As I tell more and more people that I am trans, I’ve seen some responses more frequently than others. Second only to awkward silence and confusion tinged with a hint of disgust, the most common reaction is this: After a moment spent trying to remember which ones us transgender folks are, a smile plays across their lips, their eyes light up, and they do their best to seem supportive and accepting. Sometimes they will hug me, regardless of how well I know them or if I am comfortable with that level of personal contact. Oftentimes, to prove their progressive bona fides and show just how tolerant they are, they will tell me that they love LGBT people and that they support gay marriage.
I’ve learned quickly that in LGBT the T is for Token.
That the entire US public discourse about queer people has been reduced to arguments for and against gay marriage is not surprising. Lobbying and outreach groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) spend millions of dollars pushing the issue, and celebrities, straight and gay alike, have lent their frequent and vocal support. Now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is pending repeal and cis gay men will soon be fully able to participate in this country’s imperialistic wars (How long can it be before our first openly gay general commands the invasion of an uppity Middle Eastern country, and how often will words like historic and progress be used to celebrate the occasion?), “marriage equality” is once again soaking up the spotlight. State after state approves same sex unions and marriages in an unstoppable rainbow wave. The LGBT victory, it seems, is imminent.
Meanwhile queers are dying in the streets of AIDs, their bodies prostituted. We receive little to no support; not from the government, not from our families, and certainly not from the marriage equality bandwagon. As Israel paints itself as a safe haven for gays and lesbians while simultaneously starving and murdering Palestinian queers, North American queer groups explicitly against this apartheid are ostracized and ignored; gay pride parades and film festivals attempt to distance themselves from anything that challenges colonialism and capitalism. Those of us who are chewed up and spit out by the united forces of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and cis supremacy are swept under the rug.
Why this focus on gay marriage, and why does it seem to come at the expense of queer struggles that are surely as, if not more, important? Why does the queer class aristocracy intentionally dodge issues that would improve the lives of our poor, abused, and colonized? It’s not just because these issues might divert attention away from gay marriage, or perhaps tarnish the name of more privileged gay folks by association, although that certainly plays a part. The real reason is that, as it is currently conceived, the fight for gay marriage is not a fight for equality but rather a fight for those at the top of the queer hierarchy to fully join the bourgeoisie and enjoy all the privileges entailed. Those privileges would evaporate if there were not an underclass left to sexually and economically exploit, of course. There can be no bourgeoisie without a proletariat, no proletariat without a bourgeoisie. The laser focus on “marriage equality” is not so much a push to liberate queers, but to “straighten” the queer elite.
There has always been, as long as there has been a homosexual or homophile social class, those who made up an aristocracy in that class, and who fully embraced and endorsed the ruling ideas of the age. And though they were queer, they had no qualms about seizing the opportunities presented by a heteronormative capitalist society and making use of other, poorer queers for their own ends. “Rough trade”, wherein a well-off gay man will seek out a poorer male shaped by years of physical labor and of comparatively unrefined manners to have casual sex with, is a well known and long enduring homosexual relationship type in which the class difference is both fundamental and fetishized. Queers in Batista-ruled Cuba were prostituted for the enjoyment of wealthy and white US politicians, celebrities, and tourists. Nations like Turkey, Thailand, and various South American countries all offer racialized queer prostitutes for white travelers to make use of, and it is not unusual for a Westerner to plan a trip specifically to sleep with Thai kathoeys or Turkish boys. Obviously, aside from this sort of specific sexual exploitation, bourgeois gays and lesbians have a material interest in maintaining capitalist and neocolonial domination.
This state of affairs, as noted earlier, wherein there are exploiter and exploited queers demarcated along racial, gender, and economic class lines, has existed for as long as it has made sense to speak of a queer class within capitalism. So why has the queer aristocracy only recently made such a fierce push for gay marriage, and what, in this context, does their imminent success mean? In order to understand how this came about, a basic knowledge of the development of what is now the gay rights movement is required.
The political awakening and organization of queer people in the US began in 1924 with the short-lived Society for Human Rights, which quickly disbanded the next year after many of its members were arrested. Three decades later, the homophile Mattachine Society, which had communist ties, and the lesbian Daughters of Bilitis were founded. Over time queer political movements steadily grew in strength and became increasingly confrontational and anti-assimilationist. The 1969 Stonewall riots , led by transgender and homeless youth, proved to be pivotal, becoming a siren call to organize against systematic and structural oppression. Queer groups continued to grow through the 70s and 80s, struggling against new challenges such as what was at first called GRID (Gay-related immune deficiency, now known as AIDs) and the complete, genocidal disinterest of the Reagan government.
The 90s served as, for all intents and purposes, a death blow to a US Left that was already mortally wounded after the Right’s gains during the Reaganite 80s. The collapse of the USSR, though it had ceased to be a communist project under Krushchev, was a final propaganda victory for capitalism, and that decade saw a great number of leftist academics, never particularly involved in any real struggle to begin with, flee the trappings of their supposedly Marxist politics to embrace a more “realistic”, right wing, and financially lucrative opinion. Under these conditions the US saw the rise of Clinton and his ilk. As Zizek put it, “Clinton’s presidency epitomizes the Third Way of today’s (ex-)Left succumbing to the Rightist ideological blackmail”.
The queer movement, now under the newly popular, toothless initialism LGBT, was not spared from this rightward lurch. This moment of political reshuffling gave bourgeois queers, the queer aristocracy, the opportunity to make themselves a valuable asset to the Democratic party and realign the LGBT movement’s goals. They did so with great gusto. An estimated 3 million dollars of queer money flowed into Clinton’s campaign coffers. When he was sworn in as President, The US saw its first ever gay Inaugural Ball at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Bill Clinton was, so it was said at the time, “our President”. With the attention of the Democratic party, and in full control of organizations like HRC (founded in 1980), the LGBT movement steadily began to abandon calls for basic protection and social services for transgender people and poor queers as they ramped up calls for “marriage equality” and rushed headlong into presenting an assimilationist, conservative face. The details of this shift in focus are complicated, but I can elaborate upon them in a later post if there is enough interest. For now, it is enough to recognize that this change occurred in, and could only occur in, a specific set of social and material circumstances.
Part Two of this series will look at the goals of the bourgeois “marriage equality” movement, and the effect it has had and will have on the queer proletariat.