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Revolution vs. Reform: Moving Beyond the Assimilationist '4 Ms' of the LGB Movement

06/29/2013 09:00 am ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

June 28, 2013: The 44th Anniversary of the Stonewall Inn-surrection

Introduction to a Cautionary Critique

I am very encouraged by the Supreme Court's ruling declaring DOMA (the so-called Defense of Marriage Act) unconstitutional according to the Fifth Amendment's Equal Protection clause, and now same-sex couples who legally marry in states that have such rights will receive federal marriage benefits. Also, by throwing the decision on California's Proposition 8 back to the lower court, which had already judged the voter-approved ballot initiative unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has virtually guaranteed same-sex couples in California the legal right to marry.

On May 9 of last year, President Barack Obama, in an interview with ABC's Robin Roberts, "came out" for marriage equality, asserting that "same-sex couples should be able to get married."

In 2011 I watched when the news broke that the New York State Senate, following the New York State Assembly's lead, had passed a bill legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. I reflected on how momentum was certainly building in the fight for marriage equality. Within hours, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proudly signed the bill into law.

I remember TV cameras focusing on a crowd in New York City back when that state made marriage equality a reality. Upon notification of the legislators' action, people spontaneously organized at the historic Stonewall Inn in New York City's West Village. One reveler interviewed on camera stated that she showed up "to be a part of history." Also, some of the nation's leading economists estimated the potential for enormous revenue increases to New York's businesses because of the expected surge in marriages conducted in the state as a result of this legislation.

For me, watching news accounts on that day in 2011, and this week, with the breaking news of the results of the marriage equality Supreme Course decisions, brought to the surface a full array of emotions, from subdued optimism to discomfort and concern.

There are moments in history when conditions come together to create the impetus for great social change. Many historians and activists place the beginning of the modern movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender equality at the Stonewall Inn, a small bar located at 53 Christopher Street in New York City's Greenwich Village that was frequented by trans people, lesbians, bisexuals, gay men, students, and others of all races.

At approximately 1:20 on the morning of June 28, 1969, New York City Police officers conducted a routine raid on the bar on the charge that the owners had been selling alcohol without a license. Feeling they had been harassed for far too long, people challenged police officers, sparking a riot that lasted, with varying intensity, for the next five nights. They fought back at the police by flinging bottles, rocks, bricks, and trash cans, and using parking meters as battering rams.

In reality, even before these historic events at the Stonewall Inn, a little-known action preceded Stonewall by nearly three years and should be considered the founding event of the modern LGBT movement. In August 1966, at Gene Compton's Cafeteria in what is known as the Tenderloin District in San Francisco, trans people and gay sex workers joined in fighting police harassment and oppression. Police, conducting one of their numerous raids, entered Compton's and began physically harassing the clientele. This time, however, people fought back by hurling coffee at the officers and heaving cups, dishes, and trays around the cafeteria. Police retreated outside as customers smashed windows. Over the course of the next night, people gathered to picket the cafeteria, which refused to allow trans people back inside.

Out of the ashes of Compton's Cafeteria and the Stonewall Inn, people, primarily youth, formed a number of militant groups. One of the first was the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). GLF was not a formalized organization per se but a series of small groups across the U.S. and other countries. GLF meetings took place in people's living rooms, basements in houses of worship, and storefronts. Members insisted on the freedom to explore new ways of living as part of a radical project of social transformation.

GLF adopted a set of principles emphasizing coalition building with other disenfranchised groups -- women, trans people, minoritized racial and ethnic groups, working-class people, young people, elders, people with disabilities -- as a means of dismantling the economic and social structures they considered inherently oppressive.

During the early 1970s, I was an active member of GLF in Washington, D.C. We held early meetings at Grace Church, the Washington Free Clinic in Georgetown, and All Souls Church on 16th Street, and we rented a brownstone on S Street in Northwest D.C. for the establishment of a GLF living collective. Meetings provided a space for us to come together and put into practice what feminists had taught us -- that "the personal is political."

We laughed and cried together. We shared our ideas and our most intimate secrets. We dreamed our dreams and laid our plans for a world free from all the deadly forms of oppression, and as we went along, invented new ways of relating. We men came to consciousness of how we had been stifled as men growing up in a culture that taught us to hate the feminine within, that taught us that if we were to be considered worthy, we must be athletic, independent, assertive, domineering, and competitive, and that we must bury our emotions deep within the recesses of our souls.

