UPDATED: Since publishing the original article, Private Manning has confirmed her identity as a trans woman and asks to be called Chelsea Manning. Future references to Private Manning shall reflect this.
The gay revolution is being institutionalised with a whimper not a bang, as gay marriage becomes UK law. The post-AIDS gay movement demanded an institution seen as inherently conservative rather than advocating abolition of privileges awarded to monogamous heterosexual relationships. What both ‘assimilationists’ who support marriage rights, and ‘liberationists’ against awarding privileges to marriage have paid less attention to is what happens to the LGBT movement in a post-gay marriage era.
The ‘Ellen and Portia’ imagery of gay marriage has its own cultural power perhaps more important than material benefits for queer people. Same-sex couples may be a radical model for straight couples on how to distribute the roles of everything from housework to sex when there are no assumed gender roles. But the benign, liberal acceptance of marriage rights has not been about improving marriage or queer people’s material conditions – it is a conditional but non-threatening, libertarian extension of rights. No longer is the argument ‘gay is good’, but ‘Jennifer and Sarah can’t help being gay because it’s not a choice, so let them marry’.
Mara Keisling, head of the US National Center for Transgender Equality, has expressed fear gay marriage laws will lead to a ‘stalemate’ which stalls momentum on LGBTQ issues. The focus on marriage as the pinnacle of equality suggests a neat narrative of what it means to be queer, conflating a young trans woman of colour’s experiences with a cis white gay man’s experiences. Trans women of colour, and gay and bisexual men of colour, experience particular criminal assumptions they are selling sex for carrying a condom. In the UK, many LGBTQ people of colour are seen as not having a typical queer ‘experience’ or ‘identity’; asylum seekers are left trapped at the borders. The different forms of marginalisation LGBTQ people face seem far removed from civil equality, and closer to how queer identities have been historically stigmatised; LGBTQ people are ‘criminal’ once again at the borders and through police harassment; bisexuals are ‘sick’ once again when they are experience mental health problems, and blamed for spreading HIV to straight people; transgender people are ‘immoral’ when they try to teach children. Even basic symbols of intimacy between same-sex couples are ‘subversive’ – a pro-gay marriage population is not pro-gay kissing or hand holding. People are okay with John Barrowman or Gareth Thomas or Sandi Toksvig marrying and having kids. But something is very ‘sexless’ about public acceptance of these figures. Legal equality does not remove the raised eyebrows at same-sex couples. For all the celebrating about gay marriage victories, hate crimes have spiked in the UK and France. Transphobic hatred is even less disguised. Lucy Meadows’ death shows trans people haven’t even acquired the recognition necessary to demand full citizenship and humanity – ‘free speech’ is an acceptable, liberal position to hound a woman to death.
The main gay rights organisations in the US and UK, the Human Rights Campaign and Stonewall respectively, eschew any attempt to portray their movements as unsettling to hierarchies for fear of upsetting progress. Even on limited matters of civil rights like ending bans on LGB soldiers in the military, they have lagged behind civil disobedience activists like Lt. Dan Choi, silencing ‘threatening’ voices in the name of forging political alliances. Despite working-class trans women of colour like Sylvia Rivera starting the Stonewall Riots, its UK namesake locks out trans people. The groups pursue acceptance of gays through corporate legitimacy rather than a ‘disruptive’ case for equality. It is “more branding than coalition building.” The image these groups are trying to portray is of a ‘model minority’. The exclusion of Private Bradley Manning by San Francisco Pride as honorary grand marshal is an example of this. Obedience to the military is a more important test for LGBT groups than the welfare of individual LGBTQ soldiers – it became impossible to discuss the rights of a gay soldier held in torturous conditions without commenting on the military industrial-complex.
In the post-gay marriage age, intersectional coalition building will be the most effective way of improving queer people’s material circumstances. Young queer people of colour have taken the initiative in building coalitions, like in New York over stop-and-frisking by law enforcement, and undocumented immigrant queer youth using their experiences of coming out as queer to ‘come out’ about being undocumented. In the UK, ridding the borders to LGBTQ asylum seekers and immigrants is a statement about the openness to pursue life as a queer and trans citizen of any nationality. Decriminalising sex work would allow the LGBTQ movement to create safer spaces and streets for queer and trans people, so often shared with sex workers – LGBTQ groups are realising the importance of coalition building over these laws, particularly how they stigmatise queer men and trans women.
Frayed alliances with feminist movements could be improved. Homophobia and transphobia are in many ways rooted in misogyny. While bisexual and trans people break additional gendered norms, they also experience rape culture in particular ways. In the US, nearly half of bisexual women have been raped, mostly by men, suggesting widespread ‘corrective rape’ to ‘fix’ bisexual women’s sexuality. In the UK, 79% of trans people have experienced street harassment. Barriers between trans people and feminists (erected by feminists) are slowly being broken down. But there is further potential for LGBTQ coalitions with feminists against rape culture. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans people all have perspectives on bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom that can help build coalitions.
The same LGBTQ and student coalitions trying to end ‘gay conversion therapy’ could be organised to end the bullying epidemic against queer kids in school, or to create a safer and more inclusive sex education policy. One of the great moral tests for LGBTQ groups will be their commitment to tackling queer and/or trans homelessness, with a quarter of the UK urban homeless population LGBT-identified – LGBTQ groups could add a queer and trans voice to the demands for building more council housing. Cleve Jones – Harvey Milk’s protégé – has attempted to integrate working-class and queer struggles in the US, connecting the dots between worker rights in the hotel industry and justice for immigrants and LGBTQ people.
The idea of LGBTQ groups forming coalitions can seem abstract, even utopian. But legal equality is not enough for a permanent minority as the ACT UP coalitions who fought inaction on AIDS recognised. Many LGBT people are starting to see LGBT identities as too rigid for a post-gay marriage age and are identifying themselves as ‘queer’. ‘Queer’ better signifies the complex relationships LGBTQ people have with economic and judicial systems, and the ways queer identity intersects with gender and race. The move towards queer identity suggests the possibility for building an intersectional LGBTQ movement with everything we’ve got.