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The Mainstreaming of the LGBTQ Movement and History

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ACT-UP-Phila-on-Broad-St

It seems almost inevitable in the history of oppressed Americans. You have a movement that develops at the grassroots. It seeks to challenge the fundamental basis of American society. It has a bit of success at doing that, but ultimately it channels its goals into a civil and legal rights paradigm that drops the class and cultural challenges to the nation. As those legal aims are achieved, the radicalism of the movement fades and becomes forgotten about. As time passes and historical memory starts developing around these movements, narratives that reinforce Americans feeling great about themselves become dominant and the sharp edge that once defined those movements disappears. The civil rights movement becomes about Rosa Parks having tired feet and refusing to move to the back of the bus (even though it was Rosa Parks with the tired feet but a different woman) and MLK giving a 1-paragraph speech at the March on Washington. The women’s movement becomes about the Equal Rights Amendment. And now, gay rights becomes about resistance at Stonewall and then the right to marry.

In all these movements, the radical edge is blunted in public memory. Given the unusual role the federal government plays in shaping American public memory, we can look at National Park Service sites as a good starting point. There’s a NPS site for King of course, but nothing for Black Power. President Obama just named the offices of the National Woman’s Party in Washington as a national monument because of its centrality for women’s suffrage. And now the creation of the Stonewall National Monument to remember the gay rights movement at a moment when gay rights are ensured through marriage, even as gays and transgendered people are still being murdered. But ultimately all of these are celebrations of fundamental civil rights in ways that don’t actually challenge anything about what it means to be an American and they certainly don’t challenge the class structure or the continued oppression still faced by these groups.

I’m not necessarily criticizing this process, just noting what seems to be its near inevitability. The Stonewall National Monument has received almost universal praise, both within the gay community and the public at large. But it’s worth noting the process of selective memory and the silencing how truly radical the gay rights movement once was and how, maybe, there is something lost without that. That’s why I want to link to this essay criticizing the new national monument designation and the co-opting of gay rights by mainstream organizations.

The memorializing was largely celebrated by those with the loudest voices in the world of gay rights — spokespeople for organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, for example. Representatives of these organizations use their platform to depict the LGBTQ movement as monolithic: one with with shared concerns and a shared agenda. But as white gay people benefit more and more from legal protection, visibility and inclusion, the LGBTQ movement is divided by the same factors that structure all inequity in the US, such as proximity to state violence and access to resources.

These differences, of course, are primarily articulated through race and income; low-income queer and trans people of color are overwhelmingly the targets of police abuse, arrests and surveillance.

This division between white, wealthy, cisgender gays, and queer and trans activists of color has been apparent throughout this Pride season, as queer and trans groups across the country pushed a #policeoutofpride campaign, opting out of Pride celebrations after cities announced increased state security presences post-Orlando.

As with the government’s pro-gay makeover, Pride celebrations across the country are as much an occasion for corporations to promote themselves as “allies” as they are a chance for LGBTQ people to gather and celebrate their survival. In 1998, the Bay Area’s LAGAI-Queer Insurrection was possibly the first queer direct action group to crash a Gay Pride parade and call out corporate hijacking, chanting “It’s a movement, not a market!” as they disrupted what had in large part become a celebration of gay consumerism, not liberation.

Some of the world’s wealthiest banks and tech companies have since solidified their place as sponsors and participants in the festivities. While it may be true that large corporations increasingly employ gays and lesbians, these hires are predominantly white and predominantly cisgender. Even more, the growth of tech industries in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Seattle continues to displace longstanding communities and bringing in hoards of high-paid corporate workers. What often goes unspoken is that lower-income LGBTQ people, especially communities of color, are forced out when white, wealthy, and highly educated gays and lesbians move in.

The whole essay is worth your time. And criticize this position if you want to, but there’s no question that the public acceptance of gay rights is a warm and fuzzy acceptance of a particular set of actions that makes everyone feel good about their own tolerance without challenging the significant repression that gay people still feel in their lives and without questioning which LGBTQ people are welcome in this new pantheon of official acceptance and which aren’t.

And how about a national monument at a site of an ACT-UP action? That would be a very different kind of historical memory creation than Stonewall, no?

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