Gay marriage is an important goal for many, but it has become the goal of the gay rights movement, and it has erased many other issues and needs from the agenda. Simply the name the gay rights movement makes it clear that people are being left out.
Looking back at LGBTQ history, there are several events that built up to the start of today’s “gay rights” movement. These include the riot at Cooper’s Donuts in 1959, the protests and sit-ins at Dewey’s lunch counter and coffeehouse in 1965, the Compton Cafeteria riot in 1966, and, of course, the Stonewall Riots of 1969.
As Susan Stryker outlines in her book Transgender History, “By 1969, as a result of many years of social upheaval and political agitation, large numbers of people who were socially marginalized because of their sexual orientation or gender identity…were drawn to the idea of ‘gay revolution’ and were primed for any event that would set such a movement off” (Stryker 82). Stonewall provided just that spark.
None of these protests and riots were about gay marriage. But the movements that they spurred quickly became divided in ways that still persist today — ways that have limited the mainstream agenda to marriage. These divisions are between those who can most easily access respectability and privilege with the addition of a few new laws and those who are left out of these movements due to their class, race, ability, and other identities.
The faces that characterize the gay rights movement today – often white, gay, male, middle-class, or a combination of these attributes (as evidenced by the directors and boards of most large LGBT organizations) – were not the faces of the main agitators at the Stonewall Riots. Although accounts differ on the tipping point of the riots, many have reported that “African American and Puerto Rican members of the crowd – many of them queens, feminine gay men, or transgender women – grew increasingly angry as they watched their ‘sisters’ being arrested and escalated the level of opposition to the police” (Stryker 83).
Queer people of color and trans women of color led the riots, resisting police brutality directed at their community. As Stryker outlines in regard to the Compton’s Cafeteria riot of 1966, “[t]he circumstances that created the conditions for the riot in the first place continue to be relevant in the transgender movement today: discriminatory policing practices in minority communities, harmful urban land-use policies, the unsettling domestic consequences of U.S. foreign wars, access to healthcare, civil rights activism…and political coalition building around the structural injustices that affect many different communities” (Stryker 74). So how did we go from a movement of resistance that focused on a wide array of issues relating to poverty, racism, gentrification, imperialism, and transphobia to one focused on assimilation and gay marriage?
The truth is that this shift began almost immediately and continued a long trend of more privileged groups appropriating radical movements created by marginalized people. Stryker explains that “[w]ithin a month of the Stonewall Riots, gay activists inspired by the events in Greenwich Village formed the Gay Liberation Front (GLF).” But soon after it formed, “divisions appeared within the GLF, primarily taking aim at the movement’s domination by white men and its perceived marginalization of women, working-class people, people of color, and transgender people” (Stryker 86).
Even the first Christopher Street Liberation Day march, which commemorated the Stonewall Riots, pushed drag and transgender visibility to the background, and subsequent marches were no better. Sylvia Rivera, co-founder of STAR (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries) and one of the trans women who started the Stonewall Riots, faced boos and curses as she took the stage at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day rally (only four years after Stonewall). As she addressed the crowd, she condemned the gay liberation movement for leaving behind the gay, queer, and trans people in jail, as well as those facing violence, joblessness, and homelessness. Rivera appealed to the group to do work “for all of us,” not only for people who belong to a “middle-class, white club.” (Link to the video, transcript appears below.)
Over forty years later, the trend towards white and middle-class values has continued, with gay marriage being touted as the be-all end-all goal for equality. As Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore puts it, “for [wealthy] white gays…marriage might just be the last thing standing in the way of full citizenship, but what about for everyone else?” Sycamore points out that while gay marriage dominates the LGBTQ agenda, “resources are directed away from HIV prevention, AIDS services, drug treatment, domestic violence services, and other programs desperately needed by less privileged queers” (Sycamore).
At first glance, gay marriage appears to provide solutions to many problems, including access to health insurance, hospital visitation, and gaining citizenship. But gay marriage ties benefits that should be basic human rights to the institution of marriage, an institution that many do not want to or cannot enter. Further, the solutions it provides benefit only a few. Sycamore asserts that “[t]he majority of queers would remain excluded from the much-touted benefits of legalized gay marriage,” and that, importantly, “in order to access any marriage benefits, those not entirely ‘male’ or ‘female’ would need to accept gender tyranny.” Domestic partner health coverage only matters for those who have partners who can afford health insurance, or who have the time, resources, and ability to access it. Accessing citizenship through marriage depends on having a partner who is a citizen. It creates a narrow entryway to medical aid, family recognition, and the rights of citizenship, when we should be focusing our energy on making these doors broad enough for all.
