Recently I was invited to speak on “the future of LGBT activism” at Manchester’s Political Pride. I was on the panel with Hope Winter-Hall, an original member of the UK Gay Liberation Front; Florence Okoye; member of the AfroFutures collective; and Alex Young, a trans activist and Christian. Hope talked about some of the tactics of early GLF and the importance of finding your own personal revolution. Florence discussed the intersections of queerness, blackness and futurism, and highlighted the need to queer all of our institutions. Alex talked about his experiences as a queer person of faith and the importance of understanding our experiences as both systematic and subjective. What follows is my thoughts about the future of queer activism, in a post gay marriage era. Jess Bradley writes:
Since the implementation of gay marriage, the LGB movement has been experiencing an identity crisis. We have “equality” now. Or at least, it seems so the straight cis people who determine third sector funding priorities. For large organisations such as Stonewall, this has led to a crisis of relevance: how can they justify their continued existence as institutions when LGB people appear to have legal equality? (Perhaps this is a problem that Stonewall foresaw, given its rather sluggish support of gay marriage).
They have dealt with this crisis of relevance is to incorporate the T into their work. Trans people are politically relevant right now, what with the “transgender tipping point”, Caitlyn Jenner, Laverne Cox, and more visible areas of concern that need addressing (transphobic violence, healthcare, etc.). Of course, they could have incorporated the T into their work a long time ago, but made a strategic decision to do so now as the threat of funding irrelevance outweighed the threat of pissing off TERFs and other transphobes. This is an observation not (necessarily) a criticism. Organisations like Stonewall strategically choose to operate in a way which pleases their funders and that necessarily involves avoiding controversy in order to keep their staff in work. Organisations like Action for Trans Health have a different set of priorities and use a different set of strategies, but perhaps if our interests align at some point we will work together. (Riffing off what Hope said, I think having a sense of what your interests are is part of understanding your own personal revolution).
Whilst the increased attention on trans issues which comes with Stonewall incorporating the T is a good thing, I tend to think that simply incorporating new identities into the existing ways of doing things might not be all that. Do we simply keep on adding new identities when the ‘old ones’ become less politically relevant? How much does this incorporation of new identities involve lipservice and how much involves an institutional change? Perhaps we need to do things differently, use a new set of tactics which involve incorporating the most vulnerable from the offset not just when its politically convenient.
If we need a new set of tactics and priorities, then what? At this stage, I would like to return to the specific moment of getting gay marriage, because I believe it holds a lot of answers to the current question of priorities, strategies and relevance. Gay marriage is, in the history of marriage, a bit of an anomaly. In the past, in Europe and the US, marriage has generally tended to be an institution foisted upon new groups without their consent, rather than something actively asked for. Marriage was devised as a way of denying aristocratic women property rights, then was applied to the working classes to create more stable (read: manageable) nuclear family units, and to black slaves and ex-slaves in the US to tie them to their master’s estates. So it is interesting that LGB activists have seemingly asked for gay marriage, in the most part within a wider set of demands, and how the official response has been to assume that was all that was being asked for. Its also pretty interesting that the Tories, hardly known for their love of the queer community, were the ones who passed the law. Perhaps this was to try and shed their image of being the “nasty party”, or perhaps gay marriage, too, offers something useful in terms of managing populations.
I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with my racist uncle. We were talking about the immigration crisis and the fact that many migrants are Muslim. He said “Why are you defending Muslims? If you go ‘over there’ you won’t get your gay marriage”. In saying this, my uncle created a conflict between queers and Muslims: we (white, non-Muslims) are “tolerant” to gays, more “civilised” than the racialized Muslim other overseas. (Its interesting how my uncle is only ever concerned about gay rights when he has something racial to prove, it’s a shallow solidarity). This construction of Europe as a bastion of tolerance is widespread (see Israel’s pinkwashing of the conflict with Palestine for another example) but blind to history: most countries with anti-gay laws had them passed by European colonial powers, or more recently by neo-colonial theocratic leaders installed by the US with the backing of Europe. Its also blind to the fact that many Muslims are queer, and many queers are Muslim. Simply put, you’re still homophobic if your vision of tolerance towards queers only extends to the white non-Muslim ones. My friend and comrade Sonia talks more about this in her blog inspired by this discussion here.
Drawing on this phenemona, Jasbir Puar in her Terrorist Assemblages talks about how gay marriage is being used to codify a Western set of values in order to justify the othering of black and brown people in Europe and the global south. Essentially, gay marriage and other LGBT issues are being played off against race. This dynamic is shown with UK marriage as at the same time we see the implementation of same sex marriage legislation, we also see changes to immigration legislation which restricts the spouses of British citizens from getting citizenship unless the citizen earns over a certain amount (which started of around £18k, although my friend said recently it had risen). As such, whilst we see same sex couples being incorporated into the institution of marriage, we also see a whole bunch of immigrants whose partners earn less than the required amount excluded. At the same time we also have the spousal veto for married trans people, whereby their partners can veto their legal gender recognition, also excludes a significant amount of trans people from the institution of marriage.
To me, the question of what the LGBT movement does now that we have gay marriage is obvious, the marriage legislation is quite clearly pointing us towards a focus on immigration and anti-racist queer activism, and changes to gender recognition legislation and abolition of gender gatekeepers more generally. However, for the LGBT movement to focus on the rights of LGBT asylum seekers / immigrants or trans people excluded from basic healthcare / recognition, necessarily involves a change of focus away from existing models of activism led by white cis LGB people. This is increasingly relevant as Europe’s leaders fail to address a growing refugee crisis internationally and UK governments slash funding for healthcare and various social support mechanisms. Following what Alex and Florence said in their speeches, we need to understand that white cis LGB experiences do not always produce the same understandings or priorities as those of other groups, and that part of queering our activist institutions involves a radical openness to collaborating with other groups and letting other people lead. This should occur alongside an openness to allowing ourselves to make mistakes as we learn about other peoples experiences, and a commitment to educating ourselves so we “fail better” next time.