People are not provoked by those who are different.What is more provoking is our insecurity: When you say, “I am so sorry but I am different.” That’s much more provoking than saying “I am different,” or “I have something to tell you, I can see something that you cannot see!”
With these words, Norwegian Trans activist Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad situates sexual difference as a unique opportunity rather than as a social condemnation.“Difference” is a way of being in theworld, and as such it represents a prospect of individual and collectiveempowerment, social and political enrichment, and freedom. Freedom implies the sovereignty to govern oneself: Being human is being beyond parameters, being without sex or gender constraints.
Hasthis ideal been attained in the four decades of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans,Intersex, Queer and Questioning politics?
We Who Feel Differently approaches this and other questions through fifty interviews with LGBTIQQ academicians, activists, artists, politicians,researchers and radicals from Colombia, Norway, South Korea, and the United States. The interviewees have been active participants in the cultural, legal, political, and social processes around sexual difference in their countries, and they frame the debates, expose the discourses and some of them criticallydiscuss the LGBT Movement’s agenda from queer perspectives.
Thissection presents five thematic threads drawn from the interviews, identified to construct a narrative that is representative, yet not comprehensive. This bookis not a survey or a statistical study; it puts forth an assemblage of queercritiques of normative ways of thinking about sexual difference.
TheEquality Framework: Stop Begging for Tolerance, gathers opinions about the conceptual perspective that guides the claim for rights and validates their recognition by the State. This framework, founded on formal equality, causes significant doubts and frustrations, all of which start a productive discussion on the limits of legal formalism and liberal tolerance and the need for a more substantive moral debate and cultural transformation.
Defying Assimilation: Beyond the LGBT Agenda assembles perspectives on‘difference.’ It vindicates a critical and affective difference that expresses skepticism about legal responses, a firm reluctance to be assimilated, and astrong resistance to be conditioned and disciplined. The interviewees articulate ways to deal with these circumstances and the actions they have undertaken to empower themselves and others.
Gender Talents brings together the voices of trans and intersex activists and thinkers who reject the binary system that organizes gender and sexuality. Their ideas aim at broadening the possibilities of an individual beyond normative categorizations of identity. They also struggle to avoid classifications and to abolish all forms of control overnon-normative lives and bodies.
Silence, Stigma, Militancy andSystemic Transformation: From ACT UP to AIDS Today offers a brief description of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in the United States andof some of the strategies used by this social movement to confront thegovernment’s response to the AIDS epidemic from the perspective of some of its members. They also reflect on the status of AIDS today.
Queering Art Discourses provides an analysis of the reign of silence aroundthe discourse of sexuality in art and discusses the works of cultural producersthat attempt to break that silence.
We Who Feel Differently attempts to reclaim a queer “We” that valuesdifference over sameness, a “We” that resists assimilation, and a “We” that embraces difference as a critical opportunity to construct a socially just world.
The Equality Framework: Stop Begging for Tolerance
The last four decades have been productive in regard to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights activism and legal politics. Numerous countries inthe Global North have improved the status of their LGBT citizens: Homosexualityhas been de-criminalized, anti-discrimination bills have been implemented, anda heated debate on same-sex marriage has made gays and lesbians more visible.These changes, from a condition of absolute oppression to having a greater degree of social and political visibility, are partly the result of decades of grass roots community organizing and activism, institutional lobbying andpolitical advocacy.
Many LGBT people have endorsed these achievements but, at the same time, they have been largely censured. Critics coming from within the legal field have judged that liberal reforms are unable to provide substantive equality. Queer critics, external to the legal sphere, have viewed these reforms as an extension ofprivileges to those who benefit from traditional hierarchies, such as those ofclass, ethnicity, gender, or race; or as conforming to heteronormativity.
The ideal of equal treatment under the law is at the heart of these changes.Equality establishes that all people should be treated equally under the law, and if they are “different,” they should have the equal right to be consideredin terms of their differences. This principle works under the constraintsderived from formal equality and state neutrality regarding moral debates and theories of the good life.
How well these reforms have performed, the scope of their achievements and their initial deployment vary from country to country. In Latin America, legal activism has been actively shaping, not without obstacles, a new political landscape in several countries. In Colombia, as pointed out by Marcela Sánchez, director of Colombia Diversa, an LGBTrights organization, “(…) the most important precedent is the 1991Constitution. The articles related to equality and the free development of personality do not mention the issue of sexual orientation, but a wide interpretation of these articles served to encompass issues of non-normativesexuality.” Colombian activist and lawyer Mauricio Albarracín adds, “(…)During the 1990s, a very progressive jurisprudence concerning the protection of gaysand lesbians was established. As of 1999, different bills proposing the recognition of the rights of same sex couples −basically, property and social security rights − were developed. In that context, in 2003 there was a bill supported by a group of activists, but when this initiative was defeated several activists decided that there should be an organization devoted to foster same-sex couples de facto recognition.”
Other countries, those that have already conquered formal equality, are currently concerned with the construction of a broader cultural framework that will prevail over formal equality and will search for a deeper transformation of social prejudices. This is the case of Norway, where the legal struggle overformal equality has been successful, but substantive equality, that is, the search for equal outcomes between the law and social life is, nevertheless, still pending. Karen Pinholt, Executive Director of LLH, The Norwegian LGBT Association, asserts that “ (…) up to the middle of last year, when it was agreed that we should have full marriage rights, it was a legal question: To have equal rights underthe law. Today we have put much of that legal fight behind us because those rights are there. The fight now is elsewhere. We aim at having not just lega equality, but also real equality inour everyday lives. Our main tool in that fight is to increase awareness and the competence in LGBT issues in the general population, but also with people who work with others professionally: Health workers, people working in schools and education, leaders in management, etc. Most often in Norwegian society, they would like to treat us equally, but there is a lack of competence on how to do it. This means they often just ignore us, and ignore the fact that wesometimes need some special considerations to be properly treated as equal.”
Those who have endorsed the legitimacy and inevitability of the legal framework, as Karen Pinholt has, believe “(…) that having the laws makes us equal. The legalframework is a strong and important signal for Norwegian society. Without that as a backing, all the negative things that we experience out in the real world derive from the fact that we are not equal before the law. Now that we are equal before the law, it is very difficult for our opponents to say: ‘I have the right to treat you badly.’ Now they have to find other ways to make their arguments. Since we are equal before the law, they see that the society at large and the lawmakers recognize us as human beings with equal rights. That means that it is much more difficult to treat us badly, but that doesn''t mean we are not treated badly. There are sub-communities in Norway where it is definitely not okay to be gay.”
Mauricio Albarracín has also underscored the symbolic effect of legislation: “In Colombia, a former Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) guerrilla commented that recently he could finally be openly gay in his group. This is not representative, but I thought it was an indicatorthat something is happening, and what is happening is that issues addressed inpublic discussions are beginning to infiltrate non-traditional places, or places that were traditionally homophobic. I think public discussion is very important; I don’t know how much it will contribute to people being moretolerant or less violent, but it does generate transformations and, at least,it brings a political project to light. In Colombia and in Latin America thereis a political project that contemplates the recognition of gays, lesbians,bisexuals and transgender persons. Legal decisions transform reality insofar asthey destabilize an order. It is not as though they magically change reality,but they introduce an authoritativepoint of view, and that point of view develops socially. I think this has beena beneficial influence in the case of couples. Court decisions entail severalbenefits; a strictly speaking political one is that those legal proceedingscreate a network, an ensemble of stakeholders who meet through theirinvolvement in the lawsuit and continue to participate in order to guaranteethe rights obtained. Their effect also implies the existence of a group ofpeople who have worked on the issue and this generates growing adhesion. Thatgroup will work to preserve the change in the long term. Additionally, this maygive rise to a cycle of protest, that is, a cycle of mobilization; because somerights have been obtained, people begin to realize that there are other rightsthat have not, or that there are other types of discrimination and violence,and they begin to work in those areas. This action triggers other movements andother mobilizations in other spheres. Another benefit is that by recognizing theyhave rights, same sex couples gain empowerment when faced with the authorities.People over 35, 40 or 45 years of age, who have been in a relationship for 15years, decide to proclaim their union after having lived inside the closet. Atpresent, law students read judgments that protect same sex couples and theyquestion themselves about the ruling on marriage, different questions to thoseposed five or ten years earlier, because the context is different. The debatehas shifted to a different place, there is a political discussion going on;politicians promise things, there are politicians who are openly gay orlesbian, and there are public policies. There have been many changes.”
NorwegianLGBT rights advocate Kjell Erik Øie explains that “(…) There are two goodthings about legislation: One is that the government has said, ‘It is okay. Wesupport it. We think it is great that you find each other.’ The other thing isthat especially after we achieved the Partnership Law, we became very visible.Now that actually has changed because we have one law for everybody, theMarriage Act, but before, when we had to fill out official forms, we had tostate whether or not we were married or lived in a partnership. Everybody knewthe word partnership implied the difference between straight and gay people.After the Partnership Law came into effect, suddenly people talked aboutpartnerships, legalized their partnerships, and straight people celebratedtheir gay and lesbian friends that wanted to live together. But now that wehave the Marriage Act, and the Partnership Law is dead, we are invisibleagain.”
InKorea, where legal reforms on the basis of sexual difference are far from beingpart of the government’s agenda, the LGBT community is demanding its legalrights. PARK Kiho, Director of Chingusai,a Korean gay rights organization in Seoul, thinks: “(…) I get that questionvery often: ‘What changes have been made in people''s lives since you havestarted this organization?’ But it is always very difficult to answer becausethose changes aren''t quite apparent. Korea is a Confucianism-dominated andmale-dominated society. Unlike in Western nations, no new laws or systems havebeen created that might prove the actual improvement in the lives of sexualminorities. Nothing legal has changed in the past 20 years. The changes thatare visible to us are rather of an unofficial character: Chingusai''s office is much larger than before, more people visitus, and more people are speaking out (...) Now there are six or seven moregroups like Chingusai, and the numberof clubs, blogs and websites where sexual minorities can express themselves hasexplosively increased.”
PARKKiho also admits: “I will have to agree that we need to learn from Westerndiscourses; they have more variations and therefore they can more efficientlyanalyze or explain the present lives of sexual minorities. But all thehistorical stages that Western societies went through step by step, didn’t takeplace in Korea. Everything was imported at once somewhat recklessly, afterwhich the Korean queer community faced a complex situation: Our actual livesare still oppressed, but the media is flourishing with images of an opensociety. To really change people''s lives, it is crucial to adapt Westerndiscourses to the Korean terrain; and there is little difference betweenadapting and re-creating.”
Theequality framework that has encouraged most of the legal victories for LGBTrights in various countries has produced distinctive dilemmas. One of themrefers to the alleged moral neutrality that informs formal equality. Criticsemphasize the need for a substantive debate on LGBT rights. The demand forneutrality, that is, the demand that the State remain impartial before thedebate on what is the good life, without attempting to impose criteria concerningthe social morality on an individual’s conduct, is a key principle ofliberalism. This principle leads to reforms based on the idea of tolerance, butdecisions and policies made in the name of tolerance have proven to beineffective in terms of guaranteeing respect for the activities they intend toprotect.
