priorities and tactics of the mainstream struggle for queer liberation. Having reasoned that the surest path to social and political power rests in “our” pocketbooks, large queer organizations have in recent years loudly asserted queer America’s potential power as a monolithic bloc of affluent consumers. A popular chant overheard at a recent Pride Day march in Burlington, Vermont-”We’re Here, We’re Queer, We Shop” (!!)-perfectly illustrates the smug, classist assumption that purchasing power is a sufficient form of political leverage, that we (or, at any rate, the universalized upper middle-class queer “we”) can buy our way out of the crushing homophobia of this society. The delusions underlying this strategy would be quietly hilarious if it were not characteristic of a larger, more dangerous trend within mainstream queer activism-the infusion of corporate money that has allowed such complacent, cynical ideology to guide action.
The wholesale corporate takeover of the queer struggle functions on many different levels, but its most immediate impact has been to confirm the commitment of the movement’s leadership to the service of economic privilege, and to substantively divert the movement’s priorities away from a vision of more militant, inclusive, and anti-authoritarian struggle. Corporate sponsorship of gay pride events, and the transformation of such public actions into a veritable consumer’s paradise complete with merchandise booths and business networking expos, is only the most visible symbol of capitalist influence. A large portion of the political organizing done by the Human Rights Campaign and similar groups is subsidized by large donations from multinational corporations: HRC lists American Airlines and Verizon, both of which have histories of labor strife and attempted union-busting, as prominent sponsors, and millions of dollars have been donated by openly queer CEOs such as David Geffen to queer political lobbying efforts and election organizing. Moreover, numerous other large corporations with immense power in telecommunications and the defense industry such as Disney and General Electric are uncritically portrayed by the movement as allies in the struggle, by virtue of the insurance benefits they offer to the same-gender partners of their white-collar employees. It’s not surprising that the thorough interconnection of corporate power and queer activism has discouraged the development of even mild critiques of capitalism and state power within queer political discourse.
Indeed, the movement’s tendency to focus on the small concessions won by middle class employees and to invoke the threat of an apocryphal, all-encompassing queer upper middle class as an illustration of potential empowerment, denies the very existence of millions of poor and working-class queers. It also devalues or ignores the very real economic exploitation they suffer at the hands of the same capitalist power structure the leadership of the movement so eagerly embraces as financial patrons and allies. This inherent contradiction-advocating reform through the power of the state and within corporate structures while refusing to acknowledge the violence suffered by non-white and non-affluent queers (in the forms of poverty, police violence in communities of color, in prisons, and so on)-speaks loudly for the need for radical queers to reclaim this faltering movement.
Steps Toward an Anti-Authoritarian/Anti-Capitalist Queer Movement
As radical queers, we really do need to reinvent the wheel in order to transform the queer liberation struggle into a truly democratic, inclusive mass movement unwilling to accommodate or pander to the dictates of unjust systems of exploitation. The urgency and stakes involved in this project are growing daily. The capitalist/police state is resorting to ever harsher measures in terms of economic structural adjustment and the growing militarization of public life in order to consolidate its power and, more directly, the escalation of political, cultural, and physical attacks on queer people and the very notion of queer identity is quickly coalescing into a state of open warfare against us. The organizing issues confronting us as anti-authoritarian queers are in many ways similar to those dealt with throughout the burgeoning global struggle against capitalist/racist/sexist/police state domination, and I contend that we need to take some of the same initiatives as other, forward-thinking organizations and movements have-dedicating serious efforts to community-level organizing, alliance-building with other liberation struggles (a tactic the mainstream gay rights movement lost sight of long ago), and articulating an explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian queer analysis that connects our oppression to the larger, interlocking system of domination that shapes our lives.
It seems easy enough in the abstract. The reality is somewhat more daunting, though organizations do exist (or are emerging) that embody the forms that a more radical queer liberation movement should take. Philadelphia ACT-UP offers an instructive example. For over fifteen years, they have worked within Philadelphia’s queer communities to confront racism, homophobic public and religious institutions, and to provide direct support to HIV-positive queers; more recently, they have played instrumental roles in the planning and execution of several mass actions, most notably the A16 protests against the World Bank and IMF and the mobilization against the Republican National Convention last summer (a role in which they experienced severe police repression; one ACT-UP Philly organizer, Kate Sorenson, is at press time facing trial for six trumped-up felony charges). Among other priorities that a truly radical queer movement should address as immediately and forcefully as possible is the epidemic of violence and harassment directed at queer youth in schools. Groups such as the newly revived Queer Liberation Front have placed this issue at the forefront of their efforts, and though this form of direct action carries substantial risks, we must recognize (and, from our own experiences growing up, probably already do, if only on a subconscious level) that the war on queer youth represents the front lines of broader homophobic and patriarchal efforts to destroy us.
The noted African American lesbian poet Audre Lorde was right on the mark when she argued that we cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. This is an opportune historic and strategic moment for us to abandon those activists and organizations that seem more interested in claiming their “rightful” share of the master’s house, than in waging a meaningful struggle for the true liberation of all queer communities.