Tobi Hill-Meyer

Gays: Not the Last Oppressed Minority

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | December 13, 2008 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: Ann Coulter, Cherrie Moraga, Christian Siriano, Michael Savage, Oppression olympics, so gay, so lame, The Advocate

A couple of people here at Bilerico have already commented on the phrase, "Gay is the New Black," which adorns the most recent cover of The Advocate. Yet the subtitle on that cover, "The Last Great Civil Rights Struggle," is a statement that I find just as disturbing, if not moreso.

It's a concept that I've heard repeated frequently since the election. The last civil rights fight, the last socially acceptable group to discriminate against, the last human rights struggle, and so on. While my mind goes to the question "What about trans people?" the reality is that trans people are far from the last oppressed minority as well. There's a fundamental problem with statements about the last oppressed people. If there is enough mainstream recognition of unjust discrimination for such a statement to be made about a certain group, then they can't be the last. There is always at least a dozen groups whose discrimination is widely considered justified, or isn't even considered.

What about people with disabilities? Deaf people? Pagans? Indigenous populations? Trafficked laborers? Undocumented workers? Prisoners? People who don't speak English? Polyamorous people? Practitioners of BDSM? Sex workers? Proud fat folks? Intersex folks?

The last great civil rights struggle? I sincerely hope not.

I was quite disappointed to hear Cherríe Moraga say, "Gays and lesbians are the last group it is socially acceptable to discriminate against," when she came to visit my local campus. In fairness, she was on the last day of her three-day fast and that could have affected her ability to think critically before repeating this meme. Nonetheless, her claim that "fag" is the only derogatory term still accepted really bothered me.

Several organizations pounced when Anne Coulter called John Edwards a faggot. Yet those organizations were mostly silent about Christian Siriano frequently repeated slogan of "tranny mess," not to mention Michael Savage's on air assertion that trans people should be locked up in straight jackets and that instead of complaining about being murdered we should be thankful that so many of us are allowed to live.

Then there is the huge campaign to stop people from using the phrase "that's so gay." Yet many who would never utter that phrase don't even hesitate to use the term "lame" in an identical manner. The fact that people can honestly believe that anti-gay sentiment is the last acceptable form of oppression is only a testament to how deeply ingrained and unquestioned other forms of oppression remain.

All of this is reflected in the statement "Gay is the New Black," as well. To those still uncertain as to how such a statement is offensive, let me share my reaction. My first thought is, "What does that make the 'old' black?" Apparently nothing. The phrase equates "the black" with oppressed people fighting for rights. If gay people are the new group fighting for rights, then, along with the idea that gays are the last oppressed people, that means that blacks and other people of color must be done by now.

That's the ultimate insult of this sentiment. It repeats the idea that we're living in a post-racism fantasy world. Forget oppression Olympics of who suffered worse, hidden within this statement is the denial that people of color are suffering at all. It cuts our community into segments that must wait in line until it is your turn to get rights - blacks had their turn and it's over. It sounds as if now that it is gay people's turn, you shouldn't put energy toward fighting racism. This claim to rights because "it's my turn now" abandons any claim to justice while simultaneously denying rights to less accepted minorities because it is not yet their turn.

I've occasionally wondered if perhaps my work for marriage equality is actually putting me farther from marriage rights myself. I mean, when same-sex marriage becomes legal, how many people are going to continue fighting for poly marriage? How many are going to celebrate and go home? How many are going to argue that poly folks are not a legitimately oppressed minority and denying us marriage rights is somehow justified? Statements like the recent Advocate cover make me fear that the majority of prop 8 protesters may think their rights really are the last rights worth fighting for. I fear that when it comes to the rights I care about most, they will think that they are all done - just as they think black people's fight against oppression is done now.

