It’s difficult to talk about “queer” activism these days. In the nineties, there was an upsurge of radical, militant organizations ranging from ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) to Queer Nation (ACT-UP successor group) to the Pink Panthers (Queer Nation splinter group, of “Bash Back!” infamy) that all advocated a celebration of sexual difference; rather than emphasizing how queer people are “just like” everyone else (read: straight people), these organizations sought to alter the public’s perception of sexuality through nothing less than a revolution.
Something about LGBTQ activism changed in the nineties, though. Bill Clinton was elected and transcended bipartisan politics through a now-famous “triangulation,” touting his own ideology as above and between the division between liberals and conservatives. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was the hot topic of the day—as documented by many scholars (Leo Bersani, Elizabeth Berlant and Lee Edelman most notably), the radical activist rhetoric of “liberation,” “emancipation” and “exploitation” of queer people shifted to one that emphasized the similarities between queer folks and heterosexuals. While previous movements focused on the constitutive difference and antagonism between queer and heterosexual perspectives and experiences, new organizations like the former Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (now merely “GLAAD”) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) came to focus on an overall narrative of sameness and tolerance amongst sexualities.
The difference this activist shift wrought on political outcomes is dramatic: unlike previous, militant movements which focused on the queer parts of queer communities, today’s movements strive to demonstrate that there’s nothing “queer” about them at all. The new assimilationist politics “struggle for acceptance [of queer folks] as good soldiers, good priests, and good parents” and reframe sexual identity as “personal” rather than “political” (Leo Bersani, “Is the Rectum a Grave?” 40).
The recent Supreme Court decisions in Windsor v. United States (struck down Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act) and Perry v. Schwarzenegger (set the stage for the judicial repeal of California’s Proposition 8) are being hailed as the new banner of the queer political movement, now recast as “LGBT.” The efforts of GLAAD and the HRC seem to have paid off; thirteen states now authorize same-sex marriages, even more recognize them, and the federal government has been banned from creating a federal definition of marriage at all. But how did we get here? Vincent Doyle, a cultural theorist, gives a cynical answer to this question in his brilliant genealogy of GLAAD that appeared in the 2008 Radical Historical Review. According to Doyle, over time, the founding members of GLAAD were gradually and slowly replaced by a new “professional breed” of lobbyists who thought that their “professional skills and connections [would be] compensation” for their lack of prior involvement in queer movements (Boyle, “But Joan! You’re My Daughter!”).
With the rise of Clinton’s politics of triangulation came the rise of neoliberal ideology; seeing the immediate success of the Democratic efforts to resolve partisan divide, social movements morphed into centrist, assimilationist organizations which likewise tried to sidestep the antagonism between radical identity politics and liberal democratic processes. Of course, it might seem like the centrist approach of groups like HRC is superior, but that’s only because these organizations have lowered everyone’s expectations so much that we’re happy to get even the smallest “human rights” advancement. Restricting the field of view to comparatively easily attainable goals like same-sex marriage increases our perceived amount of success as a movement but never attains any kind of meaningful advance over public perception of sexuality (not to downplay the very real work of activists in this area, but there’s no doubt fighting for “marriage equality” is easier than fighting against “heterosexist imperialism”). The anonymous and shifting narrators of “The Queer Nation Manifesto” write: “I hate straight people who can’t listen to queer anger without saying ‘hey, all straight people aren’t like that. I’m straight too, you know,’ as if their egos don’t get enough stroking or protection in this arrogant, heterosexist world.” Who could imagine the Human Rights Campaign saying anything that unapologetic? Radical queer militants had a broader vision of what queer activism could be; they sought to challenge dominant notions of sex, sexuality and gender through the example offered by their very living. They sought to organize their lives as a project in queerness—a queering of their own lives which positioned their everyday decisions and activities as political acts.
The “LGBT” Clintonite reaction was to trumpet a rhetoric of sexuality-as-privacy; the court cases of Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas codified this by expanding more “equal” rights to (primarily) cis-gender, middle class gay men and lesbian women. To prevent a conservative backlash to the “equal rights” movement, centrist “LGBT” rights organizations propagated a cultural narrative of sameness and similarity—“we are just like you,”—coupled with a depoliticization of personal identity achieved by deflating the formerly political questions of identity into merely personal struggles. By cordoning off the personal as a realm totally separate from the political, centrist organizations undid the very work of their queer predecessors. Forgoing questions surrounding the nature of identity as a member of the queer community allows activists to direct their efforts elsewhere. Instead of charging identities with a political “energy” the contemporary movement has tried to shove the question of identity, liberation and emancipation away from the center of activism in order to focus on the “real” substantive question of constitutional rights. Queer activism has entered a fully liberal realm now; it’s now nothing more than a regular political interest group. And it does look like we’re making progress—we’re winning the right to marry, after all. But what questions are we ignoring when we focus on “rights” as our sole political goals? Who do we exclude, whose pain are we missing, when we choose to operate within the regular legislative-judicial process rather than direct action in the streets? What of homeless queers, usually queer youth, who barely have the resources to survive daily life, let alone consider marriage?
In light of the recent successes of the marriage equality movement, we should take time to reflect on how we got from “heterosexist domination” and “queer liberation” to “homophobia” and “equal rights.” Queer activists used to think the rights of heterosexuals were oppressive—they were the very privilege which gives the heterosexual power and authority over the queer. The idea was previously that we didn’t need these institutions—that these institutions were good for one thing and one thing only: to prop up a social order bought at the expense of the queer. I’m not saying we need to return to that kind of antagonism, but that we need some kind of critical reflection on where we are and how we got here. I’m worried—extremely worried—that contemporary LGBT and equal rights movements pursue narrow, particular victories related to individual concerns like marriage at the expense of a community-based movement that fights for alternative understandings of sex, gender and sexuality. If we previously railed against heterosexist understandings of family, property, marriage, sex, gender and sexuality as the sources of our very oppression, why do we now try so desperately to show “we’re all the same”?