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Activists Look Beyond Marriage Equality To Bigger Picture

via Shay O’Reilly, Campus Progress

“Community, NOT commodity!” chanted an “OccuPride” contingent that interrupted—then joined—San Francisco’s Pride march this summer.

Along with similar groups in Chicago and New York, the San Francisco group carried signs denouncing corporate sponsorship of Pride parades and events. Even as parade marshals shooed them away from the float of Pride sponsor and health-care corporation Kaiser Permanente, San Francisco protesters shouted out condemnations of the HMO’s refusal to cover transgender health care.

The small groups of protesters were the noisiest aspects of an undercurrent in the LGBT movement, one that has always looked beyond same-sex marriage or even antidiscrimination laws. Instead, activists are focused on a broader program that strikes at all societal injustice, from economic marginalization to the predatory prison system—all with an understanding that LGBT people are disproportionately affected by these injustices.

At this End of (LGBT) History moment, with the president himself signing on to support same-sex marriage, there is a rumbling of dissatisfaction with both the movement’s present and its apparent future. At the heart of this dissatisfaction are two burning questions: Are same-sex marriage and employment protections enough? What do we do if they are not?

Inclusion or Transformation?
A divide within the LGBT movement is nothing new, Professor Sarah Schulman told Campus Progress. “There’s always been a question of whether the society’s going to change us, or whether we’re going to change them. This is as old as the movement.”

Schulman’s most recent book, Gentrification of the Mind, addresses what she says is a final separation of those eager to gain access to exclusive societal institutions from the needs of a disadvantaged LGBT population hungering for liberty and autonomy. The former’s utopia would look much the same as our current world: simply add a smattering of gender and sexual minorities at most levels of society.

For people inculcated in the language of neoliberalism, the alternative is hard to fathom. What could be more progressive than simple inclusion, which already riles the right wing? But, as Schulman implies, the LGBT movement has historically fought for much more than simple nondiscrimination; it’s fought for a world better for everyone in it.

“I continue to think that it’s very important that we talk about the issues with the faces of the people who are most impacted by the injustices at the fore,” said Aisha Moodie-Mills, an analyst with the Center for American Progress, our parent organization. “Because what we’ve done, for better or for worse, is we’ve created a movement that has an upwardly-facing,very anglo-ized, male, middle-class or upper-middle-class public face. The challenge for that is that it’s hard to build solidarity when you’re talking about injustices and tragedy, and you’re doing so with a silver spoon in your mouth.”

Moodie-Mills founded the Fighting Injustice to Reach Equality initiative and co-authored a report on the particular needs of black LGBT people called “Jumping Beyond the Broom.” Her report found that, beyond marriage inequality, black LGBT people face unfair punishment in schools (and resulting high levels of juvenile incarceration), massive health disparities, police harassment, dangerous jail conditions, domestic violence, housing discrimination, and high levels of HIV/AIDS.

Moodie-Mills said it is important for the LGBT movement to avoid falling to infighting, but she also recognized the necessity of calling out organizations blind to the needs of more marginalized members of their own community.

Tensions between mainstream LGBT organizations and more radical elements of the gay community have been running high this year, with notable gay heroes slamming what they say is a myopic agenda.

“One of the most important and central questions is whether or not we are a progressive movement and whether we care about other communities and other issues,” veteran activist Cleve Jones said to the EDGE Boston earlier this year. Jones worked with Harvey Milk and founded the AIDS Quilt; he now commits his time to labor organizing and seeks to strengthen ties between labor movements and the LGBT community. “A movement that seeks to advance only its own members is going to accomplish little. I want to be in a movement that transforms the lives of millions of people.”

Some activists have a more hopeful perspective. Center for American Progress LGBT Research and Communications Vice President Jeff Krehely told Campus Progress that there’s a real concern about economic justice even among those who aren’t members of marginalized populations. “We are already seeing a commitment to these other, non-marriage issues from some of the donors who are also bankrolling advocacy for marriage equality,” Krehely said.

Still, Jones singled out the Human Rights Campaign for particular criticism, over its alliance with corporations on LGBT benefits, notably Occupy Wall Street bête noire Goldman-Sachs. For its part, Occupy Wall Street responded as one might expect: In front of an April gala to present Goldman with its Corporate Achievement Awards, activists gathered in protest.

“The HRC ostensibly stands for social justice and social equality, and they were honoring and recognizing this company that exists because of inequality—and that seeks to maintain inequality,” Brandon Cuicchi told Campus Progress. Cuicchi attended the protests, and credits Occupy Wall Street’s queer caucus with his new, broader outlook on LGBT issues.

Or maybe it would be better to think of it as a queer lens for broader politics, something that defies our predominant neoliberal ideology’s demands that we fragment progressive causes, isolating “gay rights” from the other struggles of the world.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg touts his credentials as an LGBT advocate because he supports marriage equality, even though his proposed budget earlier this year would have slashed services for homeless youth, among whom queer youth are disproportionately represented. (After protests, the funding was restored.) The HRC awards Goldman-Sachs, though they may have had a role in the housing crisis (which, yes, affected gay people, too), as they offer trans-inclusive healthcare—never mind that, thanks to a lifetime of discrimination, few transgender people will ever work for the bank.

Cuicchi has come to understand that LGBT existence is just one element of a whole humanity, and cannot be separated from relationships of domination and subjugation by race, economic situation, and disability, though it presents unique challenges to those who experience it.

As Queers for Economic Justice co-director Amber Hollibaugh told The Nation: “If we can’t survive in our queer identities without being profoundly punished, then the price of the recession is that we’re killed on the streets; we’re not sheltering our children; we have no health insurance—that is what the price is in this kind of economy out of control, and that’s a queer issue.”

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