Tuesday, July 26, 2011

We Die, You Get Married

Coming Out for Change,” Richard Kim’s recent piece in The Nation (July 18/25, 2011), starts by talking about the risks that Pulitzer Prize-winning gay Filipino journalist Jose Antonio Vargas took when he recently came out as an undocumented immigrant in the New York Times Magazine. Coming out as the definitive act of gay identity has in recent years lost much of its power—while some still use the act as a brazen challenge to status quo normalcy, often it’s a self-congratulatory ritual of initiation into a vapid consumer gay culture more concerned with accessing straight privilege than challenging social norms. But when Vargas and other immigrant rights activists (both queer and straight) come out as undocumented, they consciously use this act of disclosure as a challenge to racist, xenophobic immigration laws.

There’s much to critique about the mainstream immigrant rights movement, especially it’s obsession with portraying all immigrants as flag-waving patriots who just want to “clean your floors” and “grow your food,” or maybe go to college on scholarship and get a good job at Morgan Stanley. The DREAM Act, the signature piece of legislation that many undocumented immigrants risk deportation in order to promote, would offer a potential path to citizenship only for those “of good moral character” who arrived in the US before age 16, and are able to complete a four-year college degree or enlist in the military for a six-year term. When questioned about whether this is just another opportunity for the US military to use people of color as cannon fodder in unjust wars, DREAM Act activists, mostly of the hyper-achiever college set, steadfastly maintain that everyone should have the “right” to join the military. In spite of this limiting rhetoric, there is no doubt that, when undocumented immigrants come out about their status with the hopes of enacting social change, they are risking their lives, or at the very least their future in this country.

When Richard Kim compares Jose Antonio Vargas’s brave act of publicly declaring his undocumented status to that of gay couples “willing to weaponize their personal lives” in the fight for gay marriage in New York, it’s a strange comparison. What exactly were these gay couples risking with their disclosure? Certainly not deportation.

Kim goes on to laud the work of gay marriage proponents who “looked at their friends, neighbors and elected officials and told their stories with an urgency that precipitated a crisis, that forced a choice: you’re either with me, or you’re with the haters – but you can’t have it both ways.” This is exactly the strategy the gay marriage movement has used to systematically shut queer critiques of marriage out of the national conversation, insisting that there are only two sides to the debate – whitewashed straight-acting gay people, and rabid anti-gay Christian fundamentalists. But what about decades of queer (and straight) critiques of marriage? If you point out that marriage is still a central site of anti-women, anti-child, anti-queer and anti-trans violence, you must be a raging homophobe, right? If you think the single-issue obsession with access to marriage shoves aside decades of radical queer visions of kinship, love, lust, intimacy, family and community not predicated on state approval, you certainly must be in bed (or in the bushes) with Michele Bachmann (post-nuptially, of course). Richard Kim, an erstwhile critic of the gay marriage movement, should know better than to participate in the silencing strategy of the gay establishment.

Kim goes even further when he declares that the gay marriage movement “calls out accommodation as farce, and it converts sympathy into radical energy.” It’s hard to imagine anything more accommodationist than the flag-waving (yes, gay people love those stars-and-stripes too), “we’re just like you” rhetoric of a movement that insists that accessing tacky, outdated, oppressive institutions (marriage, the military, even the priesthood!) is the only way towards “full citizenship.”

Kim calls this the “politics of personal crisis,” and compares it to the actions of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) activists in demanding government accountability for the mass deaths of friends and lovers in the beginning of the AIDS crisis. But there’s an important difference: AIDS activists were (and are) fighting for people’s lives. Gay marriage proponents are fighting for tax breaks and inheritance rights. ACT UP demanded (and continues to demand, where chapters still exist) access to life-saving medications for people with AIDS, but also universal healthcare for everyone. The gay marriage movement argues that marriage solves fundamental problems of inequality – that’s right, if you’re HIV-positive, addicted to heroin, and homeless, just find someone with a nice stock portfolio and a good health plan to marry, and you’re set!

While Richard Kim argues that the most powerful legacy of ACT UP was the Ryan White CARE Act, “which in principle guarantees that nobody dies of AIDS in America because they can’t afford drugs,” he’s missing the point. Sure, Ryan White was an important legislative victory, but the power of ACT UP always existed in the potential to create radical systems of care, conflict and controversy outside the halls of officialdom, forcing change within. When Kim says, “What began as a movement based on friendship and interpersonal relations became something more egalitarian and far-reaching; it became a part of government,” could he really be talking about the same government that, as Jose Antonio Vargas points out, deported 800,000 undocumented people in the last two years? What kind of egalitarian system guns down migrants on its borders, supports every corporate-cozy dictator it can get its hands on, and consistently guts social services (Ryan White funding included) to continue vicious wars of aggression?

ACT UP not only forced the US government and the scientific establishment to hasten the approval of drugs that eventually became life-prolonging, but it articulated an oppositional queer politic that made connections between government neglect of people with AIDS and structural homophobia and racism; between the US war machine and the lack of funding for healthcare; between misogyny and the absence of resources for women with AIDS; between the war on drugs and the abandonment of HIV-positive drug addicts and prisoners. The gay marriage movement does just the reverse: enforces (or “weaponizes,” as Richard Kim phrases it) a single-issue politic at the cost of broader social change, literally funneling tens of millions of dollars into the drive for gay legitimacy while the needs of queers (and everyone else) with the least access are ignored. It’s the gay marriage movement, with its stranglehold on resources – political, intellectual, emotional and financial – that is preventing the kind of activism represented by ACT UP. The popular ACT UP chant, “We die, you do nothing” might now be rephrased as “We die, you get married.”


vale said...

I don't really get your first paragraph, because I think for young people, coming out is still a big deal; they can and do get thrown out of their homes, beaten, killed, ostracized, abandoned. I'm not sure what the point of criticizing them is, when aren't they the very queer underclass you want to advocate for?

mattilda bernstein sycamore said...

Vale, thanks for your comment -- I by no means intend this to be a critique of queer kids who still, as you rightly point out, get thrown out of their homes, beaten, killed, ostracized, or abandoned. When I say: "Coming out as the definitive act of gay identity has in recent years lost much of its power—while some still use the act as a brazen challenge to status quo normalcy, often it’s a self-congratulatory ritual of initiation into a vapid consumer gay culture more concerned with accessing straight privilege than challenging social norms" -- I hope that I'm conveying both the incredible possibilities of using coming out as a starting point for challenging the vicious norms of dominant cultures, and also the limitations of a gay culture that often provides nothing for queer kids except more exploitation, denigration, and abandonment. This is what I mean by a critique of coming out as the *definitive* act of gay identity -- where it becomes an endpoint for accessing consumer status and not a starting point for challenging the world.

Love --