Issue 10.1-10.2 | Fall 2011/Spring 2012 / Guest edited by Joseph N. DeFilippis, Lisa Duggan, Kenyon Farrow, and Richard Kim

Creating Change

Twice in the last handful of years, I was given the opportunity to share my thoughts about the state of the LGBT movement and about issues of strategic direction. In November 2005, in Oakland and in January 2009, in Denver, I spoke at plenary sessions of the NGLTF’s (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) Creating Change conference, perhaps the largest annual gathering in the United States of LGBT activists. The first time, George W. Bush was in the first year of his second term as president; the second time, Barack Obama had been inaugurated just a few days earlier.

In the essay that follows, I have preserved the tone of speaking to an audience. I edited the comments a bit to reduce repetition, but inevitably some observations recur in the two parts. The views expressed in 2005 naturally informed my musings in 2009, but the new context of an Obama presidency certainly has shifted some of my emphases and, as I suggest in the remarks, opened me to new ideas and perspectives.

Oakland, November 2005

I started in the grassroots wing of the movement; there was no other wing, really, in the early 1970s. I became an activist by meeting in a living room with other gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals; deciding to take action; and giving ourselves a name. I remember when the task force was formed in 1973, I saw it as a dangerous sign of the movement’s growing conservatism because I thought: “Why would anyone want to work with a federal government run by Richard Nixon?” While task force staff got elected as delegates to the 1976 Democratic convention I, along with just about every other gay man I knew, was demonstrating loudly outside the convention.

From the beginning, the world of ideas mattered to me. I learned in the sixties that there is a politics of knowledge, and that without control of our history—without the power to shape the ideas and the information about us that circulated in the culture, we were lost. I have devoted myself to that for 30 years. When I started, I could not get a job doing queer cultural and educational work. I taught and lectured in movement meeting places and wrote in the kind of movement publications that no longer exist. Now I have a tenured job at a major university and have to turn down publishing opportunities. So, my own personal situation has shifted dramatically, from margin to mainstream.

Much as I value the world of culture and writing, I know that ideas and images aren’t everything. I remember getting very excited in the mid-1980s when I saw what was starting to happen at NGLTF. Suddenly it had a staff—people like Urvashi Vaid, Sue Hyde, Kevin Berrill, Ivy Young, and Peri Jude Radecic—that was grappling with what it meant to have a politics of sexuality, and that understood that a national organization was only as strong and as effective as its ties to a vibrant grassroots activism. The task force was trying to tie the local and the national, a politics of identity and a politics of power, tightly together. My excitement over that led me to a dozen-year-long history with the organization.

Let me say one thing more about where I’m coming from: I spent more than a decade researching and writing about the life of Bayard Rustin. It scrambled every answer I thought I had about making change and raised questions for which I still do not know the answers. Rustin was a radical. His goal was radical transformation, not itty-bitty reform, and he believed it would only come through masses and masses of people activating themselves to pursue justice. But he also came to the conclusion that the fight is not between transformation and mainstreaming. Instead, he urged his fellow radicals to figure out how to make mainstreaming one of the tactics in the radical arsenal, and to figure out how coalitions could be built between those on the outside and some of those on the inside, in the interest of social and economic justice.

So, that is a bit of where I am coming from. Now, what do I think we are we up against as a movement, and what do we have going for us? I am going to start with some very broad-stroke answers.

What do I never forget that we are up against? First of all, a global system that produces and defends inequality, no matter what the cost. Let me start by saying that not everything about capitalism is bad. Five centuries of it have created enough wealth and produced enough scientific knowledge that it is possible to eliminate hunger on the planet, to contain epidemic diseases, to guarantee literacy for everyone, and to do this in ways that preserve the environment for future generations. Will capitalism ever do this? No. It puts profit above human need, and it will always put profit first until people acting together impose limits that cannot be evaded.