The alternative of building a coalition for a broad based vision of social justice is an idea I had thought was gaining some level of consensus. That's why it particularly pains me to see this concept repeated over and over. That so many people would jump to this "me first" approach to rights demonstrates how much farther we have to go. The powers that be have an easy enough time denying us rights, they don't need our help by turning against each other in a battle for who gets the next meager handout designed to appease us.

Recent Entries Filed under The Movement:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

Atheists. Muslims. People with cancer. People with AIDS. The list goes on.

You're totally right. This whole "(X) is the last frontier of civil rights" thing is one of the stupidest tropes around. (Right next to "(X) is the last taboo.")

Thanks for posting this.

The US overall seems to be going through a "conservative" phase. This probably has something to do with the latent expression of the 50's propaganda that many people were indoctrinated with as children. And also we have to contend with seemingly "natural" conservative nature of people as we get older.

This is reflected in every aspect of society. Although we tend to think of the past as being more "conservative", I have to wonder if the current demographics haven't produced a perfect storm of 50's "values" lately. People have a tendency to wax nostalgic about the past, but in this case I wonder if that past isn't actually the brainwashing that many people grew up with.

And this is reflected in every aspect of society, even in the "radical" elements such as the gay rights movement. We've seen the gay leadership on the male side actively purge the "undesirable elements" of their constituency, much the way the women's movement purged the lesbians when it really got going. This latter purge was probably a key factor in the formation of the L in GLBT and the movement as a whole. I also think this is why there is such a focus on "othering" in feminist literature.

So in like vein, the conservative gay males in charge of the GLBT seem to have cast out all the nelly queens, all the "queers", all the baggage that might keep them from getting what they want. I think this is a big part of why there is such a thing as "transgender" today. Everyone who doesn't fit with the program has gravitated towards their own "queer" identity. There is really nowhere left for non-conformists to be comfortable in the Gay movement.

This trend is very troubling. Phrases like "the new black" are profoundly insulting to many people, and the fact that those who bring it forth either don't know or don't care make it all the more dangerous. Only those of privilege could fail to appreciate what a slap in the face they have delivered with this and their other actions. Or perhaps those who are so desperate they just don't care anymore.

These are the kinds of things that lead to greater injustice, not greater equity. These are the politics of the elite. And those who will benefit are hoping that everyone left behind will just shut up. It's human nature.

Great post, Tobi. I totally agree. I get a lot more shit about being bipolar than I do being queer nowadays. And how many time is "bipolar" given the "lame" or "retarded" treatment? I think I'm in pretty good company with some other folks who'd argue against gays as the last oppressed minority...

Excellent post, Tobi. Staking claims on particular identities can and does often lead to a fracture in the whole community (that is, everyone, not just "our " community). I think part of what happens is that we often regard embracing an identity or self definition as the end of a process of self discovery or expression, when really it is the beginning.

"...then, along with the idea that gays are the last oppressed people, that means that blacks and other people of color must be done by now...."

That's because people don't seem to have an understanding of when a civil rights struggle "ends." Electing a Black President doesn't mean that white people everywhere have dropped their prejudices towards African-Americans. Apologizing for the abuses of the residential schools (Canada) doesn't mean that white people are all too ready to accept Native people in their midst, or that the First Nations have recouped and redefined their culture for the 21st Century. Putting in place a law that says you can't pass over an applicant simply because she is female isn't going to necessarily bring about wage parity. Nothing ever ends. Even when steps toward equality are won, they must be protected vigilantly.

"How many are going to celebrate and go home?"

I've said it many times. That is exactly what happened here (again, Canada). SSM was accomplished in 2005, partners' benefits came about at around the same time, and then that was it. One of the local GLB papers declared that the "Last Great Battle" had been won, and then everybody went home. People slipped into suburbia, seeing far less need or use for gay bars, grassroots organiziations -- even donations to the national GLBT organization dropped to a small fraction of what they once were (are you listening HRC?). And while America has had a number of related battles and some successes, trans rights aren't even on the radar here.