Toleranceis part of Åse Rothing’s research project at theUniversity of Oslo: “(…) School textbooks that teach about homosexuality usually start by saying that some peopleare homosexuals. At this point, they specifically go from we to they, which is adistinct move in the author’s voice. The tolerance perspective is very much thefocus. Homosexuality is said to be something that we should accept, assuming that the classroom is a collectiveheterosexual entity. Teachers and students tend to state the same kind ofthings: We have to accept homosexuals because they are just like us andthey are normal people. (…) Theyteach tolerance, but at the same time this method for teaching sexuality is away of reproducing heterosexuality as the norm, and it is also a way ofreproducing the hetero-assumed students as a group that is allowed to draw theline of what is acceptable and to outline what sort of rights they have.Homosexuality is always presented as something that is okay, if it is real, but you shouldn''t try it. It is like saying: ‘If you thinkyou might be attracted to one of your same sex friends, wait and see; it mightpass off. If you are really sure you are homosexual, then it is fine. Youshould come out and tell your parents and your friends.’ That is the implicitmessage. At the same time, the teachers and the books emphasize how difficultlife is for many gays and lesbians in Norway and the difficulties they willpresumably face. I think there is a good intention behind these statements.They intend to acknowledge the difficulties and homo-negativism that exist inNorwegian society. It is like saying: ‘You will feel lonely and your parentsmight not like it. It will be difficult for you out there.’ And at the sametime, they are saying: ‘Homosexuality is fully okay in Norwegian society today,it is not a problem; but in Iran, on the contrary, they have death penalties.(…) I have also heard students saying: ‘If I discovered I was gay, I would commitsuicide.’ (…) Homosexuality is presented as something problematic, and youshould really avoid it and pray to God you will never be there. It is notattractive at all. It is not presented as something that you might like orsomething you should try out and that might bring you a good life. None of thegood stories of queer lives are made visible.”
Thearguments that guide this educational perspective are grounded on a soft ideaof tolerance, completely independent of whether these sexual practices are goodor bad. “ (…) Although homosexuality is now equal according to the Norwegianlegislation, and anti-gay discrimination bills have also protected it, it isstill seen culturally as something inferior to heterosexuality,” ToneHellesund, queer researcher at the SteinRokkan Institute for Social Studies of TheUniversity of Bergen comments. “‘The good life’ in Norway, what all parentswant for their children, the best life you can get, is still very much aheterosexual life. Even though as a homosexual, you can still have a ‘goodlife’ by having children, getting married and living in harmony as a nuclearfamily, I think most Norwegians see heterosexuality as the ideal life.”
Thedeficiencies in a substantive debate on the morality of same sex sexuality andthe excessive preeminence of the formal equality paradigm create remarkableincoherencies. Åse Rothing provides an example: “(…)When Norwegianness and Norwegianculture is defined in relationship to others, gay rights and tolerance ofhomosexuality seem to represent it. In a way, Norwegianness is heterosexuals being tolerant towardshomosexuals. But some pictures in the textbooks will create these kinds ofcontrasts. Take a look at this picture: This is about ways of living before andnow. It is about marriage and families. In one picture, you have two men and alittle girl in the middle reading a paper in the park, and in another one,there is a Masai man and a handful of Masai women in the background. It is areally primitive and dark picture. The first picture’s caption says thathomosexual partnerships are allowed in Norway. The second picture’s captionsays that Masai men can have several wives. Consequently, they make thisopposition between the really pre-modern Masai and the modern Norwegians. TheMasai are supposed to be seen as the definite opposite of gender equality,which is the ideal in Norway. One ofthe interesting things here is that in this picture a gay couple isrepresenting gender equality, but this book was published before gay couplesactually had the right to adopt children. Therefore, this picture isrepresenting Norway as a country that was gay-friendlier than it actually was atthe time. It is very paradoxical. But what happens in the chapters aboutsexuality is different. There are two different sections: One on cultural normsthat usually deals with gender and sexuality and another more traditionalchapter on sexuality. And in that chapter the we is definitely heterosexual.”
ForColombian activist and academician Franklin Gil Hernández, these deficiencieshave also distorted the LGBT Movement’s agenda: “(…) A Movement based on sexualissues should be talking about other things. I feel that the movement speaksvery little about sexuality, very little about proposing changes to thissociety, about how to experience sex, how to experience solidarity beyondmarriage, beyond a couple; it speaks very little about (…) other proposals. Iunderstand that having rights is very important, but the agenda should be moreambitious in the sense of proposing a more structured change in the sexualorder, an order that continues to discriminate; even with gay marriage, thereare many items that are left outside the agenda.”
Colombiananthropologist Fernando Serrano confirms Gil’s idea: “(…) What is happening to themovement at present is that its effervescence for the affirmation of identity(…) has made it forget other transversal spaces: Class issues, labor problems,health policies. (…) We have to think about how to construct anotherarticulation that does not eliminate differences and that does not solve thingsmerely by naming them. But what do we do to avoid the answer being: Here is thesection of homosexual bodies; here is the section of black bodies; here is thesection of indigenous bodies?”
“(…) But theimportant thing is to question what a “(sexual) minority” is, and what is tocome in the future.” Says Korean minorities activist MONG Choi. “For instance,should LGBT people adjust themselves, though somewhat segmented, to theexisting system, such as the marriage system, or should they fight forcompletely new rights? The existing system and capitalism engage with oneanother. I think the main task for us now is to change this capitalistsociety.”
Furthermore,American activist and novelist Sarah Schulman warns us against equating arhetoric of equality rights with progress: “We are constantly being told that things are so much better and wehave made so much progress. I really think we have an enormous amount ofchange, but change is not the same thing as progress. The way gay people arecontained, made secondary, and diminished is far more sophisticated now than itwas twenty years ago. (…) Gay people are being told that the only things theyneed are marriage and military service and that everything else is fine. We arebeing told we are completely treated fairly in every way and that we are anintegrated part of this country. Thirty years ago, to be anti-gay was anormative thing. Most people did not know anything about gay people; they didnot know they knew gay people, or what gay people’s hopes were. Today everybodyin this country knows an openly gay person, sees them on television, in theirfamilies, and understands what gay people stand for and/or want, so to beanti-gay today is much more dramatically vicious and cruel than it was in thepast when you did not know the names and faces of the people you wereaffecting. (…) In that context, in the U.S. we have lost every ballot measure,thirty-one out of thirty-one, in the last few years, meaning a huge number ofpeople in this country are viciously anti-gay and willing to vote anti-gay. Wealso have a president who does not support gay people, so we are in a situationwhere the opposition has a more negative meaning than it did twenty years ago,yet we are supposed to pretend this means nothing and has no impact on us, thereal people, our relatives and neighbors. Why are we being told this conditionof profound oppression is actually progress? It is not.”
Sign at NYC Gay Pride, 2009. Photo Carlos Motta
From Identity Politics to Queer Politics: The Risksof Assimilation
Forqueer theorists and activists, the “identity politics” that inform legalreforms tend to essentializehomosexuality, to reify identity categories, and to assimilate the subjects ithas created. Tone Hellesund considers that “(…) homosexuality is still seen as the truth about a human being. InNorwegian, we use the word legning;we speak of homofil legning, ahomosexual inclination, which I see as a very essentialist framing ofsexuality. That is a term that is very much used in the public debate and inevery day conversations amongst general people. It is assumed that if you are ahomosexual, you have this ‘inborn inclination’; your core is that you were borna homosexual, and there is nothing you can do about it. This is a very strongstory in the Norwegian context. In order to gain citizenship rights, to givehomosexuals more space and to give us the right to live as ordinary citizens,there has been a discourse focusing on homosexuality as an essence, thus promoting an essentialist agenda. There has also beena strong focus on the suffering of homosexuals. The suicide narrative is verystrong in Norway, particularly since a report was published in 1999 that showeda higher occurrence of suicide attempts among young homosexuals than amongheterosexuals. Those statistics have been used heavily by the homosexualorganization to claim rights. On the one hand, the focus on inborn identities,the essentialist understanding of homosexuality as a fundamental difference,the focus on suffering and the cry for tolerance, have been the roots that haveled to obtaining citizenship rights. On the other hand, I think it is a veryproblematic discourse. Even today, when we have citizenship rights, thatnarrative is holding homosexuals down as something fundamentally different, assomething that should be tolerated and felt sorry for.”
Accordingto Ellen Mortensen, Director of the Center for Women''s and GenderResearch at the Universityof Bergen, the use of this strategyhas paved the way for the success of the legal reforms, but “(…) thetheoretical foundation for the political work done is not queer theory butidentity politics. Something that is peculiar to the Scandinavian countries isthat there is quite a short distance between certain academicians, especiallyin the social sciences, and the policy makers. For instance, within academicfeminism, they were instrumental forwarding many of these equal rights lawproposals when it comes to gender. Likewise, within the gay and lesbiancommunity that is still fueled by what I would call identity politics and theclear-cut categories of gay and straight. They have been able to makesuccessful political impact precisely because of this strategy. They have madethese legislation proposals on the basis that, for instance, gays and lesbiansare a minority group that should have equal rights. It has not been made on thebasis of queer theory, because that muddles the terrain.”
MONGChoi highlights the community-centered behavior thattakes place in Korea. “(…) Korea’s sexual minority movement is quite similar tothat of the United States. It has placed LGBT identities, coming out of thecloset, forming communities, helping each other and taking political actionwhen needed as its core mandates. However, this whole identity-centeredmovement deserves to be criticized. People satisfy and confine themselveswithin their own communities with their happy and friendly personal lifestylesand are not able to question their rights at political and social levels. Theythink: ‘Is there really a problem? Can’t we just talk it over?’ (…) We thoughtthat we needed to go one step forward from this identity-based movement, andthat is why we founded the SexualMinorities Committee of the DemocraticLabor Party (DLP). But the sexual minority issues proposed by the committeehad their limits too. They couldn’t be made into a general agenda because theyare restricted within the boundaries of the community’s specialized needs. Sonowadays we take action in a more general sphere, covering many kinds ofminorities such as immigrant workers and immigrant women. We discussminorities’ housing rights and labor rights and those things that we need toprotect from capitalism.”
Culturalprejudices may arise from clear-cut identity categories according to NormanAnderssen, Social Psychology Professor at the University of Bergen. “(…) If you talk about gender or sexualcategories, the clearer you make these distinctions and the more you thematizethem, the easier it is for people to have certain opinions about some of thesecategories. It is a kind of logic, whereby the more you insist that there arehomosexuals, bisexuals and heterosexuals, the more you let people have opinionsabout these groups. To really dissolve negative attitudes, we need to dissolveour concepts and notions of sexual distinctions, including gender. This is avery radical position in line with general queer theory: As long as we havethese very strong categories, we will also have negative attitudes.”
Whenasked whether she thought capitalism as a system has provided the space and theconditions to form and enact LGBT identities, CHOI Hyun-sook, a Korean sexualminorities activist and former out-lesbian presidential candidate, affirmed:“(…) I actually doubt whether it is capitalism that made possible the identityformation of sexual minorities. It is true that many cultural and academic discourses,especially feminist discourses, developed within the capitalist system; andthat thanks to these discourses, we were able to question the so-callednormality, which only approved of heterosexuality. These discourses threw alight on the various and unique people who were living in obscurity. But theywere always there and what they didn’t have was a name. (…) LGBT identities arenot something imported from the West; they existed at all times, in Korea, inIndia, in Thailand (...) Western theories just made it possible for them toidentify themselves as LGBT. I think that Korean LGBT people have differentidentities, different cultures and different lives from those in the UnitedStates or Europe. I can’t agree that capitalism itself played a major role onsexual minority identity formation; it can opportunistically stand on the sideof sexual minorities, but it ultimately aims at reinforcing normative familyvalues.”