What does this have to do with an LGBT movement? The inequalities that capitalism creates spawn religious and ethnic and national hatreds. Capitalism makes jobs disappear. It creates continuing and permanent insecurity. It requires huge militaries to defend itself. If any of you think for a minute that unbridled market capitalism will create a world in which queer people have a safe and secure place, you are a fool.

If that is not enough to be up against, we also live under the rule of a political elite in this country whose primary goal is to starve the public sector to death. The goal of the governing Republican coalition for the last quarter of a century has been to come as close as it possibly can to dismantling every aspect of government except the military, the criminal justice system, and the national security apparatus. If it has its way, even the public schools (the rhetoric of “no child left behind” notwithstanding) will wither away. This has been its goal for 25 years and there are no signs that it has finished.

Play out the implications of this for our communities: What does this mean for AIDS education, treatment, and research? What does it mean for our desire to have gay studies programs be a part of public higher education and to have queer-affirming sex ed be a part of the public schools? What does it mean for those of us who, because of homophobia, are likely to age with fewer attachments to wide family networks and can count on almost nothing from a Social Security system that is already insufficient and endangered? Each of you can probably think of other examples of how the current political economy in this country is a threat to our survival.

Here is one more thing closer to home that we are up against, something inside our own communities: We are up against the unequal distribution of the gains of the LGBT movement. It was never true that all of us were equally the victims of homophobia or that each of us was targeted by gay oppression in the same way. But, a generation ago, oppression struck so heavily, it was so thick and pervasive, that we all knew that there was danger out there, that it could come at any time, and that it could strike any one of us. Street queens and high-toned opera queens may have looked at each other across a class divide but they also knew that the police could come at any time.

Today that is no longer true. Large segments of the LGBT population—segments shaped by educational privilege, skin color, where you live, how gender normative you are—large parts of the population do not have to give much thought anymore to how oppressed they are. For some, life is ever so much better than it was the night the police came to the Stonewall Inn.

But read the new Amnesty International report on police harassment of trans youth of color, and it will remind you, if you did not already know, that oppression in its rawest and most brutal form is alive and well—and only affecting some of us.[1]

What does this do to community solidarity, to a sense of shared urgency, to how we set agendas in this movement? That is the bad news—or at least some of it. But we also have a lot going for us, and we shouldn’t ever forget it. We have everything we have built over the last generation: the organizations, the community institutions, and the bridges to other communities and allies. We have every victory we have achieved. It matters that sodomy laws are gone, that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses, that many cities and states have added sexual orientation to civil rights laws, and that some have now added gender identity or expression. It matters that there are welcoming congregations, that many workplaces have partnership benefits, and that bookstores and libraries are filled with queer books.

We have each other. Look at the relationships we have built, the skills and experience we have accumulated. We have fought like the dickens to find each other, and many of us know that we would give our lives for one another. We have our everyday acts of heroism and courage. We have our outrage at injustice, our unwillingness to remain silent, and our refusals to pass as straight. We have our presence in every institution and in every community; among the most oppressed and the most powerful.

With this context in mind, what do I think the LGBT movement has done right and what has it done wrong? When I first started thinking about this, I imagined coming up with two lists: a list of the things we are doing right, and a list of the things we are making a mess of. But it was not that simple, because the things that I thought were right invariably had a flip side, and the things that seemed to be a mess could not just be dismissed as failures. So, it is this sense of complexity and contradiction that I want to emphasize.

When I think about what is right with the movement, the first thing that pops up is the visibility we have achieved over the last generation. Imagine that the only type of visibility is a headline that reads: “Police raid den of perverts and arrest 50.” Imagine that the only type of visibility is a movie in which the lesbian character commits suicide. Imagine that every time someone is publicly identified as queer, it is a story of tragedy or scandal or shame. This is what life was like for us 50 years ago. The visibility we have achieved in the last generation is like the air and water we need to sustain life. What we have achieved is phenomenal.

