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Speaker at GVSU addresses Race, Class and the LGBTQ Movement

February 25, 2011

Yesterday, the LGBT Resource Center at GVSU hosted nationally know activist and author Kenyon Farrow to speak at an open forum and for the ongoing Change U participants.

Kenyon has been involved in organizing, activism and writing around a whole range of topics such as HIV/AIDS, Queer politics, race and economic justice. He has worked for and with groups such as Queers for Economic Justice and the prison abolition group Critical Resistance.

Kenyon’s writings have appear on numerous political blogs, he is co-editor of the book Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out and the upcoming A New Queer Agenda. The following article is based upon his afternoon talk on race, class and the LGBT movement.

Kenyon began his talk by saying that the four pillars of mainstream LGBT circles are: defense of marriage, gays in the military, Federal Hate Crime statues and the Employment Non-discrimination Act.  Therefore it is important to think about what comes next.

These four issues are what in many ways define the “Gay Agenda” in the public mind. This is important for people to understand because it fits into the popular media construction of the LGBT community, which is epitomized by TV shows Will & Grace. Kenyon calls Will & Grace sort of a well fed and well scrubbed version of Leave it to Beaver, which is often what tends to represent everybody in the LGBT community.

This media construction of the LGBT community however is not rooted in any authentic historical understanding of how queer politics evolved. The lack of understanding about queer history was also seen in 2009, with the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Kenyon said that many of the upscale celebrations were happening on the heels of Sean Penn winning an Oscar for his role in the film Milk. When Penn accepted the award for his role about the gay liberation activist Harvey Milk he made the point that we all should support marriage equality. Penn statement and the upscale celebrations for Stonewall misrepresents the origins of the LGBT movement, according to Farrow.

The 1969 Stonewall riot was the watershed moment for the current LGBT movement, but much misinformation still surrounds what happened. One of the most commons rumors about the Stonewall riot is that when actress Judy Garland died “all the queens in New York were pissed,” which led to the riot. Kenyon provided people with a more authentic understanding of what took place.

Farrow said that the Stonewall Riots had more to do with how the police were targeting the LGBT community through harassment. Just before the riots New York City Mayor Wagner was lobbying for the city to be the next location for the World’s Fair. In order to make the city more appealing, Wagner decided to “clean up” the streets, even using existing laws to remove certain people from public areas.

Stonewall was one of the main bars that gays frequented. Wagner challenged bars on their liquor licenses. Existing laws also required people to wear at least two items of clothing that would be gender identifiers. Stonewall kept being raided and they eventually fought back. People were able to keep the cops at bay for 3 days during the riots. Kenyon also said that years later FBI documents showed that they thought that either the Black Panthers or the Weather Underground were involved in the Stonewall riots in some way, which demonstrates the power structures perception that the Gay community at that time was perceived as a threat. This, according to Farrow, should signify that the Stonewall riots are not the natural lineage of the current struggle for marriage equality.

After Stonewall groups like the Gay Liberation Front and many others tended to focus on issues like decriminalization and challenging the mental health institutions, which claimed that homosexuality was a mental disorder.

This is not to suggest that there were not more mainstream groups that were operating, but those groups were not calling for liberation. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the election of Ronald Reagan, it was seen as an electoral win of the neo-conservatives & the new Right. The Right talked about all the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s as representative of the destruction of the American family and American society. They constructed these movements as a threat to traditional, Patriarchal, normative family structures and as criminal elements.

Ronald Reagan’s election was seen by many as bringing back conservative family values. What was also happening at the same time was the surfacing of HIV/AIDS, what people were calling then the “Gay Cancer.” (Even though heterosexual needle drug users were already dying of AIDS) The right used AIDS as evidence that this was divine punishment for this free love/gay sex behavior.

Kenyons goes on to say that Queer politics at the time were left/radical, but certain factions in the Gay community started to believe the Conservative narrative about their being the cause of AIDS. Another component for the shift from a more radical queer politics was the fact that people of class and racial privilege also became involved because of AIDS. People with money and political clout began to support AIDS education and work, which shifted the politics of the LGBT movement to a more mainstream analysis.

In addition, according to Kenyon, another thing that happened in the late 70s/80s was that marketing data was showing that Gay magazine readers were a targeted group for products and lifestyles, which tended to mean White, Male, wealthier gay people. This is the root of what becomes the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, both of which are the more mainstream and privileged sectors of the LGBT movement.

This evolution of the LGBT movement continues in 1992, where Clinton became the first Presidential candidate to court the gay vote. He targeted them by saying he wanted to lift the ban on gays serving in the military. However, Kenyon points out that why he was courting the Gay vote Clinton was also polling as soft on crime, so he went back to Arkansas before the election to give an executive order to execute a black man on death row. Farrow makes the point that there was a disconnect between race and class issues that affected millions of people in the LGBT community, but it didn’t matter to the national groups since they were representative of a more racially and economically privileged sectors.

So what we begin to see with these new LGBT organizations is that they were making decisions about a national agenda without getting input from the grassroots. The rationale has been that if these issues can be won it will help the Right see that the LGBT community is ok and can be accepted, according to Farrow. He said that the suicide of numerous queer youth last year shatters this notion that they will be accepted.

Another issue that reflects this disconnect, according to Farrow, is the issue of gays in the military. What Kenyon fins problematic about this policy is that the US is immersed in numerous wars abroad where innocent people are being killed, even queer people who live in Iraq and Afghanistan. Farrow points out that since Iraq was a very secular country under Saddam Hussein, many gay Arabs would come to Baghdad, which was seen as the San Francisco of the Middle East.

Kenyon also pointed out that money spent on militarism was a racial and economic justice issue, which also negatively impacts the LGBT community across the country. Lastly, he pointed out that the military in general is not an institution that is about justice and equality. He gave the example of how mainstream LGBT groups missed the boat on this issue by referring to an incident before the US invasion of Iraq when some US soldiers wrote on the side of a bomb, “Die Iraqi faggots!” The Human Rights Campaign made an issue of the use of the word faggot, but said nothing about the use of the bomb.

On the matter of Hate Crimes legislation Kenyon pointed out that it was important to understand that the US has the largest prison population in the world, with the majority being people of color. This is the context of the US prison system, but there is little analysis of this from the LGBT community on the racist nature of the prison system. Hate Crimes legislation is also being abused he said. He gives the example in South Carolina where blacks kids being charged with assault, where the prosecutors are attaching anti-lynching penalties onto the charges, so sentences are increased by misusing hate crimes laws.

Lastly, Kenyon addressed the issue of the Employment Non-discriminatory policies, which do not address the structural problem of how people of color and LGBT folks are excluded from job opportunities. Kenyon said that the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) talked to the Labor movement about this issue, which in turn wanted support for the Employee Free Choice Act. Kenyon says that HRC has a business council, representing some of the largest multinational corporations, which convinced the HRC to not support the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). HRC eventually did endorse EFCA, but did not post it anywhere on their website.

Kenyon concluded by saying that this is the LGBT movement that has emerged, one that is mainstream and privileged with little regard for doing broader justice work. Farrow believes that if the LGBT movement is to survive and to be an important component in the liberation of people it will need to develop a more radical critique of society and take a strong stand on issues like economic justice, racial equality, anti-militarism and prison abolition, just to name a few.

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