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A friend of mine posted a Washington Blade article on Facebook-- an annual affair in that particular newspaper, I think-- examining the salaries of assorted national and East Coast LGBT organization leaders, and how those salaries compare to the salaries of other executive directors of non-LGBT nonprofits with similar budgets. Not a lot here that's surprising-- Joe Solmonese of the HRC is in the 90th percentile of nonprofit executive director earnings? Shocking!-- but it stirred some thoughts that have been kicking around in my head lately about the rise of activism as a profession, and what those of us on the ground expect of our supposed "leaders."

I've written a lot lately-- more in Facebook than on here, I think-- about leftist queers who do not think that marriage should be the foremost focus of LGBT equality struggles. The argument, as I understand it, is that most LGBT people do not spend most of their adult life in monogamous romantic dyads, so an activist agenda that favors and secures rights for that one particular family form, at the expense of all the other family and household arrangements we form, is prejudiced, misguided, and frequently unhelpful. And even if you are in that kind of arrangement, a lot of the benefits that LGBT activists cite as evidence that legalizing marriage is necessary are only available to people of a certain income bracket. (Access to employer health insurance comes to mind here.) Obviously, a same-sex couple, both of whom work at minimum wage jobs that don't offer benefits, will not have access to rights such as employer health insurance, no matter how married they are. And, of course, there are the questions of mainstreaming and assimilation: will the right to marry become the imperative to marry? Does this focus on marriage necessarily take time and energy from other issues LGBT rights organizations should also be addressing, such as trans rights?

Generally speaking, I agree with all of this, though it must be said that my critiques are more in line with Lisa Duggan and Nancy Polikoff than those of Matt "Mattilda" Bernstein Sycamore. (I don't have a link for Sycamore's work, but man, does ze piss me off. I yelled at hir a few years back when ze made an appearance at Powell's.) What frustrates me about the bulk of critiques of the focus on same-sex marriage-- and one of the principal reasons that I align more with Duggan and Polikoff than with Sycamore-- is the question of responsibility. We may agree that the present-day priorities of most mainstream LGBT rights organizations are fucked up, but whose responsibility is it to challenge and/or change that agenda, and how?

The problem I have with the bulk of critiques about the prioritization of marriage rights is that they seem to stop at pointing a finger of blame at LGBT rights organizations: They are not doing enough to help all of us get ahead. Their priorities need to change. They are the problem. And again, I don't entirely disagree: one of the major problems with the growth of activism as a profession is that the people who step up to the plate are not necessarily the people that members of a given community would have chosen to represent them. They frequently have greater material and political access than the rest of us poor bastards, and so the priorities that they foreground are not necessarily the ones we would have preferred. But I also think that by placing the burden of blame solely on those particular activists, we abdicate our own grassroots power, our own ability to make change and hold our self-appointed leaders accountable. I think sometimes we contribute to that growing discourse that says we should leave activism to the professionals.

I mean, I've heard a lot of queer activists claiming that LGBT rights organizations should focus on issues of poverty, employment, access to health insurance, trans rights, and so on before we work on marriage. And that's well and good, but what have you (or I, for that matter) done lately to fight for universal health care in the US? Have we really thought through what it might take to end, or at least relieve the burden of, economic injustice? Have we done it? Those of us who are not trans: how are we doing as allies? Where does the mainstream organizations' responsibility to work on these issues end, and our responsibility to fight for them begin?

I think the best way to hold mainstream organizations accountable is to start doing the work we think they should be doing. And this is why I love Polikoff's and Duggan's approach to this issue: they support their critiques in part by showing what some grassroots activists are doing differently. Duggan talks about Utah, and how the Utah state constitution, which forbids legal recognition of either same-sex marriage or any "marriage-like" relationship, has prompted state activists to agitate for reforms that, in some ways, are even more progressive than marriage laws. Polikoff talks about Queers for Economic Justice, and their attempts to reframe what we understand as LGBT rights by foregrounding the needs of poor and/or homeless queers. And frankly, I think advancing, and trying to manifest, an alternative vision of what queer activism could look like is ultimately going to be more effective than the Gay Shame techniques so favored by Sycamore and co. It's relatively easy to point the finger at others for not doing enough. It's much harder to take up the actual work of doing it.

What can we (can I) do to advance the gay agenda we actually want to see? I'm particularly interested in talking to people who have experience agitating for health care reform-- that's a movement I've been wanting to get into, but I'm not really connected to anyone in it yet.

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Revolution nrrrd style now!

May 2010

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