But then I think about the particular visibility we have achieved, and I think: “We’ve got a problem.” Try to attach particular faces to that visibility. Think about the two most visible representations of who we are: Ellen and Will. Think about some others: Melissa Etheridge, Tony Kushner, Rosie O’Donnell, and Barney Frank. I love them all! But they are just a few examples of how “gay” has come to mean “white” in America.

Think about what happens when gay means white. It makes gay a form of wealth and privilege. It shouts to communities of color that gay is white folks. It allows queers of color to be stigmatized in their home communities as turncoats, folks who have gone over to the other side. It fractures our strength and makes coalition building a much more difficult task. It points us toward lowest-common-denominator gay agendas. It gives the lie to the slogan “we are everywhere” and makes our rainbow flags symbols of opportunism. Until we shift decisively the colors of our visibility, visibility will be at best a double-edged sword.

What else is both right and wrong with the movement? The fight for marriage equality. I remember a conversation I had ten years ago at the NGLTF offices with Marjorie Hill, who had been Mayor Dinkins’ liaison to the queer community in NYC. Marjorie was describing what happened when she mentioned in the office that she and her partner had decided to get married, to have a wedding. Suddenly coworkers who had kept their distance from this very public lesbian, could not stop talking with her. They gave advice, they asked questions, they shared experiences. In my intro-level gay studies course, I always show the documentary Chicks in White Satin. Even some of the straight male students in the class get teary eyed!

With marriage, we have found an issue that pierces the homophobia of heterosexuals like no other issue of ours has. The campaign for marriage has created an arena in which our joy, our exuberance, and our pleasure with each other is on public display. Marriage has made millions of heterosexuals shed tears of happiness for us. Marriage inserts us into the center of social life and cultural ritual instead of our being forced to the margins, separate and outside.

But that is only one side of the story. The fight for marriage equality is also one of the things that is most wrong with the movement. The rhetoric of the marriage campaign and the frenzy of the marriage enthusiasts have created the illusion that same-sex marriage is a panacea, a magic bullet that will end homophobia and oppression and will finally bring equality. Marriage has made lawsuits, lawyers, and litigation seem like the cutting edge of social change. Marriage has allowed a small number of individuals to hijack the movement’s agenda. Marriage has eclipsed most other issues on the LGBT agenda—issues like AIDS prevention and services; issues like the rights of queer youth to self-determination; issues, in other words, that really are matters of life and death. Worst of all, the campaign for marriage equality has done what no other queer campaign of the last generation has done. It has generated a whole new body of anti-gay law that will take a generation or more to undo. The campaign for marriage, as it has been fought, has been a disaster for our movement as a whole. Ironically, it has even been a disaster for the goal of marriage equality, placing it further from reach than it once was.

Let me suggest one thing more that is both very right with the movement and very wrong: the strength of our national organizations. We are living in a world of illusion if we think we can achieve our biggest, most ambitious goals without strong and powerful national voices. National institutions shape our worlds. Congress, the military, the Department of Health and Human Services, the American Medical Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and many others deeply affect our status and well being.

I am glad that the budgets of Lambda Legal and the NGLTF are large and growing. I am happy that there is a national Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network; and a National Center for Lesbian Rights; and a national Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation. These organizations give us continuity and expertise and shared memory as a movement. They allow us to penetrate institutions that once were uniformly hostile to everything queer. Thirty-five years ago, there were no stable national organizations—and we were not better off because of it.

But our national organizations can be as wrong as they are right. Agendas get set at the top and flow down. The movement is divided between full-time professional staff and the rest of us. Our large national organizations—as well as some of the well-established local ones—can make it much harder for young adults to make their way into the movement. I think it is a tragedy that our national organizations have mostly shied away from having chapters or affiliates as a way of making sure that links between local and national are strong and that communication is continuous, rather than weak and haphazard. Sometimes an organization can get so large that it becomes easy for its staff and board to think, “what’s good for the organization is what’s good for the movement.”

