Two days ago, an undocumented Latina transwoman risked her own personal well-being to disrupt a self-congratulatory love fest between so-called LGBT leaders and Barack Obama, an event celebrating the “success” of the inclusion of some lesbian and gays into the fold of US citizenship. Jennicet Gutierrez interrupted Obama’s press conference, calling attention to the abuses of the US immigration detention system, including the disproportionate harms experienced by LGBTQ people caught up in the system. This was the response of Obama and the LGBT leaders in the room:
Obama scolds Gutierrez, saying “shame on you,” and calls security to escort her from the room. The mostly white LGBT leadership in the crowd outright boo and hiss at her, and cheer Obama’s dismissal of Gutierrez and her concerns, chanting over and over: “Obama! Obama! Obama!”
Today, those same LGBT “leaders” are celebrating yet another favorable same-sex marriage decision from the US Supreme Court while millions of people in the US, including many queer and trans folks, languish in prisons, jails, and immigration detention centers. And the links between the two are more than circumstantial. The rise and expansion of the institutions of marriage and the prison industrial complex/border security state are actually intimately intertwined.
Most major legal victories touted as “historic advances” by LGBT leaders and their largely assimilationist non-profits so far this century have come at the expense of the literal and figurative disenfrancisement and dispossesion of others. As certain LGBT people have been welcomed into the fold of the US nation-state with certain benefits and privileges of citizenship and white supremacy (property and inheritance rights, access to health care, tax benefits, and, with today’s decision, likely immigration rights as well), others – especially people of color and poor people (including queer and trans people for whom race and class oppression largely render the benefits enjoyed by some LGBT folks meaningless) – continue to face increasing marginalization and criminalization at the hands of police, prisons, and the ever expanding border security state, as well as a lack of access to basic needs such as shelter, food, education, movement (frequently denied to both queer and trans citizens and non-citizens), and health care.
It’s possible in a number of ways to directly link the enfranchisement of certain segments of the LGBTQ “community” with the dispossession of others both within and without the LGBTQ community (and this is surely not an exhaustive list):
- There has been a shift in financial and other resources away from community based organizations that offer direct services to state and national marriage campaigns;
- The legal and discursive language used to enact the supposed advancement of LGBT rights, from the investment in “privacy” in Lawrence v Texas (2003) to “dignity” in the marriage decisions of 2013 and today, have been quite conservative and furthered the contraction of access to basic human rights for other groups of people, including reproductive rights for women and trans people;
- Nations such as the US, Canada, and Israel use the limited legal rights, such as marriage, granted to LGBT people to paint themselves as “progressive” states – in contrast to “backwards” and “homophobic” others, who are not coincidentally usually people of color – in order to bolster homonationalist/pinkwashing campaigns of war, imperialism, and genocide;
- As Yasmin Nair points out in her research on US v Windsor (2013), the Supreme Court decision that overturned the “Defense of Marriage Act,” marriage advocates carefully chose Edith Windsor, a multi-millionaire who didn’t want to pay inheritance taxes that would have supported things like public schools and other public goods and services, to be their “test case” in front of the Supreme Court. Thus, from the beginning, same-sex marriage campaigns have in actual practice been largely focused on the enrichment and expansion of property and other rights that benefit the only the most wealthy LGBT people.
I want to be clear that my critique here is not about individuals who may or may not choose to marry. There are numerous strategic and other reasons why people get married. Rather, my critique focuses on why issues like same-sex marriage have been largely promoted and endorsed by the state. It is also about why – and in what manner and at what expense – public organizations and individuals have made marriage the number one LGBT political priority for more than a decade.
The almost exclusive focus on the part of mainstream LGBT leaders and organizations on a narrow agenda of LGBT rights that benefit only the most privileged and wealthy is not just a simple accident of organizers failing to be inclusive in their agendas. Marriage, and other “rights”-based campaigns on the part of mainstream LGBT organizations, have been purposefully crafted not to demand actual equality and basic human rights for all, but to argue for a notion of equality that maintains systems of white supremacy in the United States by advocating for wealthy LGBT people to have access to the full benefits and privileges that the mostly white, heteronormatively-coupled 1%-10% enjoy.
In many ways, the scene at the White House could not have been better staged. Immediately after Jennicet Gutierrez speaks out, Obama jokes with the crowd and the press, “Listen, you’re in my house,” letting everyone know that he will dictate who is welcome, as well as who gets to speak and how. But of course the White House is not Obama’s house. It is a figure of the domestic space of the nation, and all those leaders of mainstream LGBT organizations were there because the incorporation of certain LGBT people into the US national body, and the marginalization of many others, is an important part of contemporary US domestic and international nation-building in a time of endless wars. The forcible removal of Jennicet Gutierrez, who risked possible deportation with this action only to have other LGBT folks boo and hiss at her, was a visual, audible, and spacial representation of the way that both US national policies and LGBT organizational politics exclude and demonize racialized others (citizens and non-citizens alike).
When the LGBT leaders at the White House refused to stand up for Jennicet Gutierrez and join her call to end immigration detention, they made visible the institutional racism at the center of the same-sex marriage campaign in particular, and mainstream LGBT politics, organizations, and pride events in general. And this is why so many of us queer and trans folks will not be celebrating pride this weekend: we are fed up with single-issue LGBT politics and celebrations of political advances that marginalize and exclude so many members of our community.