Recognizingthe often-rigid perceptions of the international LGBT Movement of what beinggay should be, that is, a way ofreproducing conventional notions of family values and social respectability,Karen Pinholt has intended to build an agenda that “(…) makes sure thateveryone who is LGBT can be that in exactly the way they want to be. You havethe right as a person to define who you are and live that life, and othersshould not limit you. That also means that as an LGBT movement, I can''t tellother people how to be gay or that they are being gay in a wrong way. The GayMovement, in an attempt to find the gay identity, which is an important quest,has been moving on so fast that it has lost a lot of people. Some feel thatbeing on the back of a truck in a Pride Parade wearing next to nothing anddancing to disco music is a normal way to be gay. Whereas others think thatgetting married and getting 2.3 kids, or whatever is the average, is a normalway to be gay, because you are supposed to be part of the gay culture. Myobjection is to both. I think that we should work towards making it possible tobe gay exactly in the way you are gay, and to recognize that there are gays inall sectors of Norwegian society. There is no right or wrong way to be gay.There is only one thing that is wrong, and that is living a life you don''t wantto live.”
Ryan Conrad, Gay Marriage Will Cure AIDS, 2009
How Did We Get Here? The Same-Sex Marriage Debate
One ofthe central issues in the struggle between LGBT rights activism and queerthinkers and activists is same-sex marriage. The assimilationist character ofsame-sex marriage, condemned by queer activists and theorists, clashes with theemancipatory consequences granted to this legislation by rights activists, whosee in this law the definite step to gain full citizenship and equality.
ToneHellesund offers a chronology and assessment of this subject in Norway: “(…)After the period of focusing on visibility, gaining individual rights, andanti-discrimination laws, the work for partnership or marriage rights startedin the late 1980s. That has basically been the focus since then, the right tomarry. You can see that in many different ways. You could see it as areflection of the political climate of these decades: To focus on family valuesand respectability; on homosexuals being good, respectable and family orientedcitizens has been a very strategic and wise way of framing the cause. What hasbeen interesting is that the critique of the nuclear family and marriage, thosekinds of debates that were present in the 1970s disappeared from the publicagenda in the 1990s and the 2000s. There have been very few opposing voices inthe public. Although many of us have been critical of the family and therespectability orientation of the Norwegian Movement, many of us still agreethat to gain marriage rights has been an important step in the achievement ofcitizenship rights. Achieving the ‘Gender Equal Marriage Law’ in 2009 was kindof the final victory in regard to gaining full citizenship rights as queers inNorway. Despite the fact that many of us want to abolish marriage, we can stillsee that the right to marry has been an important step.”
One ofthe most compelling arguments in favor of same-sex marriage is the economic andinstitutional protection it might provide. Arnfinn Andersen, sociologist at theGender Research Institute at the University of Oslo believes that “(…) the struggle to get the samerights as heterosexual married people in this country was a way to get formalcitizenship, not only as it pertains to the law, but also as a way ofrecognizing our status as citizens in equal terms. I would say that the idea ofmarriage was a good platform to make Norwegians aware of our inequality becauseeverything in the social democratic society is organized around marriage:Pension systems, the rights you have when you have a baby, etc.”
Colombian political philospherMaría Mercedes Gómez offers an interesting perspective regarding the practicalconsequences of political stances when she says: “(…) It is much easier to saythat one does not agree with gay marriage because it repeats the traditionalpattern if one does not need health insurance, or protecting one’s children, ora residency visa. I always take into account what the scope of my politicalstance is at every moment, and what I can do to make sure that my politicalstance does not repeat or generate a form of injustice. Marriage generates a series of individualrights that are valid and necessary for people who do not have otherprivileges, and in that sense I think the option must exist. The consequencemay be that instead of undergoing a radical transformation, society will movealong lines that will continue to be unfair for many: for example, havingaccess to certain individual rights only through marriage. But since the space forradical transformation does not seem to be a possibility in the short term, Ithink that one must work strategically so that the people who want and needthis right may exercise it.”
Criticsof this legal strategy coincide on several arguments. For example, some supportthe feminist perspective that judges marriage as a patriarchal and repressiveinstitution. Esteban Restrepo, Professor of Law at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, asks: “(…) Why consider thatthe core of LGBT movement has to be the family issue? That is a mistake,firstly because we want to colonize the most oppressive institution, the one inwhich people have been more oppressed, traditionally. How is it possible thatif women have criticized for years the pattern of traditional family, we shouldwish to conquer marriage, that profoundly alienating and subordinatinginstitution? Then comes the question of normalization. The sector of activismthat has promoted the family issue is that liberal sector within the gaycommunity, which says; we are equal, we are not a threat, the only thing thatrenders us different from you is that we like persons of the same sex, but thatis restrained to the bedroom. As for the rest, we are like everyone else; wedon’t rape children or kill them. Might it not be that a long period ofsubordination creates a series of different cultures that are important topreserve, and that it would be an obvious mistake to lose? The monogamousdynamics will turn against the gay community itself or against the LGBTcommunity: Before, they did not allow us to get married; now the ideal thing isto be married. (…) The other issue is that the fact that same sex couples areallowed to get married and may adopt children does not imply that homophobia isover, because homophobia exists in people’s minds; homophobia is a prejudice,and prejudices are lodged in a very complex way in people’s minds, ineducational processes, in processes of basic socialization, at school, at home.To transform this, the Law has a minimal potential; it may raise the issue, itmay show a hidden social phenomenon, it may normalize it in the sense that itbegins to refer to the situation of many persons as an issue of politicalconcern, it may lead to self-questionings, but transformations are alwaysfollowed − and this has been shown in the context of the United States − by ahomophobic backlash. The homophobic forces within society resist. This occursin every sphere: When in 1954 the United States Supreme Court prohibited racialsegregation in schools, George Wallace, the governor of Alabama said: ‘I won’tcomply, I simply won’t comply; here our cultural life is based on theseparation of white and black persons, the United States Supreme Court ofJustice cannot come and tell me that I have to accept blacks in my children’sschool; I’m not going to do it.’ Why wouldn’t the same thing happen in anissue, homosexuality, which is linked to one of the greatest anxieties inWestern culture?”
ForAmerican radical queer activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, “(…) the messageof assimilation is the ‘We’re just like you’ mentality. When gay people say:‘We are just like straight people, we have no differences, except for who wemight want to have sex with.’ Marriage, military inclusion, adoption, ordinationto the priesthood and hate crimes legislation have become the corner stones ofgay assimilation. As queers we grew up in a world that basically wanted us todie or disappear. I think we shouldn’t grow up and want to become part of thatsame world and change nothing. The issue of gays in the military is the mostobvious. Instead of saying we want to be part of the military, we should besaying that the U.S. is responsible for more violence in the world than anyother country, bombing, terrorizing, plundering indigenous resources, andestablishing corporate control everywhere. We should be saying that we need toend the military, which is a dominant institution of imperial, colonial andgenocidal violence. I would say the majority of us grew up in the ruins ofmarriage. Why are we now saying that is what we want? What does marriage mean?For decades, queers had been finding ways to live and love outside of marriage,and with the ‘assimilationist agenda,’ it is all thrown in the trash.”
RyanConrad, American queer activist and founding member of the collective Against Equality delivers “ (…) amaterialist class critique to actually talk about marriage, to wipe away thisgloss of affect that portrays marriage as being about love and family, when itis actually a social contract between two people and the state and thetransfers of property, power and money between them. I think it is really hardfor people to step back from this sheen that has been put over marriage. Gayand lesbian activists have been digging up this rhetoric of affect and love,questioning how love can be outlawed, and it is actually not what everyone istalking about but a distraction from actually talking about how sexual identitydecides whether people live or die, have access to healthcare or not, can moveacross boarders, and access jobs. People aren’t talking about that piece. Theclass critique is huge for me and comes from an urban/rural critique as well.Not to suggest that there aren’t poor people in urban settings, but in Maine inparticular rural equals poverty. For me there is always a critique of urbangays with more money than the rest of us setting the agenda while peopleoutside of major urban centers don’t have access to any resources and are mostat risk for poverty and HIV. It is pretty ridiculous how urban-centric theconversation has become, something which is part of the class critique aswell.”
Meanwhile,Colombian lawyer and activist Germán Rincón focuses on the assimilationistoutcomes of same-sex marriage. “(…) In legal terms we have a second-classcitizenship, not a fifth-class any longer, but a second-class one. We have madea lot of progress, but from a social perspective we are far behind and at thismoment there is a wave of conservatism. Our homosexual life was undercover; nowthat we have entered the public life, and are legitimized as individuals and ascouples, we have become part of the heterosexual antiseptic, antibacterial little model. Only couples, only withone person, in what conditions yes, in what conditions no, all that regulatedmodel. People say ‘now we can’t be promiscuous because we are legal’ and Ithink that is a terrible loss; there are people who wonder: Who got us intothis? There are gay persons who disagree, especially with regard to the propertyrights issue, because they believe that if they take a young boy in, in a weekhe will take away from them half of their patrimony. This has generated aterrible impact.”
Inaddition, the devaluation of different ways of being in the world and the exclusionof diverse vital experiences are regrettable outcomes of demanding inclusion inthis normative model. Germán Rincón thinks that “(…) in Colombia, same sexcouples were violently pulled out of the closet, whether they liked it or not.(…) That hegemonic model has made us lose our underground status, which hadwonderful advantages. We have to begin talking about discourses other than thehegemonic model; I have strongly positioned the question of triples, not ofcouples but of triples, the relationships between three persons on theaffective, the erotic, the genital, and the family plane. It is the issue ofthe social family and not the biological one; the construction of family basedon the social and not the biological relations. From an academic point of view,we have to start delivering the discourse, in the social movement we have todeliver the discourse. In Colombia we have made progress; in the issue ofpensions, jurisprudence has established that if for instance, a man dies, twowomen receive pensions. We are waiting for the same to happen when a gay dies,that the two lovers receive pensions and to extend this further, to moveforward along those lines.”
EllenMortensen has similar concerns: “(…) Some of us have voiced critiques of thetendency within the gay community to go ‘straight.’ Not to choose straightpartners, but to live straight lives. Whereas if you take people like JudithHalberstam, who talks for another form of temporality and another form ofunderstanding of location, you see that there are certain ways in which the gayand lesbian community has a history of greater freedom when it comes to sexualpractices and to individual life paths that are not necessarily conforming togeneral values in society; respectable and bourgeois values of conduct. Youhave people like Leo Bersani, who wants to be a ‘homo.’ He doesn''t want tobecome a housebroken general citizen, but one that embraces his own liberty asa life project.”
For Franklin Gil Hernández, “(…) Marriage is abourgeois value. (…) Let us have adebate on marriage, which is an untouchable institution from a social point ofview. It is important to request it, but once it has been requested, there mustbe a debate on the institution. What types of relationships does it propose?Family is a very violent institution. Why defend an institution that isviolent? There are other ways of being together that may function well, andperhaps they are more tranquil, more fair.”
María Mercedes Gómez contributes to this lineof reasoning adding that “(…) the reforms generated by same-sex couplemarriages do not produce any changes in society; they consolidate a givenvalue; they reproduce the liberal model of marriage and family, and there isabsolutely no type of threat to what Butler has called the idea of ‘Nation,’which is actually jeopardized by adoption. Adoption renders what is happeningin Latin America evident: some statistics say that 20 percent of the familiesare traditional families; the rest are other kinds of families, not necessarilyhomoparental ones. They can be extensive families, or there can be two mothers,or two fathers, single mothers or fathers. Adoption would imply Statejustification for something that is already happening, and this generates anunspeakable anxiety, because what is at stake is the notion of social cohesion,the notion of ‘Nation,’ the notion of a country’s ‘identity.’”
