the inclusion impulse & the paradox of extending the LGBT acronym

I’m intersex, I’m queer & I do a lot of work within LGBT communities. Increasingly, I see LGBT being extended to “LGBTI,” and every time I see that acronym, I’m filled with dread. That’s just the tip of the iceberg—increasingly, individuals, groups and organizations within the community are extending the acronym ad infinitum, to “LGBTQQIPA,” or even further.  Today, I want to write a little bit about why that feels so problematic, and ways of approaching identity inclusion in LGBT communities and movements.

First things first: in my experience, when someone bemoans the ever-lengthening “alphabet soup,” it’s usually someone who’s relatively privileged within the community, talking about how it’s “too difficult to keep up with all these letters,” and getting irritated with having to track who our communities and movements are claiming to represent.  This is often combined with a hint of fear that, as our communities and movements expand, their voice and needs will be diluted or deprioritized.  This isn’t that.  This is a way of looking critically at our history, our communities, and our missed opportunities and applying those lessons to our collective future.

 

the problems with inclusion

Inclusion is a lovely impulse.  Without taking a genuinely inclusive approach, we contribute to the erasure of communities we don’t represent.  And, frankly, when we don’t prioritize multifaceted inclusion, we don’t get to the root of the distorted ways that our society makes sense of sex, gender and sexuality.  Yes, let’s create a movement for any & all of us who exist outside of the sex/gender/sexuality norm!  Come one, come all for the gender justice revolution!  I’m in!

But here’s the thing: when we add a new letter to our collective acronym, we also make ourselves responsible for speaking for that identity/community.  But when we do so, we don’t make ourselves accountable to actually doing that work, much less doing it in a way that’s accountable to those communities.  Here are a few of the challenges of the inclusion approach:

  • We assume that, because our title is inclusive, our work is inclusive.  When we discuss the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), we almost always use “LGBT” as a way of describing the people it will impact.  Except it won’t actually remedy much for trans people in the military.  Many of us who aren’t trans-identified don’t understand that—and the routine use of the full LGBT acronym keeps us from thinking regularly about who our work impacts.  Better, I would argue, to be clear that policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell primarily impact cisgender gay and bi people.
  • We don’t restructure our priorities, as witnessed by the continued prioritization of primarily cisgender gay issues like repealing DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) over winning federal protections against employment discrimination, which deeply impact a much larger portion of the community, especially those of us who experience transphobia, classism, racism, and life in isolated/rural communities.
  • We don’t change our leadership structures.  Most boards require major fundraising.  That will likely be a problem for working class queer people, trans people (the majority of whom are un- or underemployed), and LGBT people of color (who are more likely to raise children, and therefore less likely to have disposable income).
  • We don’t make our work accountable to newly-included communities.  We don’t elevate intersex people into leadership positions.  We don’t set up advisory boards of same gender loving people.  And we don’t intentionally open ourselves up to critiques of our work and programming from the communities we represent.

I’m not saying that we should revert to being a primarily white, class-privileged, cisgender gay & lesbian movement—quite the opposite.  I’m saying that when we expand the movement, we should do so in a thoughtful, deep, reciprocal and accountable way.  And while some of us have figured out how to do that, most of us haven’t.

(Note: this is very much focused on a “we” that’s white cisgender gay people.  That’s not meant to be exclusive, it’s meant to be real about where power is centered in our movements and communities, and who’s elevated to positions to hold it.)

 

why it keeps happening

With all that, why do we keep seeing these pushes for inclusion?  Because, for those of us who are allies to those newly-included communities, we see the benefits.  Inclusion pacifies guilt.  It allows us to feel as if we’re on the cutting edge of progressive identity politics.  And frankly, it makes us sound like the most progressive person in the room, without requiring us to do anything substantive to represent those communities.  In other words, we can talk the talk without having to walk the walk. 

None of this is bad in and of itself—but it does present problems if we act strictly out of self-interest, and don’t actually listen to the communities we’re claiming to represent.  The point of being an ally isn’t to better yourself or your image—it’s to work to support communities that face a different type of oppression than you.  And that support must exist on those communities’ terms. 

