When I was first trying to figure out my way as a young queer, I didn’t really have any role models. I knew that some of the adults around me were gay, but our community was not welcoming and adults who worked with kids also worked hard to stay in the closet. My parents had befriended a gay male couple who gave me a book of Oscar Wilde stories for my 10th birthday (who says we don’t recognize our own?) but we never explicitly talked about sex or sexuality. I did find their collection of Drummer back issues to be both formative and informative, though. I spent my time with a variety of other misfits and broken toys, finding my way through the world of Riot Grrrl and AIDS activism, both shaping my dystopic view of a world that needs some changing, and my sense of self-efficacy to make the change. Though I was never really a Lesbian Avenger or a member of ACT-UP, those organizations and their direct action approaches – unapologetically demanding visibility and recognition – were instrumental in helping me shape my personal aesthetic and activism. I got involved with a variety of issues – women’s health, trans inclusion, antiwar and nonviolence activism, economic justice, corporate responsibility – always being visible as a queer person in the ranks. Why? Because I believed it was important to represent myself while working for justice and equality for all.
When I was in college, someone gave me a copy of Urvashi Vaid’s Virtual Equality: the mainstreaming of gay and lesbian liberation. YES, I thought. I didn’t want to be mainstreamed, to sell a “we’re just like you” message, to walk away from the progressive social justice basis of my activism in service of getting a crummy package of rights in an otherwise unjust system. While I struggled to maintain my voice in an increasingly corporate activism world, I always tried to keep our community diversity in the forefront, and strove confront, rather than avoid, homo- and trans-phobia. Ultimately I couldn’t continue to promote the beautiful diversity of my acronymic experience, and walked away from full-time activism. I couldn’t stomach making my living off a movement that didn’t check its own privilege or work on its own biases; that no longer stood up for reproductive justice and economic access, and failed to speak truth to power. I used to joke that there was no gay sex in the gay rights movement, a bitter observation of our movement’s shift from gay liberation to gay assimilation.
Last week we marked 25 years of ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Yesterday was May Day, or International Workers Day. There was a time when leading queer activists would have been all over those celebrations. But the mainstream national gay agenda (and let’s be clear, this is not an inclusive agenda) continues to be one of access to the existing power structure – repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act; and inclusion of sexual orientation in laws that prevent employment discrimination and allow hate crime prosecution. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think anyone should be kept from joining the military, recognizing their relationship, or getting a job because of their sexual orientation. But that agenda is a very narrow view of the things that impact our broad and diverse community. It doesn’t address the underlying economic justice issues that lead many young folks to join the military, or the war on women, or the power structure that benefits from racism, misogyny, classism and homophobia. And then yesterday, I found this article by Vaid, who continues to push the envelope on what the queer agenda is and should be. She doesn’t minimize the incredible success that some of these legislative and policy changes represent, and the progress they signify toward inclusion. But, she cautions, “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.”
I am deeply saddened that I feel that my own life – poly, leather, queer and gender subversive – is a detriment to the current iteration of the LGBT movement. I have taken a step back from LGBT activism because it doesn’t currently represent me. But I hope to find a way to push for an LGBT movement that is a part of a larger justice movement, one which celebrates diversity, fights for substantive equality, and confronts its interal privilege and prejudice. Until then, I will continue to be a visible queer working for movements that embrace and encompass my values.