Still Ain't Satisfied: The Limits of Equality
An acquaintance baited me with a question at a dinner party not long ago. “So, is the movement over?” she asked loudly.
I was surprised by her contemptuous tone. But because I didn’t want to embarrass my hostesses, I demurred: “Gosh, what do you mean over? Not in my mind.”
“You know, now that we have won marriage,” she said. “It’s over, done, right?”
We were dining in Massachusetts, so she was marginally correct about marriage. The question was being asked by a lesbian who had impeccable civil-rights credentials; while not an active participant in the LGBT movement, she had long been an ally. She had grown skeptical of the movement’s commitment to anything but a narrow version of equal rights. It was a revealing moment.
Several months later, I found myself listening, and protesting politely, as a major gay power broker told me that when his state legalized marriage equality, that state’s gay-rights agenda would be done. In places where marriage equality has already been achieved and opposition to it has retreated, political disagreement has arisen about remaining goals. In March, New York state’s gay lobby even fired the executive director who steered the coalition win on marriage. The given reason was that he had not articulated a clear vision and was not meeting fundraising objectives; the subtext was a dispute about the group’s agenda going forward.
The fact is that LGBT people differ in their views about the society they are fighting to achieve, about the forces arrayed against the full acceptance of LGBT people and, therefore, about when the movement will in fact be successful.
In my book Virtual Equality, written more than 17 years ago, I argued that if the LGBT movement ignored the broader and structural dynamics of racism, economic exploitation, gender inequity, and cultural freedom, it would accomplish what other civil-rights movements in America have—a partial, conditional simulacrum called equal rights. We would attain a state of virtual equality that would grant legal and formal equal rights to LGBT people but would not transform the institutions of society that repress sexual, racial, and gender difference.
The formal, largely legal measures of equality that the LGBT movement has pursued over the past two decades have become far less substantive than what it sought in the 1970s and 1980s. From a movement demanding that LGBT people be able to live a public life in a world in which queer sexualities are not only tolerated but celebrated, the movement now seeks the much narrower right to live an undisturbed private life. From an exploration of queer difference, the movement has turned into a cheerleading squad for LGBT sameness.
In my lifetime, LGBT organizations have moved away from actively working for reproductive justice, which lesbians, bisexuals, progressive gay men, and transgender people fought for throughout the 1970s and 1980s; challenging racism, which was a central plank at the first national March on Washington in 1979; and working for economic justice, which was reflected in the pro-union coalition-building done by Harvey Milk and activists in the late 1970s, in the Coors beer boycott, and in queer alliances with the United Farm Workers. No longer would we find a nationally organized LGBT presence at a major anti-war rally, as we saw at the 1981 demonstration against the war in El Salvador. Few LGBT organizations are engaged in articulating a new urban policy, seeking a more effective response to homelessness and poverty, or using their clout in the service of universal health care. Today’s mainstream LGBT movement is strangely silent on the broader social-justice challenges facing the world, oddly complacent in its acceptance of racial, gender, and economic inequalities, and vocal only in its challenge to the conditions facing a white, middle-class conception of the “status queer.”
This impoverishment of ambition and idealism is a strategic error. It misunderstands the challenge queer people pose to the status quo. It shamefully avoids the responsibility that a queer movement must take to advocate for all segments of LGBT communities. And it is deluded in its belief that legal, deeply symbolic acts of recognition—like admission into traditional institutions such as marriage—are actually acts of transformation that will end the rejection and marginalization of LGBT people. Without a broader definition of equality, the LGBT politics currently pursued will yield only a conditional equality, one that will always be contingent upon “good behavior.”
The argument here should not be misinterpreted. Equality matters, and legal rights, including the freedom to marry, are meaningful in the lives of LGBT people. Policy wins for LGBT equal rights in the U.S. have been dramatic and significant in the past few years. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy was repealed, overcoming decades of deep resistance. New state and local anti-discrimination ordinances have been enacted, defended, and expanded. Advances in court cases and state legislatures toward marriage equality were bolstered by the Justice Department’s decision not to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act. States have passed bills to address bullying in schools and to add transgender people to existing civil-rights laws. Outside the legislatures, arguments promoting greater acceptance of LGBT people have advanced within some religious denominations, reflecting strong shifts in public opinion toward acceptance across all parts of the cultural and ideological spectrum.
