sex from stonewall to sanford


For the Old Mole Variety Hour June 29, 2009

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York, when, for the first time in history, queer people fought back against decades of police harassment.

Writing in the UK Guardian, Peter Tatchell reminds us that

[Previously, LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender)] people worldwide had largely complied with arrest and criminalization. But not in New York on the nights of 27 and 28 June 1969. What began as a routine police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, turned into sporadic street battles. In the aftermath of this history-making queer resistance, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed in New York, and similar groups sprang up across the US and the world. The modern LGBT … movement was born. There had been earlier homosexual law reform and welfare organizations in the US [and Europe]. But these were small, discreet lobby groups.... The global GLF movement was radically different. …Instead of pleas for tolerance, the demand was unconditional acceptance. . . . [The slogan of the GLF was] Gay is Good [--this was a revolutionary assertion when almost everyone had previously] believed that gay was bad, mad, and sad.

Another veteran of the GLF, Tommi Avicolli Mecca, writing in Counterpunch, notes that "GLFers came from the rank and file of the civil rights, antiwar, feminist, and hippie movements. … They made coalitions with the Black Panthers and radical feminists. "

But when the more moderate version of the movement emerged in the late 70s and 80s, the new "leadership didn’t acknowledge that the successes that had paved the way for its new campaigns were built on multi-issue coalitions and an agenda that incorporated the voices of many" and "stressed social as well as economic justice." Avicolli Mecca notes a May 2009 study, “Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Community,” from UCLA’s Williams Institute, found that "20-40% of homeless kids in America are queer, and in the Bay Area, 75% of [transgender people] are not employed full-time. In San Francisco, 40% of gay men with AIDS are unstably housed or homeless. Meanwhile, the [so-called] Human Rights Campaign, the country’s leading national queer organization, ignores homelessness and poverty altogether. "

As Tatchell describes it,

the GLF never called for equality. The demand was liberation. [The goal was to] change society, not conform to it. Equal rights within a flawed, unjust system [would be an] idiotic [goal]. [The GLF] vision was a new sexual democracy, without homophobia and misogyny. Erotic shame and guilt would be banished, together with socially enforced monogamy and male and female gender roles. There would be sexual freedom and [real] human rights for everyone – queer and straight. [The] message was "innovate, don't assimilate." [While Tatchell opposes the ban on gay marriage as homophobic discrimination, he reasserts the GLF view] that accepting mere equality involves the abandonment of [a] critical perspective on straight culture…. Whereas GLF saw marriage and the family as a patriarchal prison for women, gay people, and children, today [much of] the LGBT movement uncritically champions same-sex marriage and families. It has embraced traditional hetero­sexual aspirations lock stock and barrel. How ironic. While straight couples are deserting marriage, same-sexers are rushing to embrace it. . .. Are queers the new conservatives, the 21st-century suburbanites?

That's from Peter Tatchell, writing in the UK Guardian.  Indeed, straight people are deserting marriage, even when they're not, like South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, also deserting their jobs.

The sex scandals associated with politicians gay and straight tend to distract us from more pressing news, provide fodder for their political enemies, and often confirm the hypocrisy of their public statements and policy positions. Sanford, of course, had publicly criticized Bill Clinton and John Ensign for dishonesty and breaking their marriage vows.

More recently Sanford has compared himself to King David, as a ruler who fell mightily, but then picked up the pieces, and built from there. Although the scandalous do sometimes refer to the Bible in these situations, they may be less familiar with it than they think. Mrs. Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian, reminds us, in one of her videos available on YouTube, that Biblical marriage has included incest, rape, polygamy, and even one guy named Lot whose spouse was a condiment. And King David is indeed among those she cites in her description of Biblical marriage. . . . So, there might be some problem for Sanford with taking King David as a role model, even aside from that minor distinction between a divinely-ordained monarch and a democratically elected official in a nominally representative government.

I admit I enjoy the irony of these situations as much as the next citizen, though the frequency of their occurrence is wearing the satisfaction a bit thin for me. But the media response to sex scandals suggests no such diminishing of excitement about them. Last year in a discussion about the media circus around Eliot Spitzer, mole Jan Haaken described the media response as a kind of " perpetual political virginity."

Time after time we are shocked, shocked to discover that the campaigner against prostitution has been hiring sex workers; the homophobe has been playing footsie in the men's room; the advocate of marital fidelity and truth has lied about slipping off to see his lover.

Yet we neglect to draw the larger conclusions—that the laws and the ideologically dominant conventions around sexuality and family relations are simply not working for most people, and that dropping those illusory ideals, and the laws that support them, might make it easier for everyone to be honest about their real experiences.

Instead, of course, defenders of marriage become ever more defensive, and their allies are regrouping. For instance, what Jessica Valenti calls the virginity movement is rebranding and repositioning itself so that it can continue to collect federal funding by recasting abstinence-only education as abstinence-centered education. As she notes, "this is about a lot a more than bad-faith messages about condoms and pregnancy. It's about . . . . a movement committed to the regression of women's rights, enforcing gender norms and teaching America's youth -- especially young women -- that sexuality is wrong, dirty and dangerous."

Despite this, some of the goals of the GLF are slowly being realized, in practice. They had hoped, for example, to move away from the model of heterosexual marriage and toward a less biologically-based and more flexible notion of kinship and clan structures. And, as the Beyond Marriage statement reminds us, U.S. Census findings show that a majority of people, whatever their sexual and gender identities, do not live in traditional nuclear families. Instead, our families include blended families, and extended families; single parent households, and queer couples who decide to jointly create and raise a child with another queer person or couple, in two households; senior citizens living together, serving as each other’s caregivers and / or partners; adult children living with and caring for their parents; grandparents and other family members raising their children’s children or a relative's children; close friends and siblings who live together in long-term, committed, non-conjugal relationships, that is, those who are not sexual or romantic partners but may serve as each other’s primary support and caregivers; care-giving and partnership relationships that have been developed to provide support systems to those living with HIV/AIDS; and committed, loving households in which there are more than two conjugal partners.

Even that list, inspired by census data, neglects those who have no households, because they have no homes, but have nonetheless created relationships and communities of solidarity and support. Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others.

Moreover, displacing marriage from the center of gay organizing can yield positive results. In the most recent issue of the Nation magazine, Lisa Duggan argues that because Utah's state constitution since 2004 bars not only gay marriage but also domestic partnership and civil union for same-sex couples, activists there have addressed and made gains on other issues, in ways that create broader coalitions. They have proposed an Adult Joint Support Declaration bill that would make it possible to allocate benefits and things like hospital visitation rights to Utahns living in nonconjugal households. They've fought against housing and employment discrimination, and they've successfully reversed a law that made it illegal to offer shelter to a homeless minor in Utah without parental permission.

Duggan concludes that "a call for basic fairness and full civil equality, made in terms that include queers but are not limited to them," can rally progressive action to reach "beyond the conventional conjugal couple to include the distribution of rights and resources to other individuals and households, to homeless youth, transgendered workers, hounded immigrants, impoverished single parents and beyond."

As Tatchell puts it, the LGBT community's retreat from radicalism signifies a huge loss of confidence and optimism.…rather than accepting society as it is, the GLF dared to imagine what society could be—and so should we.

To have our government –or our leadership—define as “legitimate families” only those households with couples in conjugal relationships does a tremendous disservice to the many other ways in which people actually construct their families, kinship networks, households, and relationships.


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