What should we focus on in the years ahead? When I ask myself the question, “what is to be done?” I find myself focused more on ways of strategizing and thinking than on a specific set of tasks. For instance, I think we have to create agendas and set goals that bring individuals, organizations, movements, and communities together across lines of identity and oppression. Building unity does not have to mean compromising integrity or giving up our deeply felt needs. It does mean thinking beyond what Urvashi Vaid has sometimes called our “lavender bubble,” and reaching for the most inclusive vision of justice we can conjure up. Instead of thinking “AIDS funding,” we should think, “national health insurance.” Instead of thinking “same-sex marriage,” we should think, “security for all families and households.” Instead of “queer studies programs,” why not, “affordable public higher education for everyone”?

I also think that a persistent tension in our movement—between what I call queer nationalism and mainstreaming—has to go. We need to build movement organizations and community institutions at the same time that we burrow our way into mainstream institutions. Neither separatism nor integration alone can work as a strategy for change. Really, though, if there was only one notion I could implant in everyone’s brain, one thing I could wish for, one thing I could make everyone do, it would be this: “Start drawing up now your 40-year plan to end oppression!”

A little more than 40 years ago, in November 1964, the right wing in this country experienced the biggest political defeat in its history. Barry Goldwater, a hero to conservatives, was trounced in the presidential election. Everyone thought the Republican Party was near death. But they picked themselves up, made their long-term plans to capture the political system in this country, and they have succeeded more brilliantly than any of them imagined.

Their success did not happen by accident. It happened because some of them drew up long-term plans. They took themselves that seriously. So, start making your 40-year plan now. Take yourself that seriously. Make a 40-year plan for you as an individual, for your organization, for your community, for our entire society, for the globe. Make it in cooperation with your best friends and comrades, with the members or staff of your organizations. Set out your longest range goals—where you want things to be in 40 years—and work back from there. Compare your plan to the plan of others. Work to reach agreement—and then go do it!

Don’t kid yourself: while we are sitting around not making a 40-year plan, someone else is, and trust me, we will not like their plan.

Denver, January 2009

I have been asked to talk today about the possibilities of the moment; the opportunities and challenges that have opened to us as a result of Barack Obama’s election and a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Across the political spectrum, almost everyone senses that a new political moment has arrived, even if we aren’t sure exactly how to define the moment.

Before I get to what I most want to say, let me open with a couple of admittedly contradictory comments. If all of us—queer activists and our close allies—just go about doing what we individually and collectively ordinarily do, there will be lots of small victories at the national level over the next four (and, I hope, eight) years. At every level of the federal bureaucracy there are folks who will be responsive to us. Across a range of issues, there will be lots of non-headline-making decisions that will be queer friendly. There are also decent chances that, with the exercise of some intelligence in our organizing, goals like the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the passage of an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act will be achieved.

On the other hand, these are not ordinary times. The length, depth, and breadth of the current economic crisis cannot be predicted. When we gather at Creating Change a year from now, perhaps we will know that the worst is behind us, but perhaps not. Already, LGBT organizations around the country are firing staff, making it harder to do the work they ordinarily do. If the economic crisis spreads and deepens, it may sweep all other issues aside, but this is not what I want to talk about right now.

A few days after 9/11, I stopped reading newspapers and watching the news on television. I had just started a fellowship year free from teaching so that I could finish a biography of Bayard Rustin. After five days of compulsively watching television reporting and buying newspapers, I knew that nothing good would be on the horizon for a very long time to come. For the most part, I put news of the nation and the world aside, and I went about my business of research, writing, and teaching history.

Last year, sometime in the spring, I flipped over and became obsessed with the news again. It was around the time of Obama’s so-called race speech. It became clear to me that Obama had a really good chance of winning the nomination and, given the unpopularity of Bush, a really good chance of becoming president. My obsessive fascination with Obama and political news was not because I judged him to be especially progressive. His platform seemed very centrist to me, what one might expect of a liberal Democrat. It was not because, as an orator, he surpassed any one I had heard in a long time and left me enthralled whenever I listened to a speech. It was not even because he was African American, though that made the prospect of his election especially thrilling.