A growing number of governments around the world now stand strongly for LGBT rights. In December 2011, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights issued its first report on violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s remarks to the U.N. Human Rights Council this March could not have been more direct: “To those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, let me say: You are not alone. … Any attack on you is an attack on the universal values the United Nations and I have sworn to defend and uphold. Today, I stand with you, and I call upon all countries and people to stand with you, too. ... We must tackle the violence, decriminalize consensual same-sex relationships, ban discrimination, and educate the public. The time has come.’’
Belatedly, but boldly, the U.S. has stepped up its public advocacy for including sexual orientation and gender identity in human-rights policies and practices. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s extraordinary speech at the Human Rights Council on December 6, 2011, set a new high-water mark for U.S. foreign policy. “Like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal, or ethnic minority, being LGBT does not make you less human,” she said. “And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
This progress is an amazing story—one to which I have dedicated 30 years, so far. But winning these battles for equal rights is not the same as winning a new world, which once was, and should again be, the LGBT movement’s objective.
There are three major differences between an LGBT movement focused narrowly on equal rights and one focused more broadly on justice.
First, a social justice–focused movement would understand the lesson of history from the experience of our sister social movements: that equal rights represent the starting line of our struggle, not the end point. Formal legal equality—and even progress toward greater cultural recognition of one’s humanity—can be achieved while leaving larger structural manifestations of inequality and deep cultural prejudice intact. After the passage of the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, the civil-rights leader A. Philip Randolph observed that the movement suffered from the “curse of victory” in which equal rights had been achieved but “blacks still were not equal in fact.” Formal equal rights were a crucial first step; next had to come the struggle for black empowerment, freedom, and respect. The achievement of civil rights made the gap between formal and substantive equality even clearer.
Similarly, by the late 1980s, the women’s movement had won many of the formal legal gains it sought, despite the failure of the federal Equal Rights Amendment. These achievements created opportunities for women, and over time they changed many cultural attitudes. However, 30-plus years later, formal equality for women has not removed the glass ceiling for women in top jobs, not transformed women’s role in families, and not produced equal pay for equal work—men still earn $1.22 to every dollar a woman earns, and the disparity only increases when race is considered. Nor has it brought an end to violence against women by producing a new respect for women.
As the legal scholar and activist Dean Spade writes, declarations of legal equality by the state “leave in place the conditions that actually produce the disproportionate poverty, criminalization, imprisonment, deportation, and violence trans [and LGBT] people face while papering it over with a veneer of fairness.” Equal rights and equal protection can be granted without disturbing many of the hierarchies, institutions, or traditions that perpetuate the idea that LGBT difference is unnatural, immoral, wrong, or harmful to society. A movement focused on justice would engage the underlying systems of gender conformity, religious disenfranchisement, and political domination that reproduce LGBT inequality culturally even as it is outlawed legally.
Second, a more ambitious movement would fight for economic justice alongside legal rights. Equality as it is currently articulated in the LGBT movement has been emptied of its redistributive content and represents a politics of compliance with liberal capitalism rather than a critique of the exclusions the system perpetuates. Yet a growing amount of data shows the great economic range of experiences to be found within LGBT communities. In recent groundbreaking reports, several leading think tanks—the Williams Institute at UCLA, the Movement Advancement Project, the Center for American Progress (CAP), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the National Center for Transgender Equality—have shown that poverty in the LGBT community is at least as common as poverty in the broader world. Just as in that broader world, it burdens people of color disparately.
Median household income for LGBT people ranges from $35,000 in the poorest states to $65,000 in wealthier ones. LGBT families are twice as likely to live in poverty as are heterosexual families. Disparities in access to health insurance are dramatic, with CAP estimating that 43 percent of transgender people lack health insurance, as do 23 percent of LGBT people. Transgender people experience double the rate of unemployment as the general population and are four times more likely to live in poverty. African American people in same-sex couples and same-sex couples who live in rural areas are much more likely to be poor than white or urban same-sex couples. Anywhere from 20 percent to 40 percent of homeless youth are estimated to be LGBT. An LGBT equality politics that ignores this economic context is in the end a politics of exclusion.
