Karen J. Hall
The theme for this year's Syracuse LGBT Pride event is "US
Pride." Although the committee who selected the theme intends to refer
to pride felt in and for US people, in the current patriotic war frenzy, the
theme amounts to one more flag waving in support of foreign and domestic policies
for which many of us feel very little pride.
Pride celebrations mark the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riot in New York City, a date that marks the birth of the modern gay liberation movement. Activities on and around this anniversary date are one of the few times each year that the LGBT community gathers as a whole in the full breadth and depth of our diversity. It's a time when we celebrate publicly the history and heritage of the movement, so it makes me personally very sad that this year's theme makes me so uncomfortable that I and other peace activist queers will not wish to attend events in Syracuse. Perhaps even more damaging is the fact that this theme erases the leftist roots of the modern LGBT movement.
The presence and strength of numerous radical organizations helped galvanize the resistance sparked by the drag queens and street hustlers on a June night in 1969 into a grassroots liberation movement. Queer activists had been involved in groups like Mattachine, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Panther Party, and the National Organization for Women (NOW). When dissent and resistance against police harassment hit the streets that night at the Stonewall Inn, folks were ready to build on and organize the energy. Within a short time, an organization called the Gay Liberation Front formed. Carl Wittman, an activist who had been a leader in SDS, wrote "A Gay Manifesto," which became an early statement of the aims and goals of the group.
Wittman urged gay and lesbian people to come out and to publicly express their gender and sexuality in ways that would expose the oppressive character of traditional gender roles. He spoke with righteous confidence when he stated that "we know we are radical, in that we know that the system we're under now is a direct source of oppression, and it's not a question of getting our share of the pie. The pie is rotten."
Those in the LGBT movement whose goals are to attain acceptance from and integration into mainstream society frequently clash with those who wish to create a liberation movement for social change. From my perspective, a disturbing level of amnesia is necessary to march under the banner of US Pride. One must forget economic sanctions against Cuba and Iraq that contribute to inhuman levels poverty, disease and degradation. One must forget the grossly inflated domestic military spending and international arms sales. One must forget the environmental degradation caused by allowing drilling on national lands and storing nuclear waste on indigenous lands. One must forget the many implications of the supposed war on terrorism including the suspension of individual rights within the US in the post 9/11 world. One must forget the rampant construction of supposed enemies _ from queers to the "axis of evil" to the terrorist of the day, no one is safe when our government is in need of a scapegoat. One must forget so much that one is in danger of being unable to remember the connections that made the gay liberation movement vital, vibrant and fabulous at its beginning.
An understanding of the connections among oppressions has been longstanding among some gay and lesbian political activists. The Veterans Benevolent Association (VBA), one of the first gay and lesbian membership organizations in the US, and active between 1945 and 1954, worked in alliance with the NAACP over the issue of black and homosexual men and women who were facing undesirable discharges from military service. The VBA provided support, referrals and networking to veterans who had served their country during a time of need, and were now faced with discharges that made finding work and reintegrating into domestic life difficult. Together, the groups used a media and lobbying campaign that was successful in ending the use of the category against black veterans, though its use against gay and lesbian veterans continued.
The Mattachine Society was formed in 1951 by a group of five militant men, three of whom were progressive activists and Communist Party members. These men braved staunch anti-communist public opinion and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), but resigned their positions of leadership when their politics threatened the organization from within. More moderate members felt that the standpoints of the founders endangered not only Mattachine but the gay and lesbian movement as a whole. Rather than organize for general social change and emphasize how sexuality contributed to making gays and lesbians different from the mainstream, these members wished to create a stance that defined homosexuality as irrelevant to an individual's ideals, principles, and aspirations.
In 1970, a group called the Radicalesbians published "The Woman Identified Woman," which served as a lesbian manifesto that articulated the connections between sexism, homophobia and militarized masculinity. These women understood the need to link the movement against heterosexual patriarchy with the sexual liberation movement:
It should first be understood that lesbianism, like male homosexuality, is a category of behavior possible only in a sexist society characterized by rigid sex roles and dominated by male supremacy. Those sex roles dehumanize women by defining us as a supportive/serving caste in relation to the master caste of men, and emotionally cripple men by demanding that they be alienated from their own bodies and emotions in order to perform their economic/political/military functions effectively.
The ideological split that took place within Mattachine in 1953 continues to be characteristic of the movement today. Former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force director Urvashi Vaid has argued that the inability to address both sides of this ideological split contributed to the movement's failure, in the early 1990s, to overthrow the US military's policies against gay and lesbian personnel. The inability to simultaneously address both the goal of mainstream integration and the need for social change blocked the movement's ability to address the sexist roots of the anti-gay policy. Whereas the military discourse was about defining manhood through a system of rigid gender roles, the gay and lesbian movement addressed the issue at the level of fairness and the right of access. What we were left with was "Don't ask, don't tell," a policy that changes neither the right of fair access to a state institution for gays and lesbians nor the style of domination and gender rigidity of the military. The bottom line was that by not playing together, queers lost and oppression and domination won.
Gays and lesbians have seen a partial fulfillment of their goals for acceptance and integration over the past several decades. The contributions of gay men and lesbians are more widely acknowledged in the mainstream, and images of gay and lesbian people can be found in all forms of popular culture. In the 1970s when the National Opinion Research Center conducted its Annual General Social Survey, 70-77% of the American public who responded said that homosexual relations were "always wrong." In the 1980s, this number dropped to 66-75%, and in the 1990s to 50-66%.
Though the numbers are in our favor, we are still a very long way from living in a culture where queer sexuality is affirmed and acknowledged as the moral equivalent of straight sexuality. And so, in the LGBT world as in the wider world, we live in the best of times and the worst of times. We are confronted by opportunities and seemingly insurmountable barriers. These challenges and the state of the global community demand, deserve and cry out for the movement to seriously debate its moral vision. What do lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people stand for? What are the moral politics that will guide our organizing in the twenty-first century? How will we balance pragmatic politics with moral politics, protect and secure our civil rights under the current system, while at the same time striving for social justice and change that will bring an end to all oppression? A movement involved in serious debate over these issues will draw working, middle and upper class, white, black and brown, men and women into its fold. Such a movement will be well worth marching with in June and throughout the year.
Karen J. Hall will sit out this years pride events and asks others who equally value human rights do the same. She would like to gratefully acknowledge the political, emotional and intellectual influence Urvashi Vaids Virtual Equality had in the writing of this essay, and the influence My Sisters Words feminist bookstore had on her ability to simultaneously buy this important book and support her local community.