Bringing Militancy Back to LGBT Activism

“My biggest error, and to a certain extent the error of many contemporary LGBT activists, is in my analysis of what has made the continuing struggle for LGBT rights succeed—in some places—where other social justice struggles have failed.  It is an error that is referred to as white-washing: ignoring the effectiveness, even the existence of militancy, of messiness, of outright rebellion.”

By Antidote’s Ed Sutton

It has occurred to me in the weeks since we launched Antidote that an appropriate title for the portion of the blog containing my own writing could be A Straight Cis White Guy Finds Out He’s Wrong About Stuff.

The hope would be that this self-sabotage might serve to encourage the kind of discourse we intend to host on Antidote: one in which voices heard less often or silenced outright take precedence; one which mitigates the privilege inherent in our position as moderators and curators of content—more white male gatekeepers—and invites countervailing thought. Anti-authoritarianism starts at home.

In our forthcoming Mission Statement, we will steal baldly from Dubravka Ugrešić’s observations on how little actual ‘dialogue’ occurs on the internet—and mimic the ageless snipers who make similar observations about the fractured Left—in our promise to be an exception to these old rules.

So if it helps invite dialogue, I will continue my tradition (now two whole posts long) of formulating an argument by breaking down my own misapprehensions.

Last spring I had a great idea.

Once again, a smattering of young commentators, myself included, had taken up calls for ‘Left Unity’ as if the disintegration of Occupy were the first time a protest movement had been confronted with infighting, frustration, finger-pointing, and failure.  And I had identified the main problem in the groups I had fallen in with, post-Occupy: insularity.  Everyone was hiding in their special little radical enclaves and then wondering, after never doing any significant organizing or outreach, why society at large and even other groups on the Left seemed so hostile to their beautiful ideas.

Being somebody who ‘gets it,’ of course, I am not one of those radicals who practices insularity.  I move among ‘normals.’  I’m probably mostly normal myself.  And something I notice consistently about other normals is how radical they actually are once they get going.  David Graeber has written about this.  The only problem is that everybody seems a little embarrassed, private about it.  They would never say to coworkers, for example, or perhaps even to family, the things they say to me.  They know I am safe—they know I am a radical too.

This got me thinking about the one social justice movement that has been racking up success after success in recent years.  What have the gays done differently?  In his most recent book, discussing Merle Miller’s already forty-year-old essay On Being Different, Dan Savage writes about the deep, private, and intensely personal acts that, in aggregate, create and sustain the rolling social revolution that has made recent and future victories for LGBT people possible: coming out.

“Miller and all the gay men and lesbians who came out in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s…made the world a better, safer place for all the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans men and women who would come after them.  They made it a better, safer place for me.  They made it possible for thirteen-year-old gay boys to come out to their fathers” (Savage: American Savage 171).

In turn, they made it impossible for homophobic bigotry to continue as the prevailing, accepted, expected social norm.  Nobody but a crouching fascist gargoyle can hate a gay thirteen-year-old boy, or a gay anyone for that matter, now that everybody knows at least one personally.  The proof is in the pudding.  Though there is still a long way to go, the results have been real and promising: marriage rights for same-sex couples in nine U.S. states (and counting) and ten countries on four continents (and counting).

So, my reasoning began, is there some corollary for the radical Left?  We feel compelled to hold our tongues, or at least “tone it down” at work and at family gatherings.  We get ridiculed, marginalized, silenced, abused and dehumanized in the media.  We get arrested, we get beaten up by cops and Nazis, and everybody cheers.  This was my great idea: maybe we should start ‘coming out’ as radical.

Go ahead, laugh.  It didn’t take me long, thankfully, to realize how problematic this is.  LGBT people and LGBT activists would be among the least likely to find this corollary appropriate, much less the tribute I imagined it to be.  The idea’s clumsiness in this regard hardly even warrants discussion.

When I spontaneously floated the idea at a seminar among Eastern European right-to-the-city activists last April, it was met with the derision it deserved.  Beyond its inherent disrespect for the struggles and traumas of LGBT people and its depreciation of the original, rightful, emotional meaning of ‘coming out,’ it provoked two practical objections.

The first was fairly obvious.  To paraphrase: there’s no advantage to being an ‘out’ radical.  When everybody in your life already knows you’re a radical, it doesn’t encourage them to agree with you, much less join you, even if they like you and sympathize with you generally.  If being ‘out’ means being ‘outspoken,’ many of us are already out among friends and family—and we’re all used to the eye-rolling by now.  It can’t have the same ‘It Gets Better’ example-setting, inter-generational domino effect that coming out as gay does.  Being gay isn’t, by definition, annoying.  Being an ‘out’ radical, on the other hand…

The second was a little more abstract.  Paraphrasing once again: we aren’t the ones who are radical.  We are normal; we want only what a normal person wants (once again, see Graeber, Are You an Anarchist?).  Our opponents, the greedy, neoliberal demagogues blinded by power and privilege; the violent, hysterical militarists, nationalists, and racists; the skulking, two-faced snoops, spies and snitches whose domination of our lives and behavior is more subtle but, in a way, no less violent—they are the radicals.  If anything, we should ‘come out’ as normal.