From a different perspective American artcritic and AIDS activist Douglas Crimp explains that “(…) something of an enormous shift happened in the the wave of AIDS toward a conservative gay culturewhere issues like fighting for equal rights to marriage and to fight in themilitary took precedence over what I think of as a truly queer culture, whichis a culture that wants to change how we think about forms of human relationsin a much more general sense. I still feel very much what I learned from earlysecond wave feminism, which was the critique of marriage as an institution andhow marriage actually served governance as a way of managing the complexity ofrelations that are possible among people. (…) One of the greatest gains of thegay liberation movement and the general liberation movements around sexualityand gender was the possibility of rethinking all kinds of questions ofaffective relationships so that among gay men, for example, if you stopthinking about finding Mr. Right, finding a lover or finding a marriagepartner, and rather think about possibly sexualizing friendship, maintainingfriendly relations with people with whom you have had a romantic relationshipor having fuck buddies, then a whole proliferation of ways of connecting withothers opens up.”
“Sexualityshouldn’t be a way to prioritize people''s lives,” affirms Arnfinn Andersen,but “ (…) you get benefits based onwhom you are having sex with, since you are legally recognized as a couple. Abetter way of organizing this would be based on the needs that people have whensharing a household. We have family relationships that are more complex, but weare supporting only one type of structure: Marriage. Should we replicate theheterosexual model?”
Photo: Carlos Motta
Defying Assimilation: Beyond the LGBT Agenda
Several theoretical andideological perspectives support the opposition to the equality framework andto the mainstream LGTB Movement’s mission, based on the search for formalequality. Queer activists and theorists strongly object to this politics due tothe failure of this framework to achieve substantial equality and theassimilationist consequences that it entails. Others, representing the leftside of the political spectrum, base their objections on the existing andextreme social inequalities this model is unable to modify. This rejection alsocomes from those who believe that gay and lesbian organizations have lost theirpurpose, are committed to simplistic and objectionable motivations, and havebeen absorbed by the status quo.
Critical and Affective Difference
Thefirst line of reasoning of those who resist to be assimilated is to emphasizeevery trait, attribute, and quality that makes them different. Some do thisfrom a personal and a very determined viewpoint, as Norwegian lesbian pioneerKaren-Christine Friele who, having worked for several decades as leader of The Norwegian LGBT Association to achieve legal and formal equality, affirms: “(…) Even if I am as old as 75, I havealways enjoyed what you call diversity. I have never presented us as ‘we are asgood as you’ or ‘we are just like you,’ because we are not. I don''t know howheterosexuals are, I only know how we are. I think it is stupid to do sobecause the point of this all is to accept that we are different, that we areunique, that we represent a color, (...) we are different.” In a similar vein,American sex therapist and intersex activist Dr. Tiger Howard Devore, declares:“(…) We are gender different: we are not equal. I don’t want to be likeheterosexuals ever. That is the last thing; otherwise I would have been aheterosexual… as if I had a choice! I don’t want to have the rights thatheterosexuals have, I want to have the rights that other human beings have. Weare different, but we are not different meaning that we should be subjugated,separated, destroyed, discriminated against or the objects of prejudice, noneof that. We are good human beings and rights have to be extended to all humanbeings, not just heterosexuals.”
Why would “ (…) we want our individualityrecognized within the existent structure rather than asserting our differenceand doing our own thing?” wonders Ryan Conrad. “Why seek affirmation fromthe thing you think is messed up in the first place? That shift has definitelyhappened since the late 1990s when I was in high school and it seems now it isa desperate push for affirmation and inclusion.”
Dr.Tiger Howard Devore further insists: “We are different, we are going to bedifferent, we are going to look different, we are going to feel differently, weare going to sound differently, we are going to speak differently, we are goingto have different activities on the weekends. When we get together in thecorporate coffee lounge, we are going to talk about different stuff than ourheterosexual work mates who have kids in school, unless we have kids too. Thefact is that that difference is never going to go away. Saying that we areequal or that we are the same is silly. It is not going to happen that way.”
Norwegiantrans activist and sex therapist Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad’s personalexperience is: “I do not provoke people and people are not provoked by thosewho are different. I think what is more provoking is our insecurity: When yousay ‘excuse me’ or ‘I am so sorry but I am different.’ That’s much moreprovoking than saying ‘I am different,’ or ‘I have something to tell you, I cansee something that you cannot see!’ I think it is much better to promoteeuphoria. People are not disturbed by euphoria, but most people are disturbedby dysphoria.”
American lesbian artist andfeminist Harmony Hammond shares this perspective, but is concerned about thepossible indetermination of these ideas. “ (…) I have to say that Idon’t think equality and sameness are the same thing. I believein equality but not in sameness. Thediscussion about the politics of difference versus sameness has taken many different forms over the decades. Currently it is focused around the right tosame sex marriage. (…) A place where it gets problematic for me (…) is aroundthe whole notion of being ‘queer.’ I like the notion of “queerness” and a queeridentity as a fluid continuum of sexualities. But in the last few years, thenotion of “queer” has been co-opted. It has become so open that it underminesits radical potential.”
MattildaBernstein Sycamore upholds difference vindicating its accomplishments in regardto creative and original forms of inter-personal connections and relations,deploring the normalization of sexual practices and the disarticulation of theright to be different. “(…) When I identify as ‘queer,’ it is just not aboutbeing queer sexually, it is about being queer in every way: It is a way ofcreating alternatives to mainstream notions of love, who you fuck, what youlook like, how you eat, and how you live.”
Aproject of queering our understandingof affective relations is part of Arnfinn Andersen’s research, because theyoperate on different levels: “(…) A friendship is quite different from livingtogether as a couple, for example. I have been discussing how it is to be acouple and/or to be a friend since ideas of intimacy arise from both of theserelationships. You should be close to a friend, but you should also be close toyour partner. An idea of equality is a part of friendship but is also a part ofbeing a couple. This means that friendship has become a cohesive way toorganize social structures. People don’t loose the ground when their partnersleave because they have friends that are also very close to them. People buildstructures for their lives that make it safer and more secure. This is a way ofqueering the question of intimacy andto understand new forms of solidarity in the society. (…) It is more commontoday to say that you have had sex with a friend. There was a taboo around thatquestion. I think this shifts an understanding of sexuality as a division betweena friend and a partner. It could be other things, such as the way youunderstand yourself, your ideas in life, etc., that make distinctions betweensocial relationships.”
This expanded notion ofaffection within gay and queer cultures, which represented an alternative wayof loving in the past, largely got lost within contemporary political rhetoric.American novelist Edmund White reflects on the way the gaycommunity in the 1970s, “(…) looked down on monogamy and I think the gayleaders of the 1970s would be appalled to see how many gays now want to bemarried and monogamous. Pre-AIDS, the idea was to be free, overthrow theheterosexual model, and try to invent something new. Part of that was toseparate out the various functions that accumulated in a relationship with oneperson in heterosexual companionate marriage that, we thought, did not work. Itwas ending in divorce; it was a disaster. (…) We thought you should have ‘tricks’for one night stand for sex, ‘fuck buddies’ you would see on a regular basisfor sex, a ‘lover’ who might be somebody you would live and have a physicalrelationship with or sleep in the same bed and kiss, but maybe not have sex orjust occasionally, etc. I think a lot of gay life is still being lived thisway, but I think gays have become so prudish that they do not like to admit itanymore. We thought it was a positive experiment, I think AIDS changed allthat.”
Douglas Crimp would “(…) even say that one could have many more than threefigures. For example you could say there is one person you havevanilla sex with and another person you have S&M sex with. You couldproliferate it in so many ways. (…) That is exactly what marriage does, it becomesyou and me against the world instead of a much more communal sense of sex andfriendship. It is not simply about sex, although it is about an erotics offriendship, and sex is certainly central to it. I actually don’t think it ispossible to get every kind of sex you could want out of one person.”
Crimprecalls that “(…) in the 1970s the ethos of gay liberation was that you shouldnever cut yourself off from anything, like if you say you are just a top thenyou are denying the part of yourself that is a bottom or vice versa. If you sayyou are only interested in real men,you are denying a part of yourself that is interested in femininity. Of coursethat is a utopian rhetoric but there is a truth to it so far as that you don’treally know until you have tried it, maybe more than once even, or tried it inthe right circumstances. This is also about a kind of denial of theunconscious; the notion that you could actually know yourself and know yourdesire.”
Colombianqueer theorist and art historian Víctor Manuel Rodríguez points out that “(...)sexuality always de-stabilizes any ideas of hegemonic order, both individualand social. Because of my age I remember that Bogotá’s queer scene in the1980s permitted some forms of articulation and solidarity that were strictlyqueer in the sense that they were not circumscribed to the LGBT communityexclusively, but to all the ‘weird’ people who gathered together in public andprivate spaces and who shared the idea that we were not ‘normal.’ But ofcourse, today those scenarios of solidarity, of collective fight againstnormality are not there because there has been a proliferation of a gay popularculture: There are 140 gay pubs in Bogotá, for example, that guaranteesocialization spaces for some, and represent normalizing spaces that must beresisted, for others.”
“(…)I feel that the city hasalso been the subject of normalization practices,” continues Rodríguez, “(…)and that at present the proliferation of those things that we might term‘counter-cultural’ are somehow normalized. Things happen, but mostly in spacesthat have become normalized, that is, the normalization of gay life forces usto explore other spaces. These counter-cultural sexual expressions have somehowbecome relegated to a space in which one must pay to see.”
Spanish Socialist Party Anti-Discrimination Campaign, 2008
What is the Alternative? Social Justice.
A particularly sharp critique of the political driveof the mainstream LGTB Movement comes from the queer left, which identifiesracism, classism, militarism, and capitalism as being validated and legitimatedby the Movement in its attempt to conquer equality on its own terms. Isn’t aqueer agenda a suitable place to build an activism and politics of solidarity?
Ryan Conrad refers to this matter in his descriptionof the scope of the work of AgainstEquality: “(…) We are actually suggesting the idea of equality in the status quo and the systems andinstitutions that already exist were designed for a hetero-supremacist societythat is classist and racist. Maybe we should be investing our energy intotransformative ways of meeting our material and affective needs, dealing withharm and violence in our community and addressing whatever the ideas ofnationhood and national security are.”
“(…) When we talk about equality,” Conrad says, “(…)we are talking about this idea that we need to have equal stake in these hugelyproblematic, and I would say, deadly institutions. We are against that. Somepeople at events we have done say we are not against equality but for realequality, or against this sham of equality. I guess if that is how you needto frame it for yourself to get what we are saying, then that is right, we arefor radical equity. We are talkingabout economic justice and social justice on a broad scale and not justsingle-issue identity politics that none of us feel invested in.”
Similarly, American queer activist Kenyon Farrowexplains the origin of the organization Queersfor Economic Justice (QEJ), which he directed for five years. The name “(…)was intentionally chosen because the founders wanted to make sure we weretalking about these issues in terms of a queer politics and queer politicalends versus an LGBT lens. People sometimes use the term ‘queer’ to be allencompassing of different sexual orientations and gender identities. It is alsoabout actually naming the Lesbian and Gay Rights Movement as a product that isabout assimilating into what already exists in terms of a well-fed,well-scrubbed, middle class, bourgeoisie with white values, and the term‘queer’ being a politic that values the different ways in which the communityis gendered and made up of different people of color who use a range of otherterms that aren’t necessarily gay and lesbian terms. It also says it is okay tobe ‘deviant,’ that you do not have to assimilate to a more ‘normal’ model inorder to be accepted. ‘Economic Justice’ was chosen versus, say, ‘EconomicEmpowerment,’ or ‘Equality’ because QEJhas an anti-capitalist, and socialist lens in terms of how it sees economicjustice. We are not talking about ways in which to assimilate poor, low-income,or queer people into the dominant capitalist system or framework. We aretalking about wealth redistribution largely, and though we sometimes areworking very specifically on local policies that impact low-income LGBT peoplein order to make conditions better for negotiating some of the systems poorpeople have to negotiate, we also understand that it is morally objectionablethat people are poor in a country that has so much wealth, and we understandpoverty as systemic and institutionalized, rather than only about gettingpeople training to be able to access better jobs, or education. In a situationwhere the labor movement has been gutted in a lot of ways by the Right, what weare seeing in Wisconsin right now to us in terms of public workers losing, orthreatening to have their benefits cut while their right to collectivelybargain is being undermined, we see these as queer issues and central to how wesee the world.”
