It seems like things have gotten so much better since the day of June 28th, 1969 – an era when police raids on gay bars were common. The Gay Rights movement as we know it today hadn’t been formed yet. Repression by the police was a fact of life for those who didn’t want to be hidden and isolated from any kind of community that looked like them. And so on that fateful day of June 28th – people fought back. This time people were not content to being assaulted and arrested. The gay men, lesbians and trans women that made up the Stonewall Inn in New York destroyed police property, resisted arrest and directly confronted the police with insurrectionary violence. Disorganized, spontaneous, angry and chaotic; it would be this day that we would remember forever as the birth date of Gay Liberation. But then, Gay Rights kicked off, we left the violence behind, became respectable and then gained rights. Love was no longer illegal and now we could marry the people we wanted to marry. We passed hate crime legislation to confront the violence occurring to us and put on privilege workshops to fight ignorance and hate. Through hard work and determination we were no longer pathologized, we could join the military and can now live healthy, middle-class lives.
Marriage equality politics have benefited us all and have never hurt anyone so that we could gain those rights. That’s how it happened, right?
Fast forward: It is June 23rd, 2015, only five days before the 46th Anniversary of Stonewall. The Supreme Court of the United States was only a few days away from declaring marriage for all. At that point 37 states already had marriage equality. It was only five years ago that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was overturned. For many, there’s a lot to celebrate. Advertising campaigns by alcohol companies and bars, banks having their own floats in the parade and of course, stickers representing organizations whose donors include drone manufacturers fill the streets of every major city in celebration. Even the White House was involved in Pride celebrations this year. Major leaders of LGBT organizations from across the country create an audience around President Obama on that day.
Joy, anticipation, anxiety are all feelings that fill the air of the White House as many people wait patiently to hear what SCOTUS will decide. Hopefully all the anti-oppression work pays off and we’ll all soon be normal, just like heterosexuals. As the collective euphoria of Gay Rights overwhelms us in the presence of the President, we hear someone speaking out of turn and interrupting Obama. We boo her and tell her this event isn’t for her. On this day celebrating our glorious history, someone tries to disrupt us and instead speaks of trans women being abused in immigrant detention centers far away from our suburban gentrified neighborhoods. But haven’t we gained freedom? Haven’t we gained rights? What is she speaking of? This shocked my white middle-class sensibilities greatly that anyone would ever disrespect the privileges I’ve gained. To be able to be in the same room as the top elites in the country and to have a transsexual proclaim it was not deserved is offensive. Thank you President Obama for standing up to hecklers and removing this undocumented woman. This must have been extraordinarily stressful to you. We cheered your name as this undesirable was removed from our presence and sent hopefully soon to a prison.
If any of this sounds wrong to you – good. This is a problem just as old as the Stonewall Riot itself. In the wake of marriage politics, a serious conversation needs to happen about who was sacrificed in the name of those politics.
Jennicet is one of many. We were left behind for affluence, mobility and respectability.
What Jennicet Gutiérrez did should not be misconstrued as simple “heckling.” Her disruption of the White House Pride event was confronting the most powerful man in the country with an issue that directly relates to her experiences. She was performing an act of civil disobedience in the face of President Obama having deported more immigrants than any other President in United States history. The Stonewall Riots were a reaction to police violence and imprisonment, what she was reacting to is the involvement of a police force enacting violence on undocumented immigrants and the imprisonment they face in detention centers. What she did by interrupting President Obama was to call attention to who doesn’t get to celebrate Pride and marriage not only that day, but the day before, tomorrow, next week, next year, maybe even ten years from now. Undocumented trans women are being physically and sexually assaulted in detention centers. The entire system of detention and deportations, which have massively increased under the Obama administration, is the environment that allows immigrant trans women to face this violence. But we celebrate Obama as one of the most LGBT “friendly” Presidents we’ve ever had. Clearly, LGBT friendly just means he supports marriage equality, not us. Trans women face the highest disparities within the LGBT community, including homelessness, unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, poverty, violence and imprisonment. Marriage Equality celebrations won’t change this.
This is the reality of the situation. These are the circumstances that led to Jennicet Gutiérrez doing a disruptive action to bring attention to what every single LGBT leader that attended White House Pride and booed her or didn’t stand up for her decided to remain completely complicit in. The President himself is complicit and directly responsible. Thinking of her as just a heckler removes the responsibility of everyone involved in creating a situation so desperate a woman felt compelled to face down the Secret Service to let everyone know she will not be silent. Unfortunately, while she wasn’t silent, everyone else was. What has been happening to undocumented immigrants has been occurring actively at the hands of the state for years. Silence has meant death for her and her sisters. The silencing of her was a murder and the crowd was an accomplice. We finally have marriage equality, but now what? What have we really gained?
When we think of the Stonewall Riots that we pay tribute to during Pride and that we owe the mobilization that led to marriage equality for, we often think of two figures. We think of Marsha P. Johnson, a Black Trans Woman who was responsible for “the shot glass heard around the world” that ignited the tense space between police and gay men, dykes, queens, sex workers and transsexuals into the infamous riot. The other person we think of, Sylvia Rivera, a Latina Trans Woman, historically challenged a crowd of primarily white gay men in their complicity in the abuse trans women faced in prison.
