This article originally appeared in the ‘Let’s Evolve’ issue of BRICKS, available to purchase from our online store.
It’s famously rumoured that Marsha P. Johnson left a well-known gay activist group due to their hesitancy to be inclusive and to break ties with the police, which did not align with her vision of true Queer liberation. Decades later, we are still witnessing a superficial approach to activism; one that centres the most privileged voices who capitalise on the trauma of the very people they claim to be advocating for. We are experiencing gatekeeping, in-fighting, and discrimination in the forms of racism and transphobia within the LGBTIQA+ community. Moreover, in prioritising inclusion and easy ‘wins’, such as gay marriage, for example, we have lost sight of the very people the movement was created by and for – Black people, Indigenous people and People of Colour (BIPoCs); Trans and gender non-conforming people (TGNC people); disabled people.
Human social networks naturally form clusters around ‘hubs’ — individuals who are perceived as the ‘leaders’ and thus have more influence and power. These behaviours evolved within a context where the elders of the community provided generational knowledge that was a matter of life or death. But in Western capitalist societies, ‘hubs’ are often those with the greatest wealth and access to routes by which to influence others, i.e. celebrities, politicians, CEOs of corporations. And it’s often within the interest of these individuals to use their social influence to further increase these power imbalances — imbalances that contribute towards the oppression of Queer people, even today.
However, instead of actively breaking down these structures, we find those viewed as the modern ‘leaders’ of the LGBTIQA+ movement simply replicating them, with financial capital and material wealth being mirrored by social capital and follower count. We find these individuals viewing advocacy as speaking on behalf of their communities, rather than in solidarity with. And we find ‘activism’ becoming yet another career path that mirrors capitalist ideals of ‘success’, where opportunities and wealth are hoarded by a limited circle of privileged individuals with celebrity status.
“This exclusivity is affecting the community because when we continually raise the same voices, we communicate to other Queers that they aren’t part of the ‘club’ – it does nothing to connect us. These ‘leaders’ don’t show up for community organising, or show even minimal support for grassroots projects”, says Wednesday Holmes (they/them), artist and organiser with Voices4 London. “It’s frustrating that action stops at social media. Cis white able-bodied Queers have no excuse to keep leaving the most vulnerable in our community on the frontlines while they sit in comfort. It’s unacceptable.”
Social media can be, and has been, an incredible tool for connection and action. However, the plethora of sensationalised slogans and graphics, severely lacking in nuance, result in a form of ‘activism’ that can be limiting and even reinforce harmful ideas. For example, we are right to highlight the importance of language in showing respect for people’s identities. But with a desperate need for acceptance at any cost comes a tendency to prioritise messages around the ‘ease’ with which ‘allies’ can learn people’s pronouns. While this is a very important step, it cannot be the final one.
As charity worker Ted Lavis Coward (they/them) tells me, “If your activism begins and ends with pronouns, it’s not that helpful. I have friends who get my pronouns right but slyly mock me for how I express my gender – calling me ridiculous for wearing a dress. It’s clear they still construct me as a man in their head.”
In pandering to the convenience of cis people, we have almost erased the need for a deeper understanding, and unlearning, of the colonial concept of gender — a violent tool created for social control and one that continues to perpetuate violence against Black Trans women. This unlearning is not easy, and by presenting it as such, we are centering whiteness and consistently failing to challenge others to address their ingrained biases.
Racism is allowed to run rampant within a community that is supposed to be a safe space for all, thus contributing to an environment where Black and Brown TGNC people are experiencing unprecedented levels of violence and exploitation.
While there is now a greater focus on approaching LGBTIQA+ issues through an intersectional lens, the loudest voices are still predominantly cis, white and able-bodied – many of whom do not practice what they preach to the masses via bite-size infographics. The messages on which they build their careers are uncomfortably at odds with their actions, which are often dripping with complacency. This dissonance is rooted in a lack of understanding of the lasting, harmful effects of white supremacy and capitalist structures on Queer people and spaces. It’s rooted in a tendency to capitalise on the zeitgeist, rather than to practice sustainable allied behaviour.
The way in which countless Queer people with significant influence responded to the recent Black Lives Matter protests truly highlighted the extent to which the mainstream LGBTIQA+ movement prioritises assimilation over liberation. Cis white gays peppered social media with images and experiences that centred themselves and their gym-toned bodies, while others simply asked, “but what does this have to do with us?”
Racism is allowed to run rampant within a community that is supposed to be a safe space for all, thus contributing to an environment where Black and Brown TGNC people are experiencing unprecedented levels of violence and exploitation. As the number of murders of TGNC people in the US in 2020 surpasses the total for 2019 in just seven months, it is especially telling that members of the LGBTIQA+ community are able to blindly distance themselves from the oppression of the most marginalised members of society.
