A Report from Under the Bus

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At the theatre where I work yesterday, in Canada, a colleague asked me if I was excited about Obama’s inauguration on Tuesday. Short answer: yes. Longer answer: I’m taking a wait and see attitude.

The Inauguration is a another example of queers and their families getting thrown under the bus. For the sake of “inclusivity” and political expediency. Because our nation doesn’t value our families, the significance of parading someone like Rick Warren as a symbol of ‘inclusivity’ is lost on sympathetic but unaware politicians and fellow citizens. That after eight devastating years for queers and their families, in histories of the Bush Administration not one mention of the consequences of the hate towards LGBTQ people pouring from the Oval Office in mainstream publications such as Vanity Fair and the LA Times. We, and the effects of trying to erase a whole class of people, are just…not mentioned. The fact that it’s okay to invite someone like Warren to do the Invocation at the Inauguration tells me all I need to know about how deeply the ignorance and misinformation runs about queers in our country. Still. And for this, I want accountability from queer leaders.

Since 1993, queers are the ones who are sacrificed for the sake of political expediency. Of course, there are a million examples pre-1993, but I’m being generous by focusing on more recent sucker punches. And I, for one, am over it.

Bill Clinton, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Barack Obama and Rick Warren are not responsible for this. They’re ignorant. I hold queers and their representatives responsible and the queer nation ought to hold them accountable. We have done little in the last 15 years to educate ourselves, our allies and our potential allies about what is on the line for us. Instead, we have taken a “See? We’re normal, we’re worthy of inclusion!” approach which kow-tows to the winds of political expediency and bigotry.

Why are we not leading discussions about civil rights? What is the difference between civil rights for me and civil rights for black people or farm workers or immigrants? What are these leaders doing?

As I explained to my colleague, in 1993 with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, Clinton threw us overboard. Then in 1996, after the disastrous ’94 mid-term elections which rained Gingrich’s Contract on America down upon us, the Hawaii decision opened up an opportunity for Bob Barr and other right-wing politicos to use “family values” and “preserving the family” as a means to pass the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA sealed our fate on two levels. First, it defined the goals of the gay rights movement as Marriage or Nothing. Second, it changed all debate and discourse about gay civil rights into an argument about the word, ‘marriage’. What is marriage? Who should get one? Is it relatively recent or ancient? etc. etc. etc.

And, let me tell you, it wasn’t just straight public discourse, ‘marriage’ became the hot topic in queer-land as well. Most queers thought that it was the option of marriage that ought to be available to queers if they want it. A lot of queers aren’t remotely interested in marriage and understand better than most of their straight counterparts, with their Queer Super Vision*, that the stability of society or family (a typical argument) does not rest on the back of state sanctioned relationships. Straight people understand this too, they just allow politicians and religious strategists to ignore their constituent’s personal experience in favor of cognitive disconnects.

*’Queer Super Vision’ is only half-facetious: any one that’s oppressed for as long as queers have been develop excellent x-ray vision. We can see when we’re going to be strung up – or strung along – pretty quick.

Since DOMA was a big gun aimed straight at the health and welfare of queer families, and it was signed into law by a Democratic President, the major national gay rights organizations (Human Rights Campaign, National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, etc.) made a strategic decision to put less resources into grass-roots organizing and much more into backdoor negotiations and access to power. So, as our major grass-roots effort ACT-UP disintegrated, celebrity events (with Anne, Ellen, Melissa, etc.) where high profile gays could mingle and be seen with high powered media and political players who pushed our case quietly and palatably enough to be included on the entertainment rags and shows exploded. Suddenly we were visible everywhere but we kept losing battles. We were no longer in the street, we were in the halls of power lobbying quietly and making the case – for marriage.

One of many consequences of this insider approach is that American queers, in general, lost our personal connection to the movement and to those civil rights we were being denied because of who we are. We didn’t really notice that we had no civil rights – as queers. We began to see ourselves on billboards in WeHo, but couldn’t visit our partners in the hospital. We became a high profile marketing target of mainstream companies around the world, but had no employment protections. We had Will & Grace, but no recourse if we were bashed. Our businesses began flourishing not just in gay districts but even outside of them, but if we fell in love with a non-American we had to go into exile to keep our family together. Of course various jurisdictions around the country allowed us to participate in different pieces of the civil rights puzzle, but in the American one-step forward, two-steps back way, these minimal protections blinked on and off like traffic lights with each passing election.

