Pop Theory: Can the LGBT Movement Move Beyond Sexuality?

The LGBT movement is by definition conservative. The two issues that have been at the fore of our movement — for which we and our hetero-allies have contributed our money and our time — over the past twenty years have been “same-sex marriage” (“marriage equality”) and the repeal of DADT. While the repeal of DADT celebrated its one year anniversary this week, there have been marginal gains on the same-sex marriage front; DOMA has yet to be repealed on a federal level even though the President has voiced his support for this action and the Democrats included a marriage equality plank in their 2012 platform.

Public queer intellectuals from Fran Lebowitz to J. Jack Halberstam have lamented the fact that these two issues have defined our movement for so long. How ironic is it that we crave admission not only into two institutions that by definition are exclusionary but institutions that are patently patriarchal and demand both the explicit and subtle subjugation of women in order to reaffirm the foundation of their existence?

To be frustrated by the time and resources spent reinforcing these institutions is an emotion best not harbored long; the time has come for us to think more substantially about our political and activist future(s). First comes the military, then comes marriage, then — well, what becomes of the LGBT movement now?

“We’re married, now what?”
Photo by Nicole Peattle/Getty

The Scholar & Feminist Online tackles the question of our political future most thoroughly in its recent issue “A New Queer Agenda,” with the attempt to push “beyond the vision of security and belonging offered through gay marriage to a broader politics of economic, political and sexual justice for all.” In her article “Beyond Marriage: Democracy, Equality, and Kinship for a New Century,” Lisa Duggan, queer feminist amazing-scholar and one of the issue’s editors, explains how the LGBT’s “neoliberalist” tendencies (ie, solidifying and reaffirming patriarchal institutions) have oriented our movement throughout the past decade in particular:

How did marriage equality come to represent the ultimate progressive goal of queer politics? Since the Reagan 1980s, the emphasis on the importance of marriage as a national political issue has been anything but progressive. Various efforts to “promote” marriage have been attached to welfare reform legislation since 1996. Government-supported marriage education projects run by conservative Christians have doubled as “moral” or “values” pedagogy, and as tax-saving initiatives designed to push marriage as an alternative to public assistance. Efforts are ideologically directed to poor women and women of color, assumed to be immoral and inappropriately dependent on the upright taxpaying citizenry. In the broadest sense, “marriage promotion” in welfare policy aims to privatize social services by shifting the costs of support for the ill, young, elderly and dependent away from the social safety net and onto private households. Women are encouraged to marry to gain access to higher men’s wages and benefits, while taking up the slack for lost social services with unpaid labor at home. For poor households, this requires more labor and responsibility with fewer resources, as employment based benefits shrink and disappear. In addition, poor single women with children are encouraged to rely on child support payments mediated by the state. They are encouraged, and sometimes coerced, into naming fathers on birth certificates, or on applications for public assistance, so that “deadbeat dads” can be located for legal action against them to collect funds…. All the cost shifting is wrapped in the idealization of marriage, the “private” ideal deployed to replace public, collective social responsibility.

The contributors of this issue collectively advocate the overcoming of the LGBT movement’s neoliberalist tendencies by redirecting our focus onto economics and specifically on issues pertaining to economic equality across class and race and gender lines, which are ubiquitous concerns among nearly everyone who doesn’t identify as part of the 1% (aka, Romney’s 47%). Even in this economic crisis that has continued to devastate the 99% in a myriad of ways, statistics have proven that the LGBT community has been hit harder than our straight counterparts:

In reality, overall poverty rates for lesbian, gay, and bisexual adults are as high or higher than rates for heterosexual men and women…. Several studies show that LGBT people of color (POC) have incomes that are lower than those of their white LGBT counterparts and their heterosexual POC counterparts. Same-sex couples and their children are significantly more likely to be poor than heterosexual married families, primarily because lesbian couples and their families are much more likely to be poor than heterosexual couples and their families. And Hispanic lesbians in couples encounter poverty rates three times those of non-Hispanic lesbian couples, while black female same-sex couples report a median annual income of $21,000 less than white female same-sex couples. People in same-sex couples who live in rural areas have poverty rates that are twice as high as those for same-sex couples who live in large metropolitan areas, as well as being poorer than people in different-sex married couples who live in rural areas….In addition, poverty rates among transgender people are even higher than among the rest of our community. Transgender people face high rates of unemployment, and one study estimated that 65 percent are living in poverty…. LGBT seniors are more likely to live without the financial support of families and without the Social Security survivor benefits of a spouse. Between 20 and 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. (Joseph DeFilippis, “Introduction,” A New Queer Agenda)

The contributors of this issue, each in their own way, call for a reconstruction of the foundation of the LGBT movement itself. The question “What now?” or “What next?” is one that is given an answer: reconstitute our movement not on sex acts but on economics, both defined by fluidity (“liquidity,” perhaps?), but both profoundly different.

“Being a lesbian means never leaving the bed.”
Photo by Emelie Ollila/Getty

It’s really important to note that the movement has been primarily defined by sexuality. That it has been defined by sexuality as identity—the cementation of sex acts into fixed identities—has been the strategy employed for it to (erroneously) align itself with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The mapping of our movement onto the Civil Rights Movement required the metamorphosis of “sex acts” into “sexuality”; we saw the rise of the “Born This Way” fanatic wing of our community, with the premise being that, similar to one’s race, one’s sexuality is determined genetically, biologically. I’ve variously lamented this ideology as conservative and self-abnegating, including in a handful of my Pop Theory columns such as this one.

It is also the primary reason, I think, why younger generations, while respectful, feel disconnected from their “LGBT Capital-H-History” (which we’re chided for, since we show no reverence to, or knowledge of, according to some Baby Boom queers). The Millennial Generation is the generation least concerned with (as in hung up on) sexuality in the sense that they, born into a post-Foucauldian world, know that sexuality is fluid and that sex acts do not define a person, and that one’s self-appropriated identity, therefore, does not limit the type of sex acts they can participate in. (Ie, the lesbian who occasionally sleeps with cis-gender men.) They are “pro-choice” in a number of ways — the central unifying idea here is that an individual has control over her body, including her body’s actions.

Furthermore, the LGBT movement’s foundation on sexuality is a significant reason why the trans community has felt overlooked or disregarded — because trans issues are gender issues, not necessarily or inherently sexuality issues, making their cause more aligned with the feminist movement rather than the LGB movement.

The question that we face now is can a movement be sustained without its foundation, as wobbly as that foundation has been? Doesn’t it irrevocably become something else? Is terminal failure the ultimate sign of success?

This is the potential and necessary future machination — “the new queer agenda” — of the LGBT movement proposed by the queer scholars of the SFO issue, in addition to most queer scholars and savants both within and without academia. New coalitions — across race, across class — need to be built upon the fact that we are all subjects living within the same global economy (on a macro scale; on a micro scale for those of us in the U.S.: a profoundly capitalist oligarchy). The fight for equality has to move out of the bedroom and into the boardroom. The law has to divert its attention away from the private body to the public body; there needs to be policy pertaining not to the movements and actions of a body but to the movements and actions of economic structures.

Is this the next phase of LGBT? Are we ready? Are you ready?