Let’s dig into the way a few key identities play into those dynamics.

 

same gender loving and two spirit

Same gender loving (SGL) is a term coined by African American activists as an alternative to “gay and lesbian,” terms associated with a white-dominated movement.  Two spirit is a term within Native and First Nations communities to describe a range of differences in sex, gender and sexual orientation, and is rooted in alternate modes of understanding the social/cultural role of Native people who are sex, gender and sexual non-conforming.

Increasingly, SGL and two spirit identities are being claimed as part of broad (primarily white) LGBT communities.  Regardless of primarily white folks’ intentions, we benefit from paying lip service to SGL and two spirit identities.  It’s a way of signaling that we understand the ways that communities of color define LGBT identities and, by extension, that we prioritize racial justice, without actually having to discuss racial justice.  Again, when it’s used by white folks, this one can be a pretty clear product of white privilege.

So: can you name any two spirit or same gender loving-identified people leading work locally?  If so, are they in favor of including their communities in your broader LGBT work?  Then do it!  Otherwise, take a deeper look at why you’d like to reference those identities.

 

intersex

Intersex refers to a range of bodily or hormonal sex characteristics that develop biologically within people who are not easy to categorize as male or female.  Historically, we’d be called hermaphrodites, but that was a term used in freakshows, so let’s leave it there, shall we?

This is the one that hits closest to home for me.  Many intersex people get surgery as infants without their consent (and even without their parents’ consent) to “correct” their sex and make them more “properly” male or female.  As such, many intersex people go their whole lives without knowing that they are intersex.  In short, not having a community is part of the oppression faced by intersex people.  So including intersex people who don’t otherwise identify as L, G, B and/or T in that acronym feels, to me, like salting the wound.

As mentioned above, consent from a given community is a key part of inclusion.  But when that community is, by design, difficult to find, consent can be difficult to obtain.  Plus, the struggles faced by intersex people are very distinct, and don’t necessarily mesh as well with queer communities as one might hope.

Including intersex people is a way for non-intersex people to signal that they’ve given some thought to what’s often called the plight of intersex people, or that they simply know what the world intersex means.  But, again, this is done without considering what the priorities of intersex people are, how the voices of intersex people will be lifted up, and what this means for reorganizing existing work.  And, as with two spirit and same gender loving communities, these decisions are often made in the absence of the people they claim to represent.

 

ally

Seriously, you guys?  We love allies, but our work to build community, inclusive policies, and public understanding of queer and trans communities doesn’t need to accomplish all that for our allies.  We welcome them with open arms, but really.  The whole world is designed for straight cisgender people.

action steps

When inclusion can be so problematic, what can you do?  Here are some options:

  • Speak for yourself.  Speak from your own experience—don’t try to speak for the needs of other communities if you haven’t been asked or invited to do so.
  • Include a community when they ask you to.  It’s a basic ally principle: do what you’re asked to do when you’re asked to do it.  Anything short of that is hijacking the priorities and needs of the community you’re trying to support.

We truly can build groundbreaking, broad and inclusive communities and movements.  But it will require a whole lot of thought, tenacity and consideration to do so effectively.

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borders & intersections: wisconsin, choice & immigration

A lot’s at stake in Wisconsin.  Public understandings of the meaning and worth of labor are up for debate.  National displays of solidarity are popping up nationwide.  And, in amongst all of that, the very livelihood of thousands of Wisconsin workers is at risk.  We are looking at the resurgence of the labor movement.

One more thing that’s at stake in Wisconsin: corporations’ control over elections and legislative sessions.  To be clear, if Wisconsin conservatives get their way, corporations will be the only voice well-resourced enough to be heard in state politics.  By defunding unions—or preventing them from forming altogether—the biggest contributors to elections will be corporations.  Look, of course everyone approaches elections with their own interests at heart.  By breaking unions, we’re removing their voice from elections—which means corporations are the only voice left.  To make it all Marxist, we’re eliminating proletarian participation in democracy in order to play up bourgeois interests. Given that labor unions also fund and support most of issues we care deeply about Women’s rights, LGBT rights, POC rights this is not just an attack on labor its an attack on everything.