The push for gay marriage at the expense of those lower on the ladder of social, economic, and political privilege has resulted in the coinage of a new term: homonationalism (created by Jasbir Puar in her book Terrorist Assemblages). As Natalie Kouri-Towe explains, “homonationalism is the process where some queers (mostly upper-middle-class and rich gay men and women) gain acceptance and status in Canadian (or American) society through consumerism, economic mobility, and the securing of individual rights, such as gay marriage.” She continues that “[b]y appealing to the rights of the individual (rather than collective rights) and turning to the state for inclusion instead of mobilizing in opposition to the state, we have entered into an era where some queers have gained admission into the dominant social, political, and economic order” (Kouri-Towe).
The focus on gay marriage (and its attendant promise of access to privilege) is a declawing of more radical goals that seek to dismantle the power structures that provide privileges to only a few. Gay marriage in its current form seeks to normalize gayness, to assimilate it into the straight, white, middle-class power structure. The issue is that approaching human rights from this angle guarantees that only some queer people can access those rights. It leaves the more marginalized at the fringes, struggling under the same systems of whiteness, class, ability, and heteronormativity that led to the explosion of resistance at Stonewall in 1969.
I believe everyone should be able to get married if they want to. But it is important to understand where the goal of gay marriage came from, how it became the main focus of the LGBTQ movement, who it benefits, and who it leaves out. And it is important to understand that the work is not done. In fact, it is hardly begun. We must work to broaden our movement to uplift those in the most need, including the transgender people and people of color who began the LGBTQ movement.
Transcript of Sylvia Rivera speech, 1973
Sylvia Rivera: I may be… You all better quiet down. I’ve been trying to get up here all day for your gay brothers and your gay sisters in jail that write me every motherfucking week and ask for your help, and you all don’t do a goddamn thing for them. Have you ever been beaten up and raped in jail? Now think about it. They’ve been beaten up and raped after they’ve had to spend much of their money in jail to get their self home and to try to get their sex changes. The women have tried to fight for their sex changes or to become women of the Women’s Liberation and they write STAR, not to the women’s groups, they do not write to men, they write STAR because we’re trying to do something for them. I have been to jail. I have been raped, and beaten. Many times. By men, heterosexual men that do not belong in the homosexual shelter. But, do you do anything for me? No. You tell me to go and hide my tail between my legs. I will not put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment for gay liberation and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that! I do not believe in a revolution, but you all do. I believe in the Gay Power. I believe in us getting our rights, or else I would not be out there fighting for our rights. That’s all I wanted to say to you people. If you all want to know about the people in jail – and do not forget Bambi L’Amour, Andorra Marks, Kenny Messner, and other gay people in jail – come and see the people at STAR House on Twelfth Street on 640 East Twelfth Street between B and C apartment 14. The people are trying to do something for all of us, and not men and women that belong to a white, middle-class white club. And that’s what you all belong to! Revolution now! Gimme a ‘G’! Gimme an ‘A’! Gimme a ‘Y’! Gimme a ‘P’! Gimme an ‘O’! Gimme a ‘W’! Gimme an ‘E! Gimme an ‘R’! huh— Gay power. Louder! Gay Power!
Kouri-Towe, Natalie. “Trending Homonationalism.” Nomorepotlucks. No More Potlucks, 9 Nov. 2014. Web. 02 Apr. 2015. <http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/trending- homonationalism/>.
Stryker, Susan. Transgender History. Berkeley: Seal, 2008. Print.
Sycamore, Mattilda B. “Sweatshop-Produced Rainbow Flags and Participatory Patriarchy: Why the Gay Rights Movement Is a Sham.” Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore :: ARCHIVES. N.p., 12 Sept. 2014. Web. 02 Apr. 2015. <http:// www.mattildabernsteinsycamore.com/gayrights_lip.html>.
Trans Health Australia. “STONEWALL: Sylvia Rivera – Legacy of Resistance (1973).” YouTube. YouTube, 31 Mar. 2014. Web. 02 Apr. 2015. <https:// www.youtube.com/watch? v=vUke4_LOUA4>.[Headline image: The black-and-white photograph shows Sylvia Rivera, a trans woman of color, in a gesture of protest with her right fist raised. She has short hair, and she is wearing a white fur coat and a dark-colored dress. To her right, a feminine-presenting person is smiling. Other raised fists are visible to her left, where someone is holding a sign that reads, “Drag it out in the open.”]