The paradox of the gay revolution is the now widespread ‘majority’ – cis straight – support for gay rights. ‘Allies’ are considered essential to the LGBTQ movement’s success. But relying on allies avoids the difficult job of movement building. Defining people according to limiting LGBTQ or cis straight identities inevitably frames the movement around pleasing allies instead of queer and/or trans people’s needs.
Straight cis support is not inherently the problem. But framing ‘allies’ as clearly separate from queer and/or trans people implies sexual orientation and gender identity are rigid and essential. As Julia Serano argues, taking cis and straight identities as the default removes questions of systematic oppression and privilege from the table and puts the onus on queer and/or trans people for their circumstances – redressing oppression is interpreted as an aggressive act. Allies are required only to be ‘tolerant’ as queer and/or trans people – being a permanent minority – require the ‘protection’ of straight cis allies. This also leads to certain allies being prioritised over others. Aspiring King of the Gays/Ally-in-chief Macklemore is considered more beneficial for his songs supporting gay marriage than Janelle Monae is for songs linking queer liberation with black working-class struggles. Indeed, Macklemore’s support is prioritised over mobilising black queer and/or trans people, with mainstream gay marriage movements seeing gay and black as two distinct categories – far more beneficial to focus on two white gay men marrying than a black lesbian single mother.
This narrative simultaneously insinuates allies are subversive but that bisexuals are “sleeping with the enemy”. Despite bisexuals forming a far greater contingent of queer and/or trans communities, they are expected to ‘pick a side’ between gay or straight identities – they become public property. Bisexuals are seen as trying to claim ‘straight privilege’ as if the only manifestation of homophobia is a dislike of gay sex, not for example a majority of bisexual women experiencing mental health problems and sexual assault. As ever trans women have it worst though. Jared Leto’s defence of his role as a trans woman in Dallas Buyers’ Club falsely conflated lesbian and gay people passing as straight with trans people passing as cis. The difference is trans people are seen as ‘deceptive’ for living as their identity, not for trying to disguise it: to not ‘pass’ directly exposes oneself to violence. The politics of allies supporting ‘coming out’ is not as relevant – and indeed can be toxic – to bisexual and/or trans people.
Part of this mainstream narrative claims all homophobes are secretly gay, and that greater numbers of queer and/or trans people coming out – and allies – are alone enough to collapse homophobia and transphobia. There is a cynical anti-politics to this approach which insinuates more gay sex is necessary to neutralise homophobia, affecting both assimilationists who support gay marriage and liberationists who do not: the former ignore the institutionalised nature of oppression and the latter over-emphasise ‘subversive’ queer behaviour’s role in dismantling oppression, in a sense performing for straight cis people. Lazy comparisons have been made to the US black civil rights movement, understanding the movement as having gained civil equality through ‘acceptance’ rather than the Kennedy administration’s fear of revolution. The LGBTQ movement has misunderstood this lesson that acceptance is not alone enough, leading to a hollow politics where openly gay candidates like Christine Quinn are endorsed despite policy positions that harm working-class queer and/or trans people and entrench police harassment of trans people. Democratic Party ‘acceptance’ and ‘access’ in the 90s didn’t change HIV policy, namely funding clean syringes or allowing South Africa to develop generic anti-retroviral drugs; Lockheed Martin donations to LGBT organisations did not prevent Chelsea Manning’s incarceration; Wall Street vulture funds that drain the Third World of resources cannot in turn fix the worsened conditions of LGBTI people.
Dependence on allies avoids creating the long-term alliances and opportunities necessary in a post-gay marriage era. There has been no preparation for a post-civil equality backlash which would likely fall on trans women and people of colour. Ally support is conditional and can always be withdrawn. It doesn’t protect LGBTQ youth kicked out of home who form a disproportionate number of the homeless population, who by definition are all victims of domestic abuse – same-sex marriage and adoption rights offering little protection. From gay marriage to a proposed boycott of the Sochi Olympics, solidarity with queer and/or trans people lacks intersectional considerations of racism, misogyny, and class. It’s far easier to talk about one gay asylum seeker here or there than the systematic means by which militarised borders police sexual and gender identity, such as proposals to prevent HIV+ immigrants entering the UK, the lesbian asylum seekers leading resistance to sexual abuse at Yarl’s Wood detention centre, or indeed how Islamophobia sustains homophobia and transphobia as LGBTQI Muslims have called attention to. As in Russia and Uganda, LGBTQ rights cannot improve amidst a general context of declining human rights. Civil equality for LGBT people is not safe with an increasingly reactionary climate in the UK.
The LGBTQ movement should not focus on ‘protection’ – a tacit admission of compromising with ‘the majority’ – but a broader conception of what security for queer and/or trans people looks like. Safety cannot just be about two white gay men being able to hold hands. Queer and/or trans people of colour are particularly threatened by the policing of inner cities. Their safety comes not from ‘allies’, but depends on coalition building with undocumented immigrants, HIV+ people, and homeless people. Working-class trans women of colour – like Sylvia Rivera – and homeless queer youth led the Stonewall riots against New York police. But while Stonewall praises UK police for improved relations with cis gay men, homeless youth and trans women remain criminalised. The Soho brothels raids last December underlined the need for grassroots building of safety. Sex work criminalisation negatively impacts the whole LGBTQ community, but specifically criminalises the bodies of trans, working-class, and/or immigrant women – helping to gentrify and push the most marginalised out of inner cities. Coalition building is similarly necessary to tackle anti-LGBTQ violence and bullying in schools: disciplinary mechanisms that often blame the victim as disobedient avoid tackling the roots of homophobia and transphobia and cannot be depended on.
Allies should have a place in the LGBTQ movement but not a separate status. The importance placed on allies entrenches rigidity in the movement, leading to tangential alliances with Barclays, the police, and worst of all – Katy Perry. Though homeless youth, sex workers and undocumented immigrants aren’t seen as the right kind of allies, alliances with them are essential for building truly safe spaces not just for white, cis, able-bodied, upper-middle class gay men, but those queer and/or trans people of colour and disabled people vulnerable to criminalisation. Fundamentally there is a question of whether a movement framed around a limited gay identity, or indeed a ‘queer’ identity more concerned with subversive sexual performance than dismantling oppression, is sufficient. In the post-gay marriage era, the movement needs to be in the business of love and justice.