Barbara Smith, Black Nations/Queer Nations Conference, March 1995
On February 21, 1997, a lesbian bar was bombed in Atlanta. What if lesbian and gay bars all over this country were being fire-bombed? If the main sites of socializing for queers were going up in flames in the middle of the night? Maybe no one was hurt or killed. Maybe this happened 20 times over two years. Perhaps the bombings are linked perhaps not. What would be as queers do? What would we expect from state officials? From the general public? Should only queers be outraged? Should we expect straight society to do anything?
Why should we? It's a queer thing.
Just like there are black things (racism); Latino things (immigration); women's things (sexism); and poor people's things (welfare), anti-gay hate crime is a queer thing and why should anybody but queers worry about it?
When we think about broadening the queer agenda we should imagine the above scenario of gay bars burning to the ground. It's my guess that we would expect, at the very least, statements of outrage and support from civil rights organizations. At best, we would hope that people around the country would be horrified and motivated to act on their anger marches would be held everywhere in solidarity with queers; the NAACP would organize a letter-writing campaign to the federal government demanding an investigation; the National Organization for Women would sponsor a walk for freedom to raise money for the besieged communities. And in a monumental expression of solidarity and an outcry against the criminalization of homo-sex, a national coalition of groups would target the Supreme Court for a mass civil disobedience demanding an end to anti-sodomy laws.
When the most recent rash of Black church burnings/bombings occurred, I looked for signs of a response from the queer community just as I did after I saw Rodney King beaten on TV and after Clinton dismantled welfare and when HIV+ Haitians were denied medical care and imprisoned for over a year by the US government at Guantanamo Bay. There was barely a whimper in the gay press or from l/b/g/t organizations when any of these things occurred, giving me the distince impression that none of this had anything to do with me/us. (My favorite coverage of a recent national event was when the gay press reported on the Oklahoma bombing by telling us how many queers were killed FYI, one known lesbian.) The only organized "community" response to the bombing of Black churches that I saw was from queer churches and synagogues. I guess that makes sense because it's a worship thing.
Or let's look at AIDS. Definitely a queer thing, right? The les/bi/gay community built major institutions to take care of our own. We even organized perhaps the most effective and vibrant political/direct-action movement in this country since the Vietnam War. ACT UP chapters sprang up all over the country and elsewhere. Speaking at the first national weekend of demonstrations organized by the new AIDS movement in 1988, Vito Russo said, "after we kick the shit out of this disease I intend to be alive to kick the shit out of this system so that this will never happen again." Sadly, Vito, like so many others, died and the shit we were willing to kick became limited in scope compared to his vision of an all-out assault on the system.
In fact, the AIDS movement died, in part, because of the tensions between factions within between those, on the one hand, who wanted to build a broad-based agenda including access to universal health care and addressing the complexities of race, gender, class and their intersections with HIV and, on the other, those who felt that finding a cure and demanding new drugs and treatments were all the movement should take on. Where is the AIDS movement now when the highest rates of infection are no longer among gay white men but are concentrated in poor communities of color? How do AIDS institutions whose client bases are predominantly gay white men and who have begun to characterize AIDS as "a chronic manageable long-term disease" take responsibility for sharing resources with communities who are still struggling to set up and maintain services?
What about people without health insurance? What happened to the fight for health care for all? A little-known piece of history is that a demonstration and direct action targeting Congress and demanding national health care was planned for the 1993 March on Washington. It received absolutely no support from the March on Washington organizers and little energy from the ACT UP national network. Why didn't ACT UPs nationwide rally around it? Because it wasn't specifically about AIDS. Why did the March on Washington organization sabotage it? Because, unlike fighting for our right to be part of the US military, health care, of course, is not a gay issue. (Meanwhile we can fight for domestic partnership until we've all been happily married and divorced once and still many of us will never have health insurance or the assurance of decent medical care.)
What is a gay issue? Well let's see...gays in the military; gay marriage; gay-bashing; anti-gay legislation. Having "gay" in the title helps, so let's try this: gays on welfare; gays without health insurance; gay immigrants; relatives of gays on welfare; poor gays; gays in prison; family members of gay immigrants; racism against Black gays, Asian gays, Jewish gays, Latino gays, Native gays, and Arab gays; sexism against women gays; discrimination against gays with disabilities. Does that work?
Conservative gay thinkers argue that we, as a "movement," have only one thing in common we're not all Black, we're not all immigrants, we're not all poor but we are all gay. Therefore, the "introduction" of any peripheral issues is irrelevant and the discussion of them is perhaps even detrimental to our eventual success as a political force. But how can anyone demand that a person, in the service of creating a more "unified" movement, separate out and partition off the multiple identities that make them a whole? I wanted to cry at the 1993 March on Washington when an Asian lesbian speaking from the stage was booed as she recounted the history of invasions and genocide by the US government against people of color around the globe and at home and suggested that we should be protesting the US military, not trying to join it. I guess genocide is not a gay issue.
To create a movement that fights for the rights of all queers, we need to build meaningful and long-term coalitions. It's true that queers are not the only ones to blame for a lack of coalition-building. Yet, at the very least, what I would like to see us do as a community and/or a movement is to take responsibility for and be accountable to all who are a part of our community. Just as we would like to see ouir concerns as queers embraced by the broader communites of which we're a part.
An even more compelling and important argument is made by Barbara Smith in the quotation that leads into this article. "Commitment to the eradication of oppression across the board, not just to issues that affect us directly, is an ethical as well as a political commitment." What is the character of our movement? What is our contribution to the world? Barbara Smith's call for an ethical political vision is critical to the creation of a movement that will encompass the needs of all. Embracing or not embracing her vision will mean the difference between obtaining comprehensive social change or a place at the table for a well-positioned few.
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