This resistance covers what Farrow calls “(…) thefour-pillar mainstream issues of the U.S. LGBT Movement including: Marriageequality, ‘Don''t Ask Don''t Tell,’ hate crimes inclusion, and the ‘EmployeeNon-Discrimination Act.’ First of all, marriage equality is an issue thatprimarily benefits upper class, wealthy, often white gays and lesbians who haveproperty or health insurance that they want to give their partner. If you are apoor queer with no health insurance or no job to speak of, and certainly noproperty, marriage as the singular issue in the way that it has framed as thepanacea for all that ills the LGBT community doesn’t work. We know many poorstraight people who are married for whom marriage did not bring about any majoreconomic shifts. We also see that kind of marriage equality movement tied to aconservative, and neo-conservative agenda around privatization, so that thestate itself can take less responsibility for helping people through differentkinds of social safety net programs. If everybody is supposed to be married andall of your social and economic needs are taken care of in your home then thestate owes you nothing. This is what we are seeing in Wisconsin with thepension debate, where a neo conservative movement is advancing that agenda, sowe are opposed to marriage on those standpoints.”
Farrow goes on to assert that “(…) we are also opposedto dropping the ban on gays in the military and advocating for gay inclusion inthe military because of the impact of the military industrial complex on theU.S. budgets, where about half of the U.S. budget comes down to militaryspending, and can be cut from major portions of how much money is available tohelp people with health care and a range of other needs. We are also opposed towhat the military and U.S. war machine does in other countries. Supportinghuman rights of gays and lesbians in the U.S. does not make any sense alongsidebeing able and kill, maim, and destroy gays and lesbians in Iraq, Afghanistan,Somalia, and the many places where the U.S. is doing all kinds of imperialistmilitary operations. This is similar to our position toward hate crimelegislation in terms of expanding the prison system in the U.S., which isalready the largest the world has ever seen in human civilization and primarilyimpacts people of color, including queer people who were locked up. The‘Employee Non-Discrimination Act,’ finally, is not a real plan towards economicjustice. It is not talking about livable wages or economic sustainability; itis merely a plan for working people to figure out some legal system for filingdiscrimination cases. We see, in terms of race, religion, or gender thatdiscrimination cases are actually quite difficult to win and we are opposed tothe mainstream movement.”
Franklin Gil Hernández refers to the limited politicalscope of the Movement in terms of social classes. “(…) The LGBT Movement has aclass bias and it is important to bear this in mind. It is a middle-classmovement and this is not by chance. It happens not only in Colombia, but alsoin all parts of the world, because there is an organization related toconsumption. Gay neighborhoods, I believe everywhere in the world, are locatedin the most bourgeois districts in the city; here it can be found in Chapinero.The question is, what benefits do people from the popular sectors obtain fromwhat has been achieved, for example, in Bogotá, for it is a very unequal citywith much segregation by class. Here poor people are far and isolated, and onewonders, if public policies are aimed at educated middle-class persons who arefamiliar with up-to-date information, who are politicized, what happens withthose people from the neighborhoods where, in addition to the rest, there arearmed groups.”
According to Diana Navarro, in Colombia “(…) publicpolicies have taken care of fragmenting populations, there isn’t a real socialarticulation, and that leads to every person being concerned with their ownsmall interests instead of practicing the solidarity that would be expected forthe whole of Colombian society to have access to the exercise of their rights.”
Activist and member of Solidarity for LGBT HumanRights of Korea, Jeongyolsays: “(…) The main preceptsof our organization are action and solidarity. (…) For example, at an anti-wardemonstration, we understand that (…) protesting war as an LGBT means much morethan protesting solely for political reasons. (…) We think it is important toshow solidarity to non-LGBT subjects as well, and we try to do that as much aspossible. We take part in collective actions, campaigns and rallies that treatdifferent subjects, to let everyone know that we are there, that we are one ofthem. We hope that when our members confront an obstacle, those who seek socialchange will come and support us as we support them. (…) In 2003, one ofour teen members committed suicide. At that time we were participating in theanti-Iraq War demonstrations, and he was with us all the time. After hissuicide, we spoke of him at a demonstration, about the situation that drovethis young person, deserted by his family and school, to kill himself.Protesting war and sexual minority discrimination may seem like two separateproblems, but they are not. When we organized a memorial ceremony for him,among the people that came were those who we met at the anti-war rally, morethan 300 of them! So many people came that there wasn''t enough space foreverybody. We mourned together and encouraged each other. This makes me believethat those who we communicate with now will someday show solidarity to us.”
Building networks of critical solidarity is alsoimportant for CHOI Hyun-sook: “(…) Capitalism is thesystem that reinforces family values, heterosexualism, and patriarchy.Capitalism demands from families to constantly reproduce labor, something thatreinforces a culture of family values, which in our context equals amale-centered patriarchy. The distinction between normal and abnormal accordingto family values is capitalism’s running dog. This is why left-wing partiesmeet with anti-capitalists. (…) Capitalism seems to be the dominant system inthe world, but it is also exposing its dark side, such as with the recentfinancial crisis. I believe that our actions are constantly making small holesin the capitalist system and that as these holes create a network, society willbecome a more just place. Sometimes the progress will be slow and dull andsometimes it will be revolutionary. We do not know yet which path to take, butwe know where we are heading.”
“People call us utopist,” confesses Ryan Conrad.“(…) But why be anything less? Why set low goals or limit your vision? Utopiais not a place we are going to get to; it is a process, a way of envisioning afuture. It is important not to lose that. People want to be pragmatic andidentify marriage as the winnable thing, but this seems ideologicallyridiculous to me. Why would you compromise a vision of the world you want tolive in for crumbs from a table you don’t want to sit at? I get frustrated withthis concept of gay pragmatism, like we just have to be pragmatic, and investin incremental change. Incremental change towards what? A world that sucks? Aworld that is totally classist, racist, and hetero-supremacist? I’m notworking towards that.”
Cover of Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore''s book
Back to the Margins: Surpassing the Status Quo
Those who believe that the LGBT Movement has lost itspath insightfully criticize it. They emphasize its deviations and errors. Theyspecially criticize the surrendering of the Movement to the status quo.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore believes that “(…)unfortunately gay liberation failed. It failed because the original goals, endof the Church, end of the State, end of the nuclear family, end of U.S.militarism, a broad agenda of sexual liberation, none of that has happened. Thereason it failed for me is because it turned inwards, it became part of themainstream and it became part of the institutional structures. I am notinterested in becoming part of those structures in any form. I don’t even wantmy own structure. I believe in building something on the margins, whatever thatmeans, and I am interested in infiltrating the mainstream media. I aminterested in creating our own media structures, I am interested in creatingradical alternatives, but not in terms of a narrow policy or legal framework. Ithink some of those legal battles are important, like the battle againstsodomy, the battle to be able to determine your gender identity, or the battleto put an end to the prison system. Becoming part of the National Gay Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and changing it orsomething, doesn’t do anything. It will still be an institution that doesnothing except take people’s money and speak to the center. I don’t want tospeak to the center. I am fine with speaking in the center and saying what Iwant.”
For Kenyon Farrow, “(…) economic justice issues andmassive imprisonment are so clearly based on race and class and the ability oropportunity to access material resources as well as the likelihood of your bodyand physical presence to be criminalized by the state. The national mainstreamequality movement in the LGBT population is not dealing with these issuesbecause they think in order to win the policy agenda they set, they have topresent the LGBT community as ‘normal’ as middle America. Meaning the communityand all of its promotion, advocacy, TV shows, sitcoms, all that has to presentas white, middle-class, and heteronormative as possible in order to getapproval from white, straight America. The movement isn''t interested inchallenging larger structures of racism or economic deprivation because it seesvalue in assimilating the few gay and lesbians who can assimilate into white,middle-class, Christian, capitalist patriarchy. As Bell Hooks once said: ‘Ifthat is your goal, you will then only talk about poverty, wealth distribution,and racial justice in ways that are very tokenized.’”
Farrow is “(…) more interested in a debate around whatjustice really is. What is the vision? I do not think the LGBT Movement has avision for where it is going. I think it has made politically expedient choiceswithout actual vision for change or consideration of their policy choices andwhat these campaigns ultimately mean. I think this is reflected in the workitself. ‘Don’t Ask Don''t Tell’ was dropped in some respects, mostly by courtorder and not advocacy work. With gay marriage, work done at the state levelresulted in thirty different state constitutions, so it was a colossal failureif you want to quantify the same sex marriage movement. It resulted in fierceopposition and worse policy for LGBT folks resulting in organizations that areswimming and do not know what to do next.”
Ryan Conrad’s assessment of the mainstream LGBTMovement is severe: “(…) The professionalization of gay and lesbian activistorganizations has a lot to do with it. Within the non-profit sector you answerto your funders and do what your funders want you to do: A hierarchy of peoplewith money still get to decide what happens. Equality Maine is a perfect example of this. They hosted a seriesof community dialogues and I actually went to one thinking, ‘Ugh, it’s Equality Maine, I’m not going to agreewith anything they have to say.’ I gave them the benefit of the doubt becauseit was a community dialogue, right? Wrong. It was a presentation on how theywere going to win gay marriage. They didn’t ask any questions; they had chartsshowing their strategies and their next steps if gay marriage passed in thereferendum. This isn’t a community dialogue. I kept thinking: ‘How did we gethere? We didn’t ask questions yet?’ This comes from super professionalizedorganizing, like the National Gay andLesbian Task Force (NGLTF), which gives you a $100,000 to work on gaymarriage. Gay and Lesbian Advocates andDefenders (GLAD) based in Boston, applied for grants from Maine Community Foundations Equity Fundto do gay marriage advocacy in Maine. So, people from Boston were coming toMaine and instead of listening and asking people what they wanted, out-of-stateorganizations began to zap local resources to do what they wanted. That is whatcontinues to happen. I think it is because of the non-profit industrialcomplex, where career activists answer to a group of upper class gay fundersthat want to consolidate power privilege and property through this thing wecall marriage.”
Sarah Schulman believes that “(…) there is an incredible fear, (…) I see it in everyfield. This is a time of incredible conformity and everyone, including teachersand writers, whatever their role, are terrified about making power structuresover them uncomfortable. They fear losing access, money, and respect.Everything is run by fear so people are afraid of alienating the powers that beand trying interesting new things because they are afraid someone is going tolook down on them and they will no longer be invited to the party.”
Schulman goes on to confess: “(…) I am afraid too. I amfrightened all the time, but I do not let the fears determine mybehavior. How I act and whether or not I am afraid are two separatethings in my process. I think questions such as, is this doable, reasonable,and morally sound? What are the consequences going to be when I do this?I know I will make some people mad but can I actually achieve somethingpositive? If I think I can be effective, I allow myself to feel afraid. Theproblem is when people act because they are afraid. These two things need to beseparated. It is okay to feel uncomfortable. If you are going to createanything worthy, you are going to feel uncomfortable and other people are goingto make you feel uncomfortable, and that has to be accepted as part of life. Ifyou want to feel safe all the time, you will never be able to do anything. (…) Itis very hard to change institutions. That is why we build alternativeinstitutions.”