 

labor and immigration

Increasingly, “made in America” is a thing of the past.  Our economy is global, which means labor must be global, too.  When corporations can’t exploit labor abroad, they do it here—within immigrant communities.  When we fail to address immigration reform in a deep and comprehensive way, we unintentionally perpetuate classist and anti-labor systems of thought, policy and rhetoric.

This is an opportunity to re-imagine labor. Cesar Chavez had it right. The farmworker’s movement developed because migrant workers were the one pool of labor that could not legally unionize in the United States.  So business owners had carte blanche to treat farm workers however they saw fit—and with the latitude they had, they proved that corporations can play tidily into Hobbesian narratives of self-interest.  In short, they treated immigrant labor like shit. 

So what’s the Chavez connection to Wisconsin?  The farmworkers movement of the 1960s and 1970s  interrupted what the labor movement was at the time.  Corporations were just beginning to outsource jobs and seek cheaper labor in other countries—thereby exploiting policy divides in nations that had less established labor laws.  In the United States, migrant workers existed (and still do) in a no man’s land: many aren’t documented residents who can leverage American labor laws against unjust employers.  At the same time, they also cannot unionize and speak out as a group about their own best interests.  It’s a stalemate in the truest form.  And corporations have been exploiting and perpetuating that stalemate for decades.

As of yet, major American labor unions haven’t deeply addressed the needs of immigrant workers.  In so doing, they have missed an opportunity to get union workers and their many allies to do something radical and actually identify with immigrants: as workers who can be all too easily exploited when they can’t frequently and vigilantly voice their own needs and enforce their rights.  And in the absence of intersectional, pro-immigrant perspectives, anti-immigrant xenophobia takes hold, even in the most progressive communities.  By not drawing the parallel between labor and immigration, we reify systems that keep immigrants undocumented and prioritize corporate interests over those of workers.

And the labor connection to immigration is just one opportunity that progressive people in the United States miss.  There are many more opportunities to connect our work for immigration reform to choice, LGBT rights, and progressive activism around globalization.

 

gender justice

Gender justice is a term used to unite struggles for queer rights, trans justice, and choice & reproductive justice.  And guess what?  Immigration reform connects to all three!  Here’s how:

Reproductive justice & “anchor babies.”  A primary scare tactic used by the far right accuses immigrant women of entering the United States to give birth to “anchor babies” that will provide their path to citizenship.  In this trope are deep and unspoken fears of a conscious racial takeover.  And in using the “anchor baby” line of thinking, conservatives once again paint the fertility of women of color as something that’s “predatory” and must be restricted.  Once again, women’s families and reproductive health are up for public debate.

LGBT rights and asylum.  As astonishingly anti-LGBT stories continue to roll out of Uganda, and many LGBT people in the United States join together to show our support, we lose immigration and asylum as a key mode of supporting LGBT people in other countries.  Asylum is very rarely afforded to LGBT immigrants to the US, showing that, once again, homophobia and transphobia aren’t “real” enough, that it’s all in our heads, and that ultimately, we could choose to be or do something different.  (You know what’s not a choice, though? Being gay.)  At the same time, we fail to expose the role of American evangelists in creating the anti-LGBT climate in Uganda and then exploiting that climate by seeding sensationalist policies like the infamous “kill the gays” bill.

Trans justice, documentation and Arizona. Recently, Arizona effectively legalized racial profiling of people perceived to be immigrants  (read: Latinos).  If you’re brown, police will assume you’re not a citizen.  Something similar happens to transgender people every day: if they don’t present as gender normative, their documentation is challenged and questioned at every turn.   The whiter, and more gender normative you are, the less your citizenship is interrogated.

globalization & foreign policy

Globalization is inevitable, but the way it’s taking shape is not.  For decades, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and so-called “free trade” agreements have defined what kind of power and money nations can access when they don’t already have power and money.  Many of us know that this is unfair, some of us know that this disproportionately breaks along lines of race (creating shitty impacts for nations of people of color), but few of us make the connections to immigration into the US.

