What We Owe to Each Other

Photo by Wikipedia Commons

By Lærke Vinter Christiansen

The LGBTI+ community has a very long history, as old as time itself. This history is beautiful, somber, and more often than not, forgotten. Forgotten by a heteronormative society that was always there right next to us, ready to will us out of existence. At first, they called us sodomites, deeming us aberrations, anomalies. Then 1870 rolled around and homosexuality was created as a label for a category of medicine and psychiatry, which implied it was a sickness, that we were sick, and that we needed medicine to cure what ailed us. Shock treatments, lobotomies, and boiling baths were all considered possible cures, not just for us, but also for hysterical women, angry women, nasty women, and for anyone considered to have an ailment of the mind. If the members of the LGBTI+ community weren’t being converted back to an acceptable state of being in a psychiatric facility, it was still dangerous to just exist, both in and outside of our communities, both in and out of the closet. But exist we did; we persisted through it all and kept existing just under the surface, like a thrum of electricity, that you could hear just under the noise of everything. We were always there, waiting. Fighting when the time was right. Remembering those we lost when it wasn’t. What we have in common is the absolute audacity to keep existing out of spite, even when we were being erased from popular history before our very eyes. And doesn’t that all sound rather lovely in a stoic and strong way? A community bound together by oppression, gall, and an absolute unwillingness to stay down. But if we let that be the full extent of the history of the LGBTI+ community, we would be complicit in the internal destruction of that same history.

As Sylvia Rivera said: “I will no longer put up with this shit. I have been beaten. I have had my nose broken. I have been thrown in jail. I have lost my job. I have lost my apartment. For gay liberation, and you all treat me this way? What the fuck’s wrong with you all? Think about that!”

Rivera was a pivotal figure in the LGBTI+ rights movement, and regrettably a good example of how the gay, white, and cisgender part of the movement not just used the transgender community and their work as a stepping stone, but rather walked over them and achieved their own goals without looking back. Just as second-wave white feminists ignored the aid they’d gotten from women of color, they advocated for their rights while shaming other women for playing into notions of femininity. Just as trans activist and filmmaker Tourmaline had her documentary about Martha P. Johnson, stolen by David France when she applied for a grant at a NGO he happened to be at at the time (read for instance “Trans Activist Claims Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Stole Her Documentary Idea” by Teo Armus, NBC News 2017).

Time and time again white, cisgender members of our community have benefited off the labor from our BIPOC and trans members without paying it back or forward.

And now we see a rise in what has been so (un)lovingly dubbed homonormativity. You probably caught on that it’s like heteronormativity, but make it gay. Homonormativity includes the normative ideals of our community that we use to measure other people’s queer validity. For example, are you out? Like, out out? Did you first come out to yourself, and then had your family sit down to have an emotional conversation about who you are, and then you made the necessary posts to your preferred social media sites where you announced to the world who you truly are? And now you use your social media platforms and who you are to inspire others and spread the word about injustices, while being loud and proud? Yes? Good queer. Did you never really come out to anyone, but you just sort of slid into your queer life? You just go about your life, and the people you want to know about your queer identity knows, and for the rest, it’s not really any of their concern, is it? Do you maybe not really rely so much on social media, so you never rely got around to post anything expressively queer on it? You just live your life quietly, persistently, not attempting to inspire anyone, but just exist? Bad queer. Maybe you haven’t come out yet? Maybe you aren’t in a safe situation to do so, or you aren’t ready yet, but you feel the pressure to be valid in your identity? Well, rest assured you are. And you are no less brave for where you are in life. Sometimes, being honest about who we are to ourselves and allowing ourselves kindness is the bravest act of all.

The normative core of our community has been built around white, middle-class gay people. Especially those who are loud and proud, and unashamedly themselves. They have become the socially acceptable representation of our community, the ones that are allowed in the rooms where it happens, the ones that are allowed to speak for the entire LGBTI+ community. By leaning into this, by not acknowledging the power that lies in being the normative subject, we (the white folk) have been producing and reproducing power structures and creating margins within our already marginalized community, and blatantly taking advantage of the people in those margins.

It was author Mikki Kendall who said, “solidarity is for white women,” because the very action of having solidarity within a group means the exclusion of other people from the group. Perhaps it is time we take a critical look at what we owe each other within this community. Is it time to be a little more critical towards who we let speak for us? Is it time to acknowledge that being queer doesn’t mean you can’t be homophobic, transphobic, racist, ableist, or any other myriad of things? Being marginally marginalized does not exempt you from the responsibility of being better. We can do better. We have to be more self-aware; we have to stop being complicit in our own erasure from history, we have to stop settling for the caricature of normcore society that heteronormative society allows for us to mirror back to them. Marsha P. Johnson didn’t die to become a marketing tool for the white, male CEOs of Netflix. Sylvia Rivera did not uproot her entire life for gay liberation just so she could be pushed aside when she was no longer needed. Bisexual and pansexual activists  did not march with us and support us just so we could let them be invalidated and erased from the narrative when we no longer needed them. What we (white, cis, gay people) owe to the community is so substantial, I don’t even know where to start. We have let the markings of white supremacy and heteronormative structures shape our community and knowing that is a hard truth to face. What we owe seems insurmountable, but perhaps we could start by acknowledging our culpability and the fact that just because the LGBTI+ community consists of marginalized identities doesn’t it mean that we don’t have toxic traits or that we are exempt from white supremacy or that we don’t participate in the hierarchy of oppression. Perhaps, we can start by asking ourselves: “what can I do to be better?”. Or better yet we can take a break from hearing ourselves talk, and ask the others in our community “what do you need from me?”

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