The comparisons between Jennicet Gutiérrez and Sylvia Rivera are easy to make. In both cases a Latina Trans Woman attempts to hold accountable those who have hurt her and those who were complicit in harming her. In both cases the politics of the LGB community outweighed their concerns. It was normalcy and integration during Rivera’s days and in Gutiérrez’s it’s marriage.
During Rivera’s time, the movement her actions helped create had already rid themselves of her in the four years since the riot. This was purposeful. As the Gay Rights movement developed, more radical elements were pushed to the side and this included Johnson and Rivera. Liberation and social war became less the central focus of the white men and women that became prominent within the movement. Instead, a tactic of respectability consumed the discourse.
These aren’t new critiques. Sylvia Rivera’s speech at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City in 2001 portrays perfectly what happened to trans women in the LGB movement and the ways in which marriage politics and respectability have impacted us:
“…Mainstreaming, normality, being normal. I understand how much everybody likes to fit into that mainstream gay and lesbian community. You know, it used to be a wonderful thing to be avant-garde, to be different from the world. I see us reverting into a so-called liberated closet because we, not we, yous of this mainstream community, wish to be married, wish for this status. That’s all fine. But you are forgetting your grassroots, you are forgetting your own individual identity. I mean, you can never be like them. Yes we can adopt children, all well and good, that’s fine. I would love to have children. I would love to marry my lover over there [Julia Murray], but for political reasons, I will not do it because I don’t feel that I have to fit in that closet of normal, straight society which the gay mainstream is going towards.
This is why they don’t want the transgender people to have rights. This is why they always tell us, “Oh let us get ours, and then we’ll help you get yours. ” If I hear that one more time, I think I’ll jump off the Empire State building.”
Revolution? Hell no! White picket fences, suburbia, marriage, military service and shifting the previously abnormal into the realm of the normative was the goal now. This assimilation into the normal meant radicals and transsexuals had to go. The implications of a politics of normalcy (“we are just like you”) and naturalism (“we were born this way”) means that an Other has to be constructed in opposition. Historically, other forms of pushes towards respectability have meant that “less” respectable community members are pushed further into the margins and sacrificed for a limited accumulation of privileges. For white gays and lesbians in the following decades, their whiteness would be constructed in this way in opposition to Blackness, leading to a discourse of Black communities being particularly homophobic, which serves white LGB’s mobility into normalization and respectability. To be normal, natural and respectable is to also be white and the LGB (and the T) utilized this to its fullest potential.
Trans women were also not just like everyone else, and were considered to be unnatural by both conservative and feminist discourse. We were sacrificed for the brunches, Sears catalogues and office jobs of the white middle-class cisgender queers. This is the context of Sylvia River in 1973 when she takes the stage and is met with boos and disdain. Trans women then, much like now, were placed in men’s facilities and were subject to physical and sexual violence at the hands of men. This was a violence that the middle-class white gay movement now, much like then, didn’t stop and seemed disinterested in organizing against. Gutiérrez also attempted to break through to an apathetic and actively hostile crowd and was met with boos and disdain. The difference is, at the end of her speech, Rivera was met with applause. There was no cheering for Gutiérrez. Within the span of 42 years, two different trans women, under similar circumstances, have had to challenge a cisgender gay establishment over the sexual violence faced by trans women in prison. The responses were the same. Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed. If anything, conditions have become worsened.
That politics of respectability became a monster – a monster which consumed all, even itself. The Gay Rights movement was birthed into a time of turbulence and mobilization. Gay Rights and Antiwar efforts were often two struggles that heavily intermingled. Radical gay and lesbian organizations arose from the literal ashes of Stonewall to resist homophobia at home and imperialism abroad. Much like the Black Panther Party, blossoming LGBT communities aligned themselves with the Third-World and their revolutionary efforts. This meant seeing the interconnection between the ways society constructs sexuality and the nuclear family to serve the needs of capital and how the state inflicts imperialist warfare for the interests of capital. Coalitions were built on radical solidarity due to the recognition of these intersections. The people who faced violence from the United States military were centered in how we should interact with war – leading to a full opposition of it.
Ultimately however, respectability won. In the gap of nearly 50 years the gay and lesbian community has gone from opposing war to embracing it as a form of progress. The victims of U.S. imperialism now disappear from LGBT consciousness and are instead replaced with activism to join the military. You too can now destroy the communities and families of people from strange, exotic lands using drone warfare just as your heterosexual peers can. With both anti-DADT activism and the Human Rights Campaign’s biggest donors being drone manufacturers we can see a clear shift in LGBT politics. This isn’t just the United States. The Israeli army is seen as a bastion of progress for allowing gay, lesbian and transgender soldiers to contribute to the occupation of Palestine.
This is a set of politics referred to as homonationalism or the convergence of LGBT identity politics with a nationalist identity.