No, the fascination had something to do with the content of the rhetoric, the core message that framed any particulars of his platform. Obama had a way of talking about the nation, without embracing a chauvinistic nationalism. He had a way of talking about America, without sounding jingoistic. He had a way of asking everyone to think beyond partisanship, without it sounding phony or hypocritical to me. He used a rhetoric that asked us to recognize how we are bound together, without pretending that there were no differences of opinion and experience. For someone like myself, who came of age during the Vietnam War when “America” was coming to mean aggression and destruction abroad, and when appeals to unity masked attempts to suppress dissent; my attraction to Obama’s oratory was nothing short of astounding.

In particular, I found myself gripped by someone whose language, assumptions, platforms, and formulations stood almost completely outside the language, assumptions, platforms, and formulations that typically come with identity politics. It was not that he often referred specifically to identity politics. In fact, he rarely even explicitly acknowledged it.

For most of my adulthood, something like 80 to 90 percent of my energy has been organized around identity politics, either my own or as an ally to others. I am not alone in this. Since the 1960s, identity politics have been the most dynamic force in US society. Social movements have been organized around them. Mass political mobilizations, party politics in the United States, and political rhetoric all have been filtered through the lens of identity. Beginning with a politics of race, ethnicity, and national origin, moving into a politics of gender and sexuality, and expanding further to include a politics of disability and physical difference, identity politics have made things tick in the United States.

The changes that identity politics have wrought are extraordinary. The depth, breadth, reach, and range of these movements are almost beyond our ability to catalogue. We could spend the rest of the day just making lists of all the legal, institutional, cultural, and social changes that have grown out of identity-based movements, and we still would not have exhausted the list of what has been achieved. The changes have been so great in so many arenas that historical memory of what things were like is being lost to a younger generation. For instance, when I lecture to my undergraduates on the 1950s, which I describe as “the worst time to be queer,” they find the conditions of just 50 years ago unimaginable.

So, from one angle, when I think about identity politics, I think: “Hooray! Let’s drink a toast to identity politics!” But, unfortunately, there are also two undeniable, though not often acknowledged, results of 40-plus years of identity politics.

First of all, in every identity-based movement, the benefits have not been equally distributed. In fact, they have been wildly unevenly distributed. For instance, Barack Obama, an African American man, is now president of the United States. Yet, in the neighborhoods that surround where he lived in Chicago are countless young black men who have few prospects beyond drugs, gangs, violence, and prison. Or, to make the point very personal: I am a tenured college professor in Chicago with a comfortable salary and secure employment. Yet Amnesty International reports that in this same city, young transfolk of color are still mercilessly harassed by the police.[2]

Is this inequality of outcomes accidental? Is it an unintended consequence of identity politics? Or is it perhaps inherent, organic to that framework of interpreting the world and political organizing? Do our attempts to remedy some of the deficiencies of identity politics through what we speak of as intersectional politics smash that framework and rescue us from its limits? Or will it too be something that distributes benefits unequally? Identity politics have helped make the student bodies of elite educational institutions like Harvard and Princeton admirably diverse. Yet at the same time, our urban public school systems are in a state of collapse and are increasingly populated by students of color. How will identity politics remedy that?

Secondly, although it is comforting to imagine identity-based movements as the basis for a multimovement progressive coalition bigger than the sum of its parts, few of us acknowledge that two of the most wildly successful identity movements of the last generation have been movements of the right. There is the movement of evangelical Christians, certainly a fiercely identity-based movement. Think, for instance, of how successful it has been in obstructing movement toward reproductive justice and how consistently it has opposed any movement toward LGBT equality. There has also been the identity-based movement of the filthy rich. Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the filthy rich and their supporters have so dramatically remade the tax system in the United States that the gap between them and the rest of us is much larger than it has been at any time in the last 80 years. The dismantling of a progressive federal income and corporate tax structure has led to the starving of the public sector, especially those programs that aim at economic democracy.

