Republican politicians like Senator Rob Portman have announced their support of same-sex marriage in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s hearings on Proposition 8 in California and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Social media has been overtaken by the statuses and tweets of everyday Americans who stand for marriage equality. But serving as foil to this burgeoning optimism about LGBT rights are the critiques from queer-of-color groups that simply extending heteronormative privileges to gays and lesbians do not fundamentally alter the social and economic systems that marginalize those who stand outside the accepted ideals about gender and sexuality. I am particularly struck by a line from a spoken word poem entitled “Queer Rage” published this morning: “Rainbows are just refracted beams of white light.” It was incredibly refreshing to see that there exists a network of radical queer activists who espouse marriage equality as a civil right but recognize also the shortcomings of framing it as a singular issue. A glitter and sparkles LGBT movement that has ignored race and class, forgotten the atrocious violence still being committed against gay and especially trans people of color, and become wholly commercialized cannot speak for all of us.
This schism between the mainstream LGBT organizations and liberals who celebrate marriage equality and queer-of-color activists who speak out against the allure of homonormativity harkens back to Cathy Cohen’s discussion about the radical potential of queer politics. I concede the truths in Cohen’s observation that queer activism has too often cemented the division between gay and straight and divorced itself from a left ideology oriented around systems change. But as I read the torrent of critiques and admonition today from queer activists that deploy a structural analysis of the power dynamics that must be uprooted to really achieve an inclusive liberation, I wonder also if queer activism has become more responsive to its political potential since the 1990s when Cohen wrote her article.
When I consider Don Kulick’s ethnography of Brazilian travestis in this greater context of the oppression levied against gender and sexuality non-conformists, it emerges as evermore apparent that the legal recognition of gay marriage in the United States will go only so far in challenging the popular conceptions and institutions that enable inequality on a global scale. Internalized notions about female inferiority and gender roles underlie so many of the travestis’ problematic relationships with their boyfriends. Inadequate access to and false beliefs about contraception fuel travestis’ disproportionately high rates of HIV/AIDS infection and other sexually transmitted diseases. Status quo assumptions about gender and sex severely limit economic opportunities for travestis outside of prostitution. These concurrent issues must be affirmed and addressed with a socio-cultural understanding of the larger oppressive structures that dictate normative values. The story of the LGBT movement in the U.S. runs along a similar trajectory: tackling marriage equality as a problem in itself accomplishes nothing to liberate queer people from the political and economic institutions that hurt our communities, health, and sense of self.