Activism Failure

Lately I have made the mistake of reading several books written by members of the queer radical left (News flash: lesbian separatists are still around. And they write books. Who knew?).

Although I spent many of my formative years associating with those in the radical left, their arguments and tactics irritate and often enrage me. Their “analysis” usually boils down to “we hate successful people”. True to form, those on the queer radical left long for the good old days when homosexuality was despised. They feel contempt for white queers (especially white male queers) striving for social acceptance. They lament “straight privilege”. They go out of their way to disrupt and disgust mainstream society. So it is no surprise that they despise gay marriage. They hate all marriage because marriage is a patriarchial institution, and they especially hate gay marriage because it affords some queers a bunch of privilege and acceptance that are denied to other groups (transpeople, people of colour, and poor people).

Man, I don’t know what to think. I have said before and will repeat ad-nauseum: I try not to judge other people’s kinks, and I am genuinely happy for those blogger-buddies who find meaning and support in the patriarchial oppressive institution of marriage. But a bunch of the queer radical left arguments against middle-class gays and against gay marriage ring true to me.

Back when we were fighting for gay marriage, Dan Savage related sob story after sob story of loving partners who were denied basic courtesies because they were not married. Partners could not visit their loved ones in hospital. They could not jointly adopt bio-children. They would lose their houses when a partner (in whose name the title was signed) died, and the evil biofamily would automatically inherit the assets. It was very Stone Butch Blues. Dan Savage and his army argued that granting full marriage rights to gay couples would right these injustices.

Meanwhile, the radical left was attacking marriage. They questioned why this set of basic privileges should be granted only to those who were married. What about triads? What about polyamourous marriages? Wnat about people who had no stable partner, but who had definite wishes about giving their chosen families — and not the biofamilies that had all too often disowned them — say in what happened to their lives and assets. When these criticisms were acknowledged at all, they were often dismissed with a “marriage first, and then we will work on nontraditional arrangements” attitude.

Now we have gay marriage, and as time passes its existence becomes less precarious. I doubt even President Trump (bless his heart) is going to overturn it now. So when are we going to make sure the same kinds of sob stores Dan Savage was relating during the gay marriage fight are not happening to people who aren’t married?

Oh right. We’re not going to work on that now, because the middle-class gays have what they want, and enthusiasm for extending these privileges to other groups has evaporated. I cannot think of a single campaign seeking to decouple the privileges of marriage from the institution of marriage. Funny how that works.

It reminds me a lot of the HIV/AIDS activism fight. When successful, white, North American gay men were dropping right and left, there was a lot of energy to pour into activism. Not everybody in ACT-UP was rich or successful or white, but I would argue that the presence of the mainstream in the movement made a big difference. Then 1996 rolled around and the antiretroviral cocktails came out. Then AIDS became less of a first world middle class gay problem and more of a poor straight third world problem. Mysteriously, our enthusiasm for activism on behalf of those groups mysteriously evaporated, leaving the heavy lifting to a handful of people like Stephen Lewis. Access to cheap retrovirals overseas has been a huge issue for decades, but without the same kind of pressure ACT-UP was able to apply in North America, governments and Big Pharma have dragged their feet, at the cost of millions of lives. That is not to say that Western gays have abandoned the fight entirely; we still show up to World AIDS Day and donate to red-ribbon charities, but we have not taken the fight overseas.

The reasoning is simple: once we get what we want, our activism drops. “Respectable” gay couples wanted gay marriage, and they got it. I am not innocent in this either, of course; I am angry that nobody is advocating for non-marrieds to get married people’s privileges because I am probably never getting married, but I still don’t want my biofamily to automatically take control of my life decisions and assets when I am incapacitated.

As much as I do not want to admit it, I think the queer radical left has been accurate in its criticisms of assimilation with respect to gay marriage. Will we ever see progress on nontraditional arrangements? Unless the poly community makes it happen I do not think it will happen, and I do not see enough social acceptance of polyamory for anything to happen for a while.

But there are other struggles which have some momentum, and for which comfortable middle-class homos could participate:

  • Societal rights and acceptance of transpeople, including non-discrimination legislation and an end to using idiotic bathroom issues to wedge voters.
  • Addressing widespread homelessness and poverty among LGBTQ communities, especially with respect to non-white communities.
  • Addressing misogyny within mainstream gay culture.
  • Breaking down class and racial barriers in LGBTQ communities and organizing.
  • Advocating for LGBTQ rights where they are being suppressed, and offering sanctuary to those affected by repressive laws.

Will we take on any of these challenges? Until/unless they affect us personally, I doubt it.

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