In order to be able to advocate for ourselves and one another, we have to be willing to step outside of our comfort zones and cross lines, as those lines are imposed by society to ensure that these systems of oppression stay in place. It’s incredibly important for all of us, but especially activists and community organisers, to continuously listen and educate ourselves on the lived experiences of diverse individuals in our communities — taking into account the intersections of race, sexuality, gender identity, socioeconomic background etc. — and place due importance on accessibility considerations.
“In almost all political movements historically, the absence of Disabled people is astounding. Apart from the DAN actions in London through the 80s, there have been almost no large demonstrations that focused on Disability rights”, shares Imogen Fox (they/she), a Disability rights activist. “The Queer community now are moving to a more inclusive space. But that doesn’t mean that we are included.”
While the noticeable increase in activism via social media, especially during the COVID-19 lockdown, has enabled information and actions to be more accessible, the needs of Disabled people still often are not met. Whether this is through negligence or ignorance, the end result is the same: individuals who should be feeling represented are only made to feel even more marginalised. While social media sites, such as Instagram, must be held accountable for the lack of automatic captioning capabilities, activists with big platforms must also take individual responsibility for ensuring that nobody is being left behind in their march forward.
“Captioning our content and including alt text is something most of us can try to do. It’s important for influencers and people with big platforms to reach out to d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing Queers and elevate their words. Otherwise d/Deaf members of the community simply feel like they are not cared for”, says Hannah Daisy (she/her), artist and mental health advocate.
The LGBTIQA+ community must remember that aligning ourselves with the very structures created to oppress us and others who are perceived as sitting outside of the ‘norm’ is entirely counterproductive and, ultimately, destructive. Individuals with privilege must be willing to risk their comfort to destroy the culture that upholds these structures, because they value liberation for all over comfort for them. We must completely reimagine the way we approach activism, ensuring intersectionality and community care are prioritised.
“I believe that the community that I have chosen to surround myself with is an incredible example of what activism in Queer spaces could look like if approached with more thought and care. We make space for learning, growth and accountability without placing the burden of educating on folks who are already exhausted. We redistribute our wealth and share resources. And we do not tone police or request that folks be more ‘palatable’ in their words and actions”, shares Maiya McQueen (she/they), an LGBTIQA+ community organiser.
We cannot allow ourselves to be lethargic in our approach to LGBTIQA+ activism, or to continue to centre privileged voices and prioritise individual wealth and opportunity acquisition over community care.
The Outside Project (TOP), the UK’s first LGBTIQA+ crisis and homeless shelter, is another wonderful example of community action at its best. The team have also recently announced the Star Refuge, a domestic abuse refuge for London’s LGBTIQ+ community in response to the COVID-19 pandemic named after STAR House, the shelter for homeless Queer youth founded in 1970, New York, by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. But, as Carla Ecola (they/them), co-Director of TOP tells me, they are often criticised by other organisers for their approach, with their structures being seen as “radically different and wrong” compared to mainstream services; “group work instead of paperwork”.
Laik Ecola (they/them), co-Director of TOP, adds, “we need to learn from mutual aid groups seen during COVID, which demonstrated community action. And activists need to step back from tokenistic allyship when they aren’t making any real policy change or genuine lasting partnerships with the community”.
We cannot allow ourselves to be lethargic in our approach to LGBTIQA+ activism, or to continue to centre privileged voices and prioritise individual wealth and opportunity acquisition over community care. At its core, Queer activism must evolve beyond replicating capitalist structures, beyond palatability, to exhibit true inclusivity, accessibility and radical thought. We, as a community, must tackle the deeply-ingrained white supremacist ideas, both on a systematic and an individual level, that oppress the most marginalised members of society. Our activism needs to reflect that it is not our intention to squeeze ourselves into the restrictive moulds that have been presented to us as “the only option”. But rather, to entirely dismantle these structures and reimagine a more community-driven and holistic way of working. One that ensures that we have the knowledge, motivation, and capacity to mobilise quickly and effectively, and to uplift those needing the most support at any given time.
Our Politics Editor, Prishita Maheshwari-Aplin (they/she) is an Equality advocate and an LGBTIQA+ community organiser with the direct action group, Voices4 London, where they are a Member of the Board of Trustees. They are also on the Advisory Board for the social enterprise and sex-ed provider, Split Banana, who are helping redesign relationship and sex-ed by bringing in the perspectives and experiences of groups traditionally excluded from the curriculum.