Queerphobia In A Post-Marriage Equality Nation
By Jamie J. Hagen
June 26 will mark one year since America legalized same-sex marriage across the nation. Widely heralded as a watershed moment in the fight for LGBTQ equality, the narrative surrounding this milestone is broadly positive, suggesting an undeniably linear step forward. Yet as this anniversary approaches, it’s important to examine the full context of the movement: Has marriage equality really meant a direct march onwards and upwards for LGBTQ rights?
The persistent landscape of anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ legislation, along with the increase in the murder of trans women since 2014, and particular threats for trans women of color, suggests not. Marriage equality has been proffered as a socio-political triumph, but it’s also a symbol, which has in turn obscured a number of other pressing issues affecting LGBTQ progress.
The end of March saw the passing of a discriminatory bill in North Carolina, restricting trans people to using the bathrooms that correspond to the gender they were assigned at birth. A similarly draconian anti-LGBT law was passed in Mississippi at the beginning of April. Could it be, then, that the U.S. is experiencing a violent backlash in direct response to the threatened heterosexual privilege and hegemonic masculinity America has so long upheld?
In other words, has marriage equality spurred an uptick in queerphobia?
It’s important to note that not everyone within the LGBTQ population identifies as queer. This is particularly true for many trans individuals. Including these individuals under the shorthand of “queerphobia” is meant to capture the larger community vulnerable to the backlash against non-normative gender identity and sexual orientation.
Regardless of who we are, the perception of being queer, the other, a threat to the white, cis, hetero, male “normal,” results in violent hate crimes and discrimination time and again.
Such hate crimes and discrimination were at the forefront of many activists’ minds in the run-up to the legalization of gay marriage. In fact, many people in queer communities cautioned organizers against centering marriage equality as a prioritized movement goal. Prioritizing marriage equality as a goal for the LGBTQ movement most benefits affluent, white, cis, gay men. Within the LGBTQ population, the poor, people of color, and women continue to face economic and racial injustices in addition to discriminations due to sexual orientation and gender identity — concerns obscured in the pursuit of marriage equality.
LGBTQ populations are threatened by job loss, hate crimes, discriminatory legislation, sexual assault, a lack of access to health care, poverty, and homelessness, among myriad other issues untouched by the passage of gay marriage legislation.
Left Out Of The Conversation
The day the decision was handed down about marriage equality, the Audre Lorde Project was marching in the streets of New York City as part of the Trans Day of Action. Marching along with them was the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP). Sasha Alexander, Sylivia Rivera Law Project (SRLP) Director of Membership, explains:
“While many LGBTQ folks celebrated this decision, many of us also acknowledged how this celebration was a denial of all the communities and issues that have been left out of the conversations around marriage. In many ways the battle for marriage equality reflected the unrest of white, cis, upper middle class, LGBTQ people who feel that marriage was the ‘last barrier’ to freedom and equality, but in other ways it represented an oppressed community’s desire to have the same privileges of anyone else.”
The trans south Asian performance art duo DARKMATTER calls out erasures resulting from the mainstream marriage equality movement, critical of the racist and colonial legacies of the American LGBTQ movement. In their performance piece, “Rainbows Are Just Refracted White Light,” they examine how gay rights activism resulting in marriage equality for their white friends in San Francisco operates in a capitalistic culture of white supremacy. Similarly, they are critical of the work of Dan Savage as neglecting racial and economic justice issues and interrogate what they call LGBT imperialism.
Catherine Sakimura of the National Center for Lesbian Rights argues that with the visibility marriage equality brings, there is now a need to bring attention to other issues including:
“Serious harms caused by family rejection of LGBT youth, including extremely high rates of homelessness and over-representation in the juvenile justice system, the criminalization of people with HIV, the lack of legal protections for non-biological parents in many states, high rates of hate violence against transgender people, the terrible mistreatment of transgender people in prisons and jails, the invisibility and marginalization of LGBT elders, and the lack of legal protections for undocumented LGBT people. ”
Alexander seconds many of these issues as priorities of the SRLP, stating, “as much as many people would like to think there is societal acceptance, many are pushed out of home, forced out of school, and do not have safe spaces, homes, or families to rely on.”
Furthermore, Alexander pushes back against the comfortable historical narratives that follow the Civil Rights movement and the Stonewall Riot that now queers have rights. “The law can change, but that does not mean society has, or that the law is implemented.”
Chase Strangio, Staff Attorney of the ACLU LGBT and HIV Project, echoes these sentiments. “The reality is that formal equality does not translate to lived equality, and to truly measure the conditions under which people live, we would need to assess rates of incarceration, homelessness, and life expectancy.”