My discomfort in watching the joyous reactions to recent gains for marriage equality and the celebration of revelers outside the Stonewall Inn at the passage of a statewide bill legalizing marriage for same-sex couples stems from my understanding and experience as a political activist and a student of history, and from an understanding of the Stonewall rebellion as representing an impetus for revolutionary change within an overridingly oppressive social structure, as opposed to mere reform, accommodation, or assimilation.

When we consider the phrase "keep your eyes on the prize," I now wonder what, precisely, we consider the prizes, the goals, that we are working toward. Are we working under the Stonewall vision of a radical project of social transformation and dismantling the economic and social structures we consider inherently oppressive? Or are we working to reform the current social system in order to assimilate? Or none of the above? I am sure each of us will have a different answer.

Looking back over the years, as our visibility has increased, as our place within the culture has become somewhat more assured, certainly much has been gained, but something very precious has been lost. That early excitement, that desire -- though by no means the ability -- to fully restructure the culture, as distinguished from mere reform, seems now to lie dormant in many sectors of our communities.

In our current so-called "neoliberal" age, emphasis is placed on privatization, global capital, reduced governmental oversight and deregulation of the corporate sector, attacks on labor organizing, and competition. We are living in an environment in which property rights hold precedence over human rights. In this environment, we are witnessing a cultural war waged by the political, corporate, and theocratic right, a war to turn back all the gains progressive people have made over the years.

Within this environment, however, I perceive four main themes as the major focus of the larger lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) movement, what I am calling the "4 Ms" of the mainstream LGB movement.

I do not include here trans identities because, firstly, I cannot discern a "mainstream" trans movement, and secondly, the 4 Ms in their current LGB mainstream construction exclude trans people. According to my colleague, Chase Catalano:

The silencing of trans experiences often reminds me of how folks in leather, drag queens, and dykes on bikes were viewed with contempt when they wanted to be included in the early Pride events for being too contentious (folks didn't want "those people" getting the media attention from the "normal people").

The four themes of the LGB movement represent an assimilationist/reformist impetus rather than a revolutionary impetus. These Ms are marriage equality, military inclusion, media visibility, and making money.

1. Marriage Equality

With marriage equality now in 12 states (soon to be 13, when we can count California), the District of Columbia, and the Coguille Indian Nation in Oregon, and with the dissolution of DOMA, we have soared above the symbolic line of demarcation barring us from accessing the estimated 1,300 privileges and benefits of marriage previously accessible only to different-sex married couples. We can now wear our gold bands proudly on our left hands and enjoy all the benefits of publicly sanctioned recognition of our relationships, including tax breaks, inheritance guarantees, adoption of partners' children, insurance benefits, and others. We can register at department stores in hopes that our families and friends will buy us our favorite flatware and dishes, monogrammed sheets and pillow cases, and large-screen TVs.

With our ascension over the demarcation line, though, we find the deeply entrenched hierarchy of privilege remaining intact on the basis of relationship status! Why should couples in legally recognized relationships collect the government-granted array of economic and social benefits at the exclusion of those who either cannot or will not meet prescribed requirements? Why, for example, can an individual who marries an employee of a company providing health insurance qualify for inclusion under that health insurance while an unemployed single person who has searched in vain for a job, or an individual who works for a company not offering health insurance, remains in the ranks of the estimated 50 million U.S. residents with no health insurance? Why, for that matter, does this nation link health insurance either to employment or to out-of-pocket monthly expenditures?

Rather than fight so hard to rise beyond that line privileging those above and limiting those below, we need to work to abolish the line itself, forever, and as a society, provide these benefits to all, regardless of relationship status. For example, we must consider access to quality health care not as a privilege for those who have the means but as a basic human right for all.

2. Military Inclusion

Thanks to decades of dedication and hard work by individuals and organizations who have been successful in lobbying government officials to repeal the highly discriminatory and offensive so-called "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) military policy, now lesbian, gay, and bisexual people can serve their nation openly. This reversal stands to benefit the country by providing a greater pool of committed and talented individuals whose chief intent is to serve and protect their nation with pride. Existing medical and conduct regulations, however, still prohibit many individuals along the transgender spectrum from enlisting.

As I have followed the debates over the years, I have been constantly struck by the arguments favoring maintenance of the DADT policy, with fears ranging from the supposed "predatory nature of the homosexual" in bunks and showers to the possibility that homosexuals would crumble under the pressure of combat to the idea that these service members might place themselves in compromising situations in which they will be forced to divulge critical defense secrets to foreign governments. I give credit to lesbian, gay, and bisexual people for maintaining a willingness to join the military following such scurrilous and libelous depictions.

