“On one level, our movement has been a staggering, if controversial, success; yet on another level, gay and lesbian people remain profoundly stigmatized, struggling against the same crises—in health, violence, discrimination and social services—that have plagued us for decades.”
These words were written not in 2013 but in 1995, in Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, a seminal text by prominent activist and intellectual Urvashi Vaid. But the words ring true today. Here we are, ending what some are calling “the greatest year in gay rights”—and yeah, it’s been a big year from the unprecedented legal breakthroughs, especially in marriage equality, to the cultural markers of more and more celebrities and sports figures coming out of the closet. And yet it’s not just that declaring victory in the culture war, or even in skirmishes, feels premature—as though minimizing the enduring and infectious influence of the right-wing backlash. Even more, with 2013 over, we should ask whether all the achievements so far—and the path on which the LGBT movement is headed—indeed add up to true equality and liberation.
Regarding the strategies of the gay movement, what Vaid wrote then applies now:
“We can choose in this moment to follow the path our predecessors paved—of pursuing incremental legal and legislative reform, increasing gay and lesbian visibility, pressing for fair treatment in all aspects of life. This work, of securing and broadening civil equality, is in itself a lifetime’s work, in which there is indeed very little choice; all of us who support gay rights must engage in it. But we do have the choice of reaching beyond the civil rights framework of mainstream integration, and beyond the partial equality that it delivers, to imagine and create a different movement whose goal is genuine social change.”
Vaid goes on to ask, “How does a freedom-based movement differ from a rights-based movement?”
In 2006, as the “marriage equality” movement was gaining steam within the LGBT activist community, dozens of prominent gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists signed a statement called “Beyond Same Sex Marriage” (PDF)—outlining an agenda that would expand family policy in America to include gay couples as well as other “non-traditional families” rather than simply shoe-horning gay folks into the existing structures (and strictures) of hetero-normative marriage. Census data were already showing that the majority of American families were no longer fitting the traditional, nuclear mold. Today, four out of five families fall outside that dated construct. The “Beyond Same Sex Marriage” statement read, “To have our government define as “legitimate families” only those households with couples in conjugal relationships does a tremendous disservice to the many other ways in which people actually construct their families, kinship networks, households, and relationships.” To the mainstream gay-rights activists assuring that they really just wanted to strengthen conventional marriage, this liberationist wing held up a different vision—of dismantling civil marriage as we know it to make room for modern family needs. (And lest this seem like such a radical and untenable political agenda, conservatives such as Glenn Beck and libertarians like Rand Paul support getting government out of the marriage business.)
Personally, despite the groundswell movement as well as pressure from my mom and, now, even my five-year-old daughter, I’ve never been big on marriage. Sure, I believe gay folks who want to get married within the current confines should of course have that right. But as a lesbian activist, I always thought I was fighting for the right to be different from straight folks, not the same—that the quest of liberation meant that I should have equal rights and treatment regardless of those differences, rather than accessing basic rights and equality only if I conformed to a heterosexual norm. In other words, my family should be recognized and respected whether my partner and I get married or not. That, to me, is the essence of the sort of “freedom-based movement” that Vaid (whom, I should note, is one of my most important political mentors and friends) envisioned.
Now perhaps the more interesting question at this juncture is whether the attainment of hetero-normative rights leads to homo-liberation and social justice more broadly. On the one hand, ending bans on gay folks in the military is arguably a form of co-optation that serves to reinforce a military-police industrial complex that has historically been hostile toward “deviant” sexuality as other forms of difference, as evident with rampant stop-and-frisk practices against communities of color today. On the other hand, does the lovable mainstream Ellen DeGeneres being on television make it possible for the trans actress Laverne Cox to be on television? Arguably. And arguably both make it easier for LGBT folks across the country and around the world to express their identities and their desires.
But more broadly, at the same time that LGBT civil rights had its banner year in America, economic inequality reached record highs, the Supreme Court gutted voting rights and threw affirmative action into question, and dozens of state and federal laws were pushed to restrict women’s reproductive freedom. In this sense, it would appear that the rising tide of LGBT equality is not lifting the entire boat of justice. That should give us all pause.
I don’t mean to be a party pooper. We should certainly celebrate the great leaps forward for gay rights in 2013, in marriage equality but also with cultural markers and especially polls showing that the public is becoming more accepting. But in 2014, we must revisit the guiding philosophy of the gay movement and whether our strategies and tactics are pursuing liberation for all—gay and straight, black white and brown, women and men and trans—or merely some. This debate, more vibrant in decades past, is in urgent need of revival. If 2013 was the year that Americans of all stripes and social movements joined the careening bandwagon for gay rights, may 2014 be the year in which the LGBT movement returns the favor with a vision of liberation for all.