It is useful and sobering to put these two movements in the category of identity-based politics. When I think in these terms, it helps me to see that even when my kind of identity politics is motivated by fierce outrage at injustice and inequality, the “me” or “us” of an identity movement always implies and calls into existence a “them.” Is it possible that even when identity politics come from a progressive political stance, they unleash a fractured oppositional political process rooted in antagonism? That fracturing plays not to justice, but to self-interest and resentment and competition. When you unleash those emotions in political combat, the good guys seldom win, because resentment and competition and self-interest are not the stuff of social justice.

For me, this is the kind of rethinking that Obama’s ascendance has provoked. This is what the Obama moment most seems to be about. It is about a call to reconstruct how we think about and frame goals, agendas, priorities, and campaigns. It is not about denying differences, or aspiring to a phony unity rooted in pretense, but about framing agendas and pursuing goals that pivot around notions of a common good in which all share the benefits. A common good: The very phrase seems deeply moral to me.

So at this moment when we are going to achieve victories and make gains, large and small, just by doing the things that our organizations normally do, can we also creatively rethink our goals? Can we move along a path that stands outside the particularities of identity or interest group politics? Are there ways we can frame our queer agendas so that they put us smack in the middle of broad-based campaigns that speak to a common good?

Take, for instance, the issue of youth. In the last decade or so, queer youth around the country have displayed a great deal of initiative and energy. Gay/Straight Alliances have sprung up in thousands of high schools, a phenomenon almost unimaginable to folks of my generation. At the same time, the increasing visibility of queer youth has made them especially vulnerable to verbal harassment and physical violence.

We have a network of organizations that work on issues of youth and schools, that support the efforts of young people, and that work toward measures that will create “safe school” environments for students who identity as LGBT. This is all good. But do we really imagine that any amount of training of school personnel to be LGBT sensitive can make a school safe if it teaches abstinence-only sex education? As long as the federal funding policies of the Bush administration that reward schools for teaching abstinence-only sex education remain in place, goals of LGBT safety and acceptance will remain illusory.

Fighting for comprehensive sex education funding is something that will benefit all young people. It is not, strictly speaking, a gay identity-based issue. Yet LGBT youth will benefit immensely from successful efforts to institutionalize comprehensive sex education.

Take the issue of AIDS prevention: With 50,000 new HIV infections in the United States every year, the epidemic remains urgent and of crisis proportions. The population is disproportionately young, low income, of color, and men who have sex with men. Though AIDS was never solely a gay issue, its close association in this country with gay men marked it from the beginning as “not mainstream.”

At a time of great economic crisis, when the nation is debating how to stimulate the economy in ways that provide long-term benefits, why is the funding of community-based AIDS education and prevention not near the top of the list? It would provide jobs in communities that need jobs. It would reduce long-term health costs. It would preserve large numbers of young people as healthy, productive members of society. I can hardly imagine a more productive use of federal dollars. Can the rhetoric of a common good become the vehicle for seeing AIDS prevention as a priority in this new era?

I am not suggesting that everyone drop what they are working on and fight for comprehensive sex education or funding for community-based AIDS education. I am saying that I think what is being asked in this new era, what is being offered us, is the opportunity and challenge not to think in the particularities of identity—not in terms of group self-interest, but to imagine our goals and dreams and agendas in the context of a common good. To the degree that we are able to do that, we have more traction in this new political world. We will be contributing to the demise of a fractured, antagonistic system of political mobilization that may not have served us as well as some of us think it has.

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  1. Amnesty International, “Stonewalled: Police Abuse and Misconduct Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People in the U.S.,” 2005. [Return to text]
  2. Amnesty International, “Stonewalled: Police Abuse and Misconduct Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People in the U.S.,” 2005. [Return to text]