Gay Is the New Black: limitations of identity politics
By Justin Hill
In 2008, when I first read “Gay is the New Black” on the cover of the Advocate, I CRINGED at its implications. Even as I write, “Gay is the New Black,” it is unsettling because it elides, obfuscates and erases many tensions and concerns. You may be asking, “Why speak about it now, three years after the article was published?” The answer is simple—I feel the need to talk about my concerns and fears on the matter because of the Obama Administration’s legal/political move to position/add gay people as a protected class of citizens.
On February 23, 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder wrote a letter to Congress explaining why the Justice Department objected to defending the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), citing two specific cases that are now before the New York federal appeals court. In the first two years of the Obama administration, “the Justice Department defended the act by citing [standing] precedents [in several federal judicial districts] that directed judges to uphold any law that treats gay people unequally unless a challenger can prove there is no conceivable rational basis for the act [i.e., rational basis review]. But the two new cases were filed in districts covered by the federal appeals court in New York, one of the few circuits that lack such a precedent.” As such, the Obama Administration was confronted for the first time with the difficult question of, “how much protection gay people, as a group, should receive against official discrimination.” The Administration’s decision is that gay people qualify for greater protection (i.e., heightened scrutiny) similar to gender (intermediate or exacting scrutiny) not as iron-clad as race (i.e., strict scrutiny). Consequently, gay may become the new Black—at least legally!
When I read about the possibly new legal classification of LGBTQ people, I celebrated the hard-won recognition. Many columnists have begun examining how President Obama’s “constantly evolving” beliefs regarding gay marriage impact Black America’s beliefs about same-sex marriage. At the same time, other columnists, Black intellectuals and Black LGBT leadership have taken to speaking out against Black America’s stance on same-sex marriage or reluctance to “share” the civil rights mantle.
Two minutes and 59 seconds into the video, Dr. Dyson, in his characteristic flare, remarks, “Some gay people happen to be Black! Duh! It’s not like they told them ‘you’re gay you don’t have to go to the back [of the bus]. Stay up front with us, because you’re looking awfully delicious today’.” In that moment, he acknowledges that the imagined boundary between “gay” and “Black” does not exist, and highlights the shared experience of racial oppression at the hands of an overwhelming majority of both white LGBT and presumed heterosexual people. Dyson reminds the audience that Black lesbians and gay men were marching shoulder to shoulder with their presumed heterosexual counterparts in their shared fight for racial equality. During the civil rights’ struggle, however, they were rendered invisible, often attacked by some presumed heterosexual Black community members, and pushed to the margins despite making major contributions to the Black rights’ movement. The leaders of the LGBTQ rights’ movement could benefit from comparing their current strategies to that of those chosen by Black civil rights’ leadership.
For the LGBTQ movement’s leaders, now is the time to learn ‘what not to do’ to the varied constituents/communities that comprise their politically-imagined LGBT community. Given the heightened protection to be allotted to the LGBT community because of its relative vulnerability to the actions of wider society, one would hope that a similar level of concern would be extended by said community’s leadership to its more vulnerable community members (e.g., transgender people of color, LGBT people of color and white transgender people). Yet, much to my chagrin, few have been willing to examine the largely white LGBTQ organizations’ issues with race, trans-phobia and racism. Even fewer have been willing to question the larger LGBTQ movement’s leadership about their respective brand of racism, trans-phobia, sexism and misogyny.
Michael Joseph Gross, the author of the article in the Advocate from which the inspiration for the magazine cover’s title came, acknowledges that “[o]ur [LGBTQ] oppression, by and large, is nowhere near as extreme as Blacks’, and we insult them when we make facile comparisons between our plights.” Although he adroitly recognizes the differences in oppression that both groups have experienced, saying who is more oppressed is not useful for coalition and consensus building, which is what is really needed. Moreover, two of three things happened in that sentence: 1) Michael Gross implicitly admits either that he sees the LGBTQ movement as largely white; or 2) LGBTQ people of color are subsumed into the largely white LGBTQ group whereby their ties to their racial communities become secondary (read: non-existent) to their ties to LGBTQ communities; and finally 3) he chooses not to name what underpins the willingness of the LGBTQ community to make “facile [read: superficial] comparisons.”
What Michael Gross refuses to name is that white privilege and latent racist-disregard often undergirds the need to “draw [overly simplistic] parallel[s] between [the LGBT] struggle and the black civil rights movement.” Instead of challenging the racist tinge, he collaborates with it in his simplistic view of an “us” and a “them” identity politic. Such simplistic outlooks omit the glaring fact that LGBT communities and communities of color have common members. In addition, this haphazard linguistic treatment of different communities that comprise the imagined LGBT community, is often the preamble to more costly real world examples: 1) the treatment of Black and Latino LGBT youth in Chicago when they frequent the gay ghettos of Chicago’s north side, 2) the racial and geographic issues that separate Lesbians in Chicago, 3) the use of black and Latino LGBT bias crimes as footnotes or padding to push an unrelated agenda, 4) the racial slurs hurled by white gays at LGBT people of color after Prop8 passed in California, and 5) the trans-phobia that is rampant among leading LGBT organizations that goes largely unchecked.
Interestingly enough, Joe Solmonese, president of Human Rights Campaign (the largest Gay rights organization in the USA), said in an interview that “[w]hat we are best served doing is when we take lessons from the civil rights experience and apply them to our work.” Yet, according to TransGriot blog and Pam’s-house-blend blog, HRC’s leadership has had issues with transphobia.
Herein lies the rub with identity politics; the need to construct this imaginary impermeable boundary and politic that doesn’t allow for the dynamic nature of people, and how we form identity in the age of individual freedoms. Freedoms that were hard one by black, brown, yellow, female, male, lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and yes even white bodies and communities whose blood stains the pages of our shared histories.
So what do you think about the Attorney General’s changed stance and its potential to make sexual orientation as constitutionally protected as race and gender? Is Gay the New Black?