In recent years “intersectionality” has been the biggest buzz word in progressive circles, liberally sprinkled in activist conferences and social media. Yet few movements have been as long on intersectional talk, and little on action, as the LGBTQ movement.
Few events point up this fail more clearly than the impending release from prison this Wednesday of Transgender heroine Chelsea Manning. She is by far the single most important, impactful anti-war activist and whistle-blower that the LGBTQ movement has ever produced.
She exposed war crimes by the U.S. and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, including murder and torture, such as the infamous “Collateral Murder” video of two Reuters journalists and ten other civilians. She gave the most expansive documentary evidence ever provided of U.S. support for a host of corrupt and vicious dictators across the Middle East. This information helped fuel the wave of Arab Spring revolts, the largest democracy movement ever seen in the region, knocking out a number of these dictators.
Yet from 2010 arrest through her subsequent arduous trial and most of her incarceration – the longest imprisonment of a whistleblower in U.S. history – none of the big LGBTQ non-profits defended her.
You might think that her 2010 incarceration would have produced a “perfect storm” of intersectional and identity politics support. Here you had a working class person who identified as gay, and later came out as a Trans woman, who exposed some of the most scandalous secrets of the U.S. military and State Department in what was to that date by far the largest document dump in U.S. history.
You would think, for example, that in the heart of the most powerful military empire that the world has ever seen, that an activist who opposed the savaging of other countries by the U.S. military would receive intersectional support from a broad section of the U.S. left. And particularly since this activist identified as LGBTQ, the LGBTQ left would particularly be in her corner.
But no. Years earlier a top official in what is now known as the National LGBTQ Task Force told me that “we will never” again come out against a U.S. war, following the Task Force’s public opposition to President George H. W. Bush’s first war against Iraq. He said that the Task Force’s coming out against that war had “nearly destroyed” the organization, as wealthy donors pulled their donations and threatened to never support it again. And this was with the Task Force, the group that likes to posture itself as the “hippest” of the big LGBTQ non-profits.
But it was not the first, nor certainly the last time that LGBTQ non-profits – rightly derided as “Gay Inc.” – prioritized donors’ dollars to fund their salaries and offices, over alleged adherence to intersectional principles.
For all their talk of “grassroots organizing” – another phrase that’s become hackneyed thru repeated misuse – Gay Inc. organizations are staff-driven at best, and at worst, controlled by self-selected boards chosen for their ability to tap contributions from wealthy donors. In this way the wealthiest LGBTQs control the political agenda of what passes for our movement, a pink version of the class stratification talked about in straight society, but rarely mentioned in the movement.
Some say that the reason for this conservatism is Gay, Inc.’s affection for “heteronormativity” – the aping straight people. This is said to explain their recent emphasis on winning equal marriage rights, for example. But this interpretation doesn’t adequately explain where “heteronormativity” itself comes from, and it also radically mis-reads the chronology of how the marriage issue became center-space in our movement.
For many years almost all of the large organizations of LGBTQs opposed pushing for equal marriage rights (the one exception being the Metropolitan Community Church). As late as at its 2005 “Creating Change” conference, for example, the Task Force had only anti-equal marriage speakers at one of the conference’s two plenaries – with no opportunity for proponents to rebut.
More recently, of course, Gay Inc. mercilessly mined the marriage issue for donations, not unlike how they have done with Transgender issues for the last couple of years. The cynicism in both instances is quite breath-taking, especially when you consider, for example, the Human Rights Campaign’s well-documented betrayal  of Transgender employment rights under the tutelage of gay Congressman Barney Frank.
The root of Gay Inc.’s betrayal of Chelsea Manning, and their flip-flops on marriage rights and Trans rights, lie directly in their being joined at the hip with the Democratic Party. The incestuous revolving door between military contractors and ex-military officers is only exceeded by Gay Inc’s revolving door with the Democratic Party.
The pollsters and media “professionals” who gave us the disastrous failed campaign against Proposition 8, for example, were drawn directly from the Party. The current president of Gay Inc’s biggest and wealthiest group, the Human Rights Campaign, Chad Griffin, “got his start in politics volunteering for the Bill Clinton presidential campaign, which led to a position in the White House Press Office at the age of 19. Following his stint in the White House and his graduation from Georgetown University, he led a number of political campaigns advocating for or against various California ballot initiatives, as well as a number of fundraising efforts for political candidates, such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.”
A big reason why Gay Inc. was initially so loath to take on the equal marriage issue was because their main guy, President Bill Clinton, was directly implicated in the worst measure enacted against it – the Defense of Marriage Act – and the series of failed Democratic presidential candidates who followed him also opposed equal marriage rights. As I’ve written elsewhere,
“After Bill Clinton appeased the right by passing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (and NAFTA, and Anti-Terrorism & Effective Death Penalty Act, etc, etc), he took out ads on Christian Right radio stations bragging about it, as part of his re-election bid.”
