The other night, I got into a bit of a heated discussion with an acquaintance of mine I know through my aunt. It started with us talking about the now memetic “binders full of women” comment made during the Tuesday debates, moved into how trans people are barred from the presidency within the current social setting of our society, and ended up getting into LGBT rights politics and somehow illegal immigration. He got offended by the fact that I mentioned how the rich, white, gay men who are the primary face and voice of the LGBT rights movement, and asked me what race and gender have to do with it. So today, I felt like discussing just how much race and gender, as well as class, have to do with not only this movement, but pretty much every movement to date.
There are a series of identities that we all have: race, sex, gender, sexual and romantic orientation, religion, nationality, class, etc. When you start examining multiple identities at the same time within ourselves or others, and how they tend to intersect, we begin looking at what is known as social location. For example, I am transgender, but I am also a woman, I am also primarily of Anglo (i.e. white) descent, with some intermixing of Native American, and I am asexual, and so on. These various identities come together to form who I am. We all have these social locations, the place where all of our various identities intersect. Throughout history, those who are the primary movers and shakers, or at least receive that credit in the dominant narrative of history, fall into a specific intersection of race, class, and gender. With the exception of movements that are gender or race specific, the majority of those who are the “face and voice” of a movement are wealthy, white, and men. And in the gender and racial specific movements, they have as many of those as can fit.
As I pointed out with the early stages of the women’s movement (normally labelled as the first wave of feminism), wealthy white women fought for the right to vote, and actually outcast women of color who wanted to be part of the moment. This continued in the “second wave,” where the dominant narrative tells us that white women started the movement and women of color started their own groups afte. But if you look at what little of the real historical facts that remain, we can see that women of color and working class white women were organizing before the rich white women, and were working for years on their own issues that influenced the overall movement. But those voices are ignored and forgotten by the dominant narrative of our times, focusing instead on the work of wealthy, white women.
Another great example is the creation of the United States Constitution, which is so often portrayed as a holy document here in the States. In the year 1787, 55 men gathered in secret in Philadelphia and began writing what would become the Constitution. They did this because they felt that the existing government under the Articles of Confederation were too weak. Of these 55 men, 54 of them were considered wealthy by the standards of the time, only Benjamin Franklin coming from a working class background (and even he had become well-to-do). And they gathered in secret because the Articles of Confederation were popular with the working class. In essence, had they not succeeded, they could have been hung for committing treason, because they were trying to overthrow the current government. And the Bill of Rights was not brought about by these men at this meeting, but was in fact a demand from the opposition in a number of states before they would ratify the new Constitution. Rich, white men changed the course of history against the wishes of working class men, women, and people of color.
Today, when one looks to see who the typical voices and faces of the queer rights movement are, the majority are wealthy white men, and the next most common group wealthy white women. In both cases, they are typically gay, rarely bisexual, and rarely to never are they trans. And we can see this in the issues that get pushed for. One good example is the move for marriage equality. I already stated before that marriage equality is a trans rights issue, but that is not the only issue. I’ve brought up ENDA a number of times, and I’m still pushing for that. Those of us who are working class need to know we can get a job or a home. Being able to have a legally recognized family means nothing when we can’t provide for that family. But the majority of people who see the queer rights movement see only this push for marriage equality, because those who have money and don’t have a worry about the basic day-to-day necessities push for it, because it’s what they want.
There’s a saying going around that marriage equality is not the only issue, that there are 1,183 rights we’re fighting for. I don’t know if the number is accurate, but it’s a good representation of the reality compared to what people see. Sylvia Rivera, a Latina trans woman, helped kicked off the Stonewall riots that are widely considered as the birth of the modern off the modern queer rights movement. The gay community has largely forgotten about her, and the Latino/a movement does not use her as an icon either. Only the trans community holds her up, when so many others should. Why? Because she’s not wealthy, not white, not cis…
If you think race, class, and gender do not influence the modern movement, I encourage you to take a closer look at the social locations of those who are our voices and faces to the general public. Examine the issues that most people push for, or think that most people push for, and examine the reasons why those issues are being pushed so heavily.
Do any of you have some additional information to add to this? Some examples perhaps. Or maybe aspects of your own social position and how they affect your own activism.