The Fraught Identity Politics of LGBTQ Liberation

On October 22nd, ESPN ran an article as part of its “ongoing series exploring what it means to be an openly gay athlete in the post-acceptance world.” The piece profiles Gus Kenworthy, an Olympic freeskier, and his process of coming out amidst the hyper-competitive, and hyper-normative, world of professional athletics. For Kenworthy, coming out was literally a matter of his livelihood: he could lose sponsorships, recognition, and even the drive to compete at such a high level. It is unquestionably brave that he made the jump, figuratively, to present himself truthfully. He will no doubt be one of a proud lineage of gay athletes who have slowly, but unrelentingly, chipped away at the hostile environment sports can foster for LGBTQ people.

As an openly gay celebrity, Gus Kenworthy enters the upper echelon of celebrated queerness that so few have the pleasure of experiencing. Caitlyn Jenner, in her glamorous spread with Vanity Fair earlier this year, stepped into the forefront of this celebration. Other prominent LGBTQ celebrities include Ellen Page, Anderson Cooper, and Ryan Murphy. Out magazine, in fact, has a “Power 50” list of the most influential LGBT folks in their respective fields. Of the fifty, ten are people of color. Of the top twenty, three are people of color. This list, which came out in April of this year, illuminates social themes by whom it features as much as through whom it does not. First, it is described as a list of the “the most famous gay people,” while featuring non-gay LGBTQ individuals. Additionally, Out only features two trans people—Laverne Cox and Martine Rothblatt—and is devoid of trans men and any other trans people of color besides Cox, a black trans woman.

When a magazine like Out draws up a most powerful list, or when ESPN highlights the achievements of a gay athlete, LGBTQ issues are solidified in mainstream culture. When politicians, corporate executives, and celebrities declare themselves LGBTQ, it opens the door for more LGBTQ individuals to enter those spaces, to become prominent, and to become powerful in their own right. It’s undeniable that representation matters. Yet, when certain faces and bodies are represented, and others notably left out, it begs the critical question of how representation can advance LGBTQ issues comprehensively when it portrays queerness through the image of a select few characteristics: being white, able-bodied, wealthy, skinny, and attractive.

Gus Kenworthy, like Ellen DeGeneres, Caitlyn Jenner, and 80 percent of Out’s list, fits those exact characteristics. In order to be successful, celebrated, and LGBTQ, one must, therefore, fit some or all of these qualities. This whitewashed construction of LGBTQ identity obscures the real experiences of queer people throughout this country. Rather than fighting toward queer liberation, it misdirects efforts into fitting in with the mainstream.

This whitewashed construction of LGBTQ identity does is obscure the real experiences of queer people throughout this country.

This is the general thesis of what the blog Queers United calls “gay assimilation.” It normalizes gayness and grants gay people access to the typical American dream. It does not disrupt the status quo, but rather finds niches and access points by which gays may insert themselves into it. As a culture, the LGBTQ movement’s goal is equality, which means, per capitalism’s hierarchical structure, that some must lose as others succeed. Unsurprisingly, while white gays gain access to these institutions, queer people of colorespecially trans people of color—are repeatedly swept to the side. Despite the fact that 33 percent of LGBTQ people are non-white, compared with only 27 percent of the general population, they have higher unemployment, lower wages, and higher rates of violence committed against them than their white peers.

According to pflag.org, queer, once a derogatory term used against LGBTQ people, was reclaimed to be “anyone who a) wants to identify as queer and b) who feels somehow outside of the societal norms in regards to gender or sexuality.” In her article on autostraddle.com, “Gay Rights Are Not Queer Liberation,” blogger phoenix reminds that the goal of queer liberation “wasn’t equal protection through matrimony, it was ownership of our bodies and the right to exist and feel safe in public spaces.” Although the Supreme Court ruled in June that same-sex marriage is a legal right, the right to marry does not mean privileges for all queer people. While the right to marry is important for many, and indeed a human right, in the United States this is principally an economic right. There are tax benefits, social security benefits, mortgage benefits — the list goes on. For LGBTQ people who wish to marry, this is an obvious benefit, then, as they become fully economically enfranchised in society.

