If you ask a member of the conservative anti-gay group Focus on the Family what the “gay agenda” is, they may mention, “discrediting of scriptures that condemn homosexuality,” “muzzling of the clergy and Christian media,” or even the “universal acceptance of the gay lifestyle.” Ask a liberal, and you’re more likely to hear about eligibility for military service, employment nondiscrimination policies, and the right to buy same-sex wedding cake toppers at the bakery.
As a queer anti-capitalist, let me be perfectly clear: the conservative description sounds way more exciting.
The recent series of legal victories that have driven the ‘gay agenda’ into the American mainstream (same-sex marriage, legalization of homosexuality in the military, etc) has been met with unbridled enthusiasm for most progressives, but it leaves many of us who are more interested in a ‘queer agenda’ with a lot of hard questions. Why does the political mainstream identify access to nuclear family structures, the military-industrial complex, and an exploitative labor apparatus as the most important issues facing queer folks today? Over 40% of homeless youth in San Francisco identify as LGBTQ – what is ‘the gay agenda’ doing for them? What do our newfound marriage rights mean to single queer parents in poverty, who experience none of the social or financial benefits of hitched queers? What did the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell do for queers in countries under U.S. military occupation (including our own), or to queer soldiers with PTSD and limited access to mental healthcare? What does the gay agenda have in store for queer meth addicts whose access to help is all but absent due to a militarized drug war? What does a nondiscrimination policy mean to a queer person in a country with widespread unemployment? And for employed queer folk, what does the gay agenda have to say about their labor conditions? What does it have to say about the fundamentally exploitative nature of their employment?
In fact, the gay agenda often actively works against the interests of queer folks by boosting unbridled capitalism and subtly supporting transphobia. For example, while the absurdly-named “Human Rights Campaign” is the largest LGBT advocacy group in the country, the only unions they support are civil unions: they are enthusiastic boosters of the most notorious union-busting corporations, and often treat their own employees terribly. Their president is a wealthy white cis-male (the unquestioned norm among mainstream advocacy groups, with few exceptions) who caters largely to an even wealthier demographic of potential donors who have an enormous stake in the current economic order. They have routinely turned their backs on the tran folk they allege to represent (including dropping them altogether from proposed employment nondiscrimination legislation). Their merchandise is composed of the usual sweatshop fodder.
Somehow, HRC is the face of the mainstream gay movement. And yet, the strange thing is that their classist, and often racist approach to politics rarely works anyway. As Urvashi Vaid writes, “Gay and Lesbian people are at once insiders, involved openly in government and public affairs to a degree never before achieved, and outsiders, shunned by elected officials unless they need our money or votes in close elections.” Their proposed non-discrimination policy didn’t pass after they removed protection of transfolk from the writing of the bill either. Why even bother?
The real victors of the mainstream LGBT movement are not necessarily members of the queer community (even the middle-class queer community) but economic powerhouses that have found a powerful new marketing strategy: pretending to care about queers, and taking their money. Liberals and conservatives alike frequently interpret these developments, from ‘gaycation’ travel agencies to rainbow Doritos, as indications of ‘growing acceptance,’ but identification of social groups as potential consumers shouldn’t be confused with acceptance. In 1995, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (most famous for marketing cigarettes to children with the cartoon character “Joe Camel”) launched a campaign called Project SCUM. The goal was to target “alternative lifestyle” (read: queer) communities by appealing to the alienation that often accompanies coming out. Despite the subsequent outrage of many high-profile activists, this has become standard practice in the marketing world, which considers the ‘queer demographic’ an ideal consumer base, and reconceptualizes the alienation that accompanies queer life in a sexist, transphobic, and homophobic world as a void that can be filled with consumer goods and services. Media representations insist that the proper place of queers is in the mall (or at the bar) with the same intensity that they insist that the proper place of women is in the kitchen. We can look for inspiration here from Guy Debord, who writes that, “This worker, suddenly redeemed from the total contempt which is clearly shown him by all the varieties of organization and supervision of production, finds himself every day, outside the production and in the guise of a consumer, seemingly treated as an adult, with zealous politeness.” HRC, for their part, gave Reynolds a ‘corporate accountability’ score of 100% in 2009.
In the United States, HRC has attained a new level of hegemony over queer struggle thanks to their public identification with the triumph of same-sex marriage in the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges: their official logo, a simple equality symbol in a red or blue square, has become the standard symbol of those who support the mainstream brand of ‘marriage equality.’ What most enthusiastic celebrants of the Supreme Court routinely fail to admit is how utterly reactionary and even heteronormative the new court precedent manages to be, even as it ostensibly supports marginalized sexual communities. In his majority opinion, Kenney wrote that “Without the recognition, stability, and predictability marriage offers, their children suffer the stigma of knowing their families are somehow lesser. They also suffer the significant material costs of being raised by unmarried parents, relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life.” This is the kind of stigmatizing, normalizing precedent that can ultimately be used to hurt any and all queer parents who are not in the kind of nuclear families recognized under Obergefell v. Hodges. Where is the legal language that protects single queer parents, or queer parents in nontraditional (nonmonogamous, legally unmarried, etc) relationships? One would hope that the biggest LGBT rights organization in the world would have at least expressed concern when highest court in the country asserts that only ‘recognized, stable, and predictable’ family structures are positive environments for children,’ but instead we heard nothing but calls for jubilant celebration from the HRC.
But what about the rest of us? Why would we seek to become more like straight people through militarism, marriage, consumerism, or employment, when none of those things ever made straight people happy in the first place? If self-proclaimed ‘mainstream’ groups like the Independent Gay Forum are right when they announce, “We deny conservative claims that gays and lesbians pose any threat to social morality or the political order,” it is only because the LGBT image has been reduced to one-dimensional and politically ‘neutral’ identities in the public mind. But if the gay agenda has failed us, we can still turn to the queer agenda, one that has rich historical roots. Standing up to ‘homonormativity’ has been a struggle since the beginning of queer movements. The first gay journal, Der Eigene (1896-1932) was also an anarchist journal, and published radical articles until it was shut down by the Nazis. Even Oscar Wilde, arguably the most celebrated queer writer in modern history, famously noted, “I think I am rather more than a Socialist. I am something of an Anarchist, I believe.” Today, groups such as Gay Shame and Black and Pink continue to push a radical queer agenda to dismantle capitalism, racism, and the state.
The goal of queer liberation requires that we not only stand up to not only to oppressive heterosexuals in power, but to system of hierarchy itself that empowers them – and that means that radical queers will need to stand up to LGBT capitalists as well as straight ones. The queer agenda, then, is a familiar one: the destruction of capital, the formation of healthy community bonds, and the cultivation of a social rupture that upsets hierarchies such as heterosexism, ableism, racism, and nationalism. We bring a lot to the table that is often missing in heterosexist radical communities: an unusually articulate understanding of the role of bodies in radical struggles, a vibrant historical relationship with feminism, and a sobering familiarity with the realities of the medical system. These aren’t assets that can simply be married away.