Gay Shame marching against the war machine in SF, 2003. Source: http://www.gayshamesf.org/images.html
Queeractivists stand against hegemonic power and propose alternatives, build plansof action and construct agendas designed by and for marginalized people.Decentralizing power by speaking from “the margins” to “the margins” is a wayof tackling the Movement’s failures, but more importantly, of meeting theurgent needs of underrepresented communities.
Action and education arestrategies to surpass fear. Kenyon Farrow provides an example of the type ofwork developed at Queers for EconomicJustice where “(…) to combat the challenges we face in respect tohomelessness, we work specifically in the adult shelter system in New YorkCity. (…) First wetrain a team of facilitators who run support groups in the adult shelter systemin New York City. In addition to doing those trainings, we hold ‘Train theTrainers’ workshops, to train members of the community to provide support.Being homeless, you are so far removed from generally being able to participatein certain kinds of places and institutions in society, but also being queerbecause so much of the LGBT infrastructure is based in places of commerce suchas bars and clubs, gay coffee shops, bookshops, and restaurants. (…) Folks get marginalized so actually being in the shelter itselfprovides a space to build some level of community and support within theshelter as well as help others connect to different kinds of service oradvocacy so that they can either get out of the shelter system and get housingor get access to the kind of welfare and public assistance benefits that willhelp stabilize their income. We also begin to organize these folks to be ableto challenge the actual shelter based on issues that are relevant to allhomeless people, whether it is around conditions in a particular shelter suchas food or security guards targeting queer folks, or other folks in theshelter. This work ends up informing our citywide campaigns around the sheltersystem.”
Similarly,Ryan Conrad is engaged with the organization Outright L/A in Maine, an LGBTQ youth drop-in center that is openonce a week, where “(…) we do outreach programs training service providers liketeachers and healthcare practitioners to create safe and affirming environmentsfor queer and trans youth. Much of the work I do involves directly working withqueer and trans youth, mostly kids living in poverty in small towns andCatholic environments.” Additionally, Ryan lives “(…) in a queer collectivehouse in my town in Maine. (…) It has become a queer beacon safe house spacewhere we hold social events and have film showings, dance parties, and somelecture style stuff, but primarily cultural and social queer events in a townthat doesn’t have a queer meeting point, where there is no gay bar.”
Addressingthe lack of meeting and community spaces, Korean teen activist Jinki speaksabout her motivations to start Rateen:“(…) Even in Seoul there is no decent place where sexual minority teens can gettogether, and it is almost impossible even to meet someone like you in thelocal areas. So there was practically no base that our culture or activismcould stem from. The existing online communities mostly focus on meeting peopleand dating; after realizing my sexual orientation, I knew these groups couldn''tsolve my issues. (…) All I ever needed was someone telling me ‘Yeah,you''re okay the way you are.’ But there was no place that could give me suchconsolation, so I formed Rateen.” Jinki goeson to explain that “(…) Rateen differsfrom the existing communities in two aspects: First, everything is organizedand run solely by teenagers; whatever orientation, whether you are lesbian,gay, transgender or anything else, we all gather as one; and secondly, weprovide shelter for sexual minority teens so that we can share our thoughts anddevelop our own culture.” At Rateenmembers “(…) pay the basic expenses out of our pockets. We never receiveparticipation fees for the seminar; they are held in public meeting rooms andare offered for free.” Rateen is notonly an online community, “(…) we meet off-line too. Once a month we doseminars on sexual orientation theories and social issues. And every August15th (Independence Day of Korea) we hold an (…) annual event, we do a lot ofthings: Queer film screenings, open counseling, lectures and recreationalprograms. People get to know each other and exchange information.”
Transactivist Diana Navarro also started an organization in Bogotá to confront theurgent challenges faced by her community. “At Corporación Opción por el Derecho de Hacer y elDeber de Hacer we develop all sorts of affirmative actions aimed at achieving therestoration of the rights of persons practicing prostitution, or activitiesassociated to prostitution, and of Bogotá’s transgender population, particularlytransvestites, transformists and transsexuals. (…)We do a lot of work onpolitical incidence. We participate in local committees working on theformulation of both district and local public policies for the development andimplementation of actions, the organization of the population’s participation,the categorization of existing groups. (…) My work began not only as a resultof my sexual orientation or my gender identity; what was a determining factorfor my work was the practice of prostitution. There I was able to get in touchwith a different reality.”
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamorespeaks about Gay Shame, another example of a self-initiatedorganization that “(…) wanted to (…) create a radical alternative to‘Gay Pride.’ Instead of having an endless gated procession of corporate floats,we thought we would just invite people for free into a space to share skillsand strategies for resistance. We had bands, music, dancing and also peopletalking about welfare reform, trans liberation, or gentrification in New York.We thought we could make culture on our own terms. When I moved to SanFrancisco we started Gay Shame there along similar lines, itwas a ‘direct action extravaganza’; we were committed to challenging thehypocrisy, not just of mainstream gay people but also of all hypocrites. Wewould throw together these very elaborate events like the ‘Gay Shame Awards’where we awarded the most hypocritical gay people for their service to thecommunity. We had categories like “(…) ‘helping right wingers cope,’‘exploiting our youth,’ an ‘award for celebrities who should never have comeout in the first place,’ etc. The award was a burning rainbow flag. Whatwas really interesting about Gay Shame’s actions, was that wewanted to create a spectacle. We wanted to create something that used themilitancy of ACT UP, but fused it with spectacle, to focus onreclaiming the streets in an anti-capitalist, extravagant way, so that peoplewould be drawn in.”
The Path Towards a Sexless and Genderless Society
Theimplicit endorsement of a binary organization of gender and sexuality as wellas the assimilationist effect attached to it, are not the only (un)intended consequencesof the identity-based approach. An even more problematic corollary is produced:The construction of identities implies an explicit rigidity in thecategorization of gender. This, in turn, excludes not only those unable orreluctant to be categorized, but also a very marginalized segment of thepopulation: Transgender and intersex people.
EllenMortensen speaks about a ‘hierarchy of oppression’ when she deals with therivalry between different identity groups based on race, ethnicity and gender,in the search towards equality rights. Even if, as she asserts, gender is today“(…) at the same level of all the other issues: age, sexual orientation,ethnicity, religion, etc.,” this hierarchy of oppression has found its way topersist, within a great variety of non-normative genders and sexualities.
EstebanRestrepo thinks “(…) the acronym LGBT is, up to a certain point, a perverseone, which was invented in the United States within a very peculiar context ofactivism, with its own socio-cultural and economic context, which is notdirectly translatable to us. To speak of LGBT in Asia or in Africa is acontradiction, because those categories are not trans-historically orculturally stable. But sometimes strategy precedes theory and the everydayneeds to precede theory, and one has to be pragmatic. In the acronym ‘LGBT,’the ‘G’ has taken it all; we see diverse sexualities through the optics of gaymen, and of a certain type of gay men. In that measure, I believe lesbians havebeen rendered invisible, as have the much more perverse ways in which they arebeing subdued, punished doubly due to the combination of sexism and homophobia.Bisexuals are invisible. What does being bisexual in contemporary societiesmean? Like Kenji Yoshino remarks, bisexuals are included in a sort of contractof epistemic elimination between heterosexuals and homosexuals. For manyhomosexuals, bisexuals are confused heterosexuals or people who want toexperiment, and the same goes for homosexuals. There is also the transgender problem;trying to make a judge understand what a transgender is, is already apractically impossible matter. We are not carrying out serious work with trans,but what does a small organization with scarce resources that must confront asociety with this existential diversity do? It is these persons who reallyexperience everyday violence in the hardest, most perverse way; who face thegreatest barriers, who find themselves in situations of real impoverishment.”
Thereis a first problem of definition and characterization. Justus Eisfeld, transactivist and Co-Director of Global Actionof Trans* Equality (GATE) affirms, “(…) I don’t think anybody can define atrans person in a clearly defined setting. We prefer to work on gender identityissues and gender identity rights that are broadly rooted in critical genderstudies and feminism. We consider these foundations from perspectives of peoplewho transgress gender norms because we have found that perpetrators ofviolence, for example, don’t really care how people self identify, but ratherattack anybody who they perceive as transgressing gender norms. This can be aperson who is visibly transgendered or androgynous, but it can also be a personwho crosses gender boundaries in other ways, for example, gay men with a swayin their hips, lesbian women who look a little too butch, heterosexual women ina powerful position, and so on. While these are all transgressions of gendernorms, many of these people would never self-identify as trans and we wouldnever claim for them to be trans. While we are deeply rooted within the transmovement we also feel we need to take multiple needs into account when pressingfor trans rights in order to frame our struggle in a broader spectrumaddressing the transgression of gender norms as well as looking critically atgender norms in general.”
Regardingthe needs of trans people, he thinks “(…) they are similar in most parts of theworld. There are always issues around holistic recognition of our genderidentities, both in legal terms but also in medical terms. There are alwaysissues around violence, discrimination, harassment, and accessing employment,work and healthcare. However, the severity of these issues varies greatly fromcountry to country and from culture to culture. In some places access tohealthcare is more important and in other places direct violence by strangersor by family members is a more direct need so the emphasis is different indifferent parts of the world.”
Thereare many varieties between male and female, Justus Eisfeld asserts. “Ipersonally believe we should question why states and governments registergender in the first place. Any registration of any characteristic is alwaysused to make distinctions between people and I believe governments should notmake distinctions between men and women. The registration of gender is veryclosely linked to the military. The first national registration of citizens wasdone by Napoleon in France because he wanted to know who the boys were so hecould draft them for his wars. Registration of men and women by governments hasalways been very closely linked to being able to draft one half of society tobe part of the military. Any gender registration has always been started withthe purpose of identifying men to draft them for the military. Over the courseof time it became a free floating thing of its own, especially in countrieswith no military draft. Registering men and women can be useful in terms ofmonitoring discrimination, knowing how many men and how many women are inspecific places in society, but I firmly believe this can be done withstatistical methods as well, without coming down to the individual person.”
Classificationsconstraint flexibility and restrict ambiguity. They exclude the very essence oflives such as American performer Mx. Justin Vivian Bond’s, who, throughout v’slife, has been “(…) gender fluid and sometimes identified as more male or morefemale, (…) when I was younger (…) I didn’t have a way out really. I have beenvery aggressive about saying I am trans in work and in life, but other than mywork, people can take nothing other than my word for this expression. This isfine but I started to think about when I become older maybe I won''t have thestrength or the energy or the mental facilities to constantly be asserting mytransness, so I decided to start making a public and medical record of mytransness as well as having my body be the record of my transness. Hopefully,in twenty or thirty years, when I am an old person, there will have been a lotof changes and a lot more room for trans people in medical establishments andin places where we go to be taken care of when we are old. I do not want to belumped in with the old men, and would probably prefer to be with old women, orold trans people. I just decided that it was important for me to have aphysical and medical record of my transness, not so much for now, but forlater.”
“(…)Generally speaking, whenever society privileges its way of understanding theworld, its norms, its classifications of human beings, we all lose.” saysColombian intersex activist Joshua Pimiento Montoya. “(…) That family lost avaluable member; society, his society, lost a being who had a place, who shouldhave had a place. Defending tooth and nail any classification system imposedupon human beings is already a problem. Why not let us be, why not let us behappy? If a person living a particular experience finds more meaning to his/herlife and may simply be, the rest will also be happier and will be in greaterharmony; it is a global benefit. But to stop classifying is very complicated,culture has that vocation; it classifies us, it organizes us. Cultural changeis important, but sometimes, as is the case of the struggle within the LGBTmovement itself, the fact of not being heteronormative does not imply not beingnormative and not demanding that the other be a good gay person: ‘zerofeathers, with the feet on the ground, and serious,’ or ‘I want to have arelationship with a man, not with little women,’ those things end up hurtingus. Whoever feels that this is hisessence, casting feathers away or whatever; let him do so. What is the urgency to put pressure on him, to shape him in acertain way and not let him be?”
