At a recent pride event, I had the opportunity to catch up with some old troublemakers I’d lost touch with in the past year. I wandered around to various booths, being introduced to the new people and tracking down the movements that I’d been out of the loop on. I stopped by the EqualityPA booth, which was staffed by a dishy young man with dark hair and a few days stubble wearing the ubiquitous blue t-shirt featuring a yellow equal sign that is the group’s trademark.
‘Would you like to sign up for Equality?’ he asked me.
I saw no harm in it and took out my pen to start filling out his sign-up sheet. We talked about recent non-discrimination rulings and legal developments. I told him about a recent effort (still ongoing) to pass a non-discrimination ordinance in Kutztown, which I’m happy to say I helped draft. I was almost done filling in the last few letters when I decided to ask him a question that had always bothered me.
‘Equality with what?’
‘Sorry?’ he said, looking up from his clipboard with a befuddled expression.
‘All of these signs, stickers and t-shirts and stuff say “Equality” all over them; yet I can’t quite figure out what it is we’re supposed to be equal to.’
The question caught him so off-guard. For a moment I took pity on him. He never actually answered the question as a flock of our fellow pride attendees ran over to his table, asking to join the email list and slowly pushing me to the side of the booth.
As I walked around the rest of the park, I couldn’t help but think about the way in which I had unsettled him. I wondered how many people say that they fight for equality without actually knowing what it means? If we want to be equal, that implies that we would be equal in relation to another category of people or things. It’s like a mathematical word problem—you can’t just say that the calculation is equal to ten; you have to say that it is equal to ten refrigerators or ten chainsaws. In this context, I doubt that anyone wants to be equal to a refrigerator or a chainsaw.
Implied in the idea of ‘Equality’ is the suggestion that we should be equal to our heterosexual counterparts. While this is a noble (or at least practical) goal, it is also a profoundly conservative one. I, for one, do not aspire to the life of a heterosexual male, mainly because I do not see what is so great about being a heterosexual male.
I have no desire to have the 20th century dream of a house in the suburbs with a picket fence, 2.3 children running around on an immaculately manicured and consistently watered lawn, two cars in the garage, and neighbours who all share my skin colour. I suspect that after a few years of the attainment of mainstream ‘Equality’ (at least from a legal and social standpoint) certain sectors of LGBT+ people will start to suffer from what Betty Friedan called ‘The problem that has no name’—a sense of malaise that comes from living the life of a suburban, married, middle-class who feels completely discontented with their life. While Friedan used the term only in reference to women in her 1964 bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, it’s not too hard to imagine it carrying over to the queer population in America.
To obtain ‘Equality’ means that we only become a larger part of the machine that is already in motion. No doubt we would be seen as bonus features, the things that make life just a little more interesting for the others. By focusing only on obtaining our own sense of ‘Equality,’ we risk falling into exactly the same traps that those in the majority have already fallen into and are trying to claw their way out of.
When the movement for queer rights started, it wasn’t called ‘queer rights,’ but rather, ‘Queer Liberation.’ (Unlike so many people today, it was clear that the term ‘gay rights’ excluded a large number of people from the movement who did not identify as gay.) It took its starting point from the recent ‘Black Power’ and ‘Women’s Liberation’ movements and started changing the way queer people were presented in mainstream media. We had a voice outside of Paul Lynde’s campy Uncle Arthur on Bewitched.
As with Women’s Liberation and Black Power, the dialogue shifted over the years. Eventually ‘mainstream’ appeal took over from urgent radicalism. There was, and is, a need for this. But by shaping Queer Liberation into a form even middle America could swallow, we gave up some of our brilliance. We went from the creativity of ACT-UP to the banal FCKH8 campaign. To visit the FCKH8 campaign’s website feels like a trip to a clothing store—so little is dedicated to the mission of improving the lives of LGBT+ people that it becomes apparent the campaign’s real goal is to make money.
It’s as if our rights are commodities, obtainable for the right price.
And sadly, it looks like many of us are buying it.
Do not think that this means that I am negating the importance of a ‘mainstream’ queer movement focused around obtaining civil rights. It’s the mainstream appeals—the ‘folks just like you’ approach—that have won recent court victories in America. Mainstream appeal is what makes those who would be weary of the LGBT+ community relate to us. But let’s not let our origins vanish into the woodwork. Let us work for liberation without walking on eggshells for fear of offending someone. No matter what we do, there will always be irrational people who will not like or understand us. So why not rock the boat and take a stand for a larger, more complicated struggle?
After all, everything we achieved so far came from rocking the boat. Why not rock it just a little bit further?