The degree to which queers are victims of hate crimes is impossible to answer definitively given the difficulty of collecting anti-LGBTQ hate crime statistics that rely on reporting from the police. For some perspective, consider that the entire state of Mississippi reported a mere four hate crimes — of any kind — in the year of 2013. Meanwhile, the national hate crime FBI data for 2014 reports a total of 5,479 reports of hate crimes for the entire country for the categories of gender identity, disability, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and ethnicity combined.
With only 4% of reported hate crimes resulting in arrest, many victims of LGBTQ hate crimes may not feel safe reporting. Thousands of rape kits already go untested across the country in police precincts where reporting rape is stigmatized; imagine trying to report that the rape was part of a homophobic hate crime.
What Queers Need Now
While statistics about hate violence on the national level are sparse, some answers are beginning to emerge thanks to the work of LGBTQ organizations. One example is the 2011 report “Injustice at Every Turn,” a result of the most extensive survey of transgender discrimination to date. The National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s conducted the “National Transgender Discrimination Survey,” which boasts 6,450 responses.
The report found:
“Transgender and gender non-conforming people face injustice at every turn: in childhood homes, in school systems that promise to shelter and educate, in harsh and exclusionary workplaces, at the grocery store, the hotel front desk, in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms, before judges and at the hands of landlords, police officers, health care workers and other service providers.”
Movement leaders were recently asked by Vox what they think the LGBTQ movement needs to do now that the nation has marriage equality, and in the wake of such a terrible defeat in North Carolina. Protection against gender-identity and gender-expression discrimination is a common thread in many of the answers, as this impacts all queers, whether it be through harassment, job loss, or in efforts to access health care.
None of the most pressing issues facing LGBTQ people can be addressed without tackling larger issues of economic inequality and racial justice. Alexander notes, “Young people are committing suicide at alarming rates, but no one ties this to access to health care or familial support.”
Similarly, Sakimura argues:
“We likely cannot end violence against transgender people without addressing the larger issue of sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence, which are an epidemic in our society. Similarly, we likely cannot protect same-sex couples who use assisted reproduction to have children without working to protect all kinds of families, including single parents, unmarried different-sex parents, low-income parents, and parents of color. ”
Visibility of LGBTQ people is increasing, including in many roles on TV shows. Yet Autostraddle took a closer look at this visibility, focusing on lesbian and bisexual characters, and documented 152 examples of the Bury Your Gays trope, which involves these characters getting killed off.
Importantly, activist Reina Gossett urges the consideration of what cost comes for trans people in opening up to greater visibility. Though some argue there has been a trans tipping point in terms of social awareness about transgender lives, this visibility still remains rather narrow to conventional gender norms, leaving out gender-nonconforming individuals and those who don’t meet gender expectations.
Sakimura also believes we need to move beyond sharing personal stories. “We need to highlight new approaches to ending hate violence, such as community-based efforts to foster a sense of collective responsibility to stop hate violence before it happens, as opposed to advocating for increased hate crime penalties or more police enforcement. ”
These issues the mainstream organizations claim to want to put on the agenda are hardly new; for a long time and for many, they have been at the heart of queer organizing.
“Instead of asking what comes after marriage, it may be helpful to ask what came before?” insists Strangio. “Leaders like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson led a movement that connected the liberation of transgender people to the end of policing and incarceration of people of color. They also recognized that leadership should be though trans women of color and others who were outcast both from society and from mainstream gay rights narratives.”
Hearing big LGBTQ organizations point to these important next steps while watching one of the only organizations committed to economic justice in the context of gender and sexual liberation, Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ), close its doors in 2014, points to a real schism in policy and practice in the movement. Early to this economic and social justice analysis, QEJ created the website beyondmarriage.org in 2006, recognizing who was being left behind and shuffled to the margins in the marriage equality conversation. As a QEJ organizer, Amber Hollibaugh powerfully spoke out about the absence of poverty and class as a queer issue.
Despite increased visibility for LGBTQ individuals, it’s essential that we consider the violent queerphobic backlash occurring in our post-marriage-equality nation. We cannot ignore the dire consequences of a movement’s decision to prioritize the assimilationist aspiration of federally sanctioned gay marriage while sidelining issues of racial and economic justice.
As movement leaders consider what’s next, perhaps now credibility and voice will finally be given to the queer and trans voices who have placed those most marginalized at the heart of their work all along.
Lead image: flickr/Roey Ahram