Is This Enough? We Must Consider the Intersection Between Race and LGBTQ+ Activism

This Pride Month, Halima Anita explores the need to move past the "human rights" framing of LGBTQ+ activism.

WORDS Halima Jibril

ILLUSTRATIONS Ella Devi Dabysing

In 1973, American activist for LGBTQ+ equality Barbara Gittings helped create the National Gay Task Force (NGTF), serving as coordinator for its first fifteen years. Known now as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), the organisation advocates for the civil rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and is seen as having played an instrumental role in the fight for the legal rights of LGBTQ+ people in the 70s and 80s. The NGTF was a founding member of the Military Freedom Project, which prepared the framework for the 1993 debate about gay men, bisexuals, and lesbians serving in the United States military. This resulted in the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, allowing gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to participate in the military as long as they did not publicly reveal their sexual orientation.

In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay commissioner in the history of California. Though his career was cut short by his assassination in 1978,  Milk made a pronounced effort to politically advocate for gay people’s human rights. Part of Milk’s campaign for City Supervisor involved a call for a statewide Gay Caucus that would unite the gay community across political and social lines. The goal was to create a unified front and establish an influential voting block of LGBTQ+ people, to put “political and electoral pressure on mainstream politicians to keep LGBTQ+ reform on their radar.” Milk wrote about the importance of cultivating the gay vote through this Gay Caucus for the Bay Area Reporter in 1978: “Gay power, including power at the ballot box, has been growing…The next logical extension of gay political power is to influence statewide elections.” He believed that LGBTQ+ people could achieve their human rights lawfully and electorally if they could just increase gay electoral participation.

In 2013, Edith Windsor successfully filed a refund suit in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York after her wife, Thea Spyer – whom she married in Canada – died in 2009. When Spyer died, she left her estate to Windsor, but as a result of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – which defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman – Windsor was not legally seen as Spyers’ spouse and did not qualify for marital exemption from the federal estate tax. Through the United States v. Windsor case, Windsor argued that DOMA breached the Constitution’s guarantee of equal treatment under the law. The subsequent overturning of Section three of the DOMA  which now recognises “same-sex marriage for all federal purposes” is recognised as a significant legal victory for the same-sex marriage movement.

Though in different ways and in different time periods, Gittings, Milk and Windsor all fought for the human rights of LGBTQ+ people. Some of these victories are significant; however, fighting for the integration of LGBTQ+ people into the dominant cultural order can reinforce, as Ratna Kapur has argued, a “neo-imperial, racist and militaristic project.” As a result, we must start criticising and moving past the “human rights” framing of LGBTQ+ activism. This perspective tends to rely on queer acceptance within legal and political institutions that are both capitalist and white supremacist. Reform, which Gittings, Milk, and Windsor were advocating for, only strengthens the position of the oppressor against marginalised people.

We must start criticising and moving past the “human rights” framing of LGBTQ+ activism. This perspective tends to rely on queer acceptance within legal and political institutions that are both capitalist and white supremacist.

White LGBTQ+ activists in the United States have fought, and still tend to fight, for reform instead of alternative paths for queer liberation. White supremacy, more commonly referred to as white privilege, is incredibly blinding. Christopher Day explains that “the grip that whiteness has on the consciousness of most people in society is an immediate and persistent obstacle to building any serious movement for radical change in this country.” Even though white LGBTQ+ activists believe that this type of activism is good, Day argues that “it is not simply a matter of doing what you think is right, because whiteness obscures what the right thing is.”

It would be naive to suggest that all racial groups are homogenous and share the same opinions because of their race. However, a 2012 study conducted by scholars Eric Swank and Breanna Fahs demonstrated that race has impacted LGBTQ+ activism in the US. Until this point, as Swank and Fahs explained, the influence of gender had been studied when it came to LGBTQ+ activism, but “the role of racial background [had] been almost entirely ignored.” Through analysis of a range of sociological and psychological papers relating to participation in collective action in the US, the study found that not only will Euro American gays and lesbians engage in more electoral activism than African American, Asian American, Native American or Latino(a) gays and lesbians, but also that Euro American gays and lesbians will do less protesting than African American, Asian American, Native American and Latino(a) gays and lesbians.

A downfall of this study is that no academic work is included that focuses on the impact of race on the activism patterns of transgender men, women, or non-binary people. Nonetheless, this study does indicate that LGBTQ+ activists of colour look beyond the accumulation of more legal rights to participate more in protests than electoral activism. This is likely to stem from the systemic exclusion of African Americans and other people of colour from electoral participation since the 1800s. Even the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA)  – which gave the federal government and civil rights leaders power to protect all Americans’ fundamental right to vote – was not able to alter the structural racism in American democracy. Studies have shown that “across the country, federal and state lawmakers continued to curtail voting rights among communities of colour, developing new strategies for voter suppression.” Furthermore, as is evident through the VRA, legal victories and reform has not necessarily led to more equality or more freedom for Black people and other racialised communities.