In truth, “free trade agreements” could be more accurately renamed as “free labor agreements,” which allow American corporations to build maquiladoras and sweatshops in, among other places, Central and North America.  When those sweatshops open up, they employ many—if not most—people in the town where they’re located.  That means that corporations define the going price for labor in that area while simultaneously establishing a deep local dependence on that corporation to keep the local economy alive.  At the same time, corporations can decimate local natural resources and introduce social power structures that eventually decimate indigenous ways of living.  It’s malevolent, it’s racist, it’s insidious, and it’s forever.

 

do this, right now, today.

So, what can you do?  Here are some action steps:

  • Redefine “the immigration problem.”  Overwhelmingly, people on the left and the right will agree that the solution to “the immigration problem” is to stop the flow of immigrants to the US.   But the need for immigration reform runs much, much deeper than that.  If we had thought more deeply about the impacts of free trade agreements on Latino nations, we would have predicted the wave of immigration from Central America.  “The immigration problem” is more than documentation for farm workers, naturalization for LGBT immigrants, or the DREAM Act for students.  It bleeds into movements for labor, choice, and global justice in US-powered foreign policy.  And, at its core, it asks US voters who we think should be allowed to be an American.
  • Explicitly connect your liberation to the liberation of immigrants.  Because, as we’ve explored here, those two things are deeply connected.
  • Ask yourself: who benefits?  Overwhelmingly, you’ll find that the people who benefit from anti-immigrant policies and discourse are (surprise!) US corporations.
  • Come out as an ally to immigrant communities.  Speak up about your support for immigrant communities, and continue to educate yourself on the lived experiences of immigrants, the problems with public discourse about immigration, and how public policy continues to define who can be a “real American.”

on allies and comedy.

I’m getting ready to facilitate a training on white privilege this weekend.  It’s one of the most challenging workshops I facilitate, and it’s one of my favorites.  Why?  Because it’s heavy on accountability, and it’s even heavier on humor. It’s a conversation about oppression with privileged people: it requires holding people accountable to the misconceptions that they perpetuate and the racism they’ve internalized. But if our first conversation about our shared privilege were only serious, heavy-handed accountability, I’m pretty sure we’d all implode, or at least be so terrified at the prospect of implosion that we’d disengage. So, to engage new allies in thinking critically about their own privilege, humor is a must. It allows us to keep conversations political and dive deep into difficult conversations that many of us spend a lot of time & energy trying to avoid.

Conversations with allies are necessary.  Where I live, there aren’t enough queer and trans people to comprise a majority and make widespread social change on our own.  Same goes for communities of color, immigrant communities, and most marginalized people.  In order to create change, we’ve got to be good at educating and engaging allies.  And when we’re doing that, humor is paramount.

I’ll start by saying that this is strictly a first-person narrative—I’m speaking only to my own experience of comedy.  The clips I’ve chosen don’t offend me, but that doesn’t mean they’re universally inoffensive.  What I want to talk about here is the power of humor to make us recognize privilege and oppression, and I’ll do that in the first person.

I have one friend who’s spectacular when it comes to joking about identity.  It’s a master class: in one quick turn of phrase, he can identify the power, privilege, oppression and interpersonal dynamics that are happening in the room at that moment.  When he makes a great joke, I feel delighted, impressed, jubilant and, with the jokes designed to call out my privilege, a little bit embarrassed.  It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.  And I’ve seen it work with volunteers, movement leaders, strangers on the street, and even my most recalcitrant family members.

On a person-to-person basis, it works.  And when that happens on a wider stage, something magical happens.  It’s social alchemy. It’s movement building.

