Sweatshop-Produced Rainbow Flags and Participatory Patriarchy: Why the Gay Rights Movement Is a Sham

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

The Assimilation Success Story

As legends go, San Francisco is the place for sexual debauchery, gender transgression and political deviance (not to mention sexual deviance, gender debauchery and political transgression). The reality is that while San Francisco still shelters outsider queer cultures unimaginable in most other cities, these cultures of resistance have been ravaged by AIDS, drug addiction and gentrification. Direct on-the-street violence by rampaging straights remains rare in comparison to other queer destination cities like New York, Chicago or New Orleans, but a newer threat has emerged. San Francisco, more than any other US city, is the place where a privileged gay (and lesbian) elite has actually succeeded at its goal of becoming part of the power structure. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), members of the gaysbian elite use their newfound influence to oppress less privileged queers in order to secure their status within the status quo. This pattern occurs nationwide, but San Francisco is the place where the violence of this assimilation is most palpable.

I first moved to San Francisco in 1992, just before my 19th birthday, and was completely terrified by the conformity, hyper-masculinity, and blind consumerism of the legendary gay Castro district. I quickly figured out that this could never be my "community," and always assumed that it wasn't anyone else's, either. Then one day, just recently, I was walking through the Castro with a friend of mine, whose social group includes a number of gay white men in their fifties, and everywhere guys were smiling at him and reaching out with great big hugs. I realized, then, that the Castro was somebody's community, and this was, for a moment, a revelation.

What is sad about the Castro (and similar gay neighborhoods across the country and around the world), and indicative of what gay people do with even a little bit of power, is that these same smiling gay men have failed to build community for queers (or anyone) outside their social groups. Many gay men (even in the Castro) still remain on the fringes, either by choice or lack of opportunity. But as the most "successful" gays (and their allies) have moved from outsider status to insider clout, they have consistently fought misogynist, racist, classist, ageist battles to ensure that their neighborhoods remain communities only for the rich, male and white (or at least those who assimilate into white middle-class norms). They've succeeded in clamping down on the anger, defiance, flamboyance, and subversion once thriving in queer subcultures, in order to promote a vapid, consume-or-die, only-whites-need-apply version of gay identity. Homo now stands more for homogenous than any type of sexuality aside from buy buy buy.

In 1992, there were still a few slightly interesting things about the Castro: a gay bookstore with current queer 'zines, and freaks and drag queens on staff; a used bookstore with a large selection of gay books; a cafe with live cabaret shows; a 24-hour donut shop with a rotating cast of tweakers; a tiny chocolate shop filled with delicate creations; a dyke bar; and a cruising park where faggots actually fucked. These meager (and mostly fag-specific) resources have disappeared, as rents have skyrocketed and corporate chains have replaced local businesses. A glittering Diesel clothing store now dominates Harvey Milk Plaza, the symbolic heart of the Castro, and the historic Castro Theater shows Eating Out, a movie about a straight guy pretending to be gay in order to get the girl with the gay friends (The tagline reads, "The fastest way to a girl's heart is through her best friend.").

Gay bar owners routinely call for the arrest of homeless people, many of them queer youth, for getting in the way of happy hour. Zephyr Realty, a gay-owned real estate company, advises its clients on how best to evict long-term tenants, many of them seniors, people with HIV/AIDS and disabled people. Gay political consultants mastermind the election of anti-poor, pro-development candidates over and over and over.

In 1998, wealthy gay Castro residents (don't forget lesbians and straight people!) fought against a queer youth shelter because they feared it would get in the way of "community property values." They warned that a queer youth shelter would bring prostitution and drug-dealing to the neighborhood. For a moment, let's leave aside the absurdity of a wealthy gay neighborhood, obviously already a prime destination for prostitutes of a certain gender and drug-dealing of only the best substances, worrying about the wrong kind of prostitutes (the ones in the street!), and the wrong kind of drug dealers (the ones who don't drive Mercedes!) arriving in their whitewashed gayborhood.

