The relevance of LGBT rights to other minority experiences.
When I am faced with the task of summarizing my evolving perspective on LGBT rights, gender sexuality, and queer theory, I balk. How do I explain the story without having to retell it from start to finish? But with the recent spate of suicides in this country by teenagers who were gay or were perceived as gay, I feel compelled to offer something. What helps me muster up the courage to write is to know that at this point, I only need to say something, not everything.
In the almost thirteen years I have learned to reconcile my being a gay male with other facets of my identity, I return constantly to the notion of queerness, of differentness. To me, this queerness is what binds the variegated experiences of individuals within the LGBT community. For instance, though I may not know precisely the experience of a transgender woman, she and I nevertheless share in common that we do not fit neatly into a concept of “normal.” I proffer that this queerness is a critical symbol from the LGBT experience that can and should be used by other minority communities, because it is queerness that constitutes the focal point for the mainstream’s aversion to and disenfranchisement of those communities. It is queerness that lies at the heart of vehement anti-gay rhetoric, such as when religious and political leaders rail against the so-called “gay agenda.”1 It is an affront to these leaders that I am gay, not so much because I have asked for rights per se, but because I have asked folks to accept my differentness. And often, that is too much to ask.
On one level, yes, identifying as LGBT is about civil rights, progressive sexuality and gender norms, and equality. But even more fundamentally, it is about the fact that we cannot or will not accept people who are different. Growing up, I was not really afraid of being teased for my views on gay marriage, my ideas of gender roles, and my perspective on homosexuality and religion. Rather, I was mainly afraid of being condemned for not fitting in.
The relevance of queerness to other minority experiences is direct and powerful, not just as a reflection of a shared experience between the LGBT community and other minority communities, but also as a dialectic to engage those communities.2 While the queerness of the LGBT community is quintessentially sexual and gender-based, the notion of queerness and the conceptions found in queer theory easily translate to the victims of rampant racism that still poisons our society, or immigration detainees unscrupulously stripped of their human rights under the aegis of “national security.”
The common thread in all these discussions is the oppression and suppression of minorities, which is to say the “others,” the different, the queer. We feel somehow alright with pushing “those people” to the fringe because, after all, they are not us. They are “over there.” “Why should we care about the rights of immigration detainees,” I often hear, “if they’re not even citizens?” To answer that human beings have value and deserve respect is apparently nonsensical to some people. To them, the matter is decided whenever we figuratively (sometimes literally) herd a group of “queers” out of sight—not realizing that naming them “different” is itself what pushes them to the outer fringes of society. To call people “queer” is often tantamount to washing our hands of knowing, learning from, accepting, and understanding them. “Why should we care about the rights of queer people, if they’re not even us?”
If the sickness is one of pushing people away, then the antidote is one of bringing people in. When we call people “queer,” we are not making a descriptive statement, but rather a normative one, for at the end of the day we are all weird, different, and queer. As Professor Kenji Yoshino of NYU Law wrote: “[T]he mainstream is a myth. . . . Because human beings hold many identities, the mainstream is a shifting coalition, and none of us is entirely within it. As queer theorists have recognized, it is not normal to be completely normal.”3 There is no normal. Therefore, “other” people cannot constitute any perfect factual description of the essential characteristics of some subsection of the public. I would be remiss in not emphasizing that this “othering,” in the right hands, can be and has been a useful device for coalition-building and discourse, and thus a vehicle for inclusion. Too often, however, “othering” is used by the wrong people, either intentionally or unintentionally, as a device for the wholesale oppression of individuals who appear to fall within a targeted subsection of the population. Regardless of whether queerness is celebrated or maligned, it is of critical importance to the experience of minority communities and individuals, and it can be wielded as a source of power and solidarity.4
It seems too crude to say in conclusion that we should tolerate each other’s differences and promote diversity. Certainly the LGBT community asks for that; all minority communities ask for that. But we do not ask simply to be “tolerated” for our queerness; we ask that our queerness be accepted on every level, whether social, cultural, legal, political, or even spiritual. And in doing so, we ask for an essential American, and human, entitlement: the right not only to be accepted for our differences, but to be accepted for our differences to the same degree as everyone else is accepted for theirs.
1. Or to put it in Justice Scalia’s words, “the anti-anti-homosexual culture.” Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 602 (2003) (dissenting).
2. See generally Victoria Ortiz & Jennifer Elrod, “Construction Project: Color Me Queer + Color Me Family = Camilo’s Story,” in Crossroads, Directions, and a New Critical Race Theory 258-273 (Francisco Valdes, Jerome McCristal Gulp, & Angela P. Harris, eds. 2002) (“Using the mortar of dialectics, we construct a theory for ourselves and our family—three people, two lesbians and one boy, two Latinas/os and a person of white—as well as for our various and overlapping communities . . .”) (discussing the authors’ use of certain theoretical frameworks in the exploration of their non-traditional family, including feminism, Critical Race Theory, Critical Feminist Theory, Disability Theory, and queer theory).
3. Kenji Yoshino, Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights 25 (2007). 4. Cf. Nicholas P. De Genova, Migrant “Illegality” and Deportability in Everyday Life, 31 Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 419-47 (2002) (discussing the “illegalization” of undocumented immigrants, specifically migrant workers, as an “active sociopolitical process” and affirmative legal construction, rather than merely a description of some characteristic of “illegality”).