 

Louis CK and Privilege

Case in point: Louis CK, a white comedian who jokes about identity constantly.  Take this appearance on the Tonight Show:

http://www.hulu.com/embed/d6MGfjvL_cCJ26O3NWldnw

Did you see what just happened?  On one of the most mainstream, middle-of-the-road TV shows around, Louis CK spent several solid minutes talking about race, history, neocolonialism (!), privilege, and experience.  He damn near has an accountability session with the white folks in the audience.  Had this been a serious conversation, it could have looked like the nightmare scenarios that many of us have experienced and continue to relive: the kind where things quickly devolve into personal attacks and someone ends up storming out. Instead, because it was funny, this audience laughed and applauded. 

Exhibit B, the first scene from an episode of the FX series Louie (very NSFW):

http://www.hulu.com/embed/7Dx_-ySbkLqnFRadm0oZCw/2/420

It’s not inoffensive, but it’s authentic.  And in amongst the dick jokes and shit talk, this scene manages to do more public education about gay men’s culture, history and experience than just about any other mainstream show I’ve seen.  It speaks to many straight men’s squeamishness and ignorance, allows them to feel it, and ultimately gets them to deeply experience a gay character’s world-weary familiarity with his daily experience of homophobia, and their role in perpetuating that homophobia.

And that gay character’s demeanor is important, too.  He doesn’t come across as a tragic victim, although he’s aware he could be, and many gay men are.  He appears to have a fairly thick skin, taking his lumps just like any of the straight guys around the table.  And when you get down to it (for once!) this queer person, speaking from his own experience, comes across as one of the most reasonable people in the room.  This is a notable break from the usual options of Brokeback Mountain tragic queers, impossible-to-please angry queers, and inconsolably hypersensitive queers.

The scene is, as far as I’m concerned, a little coup.

 

Maria Bamford and mental illness

Maria Bamford is an accomplished comedian who, in 2006, released a YouTube series called The Maria Bamford Show, chronicling Bamford’s recovery from a mental break (also NSFW):

As with Louis CK’s work, Maria Bamford’s comedy manages to speak in a deep way to the impact that mental illness can have on a person’s life, and how that impact is specific and distinct for women.  It also conveys the tangle of mutually reinforcing systems of internalized sexism, relational aggression amongst women, homophobia, and the stigma of mental illness.

And her work is deeply vulnerable.  She’s dealing with the humiliation of returning to her hometown, and facing the nightmarish realization that, while she’d left her hometown for years, her hometown didn’t forget her.  In her work, I can see myself and people I’ve known and in so doing, I can reach some greater realizations about my parallel experiences.  Plus, it’s a cathartic release to laugh at those experiences and begin to let them go.  And I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels that way.

 

Why humor matters

Neither of these comedians are unassailable.  Like any comedian, they have certainly offended someone (or lots of people) at some point.   And, as viewers, many of us have been offended. (I certainly have.) For me, the difference between the clips provided here and the infamous EstroMaxx sketch is how humor is used. In so many cases (EstroMaxx included), humor is used as a tool of harassment and humiliation. It isn’t the same thing as face-to-face harassment or physical assault, but it’s certainly on the same continuum. It illuminates just enough oppression to perpetuate it. In the cases of Louis CK and Maria Bamford (and, I would argue, Margaret Cho, Dave Chappelle, and other deftly brilliant comedians), oppression doesn’t illuminate humor, humor illuminates oppression, shining a light on privilege’s cover of darkness. Humor isn’t an end here, it’s means to an end.

But the point here isn’t to set a seal of approval on a comedian’s full body of work.  It isn’t to create a rubric for determining which jokes are progressive enough, and when.  It’s to recognize the ways in which comedy can move us forward, engaging unlikely allies in even more unlikely settings.

Humor can gain access to spaces, people and attitudes that our communities and movements would otherwise struggle to engage.  In the sweet violence of laughter, something cracks, and we open ourselves up to others’ experiences in a way that, without humor, would feel too vulnerable to bear.  There really is something revolutionary about humor.  When it works, it allows us to see ourselves and others clearly, bringing us closer together, and bringing our differences into sharper focus.  It affirms our experiences and the experiences of those around us, and engages us in deeper conversations about power, privilege and oppression than we otherwise would.