This does quite little, however, for the immediate reality of LGBTQ people who face dire issues like homelessness, poverty, and violence. According to transequality.org, 20 percent of trans people have been homeless in their lifetime. Of homeless youth, “62 percent were black and 22 percent were Hispanic,” write Melissa Dunn and Aisha C. Moodie-Mills for the Center for American Progress. Of the population of homeless gay youth, 44 percent were black and 26 percent Hispanic. Unemployment is also disproportionately high for trans people of color. Over a quarter of black trans people are unemployed, as are “18 percent of Latino transgender Americans, and 17 percent of multiracial transgender Americans.” These numbers are staggering, and are not ameliorated by opening up marriage to same-sex couples.

Violence against trans people, and especially trans people of color, is also growing. So far this year, 21 trans women, mostly trans women of color, have been murdered. Their names are Zella Ziona, Kiesha Jenkins, Keyshia Blige, Jasmine Collins, Tamara Dominguez, Elisha Walker, Kandis Capri, Ashton O’Hara, Shade Schuler, Amber Monroe, K.C. Haggard, India Clarke, Mercedes Williamson, London Chanel, Kristina Gomez Reinwald, Penny Proud, Taja Gabrielle DeJesus, Yazmin Vash Payne, Ty Underwood, Lamia Beard, Papi Edwards, and Bri Golec.

The problem with integrating LGBTQ politics into the mainstream is that when queer people fall outside the narrow range of what is acceptable queerness is, or when they fall short of the queer ideal (i.e. male, white, wealthy, attractive, or any combination thereof), they elicit little attention and their plight is marginalized—even within a community that is supposed to represent them. When shows like Glee, Modern Family, and American Horror Story, and even Will & Grace and Queer as Folk conceptualize queerness, it comes with baggage. Queer as Folk was radical when it came out in 2000, depicting gayness in an explicit, often dirty, and affronting way. Glee dabbles with diversity, including both a black trans character and a bisexual Latina character, but in the context of the whole show, with its twenty-seven LGBTQ characters in total, that’s very few. Taken together, these shows frame the queer experience as basic and monolithic: a white gay man must come out, faces trouble, but then ultimately enjoys the pleasures of still being a white man (only a gay one). He may now love whom he chooses, as long as that person is another attractive, wealthy, white gay man.

To say the least, this marginalizes non-gay queer people, and all queer people of color. And when non-normative narratives are marginalized, they cannot be addressed on a systemic level. This is not, in any way, to discount the experiences of Gus Kenworthy or Caitlyn Jenner. It is unquestionable that they show strength and bravery, and will inspire many people to be their most genuine selves.

But when people like Kenworthy or Jenner are continually viewed as the norm for queerness, it marginalizes and silences other battles in the queer movement. It frames the goals of the LGBTQ movement as purely gay liberation without even allowing for its other fundamental elements, including access to jobs, freedom from gender violence, and anti-racism. As it now stands, it means privileging certain identities and bodies over others in both politics and society. In its current iteration, it means marriage and fighting for (flawed) representation. To align it better with queer liberation’s project, which can ensure freedom for all queer people, it must go far beyond that. People within the LGBTQ community who hold privilege must speak out for all queer people, and especially for those most at risk of homelessness, poverty, and violence; Caitlyn Jenner, to her credit, has made an effort to do this. Politicians, especially gay ones, and political powers must stand for more than freedom of sexual orientation. Issues like LGBTQ homelessness, especially for trans youth, must come to the forefront. Representation must open up to include more fat queer people, dark-skinned queer people, and disabled queer people. Comprehensive sex education must include queer issues, and especially trans issues. Asexual people must be included in the discourse, as must intersex and non-binary people.

Gay liberation and queer liberation are incompatible when the former stands for the latter. Gay liberation and queer liberation are incompatible when the former whitewashes the latter. Gay liberation and queer liberation are incompatible when folks with platforms, resources, and visibility do not speak out for the marginalized and raise up their voices. Queer liberation is more than a court case, it is more than coming out, and it is far more than whiteness.

Photo: Ted Eytan