This is the text of the author’s keynote address at the Fazendo Genero conference in Santa Catarina, Brazil, delivered today, September 20, 2013 at 6PM EST.
The author extends her thanks to Jasbir Puar, Christina Handhart, Tim McCaskell, for foundational influences and TL Cowan, Alexandra Juhas, Jasmine Rault, Michelle Pearson Clarke and Zab for textual suggestions.
Thank you so much for this incredible honor and opportunity to meet with you, to visit Brazil for the first time, and to share with you some of my experiences and insights on where we are now.
The given theme is “The Challenge of Feminism” and I have to ask myself “What isn’t the challenge of feminism?” Not only are we talking about how women live and feel, but we’re also – now- using the word to mean a value system, a way of doing things. So, when we look at the materiality of women’s lives across the globe, we see a continued exclusion from power. But also, when we look at human methodology, in general, we see an eclipse of justice from the governmental to the personal.
So, in the long period of preparation for this talk, I decided that I want to focus on the very dramatic transformations in the gay movement/the LGBT movement/the queer movement, in a very short period of time, and its relationship to feminism. How concepts and self-concepts have evolved that eclipse “feminism” – a system rooted in justice, equal opportunity, access and the value of both the individual and the community. Some of these ideas are already in circulation and some are new. Some are solid and some are tentative. I am grateful in advance for your attention and very much look forward to our discussion.
In short, I want to show that as the LGBT movement has moved away from feminism, it has moved towards nationalism and the state apparatus. And that organic to this is a manipulation of the politics of fear. Which is a trope familiar from the experience of other groups as they have morphed from pervasive oppression to selective dominance.
There was a time that is not long past, when queer people were at the bottom of every society. I am fifty-five years old, perhaps some of you here also remember when globally, all queer people lived in illegality. Certainly it was my generation that was trampled by the mass death experience of AIDS, a historic cataclysm caused by government indifference and neglect. And some of you are living in countries today where this epidemic continues unabated because of a lack of political will for all human beings to have equal access to standard of care treatments. These treatments were forced into existence by the AIDS activist movements of the 1980’s and 90’s, like ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power – in which despised groups of people, with no rights, abandoned by their families and governments, and facing a terminal illness, joined together to force their societies to change, against their will- thereby saving each other’s lives. But even though this fiercely unprecedented cross class, cross gender and inter-racial movement succeeded in forcing the creation of effective treatments. They could not transform the global class system, and so today people continue to suffer from HIV, when that is completely unnecessary. Yet, I think we all understand that the initial governmental inaction in the west was rooted in the idea that the affected communities: the poor and the queer, did not merit the protection of their governments and did not deserve to live. We did not have citizenship.
While many queer people – everywhere- today continue to face profound danger- from their governments, their families, their entertainment/media/propaganda systems- we also have a new phenomena in which simultaneously increasing elements of the global queer community are gaining enough rights to bring them to equity with straight people of their same race and class positions, and providing them with the equal ability to punish.
And I think this is the right moment to examine the consequences of the inequitable shifts toward equity. For we will find that, just as with people with AIDS – the access remains constrained by class and race and gender, so that solutions long desired and fought for by diverse people, are creating profoundly inequitable conditions that worsen the lives of some of us, while transforming the values of those with access.
So lets start with why we did this, why there was a gay/LGBT/queer movement in the first place.
If we go back, back, back we can remember that this political formation was originally called The Gay Liberation Movement. The word liberation was explicitly chosen to situate us within the continuum of global liberation movements in blossom at the time (1960’s) against imperialism and colonialism. The goal of the Gay Liberation Movement was social transformation. We wanted a world in which sexuality, gender and emotional structures were open and individual and neither punished by the state nor enforced by the state.
In 1981, the recognition of the AIDS crisis changed this in many ways, detailed in my book The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination-but too numerous to detail here. Most importantly, the sudden uncontrollable visibility of hundreds of thousands of people dying , often in the streets, made the active denial of homosexuality impossible to maintain. The mainstream media was forced to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality, and were thereby confronted with the radical movements like ACT UP doing actions like disrupting mass with 7,000 people at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. This caused the media to need to produce a kind of homosexual who they could represent, that would not be out of the box of the status quo. So starting in the early 1990’s, the media began to construct its own fake public homosexuality –where they selected and promoted media spokespeople who were not from the grassroots- and instead opposed the politics of Gay Liberation.
In this way Gay Liberation, through the venue of mainstream media ,was replaced by Gay Rights. Gay Rights being a movement with the opposite objective of gay liberation- Gay Rights was a tolerance movement, rooted in legal containment, in which gay people sought “equal rights” for all the ways that our lives were recognizable and familiar to the heterosexual majority, and abandoned the arenas of difference. There was a profound psychological element of trauma in this transition as well. For the community that had already endured profound familial homophobia and state oppression was now literally devastated by the mass death and suffering of its members and equally, I think devastated by the wholesale abandonment of these suffering and dying people by their governments and families. So the transformation from liberation to rights was partially an expression of AIDS trauma, of fear for survival and the conscious and unconscious desire for protective assimilation. As I detail in my book Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS and the Marketing of Gay America, in this period- corporations, who had been forced to notice queer people through the visibility of AIDS, now began to cynically niche market to them. What began as mainstream marketing campaigns for AIDS drugs, became structures then used by name products, as marketers learned that LGBT people were “the most brand loyal consumers in America.” Our families didn’t care if we lived or died, our governments didn’t care if we lived or died, but Absolut vodka wanted us, and we were so grateful.
In this way a significant change was made in which the gay movement no longer was about us transforming the society, it became about society transforming us.
As the legalistic gay rights agenda proceeded, and as different kinds of gay rights and different degrees of gay rights started to be enacted in specific countries, or cities or districts, a new process began, one in which some elements of the LGBT community were granted access to the state apparatus, to the police, and to the power of punishment and enforcement – against the other elements of the LGBT community who still can’t access those forces and instead must defend against them. And so we have seen ourselves move from a community in which everyone was in illegality, and in which we were at the bottom of every society- to one in which some of us –as openly queer people- now have the power of the dominant group in profoundly unjust societies. And interestingly, deeply embedded in these gross inequalities is the politics of “fear”, “Trauma” and “safety.”
As I see it, the three main arenas in which this access to the punishment of the state are granted to openly queer people are: HIV criminalization, queer pro-family politics, and queer citizenship.
First, let’s start with the question of Citizenship.