After Marriage: The Future of LGBT Activism
Harvard University’s Third Annual Gender & Sexuality Symposium (March 27, 2015)
When I saw Harvard University was offering a free breakfast and lunch, I decided to go to this all-day workshop. Seriously, I had never seen the keynoter Jewelle Gomez speak, although I was long aware of her activism and writing, not the least her much-admired novel The Gilda Stories. I’m hoping that the movement really does have a future, for I have been perplexed and infuriated by the choices that well-off white male “gays for pay” have been making for the American movement. I’ve written many times about my opposition to the call for “gays in the military.” (The American military! The world’s worst bully.) Since the earliest days of the women’s liberation movement, I have considered marriage and the nuclear family to be at the heart of women’s oppression. I was bewildered when the queers decided to sweep in to save this failed institution, with its 50% divorce rate and uncounted more living in separation or misery.
I’m interested in what the panelists have to say about looking forward. Our Harvard host Michael Bronski introduces the keynoter. Jewelle Gomez, born and raised in Boston, recalls Boston as “deeply intransigently exclusionary, and it is internationally recognized for being so.” She describes her experience as a child at the South End Cathedral, “where the nuns vigorously ignored me and all young kids of color.”
She tosses out some great quips. She declares from the outset that she would be using the word “queer” in its most inclusive sense, “because there is a letter shortage – like our California water shortage.” Ain’t that the truth! A “femme icon,” as one audience member calls her, Gomez points out, “I spent my life looking for a butch woman like Barbara Stanwyck riding a horse. Today young women think a butch looks like Justin Bieber.”
I appreciate Gomez’s repeated use of the words “feminism” and “lesbian,” as in “Feminism is my religion of choice.” These words seem increasingly rare in academic and conference settings. She mentions our treatment within our bio families – where we are too often treated like infants, when we are neither married nor parents. She notes how the queer baby boom pulled the community away from “free living” – which I understand to mean our fast-moving political lives outside traditional structures like the family.
But then things changed. Gomez explains how she became a litigant in the California case for marriage equality. Once invited to join the other couples, she says it took her and her partner “about five minutes” to agree. While somewhat conflicted, Gomez says that “It was the principle of the civil right, not the institution itself.” She describes staying within the prescribed talking points language (“marriage equality” yes, but never “gay marriage”) and wearing the straight-assed clothes the lawyers insisted on. Gomez also expresses the hope that movement resources will go to other campaigns as well, naming as an example the problem of homeless queer youth.
Following a “Cambridge” lunch that features the choice of sandwiches of a gluten-free or vegan or vegetarian or roast-beef persuasion, the afternoon panel discussion is high-energy, open, and full of revealing info. The moderator, Sue Hyde (National LGBTQ Task Force), injects rocket fuel to the day’s tone in her introductory statement, in which she talks about how we need to grapple with the broader economic questions: in fact, says she, “we need a socialist revolution.” Been a long time since I heard such exhilarating and welcome sentiments said from a queer podium.
Nan Hunter, introduced as the inventor of queer family law, is Skyped in and therefore looms over the rest of the panel on-screen. She says that the legislative wing of the LGBT movement is fairly confident of a positive Supreme Court outcome in June regarding gay marriage. The other panelists agree. Hunter shows us two extraordinary charts of the USA. One illustrates the location of the 630,000+ gay couples (self-identified on the census), mainly on the two coasts and in the big cities in between. The other shows the 120,000+ couples with a child in which at least one partner is a person of color. These folks are scattered throughout rural areas, especially in the South. (Thanks to Sue Reamer for remembering these stats.)
Aisha Moodie-Mills (Center for American Progress) references some sobering figures that show that lesbians raising children are more likely to be poor than anyone else. Black lesbians more so. Trans women even more so.
Kevin Cathcart (Lambda Legal) blows my mind with an observation that should have been obvious: “No civil rights movement has ever been over or finished by a Supreme Court decision.” There is no such thing as a victory, for any gain is a constant target for a backlash – from the Voting Rights Act to Roe v Wade. Cathcart also talks about how, even if marriage equality is established by the Supreme Court, other June decisions are going to have a dire effect on our communities, not the least the weakening of the Affordable Healthcare Act. He says that in this country there are “50,000 sero-conversions to HIV per year,” and points to the impact a stripped-down health insurance system could have on those living with HIV as well as on prevention resources.
Joey Mogul from DePaul Law School warns us about the mass criminalization and incarceration of people of color by the prison-industrial complex. “We spend more to cage and kill people than to help people.”
Audience members speak about coalition-building, about the relationship of the movement to the faith communities, and about funding. Kevin Cathcart points out that only 2% of queer people donate to LGBT causes.
Sue Hyde ends with a hard truth: “Marriage is an equality issue but it doesn’t change much,” in terms of racism, classism, and the other forms of oppression that we are still grappling with. The panel brings a grounded energy to the day that counters the attitude of those organizations working to integrate queers into the worst of American institutions. I am glad to feel a shared anger in the room, a sense that we can at last put our energies where they are intensely needed. It brings hope for a more radical twist in the path the movement has taken: from asking for acceptance in the homophile days, to fighting for liberation post-Stonewall, to the present lawyer-led lobbying for assimilation into mainstream institutions.