Pimientofurther expresses: “(…) While we can handle certain classifications thatsometimes orient us, we must understand that reality always goes beyond them,fortunately. All the time there are situations that confirm that there isn’t anideal way to classify that covers everything and that is really fair; let ustake classifications as transient things, let us not cling to them; ifnecessary, let us use them to vindicate rights, but we must not allow them tobecome a kind of truth and of legitimization to impose it upon others, or evenupon oneself, because we will end up being the victims of that process.”
Colombiantrans activist Diana Navarro vindicates self-definition. “(…) We depend onself-definition, on self-determination, on the person’s self-construction. Ifyou come with a beard and a mustache, wearing a suit and you tell me you are atrans person, (…) you are a trans person. Many of us express our gender invehement ways, but others prefer to consider themselves, construct themselves,act in a certain way, but have a contrary gender”.
JustusEisfeld goes a step further and favors “(…) the societal benefits to embracinggender diversity and giving people more ways to express themselves. When yougive people the ability to be themselves in more than two defined categoriesyou open up ways for people to live, which sparks diversity. Diversity sparkscreativity and I think it is important to look at what we contribute to societyin terms of our views and our experiences. This contribution that we make tosociety is something we need to stress and convey to other people. I believe inpositive examples.”
Ruin isinterested in the social reactions to sexual ambiguity and states the lack ofneed for medical treatment. “(…) I made up my mind not to have surgery firstand considered its political effects afterwards. When I introduce myself as atransgender, I usually don’t clarify whether I’m MTF or FTM. A lot of peoplemistake me as an FTM, others get confused thinking: ‘From how he/she actshe/she is a woman but from the way he/she looks he/she must be a man…’ I findthese reactions interesting so I make use of them often.”
Endorsingthis statement in favor of gender flexibility and moving ahead in an attempt touse language positively to name andunderstand non-normative sexualities, Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad creates newcategories: “(…) Language is our main way of communicating as human beings. Wecan’t get rid of categories so I believe in them. Humans will categorizehowever hard we try not to and I want to be in a dialogue with the existingterms. If I tried to introduce and to construct a totally different languagethat I would find more appropriate, I wouldn’t be able to communicate. Ibelieve in changing things a little more gradually. I am sure you have heard meuse the word ‘talent.’ I talk about transtalents, ‘Androgen Insensitivity Talent,’ ‘Intersex Talent,’ etc., because inthat way I am opposing medicalizing terms like ‘syndrome,’ ‘misshape,’ andothers that arent’t very good as labels. For example, I also use the word‘phenomenon.’ I think it is much better for a human being to be a phenomenonthan to be a kind of walking disease or walking misfortune. In that way I tryto add to the language words that are much more positive. ‘Talent’ is apositive word. My talent for being trans is a very strong one. When I tried tosuppress it, it made me quite depressed. I think that is true for all strongtalents: I am sure that if one had tried to stop Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart frommaking music, he would have become depressed because he would have felt that hehad something in there that wanted to come out! He could hear it in his headand he wanted us to hear it too!”
EsbenEsther believes “(…) the general public knows very little about trans‘talents.’ I too was as ignorant as anybody back then. I had to search forinformation on transsexuality in books and encyclopedias, and wherever I read,it said I was a sick person. Honestly, I didn’t feel very sick, I didn’t evenrun a fever! I thought these books were wrong. Their ideas were burdening me witha diagnosis that was unnecessary. A diagnosis that made something that isprecious to me into something that is ill and wrong. This sparked the necessityfor me to be political and to open up space to the ‘unusual’ human being: Youare not sick, you are not disturbed but you certainly do disturb. My work todayentails being a therapist to individuals and to couples but I am also trying toassist those that are disturbed by me. Instead of accepting the label‘disturbing,’ I like to assist those I disturb. I disturb psychiatry, I disturbpsychology; I disturb a lot of people. My wife and I have a favorite lecture wegive called ‘Gender Euphoria,’ in which we quote Marcel Proust: ‘(...) The realvoyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having neweyes...’”
In astrong assertion against the gender binary, Esben Esther declares that “(…)there is a struggle between those who believe in a more fluid way of perceivinggender, those who believe that there are far more genders than two. We operatewith seven and if you propose an eighth one it will be welcomed. The sevengenders are based on people we have actually met. They do not represent anethereal map that we want to impose. The first is what we call the ‘FemaleGenders,’ and we put them in plural to indicate that there are many colorswithin that category as well. Then the ‘Male Genders.’ Then the ‘InterGenders,’ or the ‘Intersex Genders,’ which are also a group that has been madeill. Here we have the ‘Klinefelter Phenomenon,’ the ‘Turner Phenomenon’and the ‘Androgen Insensitivity Phenomenon.’ Note that in medical terms theseare called ‘syndromes,’ but for me they are ‘phenomenons.’ (…) Then you havethe ‘Trans Genders,’ where I belong, which is also another rainbow of people,of ways to express oneself. There are several ways to more or less change yourbody to make it a good ‘place’ to be. Then there are people who refuse gender,you could call them ‘Gender Refusers.’ They say gender is not for them. Those Ihave met have been very political about their position. Then you have the‘Personal Genders.’ I met someone I called Oscar who has long blond hair,beautiful make up, female clothes, a bulge and no breasts. I asked Oscar: ‘Whatpronoun do you want me to use when I talk to and about you?’ Oscar said: ‘He.’So I asked him: ‘What gender are you Oscar, I am a little confused?’ and hesaid: ‘I am Oscar. I do gender my way.I don’t want to be in any categories.’ The seventh gender is the ‘EunuchGenders.’ There are the Hijras or theKhusras of India who may or may notsee themselves as belonging to that category. There is an organized groupcalled ‘Eunuch Genders,’ which are somatic males that want to remove theirtesticles because they feel that those testicles aren’t ‘them.’ Of course theyare entitled to do that. I believe in self-determined gender.”
Thebinary system to organize gender and sexuality not only reduces the scope ofindividual vital experiences; it also establishes a scheme of social exclusionand discrimination with deep consequences.A significant one is the absence of medical access for those who intend toreceive hormonal or chirurgical treatment. “(…) ‘Gender Identity Disorder’(GID) is listed as a mental disorder in Korea,” says trans activist Hanmuji.“(…) Doctors know it exists, but don’t know how to treat it. When we visit thedoctor, we ourselves have to explain to him/her what we need: ‘I''m transgender,and I need hormone replacement therapy’ or ‘I need a mastectomy and ahysterectomy.’ If the doctor refuses, we will consult someone else. We have todo this over and over until someone finally accepts to treat us.”
InNorway, says trans activist Tarald Stein, “(…) in 1999, the possibility to havegender reassignment treatment was shut. But that same year, the Harry Benjamin Resource Center wasstarted by transsexuals, to get the possibility of treatment for that group.During the past ten years they have developed in a conservative way, and nowthey clearly express that they are the only organization in the country forpeople to get the ‘transsexualism’ diagnosis. Only people with this diagnosiscan get treatment in Norway; you can''t get it for any other expression ofgender identity. There has been a gap between the transvestites, mostlymale-to-female, and the transsexuals, because there are a lot of people thatfall in between those categories. You have some transgender people who don''tqualify for the diagnosis, and therefore the transsexual organization won''thelp them.”
InKorea “(…) insurance coverage of transgender treatments is a double-edgedproblem,” affirms Ruin. “(…) Without insurance, the black market grows andstabilizes the price at a lower rate. In fact, isn''t institutionalization alsoan illegal process of the things that were, until now, easily tolerated? Itreflects the desire to control everything outside governmental supervision. Sosome activists are hesitant of institutionalizing, rather choosing to raise theblack market itself and circulate it within the community, along with networkswith several gender-conscious doctors.”
Regardingthe right for medical and professional assistance, Diana Navarro declares thatin Colombia “(…) we are totally screwed by Act100. Under Act 100, all thoseprocesses of sexual reassignment or body transformation are consideredaesthetic procedures and they are not covered by the Social Security. Regardingthat, all processes are blocked, and now, with all those decrees on socialemergency, it is even worse because we had managed to get some doctors to offerthe possibility of a hormone treatment for persons who want to go ahead withthat transit up to the point they want to reach. Not all transgender personswant to be sexually reassigned; it is valid to appropriate a number of thingsfrom that categorization in a positive way, but here in Colombia, theauthorities use this in a negative way. We participated in the campaign againstthe pathologization of transsexuality and we had internal debates within thegroup because many workmates believed that if we were considered sick personsthey would have to cure us, we could have access to treatments because we wereaffected by ‘Gender Dysphoria,’ and I said to them: It is a misunderstanding,because what they will cure is the psychological incongruence you have with youranatomical sex, so that you may feel comfortable with your biological sex, notfor you to obtain the gender you wish to belong to. Colombia’s Constitutionoffers us a wide spectrum of possibilities; we can appropriate a number ofthings: Health is a constitutional right, and so is a dignified life and thefree development of one’s personality. In terms of legislative advancements,Colombia is in the vanguard, but in terms of recognition, of the establishmentof actions that may lead to people being able to exercise all thoseconstitutional rights in an appropriate way, we are fried.”
Discriminationand exclusion are present always throughout the State’s actions. Even if thefundamental right to autonomy is protected, the power to be oneself has drasticlimitations, as Diana Navarro explains. “(…) We have no access to health, wehave no services with a differential perspective that renders them adequate forour specificities and our needs; we don’t have that. I was telling a senator:What the hell do I care about a right to the free development of personality ifI have no access to medical care, I cannot transform my body to adapt it and befaithful to the feminine or masculine ideal I aspire to, which is not a simplewhim, which is not a simple invention, it is a need of mine, and a need thatrequires a psychological, medical, interdisciplinary accompaniment. How am Igoing to develop my personality freely if I don’t have the right to health, ifI don’t have the right to work because I dress like a woman being a man. How amI going to have the right to the free development of my personality if I do nothave access to decent housing?”
Theselimits begin with the very first obligation of the state to give citizens an IDnumber. As Ruin makes it clear, this is a major concern, because it is thecondition to be entitled to all other rights. “(…) The biggest issue is theResident Registration Number (The 13-digit national identification numbersystem of Korea. The first six digits consist of the resident''s birth date, inthe form of YYMMDD, and the first of the latter seven digits indicates theresident''s sex; an odd number if a man, an even number if a woman). The RRN isalmost a prerequisite for a proper life in Korea. They ask for it on all sortsof occasions. For transgender persons, the sex indicated on the RRN and theapparent or identified sex is discordant, and therefore they are looked atsuspiciously. The RRN is also required when you look for a job, so transgenderpeople are often unemployed or work temporary jobs. Some transgender personslook almost 20 years younger due to their hormone treatments and they are morethan often asked for their RRN cards at bars and even when buying cigarettes.Sometimes they are even suspected of carrying someone else''s card.”
InNorway, says Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad, “(…) we have gendered ID cards.Mine is 03054946375. The number 3 says that I have a dick. However hard I havetried to hide it, this number discloses me. In the Norwegian passport you arealso either a man or a woman. I tried to get two pictures in it since I quiteoften also appear as a man. It is no problem for me to be and to express myselfas a man. I wanted two pictures so I could feel as secure in my femaleexpression as in my male expression. Others have tried to do the same thing butwe all met a brick wall.”
