What if we are reaching a point where LGBT Pride is about more than equality?
What if our movement, fought for so long and in such bloody battles, is at a curve that aligns with something much deeper, something that challenges the very bedrock upon which our culture so problematically rests?
Such immense ponderings were brought to thrilling life when my friend Angela D. Ledford gave her opening remarks as Honorary Chair of the GLSEN ‘Alice in Wonderland’ Gala last night. Every now and then something cuts through and changes the way we think about our most fundamental beliefs and systems. Personally, I love that sort of challenge. It makes us better people. Kinder and more compassionate people. It also illuminates where we might go at a time when we have made such great strides, yet still struggle to move forward.
After listening to her remarks, I asked if she would consent to my posting them here, and she graciously agreed. What follows is a thrilling take on what shape Pride might hopefully take in the future. Thank you, Angela, for the possibilities and challenges posited in your words and spirit:
“This year we celebrate 18 years of ongoing contributions by the NY Capital Region chapter of GLSEN and 25 years as a national organization. GLSEN works to ensure safe schools for all students regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity, and GLSEN – NY Capital region does crucial work with youth situated in 8 counties within the capital region. So I am incredibly honored to be here this evening as honorary chair for this event, which raises money for an lgbt scholarship and the continued work GLSEN does to foster a safe and healthy educational environment.
It is a great privilege to have the opportunity to speak to a room full of people who are united in the cause of justice. Yet it seems we are at a bit of a crossroads. So much of the mainstream lgbt movement has been devoted to marriage equality. So what now? I want to suggest this evening that it is high time we move beyond the “equality agenda.”
The “equality agenda” is alluring. It promises fairness, inclusion, and respectability. However, we live in a markedly inegalitarian society by virtually all empirical measures of human well-being. We are stratified by race, class, gender, sexuality, gender identity, religion, and age, to name the most prominent. And while we have made great strides, this country was not founded upon inclusion. African-Americans, women, and the poor weren’t simply excluded for a period from an otherwise egalitarian system. Rather our exclusion creates the fundamental boundary against which citizenship, liberty, and equality is constructed and upon which our social and political institutions rest. Indeed, race and gender are wholly invented categories that serve to legitimize a maldistribution of power. And capitalism, a crucial player here, cannot flourish without the existence of categories that MARGINALIZE AND OPPRESS MOST TO justify mass incarceration, rape culture, imperialism AND AN extreme concentration of wealth. Inequality and exploitation are woven in to the very fabric of our society, both public and private.
So when we pursue what is called “equality,” the best we can hope for is inclusion in a exploitive system that requires acceptance of dominant social values and mores. We have been told “You can come to the party, but you must aspire to be just like us.” Sadly, this is an assimilationist fiction — the “other” can never really be just like the “us” in that narrative. The system itself is not transformed– some of us are merely permitted to participate more fully in its unequal operations, sparing ourselves from the measure of the harms it inflicts if we agree to be complicit in what it does to other we love. Within the confines of the “equality agenda,” we have been DENIED TRANSFORMATIONAL CHANGE while draped in the vestments of parity and progress.
And it isn’t just marriage equality that leads us to this crossroads, but also the tension within the movement regarding our trans community. Our trans and gender non-conforming community — particularly trans and gender non-conforming youth– are leading the way toward illuminating and throwing into question the very centrality of the sex binary. Through their lives and experiences, they reveal the ways in which gendered expectations serve to legitimize the maldistribution of power and structure so much of our life prospects — what kinds of interests we will pursue, how we comport our bodies, what occupations we will be deemed fit for, what restrooms we can use, the relationships we can imagine AND embark upon, and how safe we can expect to be. Finding themselves on the margin in the equality discussion, they have chosen to explore the liberatory possibilities of the margin, creatively and bravely doing the revolutionary work of liberation that will lead us to a more just and equal society for all.
However, choosing the lifesaving work of liberation often isn’t safe, as we were recently reminded when the mayor marked the massive contributions of LGBT people of color to the ongoing fight for fairness. One woman spoke with great passion about her frustration during GENDA lobbying efforts with the state Senate. She complained that none of the Senate staffers really took her seriously. All they could talk about, she said, was the November elections. As she reminded us, “I don’t know if I or my trans brothers and sisters will even be here in November!” We have much work to do, and it is all the more reason to support the kind of work GLSEN does.
I cannot help but think about Sylvia Rivera, a revolutionary trans activist of the 70’s and 80’s. During a demonstration, someone spat at Sylvia, “You’re disgusting!” To which she replied, “Oh honey, we’re not disgusting, WE’RE REVOLTING!” I have thought of that pronouncement—that rallying cry–so many times over the years. I am drawn to its powerful dual meaning—real change requires revolutionary ideas and revolutionary tactics—none of which is more powerful than being willing to be revolting—to choose the margins as a place of resistance, as a place of rejecting the “normal” and “respectable” as a means to redefine what it is to be fully human. It is time to stop asking for equality and demand liberation.”
~ Angela D. Ledford