gay rights vs gay liberation
I keep coming across pieces about the U.S. “LGBT” movement’s history that talk about how, during the 70s especially, one core idea of the movement was that gender and sexuality would, should, get blown wide open.
That ultimately pretty much everyone was bisexual underneath; that gender itself was a big nonbinary mess; and everyone would be able to be their true bisexual, often genderqueer self after the revolution. We wouldn’t have or need the gender binary anymore.
This was a much more natural belief at the time, because gay and lesbian and bi and ace had been thought of as essentially different genders. Because “normal” was two binary sexes, with two corresponding binary genders, which were attracted to each other, and would act on that attraction to make more little normal people. This was the function of society, the thing that gave women any value, the whole point of life.
From “Identity and Ideas: Strategies for Bisexuals,” an essay by bi activist Liz Highleyman in Bisexual Politics: Theories, Queeries, and Visions (1995), which I need to quote from more extensively but not rn:
“As the social movements of the early 1970s fell apart or lost their radical edge in the 1980s, the gay liberation movement, now known as the gay and lesbian movement, followed suit.”
This sentence puts it in a nutshell, I think. There was a really concrete shift, from radical “liberation” from the system for everyone, to acceptance from the system for these two groups.
“There was a growing emphasis on an identity politics model that likened gays to oppressed racial and ethnic minorities. Sexual identity was increasingly seen as an immutable characteristic without sweeping social or political ramifications. The movement became more focused on civil rights and assimilation into mainstream society.”
It wasn’t an accident, that shift away from the overlapping bi/trans/intersex politics and bi/trans/intersex paradigm*. It was extremely deliberate.
It must have seemed like an easier sell to the straight world, which I can understand. I’m sure a lot of people thought that this strategy would benefit everyone.
But not only does it leave many of our issues completely ignored or actively erased, it’s also a model that can never work for us.
This just kind of jelled for me for the first time, reading this. It’s much harder to see if you don’t know about both models, at least for me. I tend to believe the “no no, we’re for you too!” without thinking about how and why that hasn’t been working.
The civil rights/assimilation model is very rooted in the whole idea that “the only thing that’s different about us is which gender we love!” It’s the we’re just like you model. It works pretty well for fitting-into-society stuff: marriage, health care, employment rights, military service, media representation. Stuff that straight people have, so they can go, “okay, I see how you’re like me, it seems unfair and terrible that you shouldn’t have these things too!”
It works really fucking badly for stuff where we are not like them.
The problem is actually that it works really fucking badly for stuff where we do not fit into the gender binary.
That’s the specific way the system demands that we Be Like Them. It treats everything else, everything that isn’t being a binary sex/gender and wanting a binary sex/gender, as a freakish and in-valid choice, and punishes us for it.
The only progress we’ve really seen is that sometimes, it’s not seen as a Bad Freakish Choice to want the “wrong” binary gender, and very occasionally, it’s not seen as a Bad Freakish Choice to be the “wrong” binary gender.
A lot of the trans movement’s progress has come from doing the same thing the gay and lesbian movement has done: “look at us, look how gender-normative and binary-gendered we are, look how we just want to be a normal gender and love a normal gender. Nothing threatening going on here!”
It works. I’m not going to knock that. People use this shit because they are fucking desperate and fearing for their lives.
But it also means those of us who can’t say “we’re just like normal people” become ballast.
You know: the stuff you throw overboard so your hot air balloon can take off.
I think this is what’s at the core of “ace discourse,” “sga discourse,” and all those other gatekeeping arguments.
The system only, conditionally, grudgingly, gives certain rights, in some places, to the minority of us who have convincingly argued that we’re Just Like Them. It is exceedingly clear to those people that mixing with non-approved groups puts not only those limited civil rights, but also the entire model used to win them, in danger.
It’s a choice. We all face it. If you identify more with the need for all those normal rights – or with the oppressions around being, or being into, into the wrong binary gender – or you just see that this model is working for some people and you want it to work for you – then you’re likely to cast your lot with the binary-gender-based “gay rights” model, which means you’re likely to take a “gatekeeping” tack.
If you identify more with the need for total freedom from the rules of the binary gender system, for whatever reason – and you’re not put off by the fact that we don’t have a working political model around that – then you’re likely to cast your lot with the “gay liberation” model, which means you’re likely to take the “radical inclusion” tack that’s inherent to that model.
* (I don’t think there was an intersex movement at the time; intersex people are still incredibly silenced by not only the media but actively, intentionally, by the entire medical industry. But it is an explicitly intersex-friendly and very ace/aro-friendly model, in a way that the existing model has definitely not been.)