The nation and the homosexual become an intricately linked concept in homonationalism. Gay Rights become a justification for international intervention and using U.S. military might to push an agenda of progress. Imperialist ventures fund LGBT organizations and LGBT organizations push for imperialist ventures. The military industrial complex and Gay Rights are thus intimately connected and inseparable. Organizations who have pushed for marriage equality have also been invested in imperialism.
Domestically, the Gay Rights movement aligns itself with the state and homonationalist politics in far more seemingly docile and inoffensive ways. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence in their numerous publications make a strong critique of the antiviolence movement and the ways in which it defines violence. The antiviolence movement, which includes domestic violence laws and hate crime legislation, sees the solution to individual and interpersonal violence through the expansion of the police and prisons under the mythology of “safety.” The problem with this framework is that it ignores the ways in which state also utilizes homophobic, misogynist and imperialist violence. By inherently viewing the police, prisons and the state as “neutral” and “safe” we erase the ways in which the very formation of the United States required continued genocidal violence to repress Indigenous resistance to colonization. The United States is a graveyard that piles more and more bodies into open crevices in the Earth to exist. The LGBT movement added a shovel.
The events in Ferguson and Baltimore also brings the question of who exactly do the police protect and can they be presented as “safe” and “neutral”? Because of the history of the police being created originally as a slave patrol and to repress working class movements, the answer must be no. And prisons? There are more Black people in prison now than were enslaved in 1850 and no, that was not an accident. Advocacy for police and prisons is advocacy for violence and death. While not the intent of domestic violence laws and hate crime legislation the impact is the same – an expansion of the police and of prisons to ruin the lives of people of color primarily there for non-violent drug offenses and survival crimes. Much like the military industrial complex, homonationalism means Gay Rights is intimately connected to the prison industrial complex as well.
Chicago Pride this year even used prison labor to clean up their mess, deeply cementing the connections between Gay Rights and the prison industrial complex.
All while homonationalist politics, marriage equality, gay gentrification, urban and suburban wealth and normalcy were pursued by the gay and lesbian community trans women have been dying. They have been doing for lack of healthcare, of poverty, in prisons and in detention centers. We have been dead for 40 years and our corpse is trampled to this day by the gay elite. Earlier in the piece when I said every LGBT leader was complicit, this is what I meant. This isn’t an innocent or a naive ignorance. Trans Women have been shouting for decades, but those shouts fall on antipathetic ears. Stonewall was an antipolice insurrection, resisting the power of the state and was a cross community coalition.
Now we celebrate it as a corporate sponsored act of public masturbation and transmisogynist white supremacy.
We even invite the police to Pride to “protect us.” Jennicet Gutiérrez was more than just an interruption of the President. Jennicet Gutiérrez represents a 40-year divide within LGBT communities. Jennicet Gutiérrez represents 40 years of politics that have pushed trans women into the margins. None of that was an accident. It was an active push towards collaboration with forces that disempower trans women of color for the benefit and accumulation of privileges of a white wealthy few. We didn’t get white picket fences. We didn’t get happy families and marriage certificates. We didn’t get Sears catalogues and brunches. We get prison rapes, teen suicides and misgendering newspaper reports about our murders. Marriage equality has never benefited us.
The crowd reaction to Jennicet Gutiérrez – “this isn’t for you” and “this is my house” tells me exactly what I need to know about LGB politics.
Homonationalism and marriage was more important than the basic ability of our sisters to live and breathe. In the same two-day period, we went from silencing a trans woman speaking out about state violence to celebrating U.S. military bases now having marriage equality. When the ability for imperialist death machines to marry becomes more important than the victims of U.S. militarism then we are actively holding a white supremacist politics. Imagine if instead we did not rely on those politics.
Imagine if instead we recognized the lives of the people in countries the United States was at war with mattered more than our inclusion and right to kill them. Imagine if instead we saw police, prisons and detention centers as dangerous to our and other communities and refused to support them. Imagine if we interacted with immigration and settler-colonialism by creating radical solidarity instead of actively contributing to deportations and the false legitimacy of colonial states. Imagine if next Pride we actually embodied the spirit of the Stonewall Riots and didn’t see President Obama or Clinton or Sanders as our friend when they allowed our LGBT siblings to rot in a detention center. Imagine if we were not attached to whiteness and saw the liberation efforts of people of color as connected to LGBT liberation. Imagine if we didn’t let Jennicet Gutiérrez become another Sylvia Rivera – pushed out and abandoned.
Imagine, just imagine, if we didn’t allow ourselves to be complicit anymore, to care more about respectability and achieving normalcy over the well-being of those who will never be respectable or normal. Imagine what we could do and achieve. Imagine, if you will, a world in which we did not react to the pleas of the dead and dying with disgust and instead with support and solidarity. Maybe I have misunderstood the meaning of Pride but I was under the impression that what I have just described to you was a history we were supposed to be celebrating. In the pursuit of normalcy, respectability and marriage we didn’t just sacrifice our values as a community but we sacrificed lives.
Phoenix Singer is a freelance writer, organizer, and trans activist based out of Portland, Oregon who tweets @phoenixsinger