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Monday, September 26, 2011

No Gods No Sponsors: Pride and the problem of assimilation (2009)

From Pink and Black  #3

No Gods No Sponsors
Pride and the problem of assimilation
by Phil

Another Pride season has come and gone, along with another round of explaining to all my friends why I don’t go to Pride. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which were anti-police riots in response to violence against queer people. While Stonewall led to the first Pride celebrations, the state-sanctioned parades and festivals of today serve more as an example of how the queer movement has changed. There has been a distinct shift from radical action to mild reformism, as noted by the fact that police now protect and at times join Pride parades.

Rather than serving as a useful commemoration of Stonewall, Pride serves as a means by which the queer liberation movement is brought into mainstream, acceptable political discourse. By extension, queer identity is changed from a revolutionary force to simply part of the range of identities that continually petition the state for protection.

Queer identity was, for most of the modern era, criminalized by two main entities: the state and religion. In many places, this has changed, with Pride celebrations occurring around the world. What was once a deeply criminal act is now tolerated in many countries and communities. While outright state repression has certainly decreased (but it has not disappeared), religious opposition and social inequality persist. Where queer identity is no longer actively eliminated, it has been integrated into the marketplace. The concept of identity becoming a commodity is a fairly recent trend, but its emergence has been the product of trends inherent to capitalism: individualism and commodification.

The individualism of capitalism is a forced social atomization, where organic relationships between people are demolished in favor of relationships that mirror or support the logic of capitalism. When queer identity was forced underground by the courts, prisons, and police, a culture evolved that consisted of people whose experiences were centered on desire that the state called criminal, and that society at large deemed immoral. Thus, queer culture was shut out of participation in the state and the marketplace. Queer culture was a culture of resistance, formed on the basis of mutual struggle, and this culture became infamous in the wake of the Stonewall riots. However, 40 years after Stonewall, the queer movement has become something very different. Instead of being criminalized and forced underground, queer identity is tolerated by the state and even celebrated. Rather than being a culture of shared struggle, queer culture has become a culture based on relationships of consumption and state acceptance. Both of these rely on the individual as their basis, as consumption of goods and experiences (buttons, t-shirts, bars) and voting (individual actions in support of bourgeois politicians) seen as central to queer identity and culture. The fact that Pride is something to be consumed/experienced (generally at a cost) is indicative of the commodification of queer identity.

The newfound tolerance that capital shows for the queer community is not limited to Pride, though. Indeed, an entire new image of the modern queer person is shown to us via TV, print (The Advocate, for example), and queer political organizations. This image is of the urban professional working in a corporate office, just like a straight person (but often better dressed). These people are offered to us as role models, as minorities who have become successful despite their sexuality. We are presented with lists of the most gay-friendly companies, to whom we can sell our labor and live in the progressive, hip (read: gentrified) district of the city. What we are being sold is, essentially, the queer version of the American dream. Indeed, being queer is even a bonus sometimes, as companies now value diverse perspectives. These examples are held up as evidence of our inclusion and value to capital, to the maintenance of the social structure. It is hardly surprising that our value is demonstrated by the success of a few individuals, because it demonstrates that capitalism is open to all based on merit, and thus that queers who remain marginalized simply are not marketing themselves properly.

Identity is, at its root, a social relationship that is negotiated by individuals or communities in relationship to a larger social structure. The early queer movement, criminalized and repressed, developed a queer identity that was in response to the social stigmatization of queer desire. However, as such desire has gained more acceptance from the state and society at large, queer identity has evolved accordingly. This has meant that queer culture has become part of the larger discourse in society, attaining the status of an interest group in politics while queer identity itself has been subjected to the marketplace. It is an inherent tendency of capitalism to attempt to turn a profit, with or without state sanction. However, it is certainly easier to profit off of a permitted culture, rather than face the difficulty of marketing a cultural identity to a group of people who are consistently and viciously criminalized and imprisoned. Thus, in the absence of the outright repression of queer people, capitalists have decided to make more money off of us. Rather than struggle and subversion being the objective conditions that inform queer experience and culture, capitalist commodification and state tolerance have become much more important in the negotiation of queer identity. In short, queer culture has accepted the logic of capital and state power, with a political effort of reform and a cultural effort of market-based consumption. While there are clear exceptions, assimilationist politics tend to dominate queer discourse.