The tragedy is that queer leaders were not making the case that our rights are civil rights. Clearly, that’s a critical-thinking exercise that must happen with the new 2008 electorates. But, our leaders should have been making those distinctions with every single breath. It is foundational and without enough allies agreeing that gay rights are ‘civil rights’, we’re sunk. In the American context of 400 years of slavery, many Americans presume that civil rights = black rights. And what a narrow and sad legacy to take from the heroic black civil rights leaders (Malcom, Martin, Fannie Lou, etc.). Don’t you know that that movement was fought by its heroes for everybody? The poor, the disenfranchised, the soldier, the housewife, the black, the Asian, the latinos, the farmworkers. Why aren’t our leaders reiterating what one learns in ninth-grade history class? That to divide and conquer, and to use capitalism and class to pit one minority against each other is the first rule of political power – not to mention capitalism? Divided, each of our struggles will never, ever succeed. As allies, we will take the mountain tomorrow. For all of us.

Civil rights have never been granted at the polls – for blacks, queers or anyone else. Americans vote against extending civil rights to anyone – not just queers. At the same time, studies consistently show that Americans are not in favor of discrimination. So, that’s the land where our struggle lives. But by taking our rights to the polls and having them disgustingly voted on, our leaders let the Christian and Republican Right (the Warrens, the Dobsons, the Roves, etc.) define the debate. So we got a semantic argument about marriage for more than decade.

What’s worse is that this semantic debate happened in a decade of drastically increased fear and militarism; a fire stoked by the President’s bully pulpit. The President never intended for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as heterosexual to pass. Karl Rove is a strategist, not a man of faith. He couldn’t care less who I’m married to but he pandered to people who think they care deeply. He knew that a constitutional amendment would take the focus off the war in Iraq, the 9/11 Commission Report, Abu Ghraib, etc. He was right.

While the amendment didn’t pass, it once again steered national and public discourse away from what matters (our killed and maimed soldiers, shameful conditions and treatment of veterans, exploding deficit, imploding health care system, the tragedy of our immigration policies, the catastrophe of No Child Left Behind, devastation of disintegrating infrastructure, etc.) towards a tool to pit us against each other and win elections.

When Bush came into office, I cried. My professor at the time thought me foolish but I just had such a bad feeling. I didn’t know exactly what but I knew whatever it was was not going to go easy on us. I have a much greater respect for my prescience than I did then. I cried on Election Night 2000 because I knew all of the things that our country had lost so much ground on because they weren’t politically expedient during the Clinton years (he co-opted the Contract on America) were now going to be completely off the table for at least a decade. And they have been.

So, while I am hopeful about Obama’s Administration, the signs are not good. If, like Clinton, Obama & Co. are willing to sacrifice basic moral imperatives protecting the most vulnerable among us in favor of political expediency then we’re in trouble.

It’s really a question of do we just keep the game going – you call me a pedophile, I call you a bigot; start a war, put queer civil rights/reproductive rights/welfare-as-we-used-to-know-it on the ballot – all to distract from what matters? Queer leaders need to lead for ALL of us-they need to connect the dots for ALL of us instead of ghettoizing us around trumped up issues like marriage. Are we willing, as a people, to say, okay, some things are off limits? Peoples fundamental access to the Constitution, to human rights and health, to opportunity are just off-limits? We need to decide to stop deciding (ie. voting) on whether our fundamental rights are deserved. They are for each of us because we exist as persons in this moral community. Period.

Americans are now defined as dishonest, bloated, mean-spirited, self-righteous bullies. Of course, as my non-American husband points out often, most Americans aren’t like that at all – but our representatives are. And that’s the branding, folks. And the branding is shameful. Are we willing to take the risk, first, of extending ‘American values’ to our neighbors and our land? Or are we going to continue to exist, as a nation, in the thin sulphurous air of Rovian wedge issues, semantics and political expediency? This is a challenge to all Americans but, in particular, to those of us who want things to change – and those who claim to lead.

You can read more about The Repeal of DOMA.

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~ by Thom on January 17, 2009.

One Response to “A Report from Under the Bus”

  1. Constantly choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil

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