"What about people with disabilities? Deaf people? Pagans? Indigenous populations? Trafficked laborers? Undocumented workers? Prisoners? People who don't speak English? Polyamorous people? Practitioners of BDSM? Sex workers? Proud fat folks? Intersex folks?"

It's about self-interest. Since becoming involved in activism, I've moved on to involvement with other things that don't directly affect me, but it is self-interest that initially gets us involved. For many, it never grows past that -- instead, it becomes a bitter kind of "do your own dirty work" sentiment, in part because activism gets rough, and often eats its own.

Yup. I can only "the last civil rights movement" as a statement that some folks are going to give up if we win the on-paper battles, like ENDA, marriage, and DADT.

There's agism, too. I know for a fact that women are less likely to date me because of my age then of me being trans.

Most of the categories you mentioned are not a choice, however Proud fat folks (morbidly obese) do have a choice to be normal size, lap band surgery if they can't stop eating. It's only a problem on an airplane if you are assigned a middle seat between two large sized people and can't use the armrests for your seat. That happened to me on a trip from Australia. The plane was full and no one could move. Nightmare.

Choice seems like a horrible reason to give or deny rights. Allowing discrimination and oppression against things you choose opens a wide loophole. What good is non-discrimination if you can be fired for choosing to not be closeted? For choosing to convert to another religion? For choosing to immigrate?

And choosing not to have a dangerous and still relatively new surgery is not a justifiable reason for people to have to endure the punishment and oppression that comes with fatphobia.

And being fat isn’t just about uncontrollable eating. Many fat people are fit, healthy, eat right, and exercise. Many skinny folks don’t. As a trans person, I’ve had a very hard time finding doctors willing to work with me, and I’ve heard the same thing from many of my fat friends who just get told to come back when they’ve lost weight even when they have symptoms of a serious non-weight-related medical problem. Even if you construe fatness as a choice, surely you can see how denying medical care is still unjustified.

I chose this list in part because many people will find a group on this list that they think is worth discriminating against my hope is to get folks thinking about that.

While this is a noble sentiment Tobi it ignores the reality that we live in to an extent. We can and should loudly advocate for the right of all minority groups big and small. But time and time again in our community, and more so in the community you grew up in the struggles of all have been hindered by the worries of a small group. As a community we are too often tripped up by the ongoing oppression olympics, the concern about the one disabled trans man of color derailing the entire fight for the thousands of people who don't fit in to that very small box and still don't have rights either. This isn't to say that that one person or that small ground does not deserve rights, deserve a voice. It is only to say that we have be come so myopic that the whole struggle has gone off track. What has really changed in the last 20 years? In they eyes of the law what has changed? Be concerned about poly rights, fight for them, but let us not forget that the majority of the community is without rights and protection. To focus on the large and not the small is foolish, but to focus on the small without the large is not only foolish but damn near impossible.

I’m trying to think of a case where I’ve seen an action or movement tripped up by trying to be intersectional. The only cases I can think of are when a single-issue group tries to discuss another issue (i.e., a queer group discussing racism, a feminist group discussing homophobia, etc) then half the members of the group who hold privilege in that area (i.e. white queers, straight feminists, etc) decide they don’t want to discuss their privilege and leave the group. In those cases, we may disagree, but I’d blame the folks who don’t want to deal with their privilege rather than the people who want the space to be safe for them too.

Yet from a strategic standpoint, I still disagree that an intersectional focus is myopic. From my perspective, it’s the other way around. When you focus on disabled trans men of color (there’s many more than one) the policies and practices you enforce make a real difference to most people with disabilities, most trans people, most people of color. But when you focus singly on “gay” issues, then the policies and practices might be a benefit to all queer people – but anyone who is experiencing any other form of oppression is still going to be oppressed. Focusing on a single issue like that ends up giving the vast majority of the benefit only to the gays who are privileged in every other area of their life. It’s the difference between a trickle down approach or a flood up approach.