Approaching LGBTQ+ advocacy through an intersectional lens centres queer liberation and draws on the fact that due to the violence of colonialism and slavery, much of the history of same-sex relations in non-western cultures have been distorted or erased by Western society.

As a result of this exclusion and the fact that legal accomplishments still provide limited freedom for LGBTQ+ people of colour, many more activists of colour have started to reject the human rights framework. Activists like Angela Davis, Giti Thandani, and Paula Gunn Allen advocate for abolishing heteronormativity and other social conventions that consolidate power through gender, sexuality, and race. Approaching LGBTQ+ advocacy through an intersectional lens, their work centres queer liberation and draws on the fact that due to the violence of colonialism and slavery, much of the history of same-sex relations in non-western cultures have been distorted or erased by Western society. Within their work as scholars and activists, Gita and Allen actively resist colonialism. They encourage others to challenge what has been commonly known about LGBTQ+ people in the United States and abroad.

Davis did not come out as a lesbian until 1988 at the age of forty-four – but throughout her career in the Communist Party USA, she was consistently questioning the patriarchy and heteronormativity. In her classic study, Women, Race and Class (1981), Davis challenged the nineteenth-century ideology of womanhood, writing that “woman became synonymous with mother and housewife, and that both mother and housewife bore the fatal mark of inferiority.” However, Black female slaves were not seen as women; they were mere workers and breeders and were not treated as the weaker sex. Furthermore, Black men were not viewed as the heads of the household like White men: “Male supremacy was discouraged when it came to Black men to ensure that Black men, women and children were all equally subjected to the White slave masters absolute authority.” Through this, Davis highlights that heteronormativity, the gender binary, and gender roles are white supremacist tools used to mark the racial supremacy of white people who were supposedly “evolved enough in the nineteenth century to achieve binary sex differentiation.”

[Allen] writes that “the physical and cultural genocide of American Indian tribes” by Europeans has made it difficult to establish the number of two-spirited people or same-sex relationships within Native American cultures.

Additionally, Indian-American LGBTQ+ activist and scholar Giti Thadani and Native American LGBTQ+ activist and scholar Paula Gunn Allen have also emphasised that homophobia, transphobia, and the gender binary are all white supremacist colonial enforcements. Giti’s latest book, Sakhiyani: Lesbian Desire in Ancient and Modern India (2016), articulates the fluid perspectives of gender and sexuality in India. She writes about a traditional Hindu tale of a woman-to-woman cult that bonded together and shared erotic relations. Gita writes that there are “visual traditions (of this cult known as Radhavallabhis) which often have very explicit lesbian depictions of Radha’s sakhis (female lovers) erotically playing together in the water while Krishn(a), (the only male figure) is in the role of the voyeur.” Giti explains that the “greatest impediment to anyone attempting to study the history of alternative sexualities in South Asia is the seeming lack of reliable historical documents.” Moreover, social theorist Ashish Nandy positions the homosexual criminalisation of Oscar Wilde in a colonial context in his book The Intimate Enemy. He argued that after this particular event, “it was seen as a necessity to validate masculinity” throughout Britain and throughout the colonies. This was when the subsequent rewriting and erasing of the histories of alternative sexualities in India became visible. This is what occurred with the story of the Radhavallabhis – over time, what became foregrounded was the relationship between Krishn(a) and Radha, not the erotic bond between the women of the story. 

Likewise, Allen notes this erasure in her book The Sacred Hoops: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. She writes that “the physical and cultural genocide of American Indian tribes” by Europeans has made it difficult to establish the number of two-spirited people or same-sex relationships within Native American cultures. However, there has been evidence provided by Europeans highlighting that “Native American males were seen doing women’s work, wearing women’s clothes, and engaging in sexual relationships or marriages with men.” Later reports from Europeans described the existence of “females inhabiting the social roles of men.” Social scientists have only recorded women living partly or entirely as men in roughly one-third of the tribes known to have two-spirits. However, nonetheless, it is still clear that these individuals existed within Native American culture.

Writer Ocean Vuong once said that being queer saved his life. He stated that “queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me…It made me ask, “Is this enough for me?” We need to ask ourselves if acquiring LGBTQ+ rights through our current legal system is enough for us. We need to ask ourselves if it addresses and provides reparation for centuries of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. Is freedom for LGBTQ+ people assimilation into marriage, parenthood, and marital success? Is this enough? For people of colour suffering from multiple oppressions that legislation can not fix, the human rights framework is not and will never be enough. 

We deserve radical transformation. We deserve freedom beyond the mainstream. We deserve more.

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