While stated military goals may promote the notion of providing global security and protecting and defending the homeland, we must maintain and extend our focused and continued attention and critique of the overriding abuses of maintaining a military that engages in unjustified incursions into other lands controlled by an industrial complex that promotes corporate interests. For example, the U.S. government officially estimated the 2010 military budget alone at $680 billion, accounting for 20 percent of total U.S. governmental expenditures. Outside organizations have challenged this figure, estimating an actual percentage of at least 36 percent.

I contend that individuals and groups that stand up and put their lives on the line to defend the country from very real threats are true patriots. But true patriots are also those who speak out, stand up, and challenge our governmental leaders, those who put their lives on the line by actively advocating for justice, freedom, and liberty through peaceful means: the diplomats and the mediators; those working in conflict resolution; the activists dedicated to preventing wars and to bringing existing wars to diplomatic resolution once they have begun; the individuals of conscience who refuse to give over their minds, their souls, and their bodies to armed conflict; the practitioners of non-violent resistance in the face of tyranny and oppression; the anti-war activists who strive to educate their peers, their citizenry, and, yes, their governmental leaders about the perils of unjustified and unjust armed conflict and invasions into lands not their own in advance of appropriate attempts at diplomatic means of resolving conflict.

Looking over the history of humanity, it is apparent that, at times, tyranny could only be countered through the raising of arms. On numerous occasions, however, diplomacy has been successful, and at other times, it should have been used more extensively before rushing to war. I therefore find it unacceptable when one's patriotism and one's love of country is called into question when one advocates for peaceful means of conflict resolution, for it is also an act of patriotism to work to keep our troops out of harm's way, and to work to create conditions and understanding that ultimately make war less likely.

In addition, I believe we must challenge the extraordinarily wide income gap in the United States that offers few options for reasonable employment for young and older workers alike, making military service one of a limited number of options for employment and advancement.

We must work to address the largest income and asset gap of all so-called "developed" nations, in which the top 1 percent of the population has accumulated an estimated 34.6 percent of the nation's wealth, the next 9 percent an estimated 38.5 percent, and the remaining 90 percent of the nation a combined accumulation of only 26.9 percent.

Within this environment, politicians, working on behalf of corporate backers, continue to provide massive tax breaks for exceedingly wealthy individuals and for corporations. In addition, they blame and drive to decertify labor unions, end government entitlement programs designed to offer a safety net to the country's most economically vulnerable, and attempt to privatize everything from Medicare to national parks, all in the paradoxical name of "free enterprise." Within this environment, corporate bosses, through their mouthpieces in government, divert educational institutions to the private sector to accommodate the needs of business.

3. Media Visibility

Today we see more lesbian and gay people, and occasionally bisexual and transgender characters, on television, in films, in fiction and nonfiction written materials, in magazines, and in commercials and ads. From the pages of slick magazines, Melissa Etheridge and her (now former) partner, sporting broad smiles and holding hands, display chic Cartier bracelets on their wrists; a male couple with a young girl and a yellow Labrador Retriever smile as they are all seated on the floor beside their Ikea couch. Then there are Kurt on Glee; Mitchell and Cameron on Modern Family; Will & Grace; Queer Eye for the Straight Guy; Justin, Mark, and Alexis on Ugly Betty; Andrew on Desperate Housewives; Tim Gunn on Project Runway; Brokeback Mountain; The Kids Are All Right; and The Single Man. These represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of recent examples of media visibility.

These characterizations, though on occasion representing minoritized races and ethnicities, largely represent white and middle- to upper-class people. While many people today would consider the majority of these characterizations "positive" representations that may more fully and accurately represent some of our lives, unlike to the rather sad and miserable or violently threatening characterizations presented previously, the majority of these representations depict upwardly mobile, socially assimilated characters who pose little overt challenge to the status quo, function rather successfully in the competitive corporate world, shop for dishwashers or go on expensive vacations with their heterosexual friends and relatives.

While many benefits accrue from these representations, such as having better role models for our youth that help us overcome many of the stereotypes and reduce prejudices, the capitalist system seems to have co-opted these images of "we are just like you" in its attempts to obstruct critique and possible challenge to that very system.

To provide an additional example of this project of co-optation: This past semester, I entered my university classroom and was about to introduce that day's lesson when my eye caught a large poster pinned to the bulletin board that displayed a raised, tightly clenched fist, reminiscent of the iconic Black Power symbol popularized in the 1960s. Above the image were the words, in large, capital letters, "JOIN THE FIGHT."

Encouraged by the sight, I walked over to the poster hoping to find some indication of resurgent social activism. But to my dismay and utter aversion, smaller letters revealed that the poster advertised The Fighting Burrito, a campus fast-food hangout. The profit motive transformed this iconic symbol into a sales pitch for burritos, tacos, carbonated drinks, and nachos.