Third, a justice movement would not allow racial justice and gender issues to drop out of the LGBT political and policy agenda. The definition of “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” or “transgender” in the current mainstream movement, unconsciously (or consciously) refers mostly to white people and often really refers to white gay men. How else can one explain the movement’s silence on issues that have a clear and disproportionate impact on LGBT people of color? How else can one explain the lack of racial and even gender representation on the governing boards and in the leadership of mainstream LGBT organizations?
I’ve often been told that fighting racism is the job of another movement, not ours—that race may be important, but we need to focus on LGBT issues alone. Adding race would make our agenda too big. Similarly, I’ve been told that the women’s movement is where lesbians, bisexual women, and trans women should deal with issues like income inequality, violence against women, and attacks on women’s liberty through invasive regulation of reproduction.
It’s time to stop making excuses and change practices. The mainstream LGBT agenda must address race and gender because they produce harsh differences in the lived experience of white and brown and black people in America and because sexism remains a structural reality—both within and outside the LGBT community.
A re-formed LGBT movement focused on social justice would commit itself to one truth: that not all LGBT people are white or well-off. It might consider adopting the principle of “No Queer Left Behind.”
To transform into a social-justice movement, LGBT organizations would have to broaden the definition of what they see as a “gay” issue. Marriage activists, for instance, would continue to fight fiercely for the freedom to marry but also for the right of all people to have health insurance, regardless of marital status. The movement would support a family-policy agenda that recognized and strengthened social supports for single-parent or grandparent-led families, instead of seeking protections only for gay versions of the nuclear family. It would challenge the racism, sexism, and transphobia of criminal-justice systems, along with the over-policing of communities of color and harassment of sexual and gender non-conforming people. It would address violence against women. It would work to combat sexual assault and trafficking.
It could also expand its focus on bullied schoolchildren, adding a challenge to racial biases in the administration of student discipline. It could become a major voice in the campaign against sexual abuse of young people. It could use its political clout and capital in the service of reproductive freedom and help resist the right wing’s attacks on Planned Parenthood, defending an organization that provides urgent primary health care to many poor women and kids.
To broaden their agendas, the major LGBT organizations—like the Human Rights Campaign, Lambda Legal, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force—must become more representative of the diversity of queer America in their missions, programs, and composition. They also must become more democratic. Beyond writing a check or filling out a survey, there are limited mechanisms for participation in these groups. This has led to institutions acting in ways that are not in sync with some parts of their claimed community, while being overly responsive to others.
Leaders will privately tell you that they spend most of their time courting, listening to, and worrying about people from whom they are generating resources for their organizational budgets. What is amazing is how few people these donors actually represent. Of an estimated 8.7 million LGBT people in the U.S., approximately 3 percent are donors to LGBT organizations, according to the Movement Advancement Project. Fewer than 12,500 people gave more than $1,000 to 37 of the largest LGBT groups in 2010. Because such a small number of people donate to LGBT organizations, those who give a large amount have a hugely disproportionate effect on the attention of LGBT institutional leaders.
Last year, on a panel at which I spoke, the facilitator asked whether the panelists believed that the LGBT movement stands at some new “tipping point.” We all did the dance of equivocation: Yes, we said, we are in some ways. But we don’t like that frame, because there is no one magical point at which things tip over and gay nirvana emerges.
The history of social movements is not about tipping points; it is about turning points—moments that present new challenges, offer new choices, or open up possibilities that hard work or some fortuitous and unplanned action created. History is made by actions taken, choices seized.
Such a turning point faces the LGBT movement as its equality agenda succeeds. We have an opportunity to turn away from an ever-narrowing understanding of LGBT freedom and an isolationist form of LGBT politics. We also have the chance to avoid missteps by other social movements that have journeyed to a dead end of equal rights in an increasingly unjust world.
Queer activists have an opportunity to renew a focus on a safer and saner world for all, on contributing solutions to the big problems—economic injustice, environmental degradation, structural racism, gender rigidity and its consequences, and undemocratic power. The choice to challenge the status quo at its deepest roots will ultimately protect LGBT people the most.
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