Similarly with Chelsea Manning. Besides exposing George W. Bush’s dirty laundry, she also exposed the Obama White House’s illegal support for the military coup which overthrew the elected government in Honduras, with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton providing crucial support for the murderous regime that took over.
Only when an issue is considered acceptable to leading Democrats – or forced onto their agenda by incessant campaigning by truly grassroots activists – has Gay Inc. switched up its issues list. So only after years of polling numbers showed that marriage was a top issue for LGBTQs – reacting to the religious right beating us up on the issue – did Gay Inc. change its tune and decide the issue was “realistic.”
Left to their own devices, Gay Inc. groveled to the Party’s needs. This is why after the 1998 lynching of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard and the protests in hundreds of cities that followed it, Gay Inc. quickly moved to divert the movement into meaningless, if not positively reactionary, calls for “hate crimes” legislation, feeding the racist mass incarceration boom then underway.
Gay Inc. was loath to embarrass then-President Clinton for his support for the Defense of Marriage Act two years earlier, or the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” military employment ban three years before that, in enabling the anti-gay hate that killed Shepard.
All of the pro-LGBTQ reforms of the past two decades that were eventually supported by the Democrats have one thing in common: They cost virtually no money. From hate crimes legislation to marriage rights to Trans people’s access to public restrooms, all cost the profit system little, if any, serious money.
In the meantime, class issues have crept up on the LGBTQ community as they have all other working class people in the United States. Twenty-somethings today, if they are lucky enough to be employed, make on average 20% less than baby boomers did when they were that age. Whereas young adults of the baby boomer generation typically moved away from home upon reaching age 18 or shortly thereafter, nearly half of 25-year-olds and one-third of 18 to 34-year-olds were living at home in 2015. A quarter of those living at home don’t even have the temporary escape from nosy relatives of work or school.
This has had a direct impact on what traditionally is the most dynamic section of any political movement – its youth. By dint of their lack of economic and residential independence, LGBTQ youth are much more vulnerable to abusive relatives, even though anti-LGBTQ attitudes are at historic lows among all generations (at least for the time being).
“About 40% of homeless youth are LGBT…[and nearly] seven in 10 (68%) respondents indicated that family rejection was a major factor contributing to LGBT youth homelessness, making it the most cited factor. More than half (54%) of respondents indicated that abuse in their family was another important factor contributing to LGBT homelessness.”
One would think that youth homelessness and joblessness, simultaneously affecting the most vulnerable and potentially most dynamic sectors of the LGBTQ movement, would be top priorities of the movement. Reflecting their structural “last hired, first fired” role in the U.S. economy, one would think that youth of color’s predicament in this generational economic disaster would merit special intersectional and identity politics concern.
But we live in a neoliberal age where the only reforms acceptable to the Democrats are those that don’t cost the system any money. We have a party whose leaders and enablers think that the main reasons why they lost the last election was not their presiding over the last eight years of a decades’-long economic slide in working class incomes, but rather, Russian meddling and the vicissitudes of former FBI Director James Comey’s public pronouncements.
Taking its lead from the Democrats, Gay Inc. gives lip service, if that, to the class issues directly bearing on the overwhelming majority of those whom they purport to represent. Democratic mayors ruling most large U.S. cities, while catering to the upper middle class gayborhoods that house just a small part of their cities’ LGBTQs, offer at best token solutions to these expensive problems.
The massive public housing and jobs programs that were forced out of Roosevelt-era Democrats during the Great Depression are the furthest thing from the minds of their neo-liberal descendants.
Hopes that a Sanders-type movement, working with Gay Inc. and other non-profits might take over the Democratic Party and turn it into an instrument of the 99% to take over the government, ignore the true history of how the New Deal programs came about. And Sanders’ notion that massive New Deal-like programs are possible while maintaining a military that consumes almost as much resources as the militaries of all the other governments of the world, is not only economic nonsense, it violates the very intersectionality, or solidarity, with “Third World” struggles that most U.S. leftists claim they support.
Back in the day, it wasn’t elite non-profits working hand-in-hand with the Democrats that won the gains of the New Deal. Quite the opposite. It was bottom-up solidarity between different groups of workers, across different industries, employed and unemployed, and crucially, working independently of the Democrats – that allowed strikes against individual employers to blossom into the three citywide general strikes of the era, and win massive, costly concessions from the 1%, despite far more desperate economic times.
Rather than courting the Democrats, an LGBTQ movement worthy of the name will see them and their Gay Inc. enablers as impediments to the kind of movement we need in this era of austerity and increasing class polarization.
Andy Thayer is co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network, a multi-issue LGBT rights direct action group. He can be reached at LGBTliberation@aol.com