The main concern I hear from you is about focusing on a small population to the detriment of a large population, and that is the exact reason I want to see an intersectional approach. There are more trans people and people with disabilities and people of color than there are white-able-bodied-cisgender people.

"But time and time again in our community, and more so in the community you grew up in the struggles of all have been hindered by the worries of a small group."

Um, is this about ENDA 2007/8? Because I can't think of too many other situations offhand in which it was claimed that one group failed to achieve rights because of a smaller affiliated group. I can't see how keeping in mind the needs of "one disabled trans man of color" hamstrings everyone else's cause(s).

The "time and time again" that I've seen in the community is the jettisoning of people because they're somehow considered an embarassment and political liability. The "we're just like you" movement in gay and lesbian activism did it to transfolk in the 1970s - mid-1990s (roughly), the lesbian community did it to "stereotype perpetuating" butch / femme lesbians in the politically correct 1980s and now a small group of transsexuals is vying to generate a movement to do the same to transgender people, transsexuals who they don't like or who don't agree with them, etc. Are we so starved for rights that the moment we catch a whiff of the possibility of attaining them, we're willing to sabotage everybody else in order to secure it?

That has to stop sometime.

"The new black" is actually not a racial term, but a term in the fashion industry - meaning that something is the new trend. Two years ago, pink was the new black. Last year, orange. When someone says "the new black" they don't mean in place of black people.

I hear the frustration and do not for a moment agree with your sentiments. I do not know a single civil rights activist or equality-minded person who thinks there is only one issue of oppression that we should be focusing on.

The intersectionality of oppression is real. We cannot overcome the marginalization or opression of one group without addressing the "others". In my work within the domestic violence movement, I know this to be true again and again. In my work on marriage equality, I also know that this is not "it". I know that when we acheive marriage equailty, I'll still be rolling up my sleves and getting to work on other things ----actually, I am doing that now.

By arguing that we should stop the push for marriage equality because other oppression exists, what are you really accomplishing? Doesn't this mirror the logic of sufferagettes who thought we should get women the right to vote and then address race and voting rights? It makes zero sense.

Marriage equailty does not have to be your issue at all ----or your only issue. But it is a civil rights issue and far be it from anyone to say we shouldn't support the work of this movement because there is other work to be done. If you feel that way, get out of the way and GET IT DONE.

I understand the fashion roots of "The New Black," but it's impossible to hear the phrase referring to people without thinking of black people. In fact, that's exactly why a lot of people are using the term.

I'm glad you are so used to seeing intersectional activist. That's really wonderful to hear. I'm used to having a pretty large community of activists that value intersectionality, and a few more people who value it but don't necessarily follow through. That's why it's so disappointing to see people actually advocating the use of the phrase "Gay is the New Black" specifically to say that gays are the new oppressed people.

As to marriage equality, I think you misinterpreted my position. It is my issue -- or one of them anyway -- and I do put time, energy, and organizing power into it. I just occasionally get pessimistic about whether or not others working alongside me will be willing to fight for my marriage rights as well.

That's why I often argue for taking the rights associated with marriage and making them applicable to everyone regardless of marital status. I have my doubts that I'll be allowed to marry in my lifetime, so in the meantime, I'd like to have fewer rights dependent on being married.

@Jill: the Advocate cover is a double-entendre. The subtitle about civil rights makes it blindingly clear that they are using this fashion phrase to refer to blacks and how "their" movement is so over.

OMG, this post brought a memory surging back: I was at a BBQ and there was a young white gay man who was a realtor there. He kept talking about how he wanted a movement just for him, he was tired of having to deal with including trans people and black queers. He went on about how "LGBT" pissed him off because he was sick of feeling like he should include the Ls Bs and Ts in his movement. It was just slowing down his achievement of equal rights for him.

Talk about embodying the stereotypical white gay man who is outraged that he doesn't have every privilege he should have otherwise been born with had he not been gay. I didn't think people like him were real.