It is important to understand how the changing attitudes of the state have informed queer struggle. However, it is equally important to understand the ways in which the social movement has forced these changes and responded to them. To ignore this aspect would be to ignore the actual changes imposed on the social order by queer people. There has been a noticeable shift from a struggle for liberation to a struggle for equality, and this has not come around simply because of greater state tolerance. While decriminalization has certainly opened up possibilities, it has been queer people who have seized those opportunities and shifted the struggle’s character. While I lack the understanding to provide anything resembling a comprehensive history of queer politics, I do believe that examining the priorities from Stonewall until now can provide insight on how queer struggle has shifted from what it was to what it is.

Indeed, Stonewall itself provides an excellent example of how queer struggle has changed. The Stonewall riot (and let us not forget that it was indeed a riot) was an instance of people directly defending themselves against police violence. Looking back 40 years later, it is telling how Stonewall is viewed. We are told that Stonewall was the beginning of the current gay liberation movement, but that times have changed. This is an incomplete, decontextualized history. Stonewall was not simply the beginning of queer liberation, it was many other things. For example, it was a response to police brutality, but not simply based on queer identity. The people who frequented the Stonewall Inn were also largely poor and people of color, other communities that were and still are targeted by police. However, this is seen as incidental to the birth of gay liberation, which promotes the idea of queer identity being separate from other marginalized people. Police, far from being the enemies that they were during the Stonewall riots, are now included in some Pride marches. Pride, originally started to commemorate the Stonewall riots, has completely distanced itself from struggling against the social conditions that enabled the Stonewall riots, conditions which still exist to this day.

Stonewall also demonstrates a shift in priorities internal to queer culture. Specifically, it is no secret that many of the patrons and rioters of the Stonewall Inn were trans people, in addition to being poor and people of color. Far from being credited as an important force in the start of gay liberation, trans people have been used by those seeking assimilation as the part of the queer community that can be sacrificed. A prime example of this is the betrayal of the trans community by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), who had sworn that they would not support a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that did not include protections for gender identity. In the face of political opposition, however, HRC flipped its position. Beyond the realm of representative politics, however, we also find ourselves in a world where trans people of color are still beaten by police and later murdered. The specific example I am referring to is Duanna Johnson, a black trans woman from Memphis, who was beaten by police officers after a prostitution arrest and was then murdered a few months afterwards. While there was an outcry over the police beating and later murder of Duanna, this outcry manifested itself as a call for more hate crime laws to protect queer people. This response fails to address the issue for two reasons: first, the statist logic that hate crime laws will protect marginalized people and second, ignoring the race and class dynamics that also contributed to the beating and murder of Duanna.

There are many aspects of hate crimes legislation to critique, and many people have done it. I will focus only on one aspect that I find particularly troubling: the assumption that police will enforce such laws to protect the community. It is no secret that police brutality against poor people and people of color is widespread, despite hate crime laws against racist violence. What, then, would lead groups to assume that adding gender identity to the list of protected groups would decrease police violence against queer and trans people, especially people of color? The policy of pushing for more hate crime laws seems to be rooted in an idea of queer exceptionalism, separate from the lived experiences of other marginalized groups in this society and of many queer people.

Radical queers thus face multiple enemies: state regulation and repression, bigotry and violence from reactionary elements, capitalism and its commodifying tendency, and finally the assimilationists who seek integration into the state and the markets. It is obvious that all of these forces must be confronted, which leads to the question of how do we do it? I certainly cannot answer this question on my own, but I would like to share my thoughts on some steps towards liberation.

