Winner of the Spring 2016 Amendment Essay Contest
The Blind Side
by Meg Loudenslager
As I began to formulate ideas for this essay, I grew concerned. I had just written about the importance of intersectionality yet here I was, outlining yet another essay on the same topic. Being a constant worrier when it comes to just about everything, this initially concerned me only because I was afraid that this trend would reflect poorly on me as a writer. However, as I have thought about it more, it has occurred to me that it does reflect poorly, only not on my work. We live in a society and are participating in an activist movement that consistently excludes people, a movement that the success of requires that we shine light to these disparities in order to make any change, any movement. Instead, it reflects poorly on the gay and lesbian politics that we are relying on to make a difference in our lives. The topic of my essay is, indeed, a cause for concern. The fact that LGBT political activism has now concretely existed for over half a century and continues to exclude and ignore countless members of the groups for whose rights they are fighting is a cause for concern. The fact that there is still a need to address the lack of intersectionality in a movement that began over sixty years ago is a cause for concern. It is astounding and disappointing that the LGBT movement continues to lack an integral facet of success. As stated by Cathy J. Cohen in her essay “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens,” “a truly radical transformative politics has not resulted from queer activism” (438). It is for this reason that I intend to argue that the existing majority of queer activism has encouraged a new form of systematic oppression and strengthened the influence and presence of heteronormativity in our everyday lives.
Conflict has existed among queer activists since the beginning of the homophile movement of the 1950s (Duggan 51). In her book The Twilight of Equality? Lisa Duggan asserts that a significant conflict between two forms of queer activism has emerged since the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11th, 2001. According to Duggan, there are two dominant sides of this conflict- the progressive-left and neoliberalism. She calls these two approaches “wildly at odds with each other analytically and strategically” (Duggan 57). In order to fully understand the dramatic contrast between the two, we must first understand the inner workings of each political view. Duggan immediately makes her position clear by calling what some may simply term “the left” the “progressive-left,” insinuating that neoliberalism is the opposite of progressive. Progressive-leftists “contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions” (Duggan 50), meaning that they work to destruct the idea that straight is the “norm” and that anyone who is not heterosexual continues to be automatically “othered.” Duggan argues that neoliberalism does the opposite, upholding heteronormativity by fighting solely for equality between the straight and gay populations. She calls this approach to activism “equality politics.” However, “equality politics” seems to define gay as white gay men, excluding all other forms of sexuality (the erasure of bisexuality is a common theme of what Duggan calls this non-progressive form of activism), as well as every other group of people who are othered and exist as minorities. Duggan goes as far as to say that “neoliberal advocacy… is defined as the nonpolitical exclusion of ‘issues of class, race, and gender’” (55). It is in this disregard for intersectionality that the shift from progressive-left politics to neoliberalism that is causing an anti-progressive movement to emerge and, unfortunately, become the dominant form of LGBTQIA+ activism- or rather, “LG” activism, in that it excludes all members of the smaller minorities involuntarily existing in the shadows of the acronym. Cohen could not have put it better when she states that “missing… is any attention to, or acknowledgment of, the ways in which identities of race, class, and/or gender either enhance or mute the marginalization of queers, on the one hand, and the power of heterosexuals, on the other” (448). This relatively new movement has created yet another form of systematic oppression through the marginalization that Cohen places such a heavy emphasis on. The shift from the progressive-left to neoliberalism has erased decades of progress. In “equality politics,” the fight for equality is so exclusive that it is nearly nonexistent, yet it is the most prominent form of queer politics out there today. The emergence of neoliberalism has made the need for intersexuality in queer activism even greater. It has created a society that is more blind than ever before to issues of race, gender, class, and just about everything else that exists outside of the lives of white gay men. This is precisely why Cohen believes that we have yet to reach a radical and transformative form of queer activism. In calling for a form of politics that places those in “nonnormative and marginal positions” (Cohen 438) at the forefront of queer politics and activism, Cohen is seeking to dismantle viewpoints such as those of neoliberalists and replace them with a politics that excludes no one, a politics that fights for the rights of those who are most deprived of them. The activism that she is calling for is one that places the utmost importance on intersectionality, one that will finally be progressive, radical, and, most importantly, transformative.
In order for any cause or campaign to make any sort of change, existing dichotomies must be taken down. Queer theory is vastly multidimensional, but, according to Cohen, the queer politics that exists today “has served to reinforce simple dichotomies between heterosexual and everything ‘queer’” (438). Today, the term queer is strictly an umbrella term, an abbreviation for typically white and fairly wealthy lesbian and gay individuals. Therefore, this perceived dichotomy exists only between those whose sexualities are othered. Further, light is shed only the prevailing sexualities of such a vast minority. The problem with the existence of such a dichotomy is that it once again excludes the vast number of those whose identities are even more othered than gay men and lesbians. In order to deconstruct this dichotomy, we must make queerness expand its meaning to include all of those who are othered, therefore encompassing a larger population. Black women, teen moms, “welfare queens,” individuals whose gender do not align with their biological sex, all those whose identities go against societal norms, are queer. We do not exist in an “either/or” world. Change is not brought about by simply comparing two things- it occurs when an intricate web of contrasting identities that carry varying degrees of privilege are brought together and analyzed. It occurs when all levels of privilege and oppression are compared not only to the existing majority but to all members of such a web. It is not only the prevailing normative identity that oppresses those who are queer. Queers often oppress other queers in vast and complex ways. Black trans women face more violence than any other group in this web, yet these acts of violence are hidden in the shadows cast primarily by white gay men. By erasing the dichotomy discussed by Cohen, we are unraveling the notion that “all heterosexuals are represented as dominant and controlling and all queers are understood as marginalized and invisible” (Cohen 440).
Neoliberalism is based on the belief in the existence of a dichotomy that places heteronormativity on end of the scale and everything else on the other. Cohen asserts that queer politics fails to challenge heteronormativity because of this. Duggan calls recent neoliberal sexual politics “the new homoonormativity” (50). Neoliberals are fighting for the right to assume the same position of heterosexuals, to be held on the same level. However, this is all that they are fighting for, creating a movement that holds back its potential to be transformative. It is for this reason that many people believe that homophobia and the exclusion of queers in public spaces has ended with the legalization of gay marriage. Once a single heteronormative institution has been opened up to the queer population, it is as though the struggle for equal rights has ended. This “new homonormativity” promises “the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption” (Duggan 50). Neoliberalism offers a view of an ideal world, one in which we no longer need to fight against the norm and fight to integrate our identities into the norm. As appealing as this view may be, there are unfortunate certainties that we must face. Having what straight individuals have is not going to end centuries of systemized oppression. It is not going to end the distaste and disgust that certain people hold, both intentionally and unintentionally, for sexual and gender minorities. It simply encourages heteronormativity, keeping the existence of the normative population and the othered population alive and well.
After over sixty years in the making, the vast majority of queer activists continue to fail to bring intersectionality into play when attempting to politically and socially transform society. This is the leading cause of our failure to form Cohen’s “truly radical or transformative politics” (438). Today’s queer politics continues to exclude countless individuals and support and uphold heterosexual norms and institutions. It is easy to say that change is long overdue. Intersectionality holds the key to the success of queer activism and it’s about time we put it to use.