One of the achievements we can cheer this Pride season is that more openly LGBTQ candidates are running for office than ever before. The Victory Fund, a political action committee dedicated to increasing the number of LGBTQ officials in the U.S., has endorsed more than 70 openly gay candidates across various levels so far this election cycle, and it expects that number to grow to more than 150 before Election Day. LGBTQ candidates “see hard-won rights [under] attack at the federal level and in many of the states,” Annise Parker, Houston’s first lesbian mayor and now the Victory Fund’s president and CEO, said in a recent interview. “And they want to do something about it.” As a lesbian originally from Houston, I cheered for Parker as mayor, albeit from afar.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Over the past 49 years, the movement launched by trans women of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera has become less of a riot against the police and more of a polite request for incremental change. The LGBTQ movement organizations of 2018 and the political agendas they put forward are dominated by the interests of white people.
The movement launched by trans women of color has become less of a riot against the police and more of a polite request for incremental change.
For example, the 2013 landmark Supreme Court decision United States v. Windsor, which paved the way for same-sex marriage nationwide, was about the right of a person to pass property to a spouse when one dies. But making marriage equality the defining issue of the LGBTQ movement is a turn that benefits couples who have wealth to transfer in the first place. Given that it’s harder for white women and people of color to accumulate wealth, that means white gay male couples are going to benefit most from that policy.
The white-dominated LGBTQ agenda shapes policy and movement priorities beyond marriage. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 60 percent of victims of LGBTQ hate crimes are people of color. Yet the image evoked by legislation like the Matthew Shepard Act is of a sympathetic white cisgender gay male victim, which reinforces the idea that gayness is always white. And as activists like Dean Spade and Craig Willse have pointed out, the turn toward hate crime legislation as a marker of victory for the LGBTQ movement is tantamount to an endorsement of mass incarceration.
So in the span of about 50 years, the movement has gone from a multiracial coalition of queers of all kinds in a riot against police to an arm of the nonprofit industrial complex working primarily for the benefit of white, wealthy, cisgender gays.
For people who care about real progressive change, queer political candidates need to follow the lead of women of color in developing a racial justice agenda that addresses economic issues. As queer activist Urvashi Vaid asks in her book Irresistible Revolution, “Is the imagination of queer politics merely about access to rights for queer citizens or also about questioning structures which limit the very potential of human freedom?” It remains an open question whether white LGBTQ political candidates can move the needle on questioning the structures that limit all our potential.
Queer political candidates need to follow the lead of women of color in developing a racial justice agenda that addresses economic issues.
At a time when the Democratic Party needs immigrant voters to help deliver a blue wave of victory in November, a recent study confirms what many of us have known: that there is a real and measurable Trump effect — the phenomenon of a political leader spewing racism, thus emboldening a swath of people to hold more racist views and to act on those views. Social scientists have been tracking the Trump effect and have found that Donald Trump’s demagoguery has made white people more hateful. White gay people are not immune to the Trump effect, just as straight white women are not. If white LGBTQ candidates want to create meaningful change for everyone, they need to get smarter about racial issues in a hurry.
One of the highest-profile of these candidates, actress and queer activist Cynthia Nixon, is challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic gubernatorial primary this year. I admit I cringed a little when I saw she was running, because of the disappointing record of another white lesbian politician from my adopted hometown of New York City. Then that politician called Nixon an “unqualified lesbian,” and it was game on.
It has been fun to watch Nixon as she has blasted Cuomo as a “corporate Democrat,” and one poll suggests she’s gaining on him. She has shamed him into moving to the left on some key progressive issues in New York state — the failing subway system, criminal justice reform, a single-payer health care system, safe drug-injection sites and support for legalized marijuana. But she needs to do more to listen to and follow the lead of black women.
That’s especially true on the issue of marijuana legalization. In May she got into some hot water for calling licenses to sell legal pot a “form of reparations.” The conversation about reparations for the damage that the drug war has done has long been led by black women like Kassandra Frederique of the Drug Policy Alliance. Nixon’s misstep was not in calling for reparations but in missing the nuances that Frederique and other black women have already articulated: acknowledging the harms done by the war on drugs and offering a public apology, monetary compensation, access to jobs, a plan for mending future generations and a public memorial as a reminder of the carnage of the failed war on drugs.
For those of us who long for the kind of politics that questions the structures that limit the very potential of human freedom, a few more mostly white LGBTQ candidates may be a bit of good news. But it is not sufficient to create real change. A real politics of liberation must find a way to connect people who share values about sexuality, economic inequality and racial justice to one another.
If they want to make real change, LGBTQ candidates need to keep in mind the words of the black lesbian poet Audre Lorde, who wrote, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of Color remains chained. Nor is anyone of you.”
Jessie Daniels is a professor at the City University of New York and the author of the forthcoming book Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism.
#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our Pride Month coverage here.