One sign of the power of San Francisco's gay elite is that any successful mayoral candidate must pander to the "gay vote," so it was no surprise when, in February 2003, Gavin Newsom, a straight, ruling class city council member representing San Francisco's wealthiest district, hosted a lavish, $120-a-plate fundraiser for the new $18 million LGBT Center. At that point, Newsom was most famous for a ballot measure called "Care Not Cash," which took away homeless people's welfare checks and replaced them with "care." Gay Shame, a radical queer activist group, gathered to protest Newsom's agenda of criminalizing homeless people in order to get ahead at the polls, as well as to call attention to the hypocrisy of the Center for welcoming Newsom's dirty money instead of taking a stand against his blatantly racist and classist politics. Whose Center was this, we asked? Was it a center for marginalized queers, queers of color, homeless queers, trans queers, queer youth, older queers, disabled queers, queer artists, queer activists, queer radicals... -- or a Center for straight politicians to hold dinner parties?.

Our questions were answered when police officers, called by the Center, began to bash us as soon as they escorted Newsom inside. One officer hit a Gay Shame demonstrator in the face with his baton, shattering one of her teeth and bloodying her entire face. Several of us were thrown face-first into oncoming traffic; one protester was put into a chokehold until he passed out. As four of us were dragged off in handcuffs for protesting outside "our" Center, Center staff stood -- and watched -- and did nothing to intervene. Neither Newsom nor the Center has ever made a statement condemning the police violence of February 2003. In fact, one year later, newly-elected Mayor Gavin Newsom rewarded the powerful gays who stood on the Center balcony and watched queers get bashed. Newsom grabbed national headlines and solidified his San Francisco support base by "legalizing" gay marriage, and throngs of gay people from across the country descended upon City Hall at all hours of the day and night, camping out, sharing snacks and wine, and toasting Gavin Newsom as the vanguard leader of gay civil rights.

I Think We're Alone Now... Citizenship, Gay Marriage and the Christian Right

In the fall of 2004, Marriage Equality, a brand new brand of "nonprofit," held two amazing benefits in New York City and Washington, DC. Called "Wedrock," these star-studded events featured numerous celebrities, major-label activist rockers from Moby to Sleater-Kinney, Bob Mould to Le Tigre. Just to get people all excited about marriage equality, the promotional email for the events concluded by stating, "Get angry, protect your citizenship."

If gay marriage is about protecting citizenship, whose citizenship is being protected? Most people in this country -- especially those not born rich, white, straight and male -- are not full citizens. The not-so-subtle demand to "protect your citizenship" evokes images of George W. Bush's screeds against "enemies of freedom." Gay assimilationists want to make sure they're on the winning side in the citizenship wars, and see no need to confront the legacies of systemic and systematic US oppression that prevent most people living in this country (and everywhere else) from exercising their supposed "rights." This willful participation in US imperialism is part of the larger goal of assimilation, as the holy trinity of marriage, military service and adoption has become the central preoccupation of a gay movement centered more on obtaining straight privilege than challenging power.

Gay assimilationists have created the ultimate genetically modified organism, combining virulent strains of nationalism, patriotism, consumerism, and patriarchy and delivering them in one deadly product: state-sanctioned matrimony. Gay marriage proponents are anxious to discard those tacky hues of lavender and pink, in favor of the good ol' stars and stripes, literally draping themselves in Old Glory at every pro-marriage demonstration as the US occupies Iraq, overthrows the only democratically-elected government in the history of Haiti, funds the Israeli war on the Palestinians, and makes the whole world safe... for multinational corporations to plunder indigenous resources.

A gay elite has hijacked queer struggle, and positioned their desires as everyone's needs -- the dominant signs of straight conformity have become the ultimate signs of gay success. Sure, for white gays with beach condos, country club memberships, and nice stock portfolios with a couple hedge funds that need trimming every now and then (think of Rosie O'Donnell or David Geffen), marriage might just be the last thing standing in the way of full citizenship, but what about for everyone else?