Now, I have my objections to both of these objections, but they are not without validity.  At any rate, they didn’t quite cut to the heart of my error.

Source: Reporters Without Borders

Source: Reporters Without Borders

My biggest error, and to a certain extent the error of many contemporary LGBT activists, is in my analysis of what has made the continuing struggle for LGBT rights succeed—in some places—where other social justice struggles have failed.  It is the same error that we tend to make when we look back with dewy eyes at the American Civil Rights Movement or the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.  It is an error that is referred to, rather inaptly, as white-washing.

It is the error of ignoring the effectiveness, even the existence of militancy, of messiness, of outright rebellion within or parallel to these movements.  Activist Peter Gelderloos examines this tendency in his provocatively titled book The Failure of Nonviolence: from the Arab Spring to Occupy.  One example he does not use, but could, is in the LGBT rights movement in the United States.

Dan Savage, to his credit, does not ignore or discount the Stonewall riots of 1969 in New York City or ACT UP, the first sustained mass movement of its kind—the gay kind—which used creative, confrontational direct action to force the Reagan Administration to acknowledge and address the AIDS crisis.  In fact, he mentions them in the very same chapter of the book I cited above.  But until very recently, I did ignore these vital components of a movement that has since, shall we say, gone soft—and I am sure I am not alone.

Chalking up recent advances in gay rights to the massive turning tide of public perception—brought about, drop by agonizing drop, by brave individuals coming out—is as beautiful as it is warranted.  But it is not the whole story.  We should examine and appreciate the ‘ugly’ side, too, and in parts of the world where crouching fascist gargoyles are still ‘normal,’ the more assertive activism of earlier decades might be the only way to prevent things from getting any uglier than they already are.

I don’t relish saying so, but this is something we will learn in Sochi (and beyond), one way or the other.  The homophobes are organized and ready to fight.  Are we?

Not to get stuck on just one commentator, but this week on his podcast Dan Savage interviewed Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, who recently moved from Moscow to New York with her wife and three children to avoid the violence and repression which were bound to reach her doorstep sooner or later.  She outlined the current conditions for LGBT people in Russia and emphasized that their struggle is intimately connected to ours in ‘the West,’ and that we should be mobilizing in that direction.

I will close this little essay of mine, then, by handing the microphone to Masha.  Let’s listen to her:

“What’s going on in Russia is a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign of hate against gays and lesbians.  There have been a couple of pieces of legislation: there’s a ban on ‘homosexual propaganda’ that basically criminalizes any portrayal or even a hint of saying that LGBT people are normal.

In addition to that, there’s a ban on same-sex adoptions, there’s a campaign to start removing children from same-sex families, there’s another campaign to re-criminalize homosexuality, and I could go on.  There’s a huge rise in anti-gay violence.  That is more immediate, in fact, than all of this insane legislation.

One of the weird and scary things about these laws and about [the violence] is that it’s happening in a country that was beginning to feel normal for gay people.  There’s not a closet for people to hide in.

There are LGBT activists in Russia; they are incredibly brave to stay there and fight.  I have an incredible amount of respect for them.  As long as they are fighting they should be supported.  [What is] really important is keeping this in the media.  It’s not going to mitigate the random violence and the street violence and the vigilante violence, but it will at least help people who are publicly out, and are public as activists, stay safer.  As long as the world is watching, they will be alive.

One of the unifying factors [in rising institutionalized repression of LGBT people in Russia and in Africa is] the role of the U.S. far-right, which is a great exporter of hate to the rest of the world.  These far-right activists who are finding themselves increasingly marginalized in [the U.S.] are finding huge audiences in Russia.  And Russia is now developing the ambition of becoming the ‘Traditional Values’ capital of the world.  It’s forming a ‘Traditional Values Coalition’ in the UN.

Putin was speaking to parliament in December with his annual State of the Federation Address.  He said that Russia was the light of conservative values, and was “pushing back the darkness of tolerance that is coming from the West.” 

This is the best articulation of the backlash that I’ve ever heard.  I think this is a great place for the U.S. LGBT movement to turn its energies and to channel some of its money.  Because we’re brothers and sisters.  And some of us are in grave danger.”

Listen to Dan Savage’s full interview with Masha Gessen, in which she speaks in greater detail on—among other things—the growing LGBT refugee crisis and what non-Russians can do to help, here.

Interviews that Allison Kilkenny and Jamie Kilstein of the Citizen Radio podcast conducted with Stonewall veteran and bartender Tree, and ACT UP organizer Peter Staley, also influenced this post.  Listen to them here.

Antidote is currently negotiating permission to print transcripts of all three interviews in full.  Please stay tuned.

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.