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Queer Money

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On June 30, 2006, the Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) rang the closing bell for the New York Stock Exchange. Their invitation to do so back in 2006 was a testament to the growing economic clout of the LGBTQ-identified minority: Estimated then to be around $640 billion, it has today grown to $790 billion (lower than predictions, but we've had a recession on our hands). PFLAG heralded this event as "ringing the closing bell on homophobia," and their executive director, Jody Huckaby, called this a "message that no company can afford to ignore: equality is good for business."

And now, with the politics of our chicken sandwiches and the clarion call sent out to boycott and "kiss-in," that message has, in this instance, been ignored. Whether in the long run the boycott will prove a "success" or not is anyone's guess at the moment, but in the short term it appears that whatever blowback Chick-fil-A has received from its president and COO's statement, its bottom line has, thus far, been riding a bit higher than usual.

The fiasco with Chick-fil-A is a lesson hard-learned for queer Americans and runs counter to our experience thus far. Gays and lesbians have largely become accepted in America as economic subjects: identities produced within the strictures of commodity relationships. Increasingly, over the past couple of decades, we have been seen by some as incredibly desirable economic subjects. President Obama's reelection campaign is a case in point: Within three days of the president's coming out in support of gay marriage, his campaign committee raked in nearly nearly three times the amount of donations over $200 than in the previous three-day period. Obama's statement (after his devolution and subsequent evolution on the subject), and the fundraising he accumulated thereafter as a direct result of it and the much-hyped Hollywood dinner, are examples of how capital can correspond with queer political muster.

This is the new (or perhaps first) form of queer acceptability, which started out being fought for and is now largely bought. In a hyperconsumptive marketplace, in which the term "scarcity" is hardly uttered, gay men and lesbians have largely gained acceptance as consumers of a certain class (here meant literally).

The difficulty lies in equating the possession of large amounts of capital as a group with the ability to direct the flow of capital generally. That contradiction is inherent in the term "spending power." Consumers do not create, and equating spending power with social acceptance, as Huckaby did, is problematic for any stigmatized minority group. Certainly the boycott as a political stratagem is a way of approximating some amount of control over the flow of capital, but its usage is dependent on the reliance of the producer on that particular class' cash. For a restaurant chain whose stores are distributed mainly in the suburbs of major Southern cities (with the notable exceptions of Philadelphia, Denver, Indianapolis, and several large cities in Ohio -- swing states, all of them), what does it matter if some urban, liberal types eschew their fried chicken?

Leveraging spending power for social salience is not a new political tactic, of which the Montgomery bus boycott is one of the best-known examples in America. While the struggle for civil rights and social acceptance for LGBTQ Americans is ongoing, we seem to have achieved a far greater level of equality in the economic realm. A few decades of gay politics' evolution have taken us from the revolutionary fervor of the Stonewall Riots and ACT UP to modern-day lobbying on Capitol Hill. This has been coupled with the emergence of a spectacular gay identity, whether on TV or in the streets for Pride parades, that makes a community's, but not a movement's, presence known.

Concomitant with LGBTQ Americans' growing fiscal acceptance has been the greater portrayal of LGBTQ people in media. These portrayals have largely recoded queer Americans as consistent with heterosexual white male privilege. What is damaging about this image is that, while on the one hand, it beams out the very possibility of an out and happy gay existence, on the other it reifies those same tired old gender and class disparities. Queerness has been classed as heavily consuming and trendsetting, urban, middle- or upper-class, white, and male.

This state of American queer political subjectivity is a two-edged sword: It allows the attention received in the "culture wars" of this election cycle, but it blurs the real distinctions within queer identity. The image of the marriageable queer person is Will & Grace's Will Truman. Under the rubric of gay male acceptability, queerness cannot be poor. The only acceptable desire, such as the desire for equal marriage rights, is a desire that can rest comfortably atop wealth.

Large amounts of money in a gay man's bank account, then, is recast as the only thing a gay man can do "right." It is then also seen as the only politically and socially useful tactic available to queer Americans. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as was demonstrated powerfully during the AIDS crisis, when wealth was mobilized to accomplish what the federal government would not.

Poverty and outright destitution can happen to anyone, as this recession has shown. And under existing laws and norms, same-sex couples are penalized throughout the economy by discriminatory tax burdens, patches of inadequate or complex relationship rights and obligations, confusing and costly barriers to adoption and parenting, and diminished access to public safety net programs that are routinely available to married couples and their families. The queerer you are (particularly if that queerness involves being transgender), the less of a chance you have to make it out of an economic abyss.

If we preach egalitarianism, not only do we need to start practicing it; we need to engage that egalitarianism on all fronts. We need to un-divorce queer identity from its mixed-class origins and discuss the right to marry in the light of its economic reality. Civil rights are economic rights.