Even when the "gay rights" agenda does include real issues, it does it in a way that consistently prioritizes the most privileged while fucking over everyone else. I'm using the term "gay rights," instead of the more popular term of the moment, "LGBT rights," because "LGBT" usually means gay, with lesbian in parentheses, throw out the bisexuals, and put trans on for a little window-dressing. A gay rights agenda fights for an end to discrimination in housing and employment, but not for the provision of housing or jobs; domestic partner health coverage but not universal health coverage. Or, more recently, hospital visitation and inheritance rights for married couples, but not for anyone else. Even with the most obviously "gay" issue, that of anti-queer violence, a gay rights agenda fights for tougher hate crimes legislation, instead of fighting the racism, classism, transphobia (and homophobia) intrinsic to the criminal "justice" system. Kill those criminals twice, this logic goes, and then there won't be any more violence.

The violence of assimilation lies in the ways the borders are policed. For decades, there has been a tension within queer politics and cultures, between assimilationists and liberationists, conservatives and radicals. Never before, however, has the assimilationist/conservative side held such a stranglehold over popular representations of what it means to be queer. Gay marriage proponents are anxious to discard generations of queer efforts to create new ways of loving, lusting for, and caring for one another, in favor of a 1950s model of white-picket-fence, "we're-just-like-you" normalcy.

The ultimate irony of gay liberation is that it has made it possible for straight people to create more fluid gender, sexual and social identities, while mainstream gay people salivate over state-sanctioned Tiffany wedding bands and participatory patriarchy. Many straight people know that marriage is outdated, tacky and oppressive -- and any queer who grew up in or around marriage should remember this well. Marriage still exists as a central site of anti-woman, anti-child and anti-queer violence, and a key institution through which the wealth and property of upper class (white) families is preserved. If gay marriage proponents wanted real progress, they'd be fighting for the abolition of marriage (duh), and universal access to the services that marriage can sometimes help procure: housing, healthcare, citizenship, tax breaks, and inheritance rights.

Instead, gay marriage proponents claim that access to marriage will "solve" fundamental problems of inequality. This is not surprising, given that the gay marriage movement is run by groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the Log Cabin Republicans, who have more in common with the National Rifle Association than any sort of left agenda, queer or otherwise. These are the same gays who routinely instigate police violence against people of color, homeless people, transgender people, sex workers and other marginalized queers, in their never-ending quest to "clean up" the neighborhoods they've gentrified. Their agenda is cultural erasure, and they want the full Monty.

For a long time, queers have married straight friends for citizenship or healthcare -- but this has never been enshrined as "progress." The majority of queers -- single or coupled (but not desiring marriage), monogamous or polyamorous, jobless or marginally employed -- would remain excluded from the much-touted benefits of legalized gay marriage. Furthermore, in order to access any marriage benefits, those not entirely "male" or "female" would need to accept gender tyranny. As gay marriage continues to dominate the mainstream gay agenda, resources are directed away from HIV prevention, AIDS services, drug treatment, domestic violence services, and other programs desperately needed by less privileged queers -- millions of dollars are being poured into the marriage coffin. The fight between pro-marriage and anti-marriage queers is not a disagreement between two segments of a "community," but a fight over the fundamental goals of queer struggle.

Gay marriage proponents are anxious to further the media myth that there are only two sides to the gay marriage/assimilation debate: foaming-at-the mouth Christian fundamentalists who think gay marriage marks the death of Western civilization, and rabid gay assimilationists who act as if gay marriage is the best thing since Queer Eye for the Straight Girl. It is no coincidence that queers who oppose gay marriage are shut out of the picture, since it's much easier for a gay marriage proponent to win an argument with a crazed homophobe than with an anti-marriage queer. And every time some well-meaning straight leftist thinks they're being open-minded by taking the gay marriage side, they need to go back to Feminism 101.

