Given the recent Supreme Court rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, you might forgive the GLBT community for taking a much-needed dance break for the next few minutes. The implications of both decisions will be playing themselves out in the months and years to come, and it truly does seem inevitable that same-sex marriage will become the law of the land, not just thirteen chunks of it. So, yeah. Yay!
Longtime activist and author Urvashi Vaid must be celebrating these advances, too, but she’s also concerned that a movement deeply rooted in the pursuit of justice for all has narrowed its focus to the exclusion of far too many. Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics [Magnus Books, 238 pages, $21.95 Hardcover} is made up of nine essays; each was originally a lecture, updated and expanded here, and together they look back at how we managed to make it so far, what we may have lost along the way, and how to rejoin our struggle with the larger work that lies ahead.
Vaid is particularly well-suited to make this case; as a lesbian, feminist, community organizer, lawyer, and person of color who rose from food stamps to elite work in global philanthropy and with the board of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, she’s got a broader perspective than most. Beginning her work in the lesbian-feminist movement of the 1970’s meant consensus and coalition-building were core values, ones she argues we need to resurrect now that our politics are excessively niche-driven.
The LGBT rights movement separated itself from larger social justice causes to focus on the fight for equality, which led to some significant legal gains. But we need to reunite with that larger mission now and think much bigger. Vaid writes, “The absence of racial justice, economic justice, and gender justice from our national movement’s objectives results in the LGBT movement being wrongly seen, even by our allies and certainly by most straight people, as a relatively small, very narrowly-focused, largely white, mostly male, and deeply self-interested group of people.” Since the visible movement rarely reaches out with time, money or advocacy for “non-gay” issues, it has isolated itself from potential allies and slowed political advances that would benefit all progressives.
The way back to inclusion is far-reaching and invites participation at all levels. Vaid notes that many of the larger nonprofits working on LGBT issues have no explicitly stated diversity goals in their mission statements; boards are often helmed by white men who reach out for funding to other white men, whose input informs all future work. Diversity has to be actively courted by such organizations, if only to help them hear the world beyond their own personalized feedback loops. And anyone who finds herself at a political intersection (e.g., gay and poor, trans and non-white, gender queer and disabled, to posit just a few) needs to speak that whole truth at every safe opportunity so we don’t forget that our work isn’t done after same-sex marriage. Vaid writes about being taunted by a fellow longtime activist who speculated that the gains made for GLBT rights meant the movement was “over” now, as if social justice as a whole had better start swimming and not expect a life preserver from any smug gay marrieds. It surely doesn’t need to be this way.
Irresistible Revolution takes its title from a quote by author Toni Cade Bambara: “The responsibility of a writer representing an oppressed people is to make revolution irresistible.” Vaid speculates that the LGBT movement made itself irresistible by allowing homosexuality to be co-opted by the culture at large, but that culture’s attention span stops at Ellen and Portia, leaving a lot of folks feeling misrepresented if they’re visible at all (“LGBT” itself is often in reality just G with a side of L; Bisexual and Transgender communities have to agitate just to be kept in the alphabet cluster). In the book’s last piece, titled, “Beyond the Wedding Ring,” Vaid notes that LGBT movement activists are sometimes accused of working in a “silo,” explaining that the term is used to connote a politically correct isolationism, while also minimizing the efforts of those putting in the work for change. She says that’s not the case. “We see our work instead as building common ground—or cultivating soil. We see ourselves as part of an earth in which race, gender, sexuality, all of our identities are churned up in a rich and fertile soil.”
As we move forward, our political institutions, partnerships and strategies will bear more and better fruit if we root them in the common ground Vaid describes. In fact, this feels like a golden moment for the community to prove we can walk and chew gum at the same time by agitating for access to affordable reproductive health, working to ensure equal access at the ballot box, passing a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, and persisting in a gentle but firm push for states with a majority who approve to get on board with same-sex marriage. Can we do it? Hell yes we can. Now let’s prove it.
Heather Seggel is a freelance journalist in Ukiah, Calif. Contact her at email@example.com.
From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2013
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