As mentioned above, queer identity is negotiated in relationship to the dominant socioeconomic structure. While assimilationism seems to dominate contemporary queer culture and identity, this does not mean that we cannot reconstruct a radical queer identity and culture. Rather than a queer identity and culture rooted in a discourse of equality, we can make a culture rooted in resistance. Mainstream queer politics rely on an approach of single-identity advocacy, with an end goal of full participation in the capitalist state. This is presented as the only alternative to a world of religious bigotry and discrimination, where we either work inside the system or we are smashed by it. This is a false opposition. It is no mistake that neither of those two options does anything to dismantle the institutions that have created and enabled bigotry and violence against queer people.

I am not, however, advocating a reductionist view that would ignore queer liberation to only focus on the state and capitalism. This view would imply that the struggles of queer people are contained entirely within and thus subservient to the struggle against capitalism and the state, implying that the class struggle somehow takes precedence over queer liberation. We do not have to give in to either reformism or class reductionism, because both are based on the idea that there is somehow a hierarchy of oppressions coupled with a scarcity of liberation. Under the reformist view, identities become effectively interest groups competing against each other for rights under the state, with some winning and some losing. Under a reductionist view, class is the all-important factor and other forms of oppression will be solved after capitalism is overthrown.

What then, does it mean to be an anti-assimilationist queer anarchist? I do not have a complete answer, but I do have some thoughts. Central to anarchism, of course, is a rejection of capitalism and state power, coupled with a rejection of hierarchy and authority. Anti-assimilationism can be understood as a rejection of the capitalist takeover of what was once (and to varying degrees still is) a criminal identity alongside a rejection of the integration of (some) queer people into the statist political order, particularly the dominant class.

At the heart of liberal identity politics is an assumption that people can separate themselves into social identities, much as a machine can be separated into the pieces that comprise it. This results in the construction of a queer agenda, a black agenda, a women’s agenda, and so on. While even the liberals allow for some understanding of intersectionality, in as much as political coalitions can be formed around particular issues, the central problem remains in that people cannot be easily separated into discrete categories of social identities. I cannot wake up one day as a queer person, then wake up the next day as a person of color, and finally wake up on a third day as a man. Instead, I wake up every day as a queer man of color, and many other things. All of my experiences are in the context of my identity as myself.

Anti-assimilationism also means anti-capitalism. Too often the economic aspect of our social structure is ignored, despite the link between the power of capital and the power of the state. Social relationships are heavily influenced by the economic structure of a society, especially class society. Our labor is already a commodity; this is a fundamental reality of capitalist society. However, to add insult to injury, our culture and our identities have also become commodities to be experienced/consumed. This is because queer has been stripped of meaning beyond what can be bought and sold. Resistance, then, lies in a rejection of the narrative of capitalist individualism and of the idea that culture and identity are commodities. We should build an explicitly anti-capitalist queer culture, one in which active participation is central, rather than passive consumption. This may take many forms, but what is important is a steadfast resistance to the attempts of capital to transform our culture into one that can be made into a commodity.

Being an anti-assimilationist queer, then, means that I do not accept for myself an agenda created by people who have every interest in upholding the institutions that create and enforce misery and domination. I equally reject the logic of class reduction, because this logic also requires a separation into separate identities distinct from my experiences. Much as capitalism imposes a scarcity of necessities via market forces, the state imposes a scarcity of freedom by its very existence. Identity politics forces people to compete with each other for a limited amount of freedom, while class reductionism forces people to ignore their experiences to unite under one identity, much as a vanguard party would operate with a party line. What this means in practice is that we must reject with equal vigor those who would push more laws, more assimilation, and more commodification as solutions to our inequality. We must instead fight for a destruction of class society, of state power, and of all inequality.

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate this article...It brings up a lot of thoughts I have recently had, which doesn't get brought up much at a liberal arts school where I am overwhelmed with LGBT strides towards equality and gay marriage...I am also frustrated that pride parades which used to occupy and mobilize throughout seemingly non-queer places has turned into a celebration (not a protest) which are generally confined to queer epicenters within large city.
    I would love any suggested reading material that relate to similar topics.