In our communities, the "pride" marches of the past have morphed into parades and festivals funded on a base of major corporate sponsorship and capitalist consumption. Parade contingents now include large canvas banners emblazoned with familiar logos of national and local banks, and insurance, soft drink, beer, and real estate companies. Ironically, some of these same companies not so long ago refused to hire "out" members of our communities, but seeing how our business will improve their economic bottom line, they now happily welcome us.

Along the parade routes and at rally sites, companies and individuals display and sell their wares, from Internet and phone company subscriptions to rainbow-colored everything imaginable: from T-shirts to teething rings, towels to toilet seat covers. Merchants and artisans borrow the pink triangle -- the symbol that the Nazis forced gay men to wear on a patch on their clothing when incarcerated in concentration camps -- to fashion glimmering, pink-rhinestone jewelry worn as glamorous fashion accessories.

I call this consumerism "the tchotchetization of a movement." ("Tchotchke" in Yiddish means "knick knacks," "small objects," etc.)

In the 1970s our communities deployed the pink triangle, this symbol of ultimate oppression, as a mark of solidarity, and in the '80s and '90s the AIDS activist movement used it as an emblem of resistance in mobilizing against the intransigence of governmental and societal inaction. Today it's simply as an accoutrement of vanity.

4. Making Money

While possibly the exception, and certainly not necessarily the rule, some of us, at least, are now "out" at work, with few or no real consequences to our job security. Others now ascend the corporate ladder with relative ease and own exclusive vacation homes in the Florida Keys, Panama, or Tuscany to "get away from it all." We gentrify older urban neighborhoods and spruce up city landscapes with the newest decorative trends.

However, I must ask: Are we actually contributing to the ever-widening income gap that has overtaken our country? And what about the folks and entire communities that we dislocate as we gentrify neighborhoods?

More often than not, these individuals include white gay and bisexual men who conform fairly closely to traditional conceptualizations of gender expression. Lesbians and bisexual women, as women within an overriding sexist society, statistically earn less than their male counterparts, and individuals who present along the transgender spectrum continue to find less freedom of expression, and therefore far less job security.

A Call to Further and Wider Action

While the "4 Ms" are all somewhat laudable goals, I believe that if we are going to achieve a truly equitable society, we must reach higher, wider, and broader. As important as these goals may be, I hope we do not envision them as the final resting place over the rainbow.

If we do rest here, after having been seduced by promises of achieving some degree of credibility and respectability, I fear we will have become part of the very problems that so many of us have fought so tirelessly to eradicate.

I do remain hopeful, however. The increasing visibility and recognition of trans people today has shaken traditionally dichotomous notions of gender and, in turn, other stifling kinds of binaries, which are the very cornerstones of the entrenchment keeping our society from moving forward. Their stories and experiences have great potential to bring us back into the future -- a future in which anyone on the gender spectrum everywhere will live freely, unencumbered by social taboos and cultural norms of gender. It is a future in which the "feminine" and "masculine" -- as well as all the qualities on the continuum in between -- can live and prosper in us all.

Metaphorically, oppression operates like a wheel with many spokes. If we work to dismantle only one or a few specific spokes, the wheel will continue to roll over people. Let us, then, also work on dismantling all the many spokes to conquer all the many forms of oppression in all their many forms.

Until and unless we can join in coalition with other groups, I consider achieving a genuine sense of community and a genuine sense of equity unattainable.

I also believe that sexual and relational attractions and gender identities and expressions alone are not sufficient to connect a community and, by extension, a movement for progressive social change, and that we must therefore look beyond ourselves and base a community and a movement not simply on social identities but on shared ideals and values among individuals from disparate social identities, with like minds, political philosophies, and strategies for achieving their objectives.

Let us revel in our past victories, for we have fought tirelessly for them. But let us not dwell here, because we have further to go to ensure a truly just and equitable society and world. In the final analysis, whenever anyone is diminished, we are all demeaned, and when anyone or any group remains institutionally and socially marginalized, excluded, or disenfranchised from primary rights and benefits, the possibility for authentic community cannot be realized unless and until we become involved, to challenge, to question, and to act in truly transformational ways.

I therefore hope that we can reignite the revolutionary and transformational flame of what was Stonewall.

I want to thank Chase Catalano, Bradley Freihoffer, Paul Gorski, Joseph Henderson, Nana Osei-Kofi, and Samuel Pottebaum for their insightful suggested editorial changes and additions to this essay.