By Kelly Jean Cogswell
Americans spend a lot of national energy blabbing about the rights of individuals, and how to protect them, and then beat the crap out of everyone that shows the slightest signs of difference. The queer community’s just the same. We celebrate the Stonewall Riots every June, but focus all our energy on getting the right to serve in the army or marry. We rarely examine just why we take such a physical and emotional battering in school, or acknowledge the multitude of hardships afterwards that can’t be solved by the law or a bout of positive thinking.
Last week, long-time lesbian activist Maxine Wolfe reminded me how hard it still is for many dykes to make a living or get health care. And it’s true. Even now it’s practically impossible for us to find conventional jobs if we refuse to put on the straight female drag of pumps and pantyhose, and big smiles for the big bosses which are still almost all male. Female bosses are not reassuring. They too often besiege us with curious and intrusive questions, demanding to know just what makes lesbians tick.
“It Gets Better” is often a lie, unless you think having a freer social life is a consolation for having to work shitty, low-paying jobs, while still struggling to make ends meet. Or living with your parents. Or taking somebody else’s old meds when you get sick because you can’t afford to go to the doctor. No, if you can’t get a job, laws protecting queer employment don’t improve life a bit. Ditto for efforts forcing employers to cover our partners. Because you have to get that foot in the door first.
The LGBT movement is failing us as they focus almost exclusively on their legal laundry list, unaware, or indifferent to the fact that the benefits of law are usually restricted to those that conform to broader social norms. And many queers can’t, or won’t. And shouldn’t have to. Social change isn’t any change at all if it still depends on a majority of our community having baby showers and babies, and tying themselves in matrimonial knots.
LGBT folks often look towards the civil rights movement for inspiration. We might also want to look at the history of race in America as a cautionary tale for what will greet us if we continue blindly forward. The military was theoretically desegregated in 1948. The last laws forbidding interracial marriage were dumped in 1967 by the Supreme Court around the same time a lot of antidiscrimination laws were passed regarding employment.
But in 2012, even under our first black president, all you have to do is turn on the radio or read the congressional record to hear racist filth with concrete consequences. Incarceration rates of people of color are still hugely disproportionate to those of whites. Statistics on economic inequality are a nightmare. Racism is still alive and well in these United States of America. Which should be a lesson that legal change—while essential-- is not nearly enough.
For queers, the solution might be in reconsidering our roots. Maybe it’s time to downplay a little the legacy of the Mattachine Society demanding equal rights and asserting our sameness under the law, and recover our modern origins in the Stonewall Riots and liberation movements. Their goal were not to squish us into square holes, but open up society enough to make room for us all, maybe even rejoice in our difference. If biological diversity is important to the health of our planet, surely cultural and individual difference should be considered an incredible resource when it comes to fostering new ideas and renewing a moribund nation.
The change has to begin with us, inside the LGBT community. The last time we were anywhere near equilibrium in tactics was at the ‘93 March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. In DC, and in our daily lives, the presence of national organizations focused largely on equality was offset by groups like Queer Nation and the Lesbian Avengers who threw the first Dyke March anywhere and mobilized 20,000 dykes. We’d also just experienced a flowering of queer art and theater that allowed us to unapologetically explore our own difference.
Unfortunately, mainstream organizations tend to treat activists focusing on social gains and liberation either as loudmouthed buffoons or dangerous threats to their largely assimilationist message: “We’re just like you.”
Activist queers, and queers of the left aren’t much better, refusing to acknowledge the role of the law in locking in progress. We have far less power and money, but equally oppressive orthodoxies, and our own ideological enforcers attacking any sheep that might stray towards an original thought and god forbid, propagate it. As if too much freedom was a horrifying and constant threat. Me, I’m ready to risk it.