Of course, Christian fundamentalists make no distinction between diesel dykes and Diesel jeans, or, to be more direct -- they think all queers are gonna burn in hell, Tiffany or no Tiffany. (as in, "I think we're alone now...). Every time gay marriage proponents patiently explain to Fundamentalists, "One, two -- we're just like you -- three, four -- we bash queers more!" the Christian Right gains authority. But this false polarization serves gay assimilationists as well, by silencing queers who threaten the power that lies behind their sweatshop-produced nylon rainbow flags.

When gay assimilationists cheerfully affirm, over and over again, to lunatics who want them dead, that of course gay identity is not a choice, because who would choose it, they unwittingly expose the tyranny of simplistic identity politics. Not only have the dominant signs of straight conformity become the central goals of the gay assimilationist movement, but assimilationists see a threat to Christian fundamentalist security as a threat to "progress." Forget about choosing our gender, sexual or social identities, forget about building community or family outside of traditional norms, forget about dismantling dominant systems of oppression -- let's just convince the Christian right to accept us on their own terms.

Movement Rights, Civil Community

On January 13, 2005, 22 national LGBT rights organizations (including all the above, and more!) issued a joint statement with the leaden title, "Civil Rights. Community. Movement." Unsurprisingly, this document is filled with empty rhetoric such as, "We, literally, are everywhere," and "Stand up. Spread the word. Share your story." It even quotes gay rights pioneer President George W. Bush from an interview in People, where he agrees, in spite of his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, that a couple joined by a civil union is as much of a family as he and Barbara.

"Civil Rights. Community. Movement." opens by defining "civil rights" as "The rights belonging to an individual by virtue of citizenship [italics added]." Here we can already glimpse the exclusionary agenda of the gay rights movement. Instead of calling for universal access to benefits generally procured through citizenship (such as the right to remain in this country), this document seeks to secure a gay place at the red-white-and-blue table of normalcy, on the fashionable side of the barbed wire.

This opening paragraph also attributes the successes of civil rights movements to "the complex interweaving of legal victories, political progress and advances in public opinion." Even a mainstream liberal would agree that many "civil rights" victories came about in large part through mass protests and extensive civil (and uncivil) disobedience campaigns. But the LGBT movement prefers empty terms like "political progress" and "advances in public opinion" to any recognition of direct action struggles. You don't want to frighten the funders!

The document continues by talking about challenging the family values rhetoric of "a small but powerful group of anti-gay extremists" by "[opening] America's eyes to the true family values that LGBT couples, parents and families are living and demonstrating every day." This is where "LGBT rights" becomes most sinister. In allegedly attempting to challenge the "radical right" (they're not Christians anymore, but worse -- radicals!) this document still insists on defining "family values" along heteronormative lines, rolling back decades of queer struggle to create chosen families that do more than just mimic the twisted ones assigned to us at birth.

When the report notes that "Binational LGBT couples and families can be cruelly torn apart by deportation and immigration laws that treat them as legal strangers," we are led to believe that marriage is the only solution to this citizenship dilemma. No mention is made of non-coupled queers who are deported while seeking asylum, of systemic racial profiling in citizenship decisions, or of routine murders of undocumented immigrants on US borders. Instead, the document states, "We must fight for family laws that give our children strong legal ties to their parents." One must infer that this pertains to the cases of lesbian (and gay) parents who lose custody of their children due to homophobic courts, though this is, astoundingly, not mentioned. While a shortsighted focus on parental control should be no surprise when coming from a "movement" centered around marriage, it is particularly striking given the extremely high rates of suicide, drug addiction and homelessness among queer youth, especially those escaping scary families of origin. What about family laws that allow children to get away from abusive parents? What about providing support systems for queer youth, who have extremely high rates of suicide, drug addiction, and homelessness?

The organizations behind this document prefer to talk about the "true family values" of straight-acting gays than to resist the tyranny of assimilationist norms. Apparently, "true family values" call for more inclusive hate crimes legislation, but no challenge to the prison industrial complex. "True family values" call for overturning the military's "anti-LGBT" ban instead of confronting US imperialism. "True family values" require all of us to "invest" in the movement, "invest in our future." That's right -- send in your check NOW, before you get priced out.