Graphic by Steph Liu/OutWrite
Activism is rough, and we throw a lot of words around at each other. “Assimilationist!” “Unrealistic!” “Conformist!” “Aggressive!” LGBTQ+ activism has not only been met with virulent backlash from the cisgender, heterosexual side of society but also has been plagued by intra-community conflict on the best ways to do things. The tension surrounding LGBTQ+ activism boils down to a push and pull between outright rebellion and more incremental forms of justice. This conflict is not specific to the LGBTQ+ community; all sorts of movements spanning different identities and ideas encounter the contentious dichotomy between abolition and reform.
The 20th century saw a large shift in the way the queer and transgender community responded to oppression. The Homophile Movement of the 1950s focused more on the assimilation of gay Americans. The Mattachine Society, a gay rights group of the Homophile Movement, declared that “the Society believes homosexuals can lead well-adjusted, wholesome, and socially productive lives.” In chapter five of “The Routledge History of Queer America,” the author describes that The Daughters of Bilitis, another gay rights group from the ‘50s, similarly focused on “proving normality, and winning acceptance.” In a time when homosexuality was unthinkable, the main priority for these groups was to simply establish their humanity. In postwar culture, respectability and conformity were key. The closer to the margins of society, the higher the risk of violence.
Things changed after Stonewall. The 1969 riots heralded a new era of LGBTQ+ activism as radicals like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) took over. In chapter six of “The Routledge History of Queer America,” the author writes that the new activists “tore through the strictures of the liberal politics of respectability” that characterized the 1950s homophiles. In the introduction of Martin Duberman’s book “Stonewall,” he explains that the GLF were “vociferous and demanding…boisterous, uncompromising, hell-raising” and not afraid to demand the most change. The ‘60s and ‘70s placed greater emphasis on all-encompassing societal change as Black nationalists, anti-war students, and gay and trans liberationists took to the streets, challenging the capitalist, hegemonic American structure. For the new generation of LGBTQ+ activists, the movement wasn’t about assimilation anymore; it was about being proud and rebelling against cis, straight society.
Describing these two 20th century movements requires oversimplification for the purpose of comparison. Yet there was intra-community disagreement at every point in history over what kinds of tactics to employ. Today we’re just as confused and divided as we ever were. We are in a decentralized state of limbo, and most people are unclear on what to do next. There has been a recent slew of legislative assaults on transgender and nonbinary Americans and a rise in hateful rhetoric towards the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. It is hard for people to agree on the best course of action to combat these forces.
There’s the slow and steady push for equality by groups like the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU, and compassionate allies in our governing bodies. On the other hand, there are more radical, often younger, thinkers who push for all-out change, often on social media platforms or in literature. In the introductory piece of the 2014 collection of essays “Against Equality: Queer Revolution, Not Mere Inclusion,” Yasmin Nair describes the capitalist nature of marriage and how it is just a means for the neoliberal state to consolidate individuals into easily manipulable economic units. This Marxist piece argues that striving for gay marriage gives into harmful, capitalist structures that make healthcare and immigration a living hell. Radical contemporaries also point out that gay and trans assimilation into the military also conforms to capitalism and American imperialism. From their point of view, it’s just welcoming gay people into the violent American military-industrial complex.
While the 2003 legalization of gay sex and the 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage might seem like big wins to some, others disagree. Even if marriage and the military are gross examples of the harmful neoliberal state, can we still make space for gay people to be happy in those institutions? If Julia and Sarah have been waiting 30 years to make it official, is it really fair to judge them? If Derick has been waiting to join the Navy just like his old man did, is it the right time to make a fuss?
As a woman born before the 2003 case who watched the 2015 announcement with wide eyes, I would like to not feel judged for being excited about marrying a woman one day, buying a home in the suburbs, and raising some kids. Not only do straight, cis people not have to deal with heteronormative oppression, they often don’t have to deal with the guilt of living the nuclear family, suburban, American dream kind of life. We are allowed to want that.
Yet if queer people rest, we have to consider who this might leave behind. If cis gay Millennial and Gen X people decide to call it quits, who fights for the trans Gen Z kid terrified they won’t be able to access hormone therapy? This tension between cis gay people and trans people who often receive less sympathy from mainstream society complicates our predicament even more. We do need to fight, — especially those of us that have more privilege within the queer community — but we also all deserve to find comfort in the rights we have gained, even if they are just a start.
We are a misfit group of homophiles, stonewallers, and everything in between, but the most important thing is that we stick together. Judging and aggressively labeling each other as one thing or another is counterproductive. We need to shoot for the stars. We need to combine a mix of civic participation and traditional modes of change while also not being afraid to explore more radical ideas. We need to protect and fight for the most marginalized members of our community. We also deserve some comfort, some peace, and a whole lot of happiness. I believe this can all exist at once.
Author: Julianne Lempert (She/Her)
Artist: Steph Liu (She/Her)
Copy Editors: JQ Shearin (She/Her), Bella (She/They)