Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rights VS Social Justice

Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that the queer left needs to reshape its conversation about marriage, the military, and job security and queer rights overall to be a more justice oriented conversation. The conversation about “rights” is easily twisted by conservatives and the extreme right into a conversation about “special rights” and special protections for queers.

I’ll use marriage as an example. Marriage discussed as a right that LGBT individuals deserve to share with their heterosexual counterparts is a week argument compared to marriage discussed in its current form as a set of policies that serves to create second class citizens by excluding them from enjoying justice, equality, and full status as citizens in society.

LGBT movement has, for the large part, modeled itself after the Black lead civil-rights movement of the 60s. This relatively successful movement which used a very similar “rights” oriented rhetoric was successful largely because it was able to partner with the media and with popular social voices to demonstrate the ways in which contemporary social policies excluded Black people from full participation in society. It was able to illustrate in graphic and explicit ways the injustice of the exclusion of Black people as well as the brutality associated with enforcing unjust policies and the impact of said policies on Black people. Police dogs, fire hoses, church bombs, school assaults, and widespread assassinations were catalyst that served to augment the arguments for “rights.”

Queer movement has tried to use a similar rhetoric but has lacked, except in a few extreme situations, the same graphic and explicit illustration of the ways that queer people have been hurt by not having certain rights. It’s been as difficult for queers to translate the rhetoric of the queer movement into a general societal moral indignation as it was easy for the leaders of the civil rights movement. This is because of the lack of the kinds of graphic examples of the anti-justice that were so common in the civil-rights error.

Incidents that have involved extreme violence have been few and far between when compared to the frequency of such incidents leading up to and during the civil-rights movement. The lack of these kinds of examples has made it easy for the conservative right and other anti-gay forces to paint the LGBT movement as a movement of privileged cry babies who, drunk with greed, are crying out for protections that “everyday” citizens do not enjoy. Because it would be ridiculous to hope for or look for these kinds of graphic examples our best hope is for the conversation about social justice for queers to become one that is much more rhetorically explicit. Crying for civil rights while most Americans view queers as a particularly privileged group does not have much of an impact on the moral tenor of the nation. This moral tenor has always been the spirit of change in America and essential for creating change in oppressive policies.

Thus organizations like HRC, NGLTF and the host of statewide LGBT PACs which are perceived by queers and heteros alike as existing for the sole purpose of mainstreaming queers particularly queers of privilege need to reconsider the tone of their rhetoric. Talking about LGBT social justice movement as a civil rights movement does not have much of an impact when the lack of civil rights for queers has not been associated in the American psyche with disenfranchisement or lack of access. A movement language that calls for, instead of rights, an elimination of policies that create injustice and exclude whole groups from participating in society as full status citizens will prove much more effective.


Jason said...

You bring up very crucial points, great post. You're dead on with the construct of marriage as a "special rights" institution.

Marriage Equality. Is it a civil liberty on par with free speech or assembly, that ought to be protected from the whims of government? Is it a civil right granted by the government? A Human right that is inalienably god/diety given, that should be acknowledged by a democratic government? How is this "state by state" approach to the issue going to protect couples who move out of state (or have dual citizenships)? Is the queer community concerned about this issue as it relates to polygamy?

The African-American community is just now beginning to face how our "issues" are moreso a result of our relationship to the economic market than to what goes on in the legislature. It would do the LGBT/Q/SGL community to do the same.

We've seen the reports that say that black same-sex female households, as the most "parenting" group in the LGBT community, have the most to gain from partnership benefits and recognition. But that requires us to invest in a government that most of us do not trust as it is.

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