ForDiana Navarro these forms of control curtail even the right to hold her name.“(…) I have not changed my name because I have a political position in thisregard. What is the point of my name being Diana Navarro San Juan in my ID ifthe male gender variable is going to continue appearing? They are notrecognizing me in my full dimension. I don’t think it is worthwhile. Many of myworkmates feel attracted by that and they think it is a step forward, but Idon’t consider it thus, I consider that the variable of sex must be eliminatedfrom IDs. In the new IDs, in the billion ID quotas, it has already beeneliminated, but in the old IDs, it still continues to appear, so we, the peoplewho obtained their IDs before the year 2000 continue to have the same problem.”
KenyonFarrow calls attention to the severe consequences of state regulatedidentification in U.S. prisons. “(…) The situation in the prison system is verysimilar to the shelter system in the sense that in most places, if you aretrans identified you have to go to whatever prison your biologicaldocumentation dictates. Some places have queer specific wings in the prison andoftentimes queer and trans folks are put in protective custody, which is reallysolitary confinement, it is not as though there is a separate place in prisonswhere they place queer people, but they use it in order to supposedly keep themsafe from various kinds of violence, sexual assault, and rape within the prison.Solitary confinement is twenty-three hours a day lockdown, with one hour spentoutside on the yard. You are still in an actual cage outside, so it is like youare out in the open space with the other prisoners, but you are in a twelvefoot cage so you have to exercise and do whatever you are going to do in thatcage to keep you protected. Many queer and trans folks, even if they have beentargeted for or have experienced certain kinds of violence or rape in prisons,will rather be in with the general population. Who wants to be in solitaryconfinement? Sometimes folks have advocated to be removed from generalpopulation and then when they find out that they are actually in solitaryconfinement they try to get back and that is another sort of challenge. Sometimesit depends on the warden or guards who may think you will cause problems in thegeneral population, which basically means you are targeted in all thesedifferent ways, so they will keep you in solitary confinement as long as theycan.”
Mx.Justin Vivian Bond celebrates the fact that “(…) they just changed the law, Ithink in New York or maybe in the Federal Government, that you no longer haveto have surgery in order to get gender confirmed by a doctor, which makes iteasier for people to have their gender changed on their passports. Once yourgender is changed on your passport it becomes easier in smaller, more localways to get your gender changed. Of course the gender choices on a passport arestill ‘M’ and ‘F.’ If I write male or female, either one, I am lying, because Iam neither. I would like to see a ‘T’ in the box, or a ‘T’ and circle. Let theother two be boxes!”
“(…) As far as pronouns,previously, I always went with ‘He’ because it was easier. Now I am at a point where I am more confidentto assert what works for me. There have always been attempts within language tofind gender-neutral pronouns. I was speaking at a conference on sex and genderand the person introducing me asked which pronoun I would prefer, and I wasflustered by the question. He suggested calling me ‘They’ because gendergenesis people like to be referred to that way. I told him, okay, try it. Therewere two people who spoke ahead of me and when he got to my introduction, I hadforgotten our previous conversation and he started referring to me as ‘They,’and looking over at me. My friend Matt was sitting next to me and I was like,‘who is he talking about?’, and then I realized that I was ‘They,’ and thought,‘oh God, that really doesn''t work for me’. I had to think about it more. Thereare pronouns such as ‘Z,’ ‘Hir’ and all these different ones that felt awkwardto me so I decided I was going to be Mx. Justin Vivian Bond, because I feltlike it was a more rounded expression of who I am. I then decided to be ‘V’because I like the way ‘V’ is written with two united sides of equal strength.Also in French vie, means life. So Imade ‘V’ my pronoun.”
Somewhere Between Male and Female: Intersexuality
Thebiological condition of an individual whose sexuality is divided between maleand female characteristics is called intersexuality. The medicalization of thiscondition, its treatment as pathology, and the poor medical ethics concerningthe treatment of the infants are urgent issues for intersex activistsinternationally. Also, the moral admissibility of intrusive medical practices,the scope of certain definitions, the relations between intersexuality andsexual orientation, and between intersex and transgender people are the mainsubjects addressed throughout these interviews.
Dr.Tiger Howard Devore offers a definition of intersexuality in the followingterms: “(…) What we call intersexpeople are children that are born somewhere between male and female. Theresting state of mammal tissue is female, so once a child is conceived, ifnothing were to happen to that fetus, it would be born with genitalia thatlooks female and that doesn’t matter from the standpoint of the chromosomes oranything else. What matters are the hormonal effects on the child. As itdevelops, the child moves basically from female to male in many steps and thegenitals literally change how they look and function over the time ofgestation. If there is a stopping in that masculinization, especially theexternal genitalia, then that child is noticed often at birth as being betweenthe sexes or having ambiguous genitalia.”
“(…)What happens to them socially and physically?” asks Norwegian researcher MaritVaula Rasmussen. “How do the medical system, the state administration and thelaw, deal with these conditions? Usually intersex children are given anassigned gender pretty early, and then they are treated either with hormones orwith surgery, or both, at a rather early time in their lives. I chose to defineintersex in a way that also includes other larger out-groups that are often notthought of as intersex, like individuals that have Turner Syndrome andKlinefelter’s Syndrome.
The Curative Perspective
Perhapsthe most vital question about intersexuality is its conception as a pathologythat needs medical intervention. Marit Vaula Rasmussen, Joshua PimientoMontoya, Dr. Tiger Howard Devore and Norwegian medical doctor Kirsti Malterudframe this controversy.
ForMarit Vaula Rasmussen “(…) the ethics concerning intersexuality can be verydifficult because (…) there is a medical reality to take into account. This isnot necessarily a matter of choosing between creating a woman, creating a man,or letting the child be, because this last option is in a way a naïve approach.It is so in relation to the fact of planning to raise a child that is genderindifferent in a very gender categorized society. (...) There is a quality ofgender that is actually related to good health: To be a person with normal sexalso means that you have a higher probability to be a healthy person and notdevelop different kinds of diseases that are related to your hormone levels.This is an issue that is also relevant to people who transition within a transsexualcontext, because once they have transitioned, they have a higher probability toget gender specific disorders. Physically speaking, they are transformingthemselves into the opposite sex that their bodies are equipped for, and sothey have to find the perfect balance with artificial hormones, and this can betricky.”
JoshuaPimiento Montoya, on the contrary, considers that “(…) there are some medicalaspects, but they are minimal. One of those cases is the syndrome termedSuprarenal Hyperplasia, because if it affects the body’s electrolytes, theperson may suffer dehydration. But I think this occurs in a minor proportion.What we are talking about here is how medicine has somehow vested itself withan authority to define who is who in many senses, but based on the body, on themateriality of this body. Since it is the authority regarding the knowledge ofthat body, it is supposed to be the one in charge of defining, but in theframework of a system that only recognizes two possibilities, not just in termsof sex but also of identity. If you are a man you must have a penis of acertain size and oriented towards penetration, and if you are a woman, you musthave a vagina that may be penetrated.”
Dr.Tiger Howard Devore endorses Pimiento’s position and affirms: “(…) There are afew medically necessary considerations around kids who are born with hormonalimbalance that causes them to waste all the salt out of their system. Theywould die rapidly if they didn’t get hormonal intervention. That is one type.Almost all the rest of the intersex kids that we force changes on, it is allcosmetic and not one doctor is going to tell you it is medically necessary,except for the discomfort of the parents for how the kid is going to beaccepted into society. The idea is to fix this kid up so they look ‘right,’ butmedical considerations from the standpoint of just the health of the child,there are only a few very specific considerations that we can find out prettyquick and treat relatively easily. All the rest of it is about how we thinkthese kids are supposed to look so that everybody else is comfortable.”
KirstiMalterud goes a step further: “(…) The authority of the medical advice is verystrong, too strong perhaps. I don''t think the medical experts in that field arevery reflective on the cultural construction of gender, unfortunately. Havingworked for many years in the service of transgender people, which was somehow asurgical view on gender, I would prefer a society where the voice of the girlin the film (XXY, by Lucía Puenzo,Argentina 2007) would be heard. Let her be herself and don''t let her parentshave a need to protect her from all the terrible things that would happen, ifthey make the decision for her.”
Malterudwonders what is to be done in “(…) the case of the birth of a person whosegenitals are ambiguous, and read through these binary lenses. If a person isnot assigned as male or female, he or she cannot have access to certain rights.What do they say at school? There is a whole institutional, cultural, socialinfluence that makes it very difficult to find third, fourth, fifth places, butsomehow this is a wager, because this exists. In practice they exist, they arethere; suffice it to see what people are like, the enormous diversity of ways ofthinking, ways of being, but also of body forms and ways of relating to thosebodies. That binary system is very precarious and very oppressive. I think thepressure to define, to decide, has its source there and not necessarily inpeople’s experiences, although occasionally, and this must not be denied, anintersex person does not assume a role, a totally masculine or a totallyfeminine identity. This happens to many trans-sexual persons, many of themheterosexual, who feel that they are men or that they are women, and who feelthey have nothing to do with the ‘T’ of LGBT; who are oriented, and thatgenerates tensions. I would say this is the source of the pressure; many of ustry to find meaning to our life and an important part of this is taking the placethat has been somehow predefined for you.”
Someconsider chirurgical medical intervention on babies as a form of mutilation.Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad remarks that “(…) surgeons, in Norway, operate onbabies’ genitals because they do not fit one of the two predominant gendercategories, it is genital mutilation, just as they do in Somalia.” Dr. TigerHoward Devore also thinks of early medical intervention as a mutilationequivalent to female circumcision; he denounces “(…) the hypocrisy of the femalecircumcision condemnation, which came out in Congress and we wanted to questionwhy in a discussion about genital surgery on kids Congress would be willing toend this surgery for Muslim kids in Saudi Arabia, but not for American kids inevery American city in this country, we ran into a debate about religioustraditions behind circumcision and were told Congress couldn’t issue a blanketstatement making it illegal to do genital surgery on infants without theirconsent because ‘what do we do about circumcision?’ For me, the answer isn’tthat hard, circumcision continues in the way it has been done for thousands andthousands of years, by somebody who is part of that religious organization.Every doctor in every hospital doesn’t circumcize every male child that isborn, it is easy, but they make it hard.”
Whenasked whether waiting would be the best option for a child to decide for itselfwhat to do with its body, Devore said: “(…) This is what all of us who are bornintersex are trying to get the medical establishment to do, to wait, to let thechild make a determination about what their sex of identity is so that whenthey are three, four or five, they begin to tell you if they think they are aboy or girl and they show you by the kinds of ways that they pick toys, howthey refer to themselves, or by the clothing they prefer. By the time they areeleven, twelve, thirteen, they make a decision about what kind of puberty theywant to have. Do they want to have a feminizing puberty and end up looking likea girl, do they want to have a masculinizing puberty and end up looking like aboy or do they want something else? Do they want to have a puberty that isnatural to their own personal physiology go with that? There are some kids whowill identify as being neither male nor female and that is very difficult forparents and heterosexual people because they want their kid to be heterosexualtoo. They want their kid to be either male or female, to grow up like they didand to find an opposite sex partner, have children, a family and to have thatkind of life, but that doesn’t always fit for an intersex person.”
Tactical Trans-Intersex Alliances
Theconnection between intersexuality and sexual orientation is multifaceted. Eventhough sexual orientation cannot be predicted for intersex persons,associations are repeatedly made. Dr. Tiger Howard Devore explains thesecomplex relations in the following terms: “(…) Sociologically the gay andlesbian community has for a very long time, or actually I should say the artisticcommunity has for a very long time been the place for people who are sexuallydifferent to go to. These people identify as being counter culture and that iswhy I talk about the people who I see as being sexually different, as beingdifferent from the mainstream. Whenever people who are different are lookingfor a place where they will be accepted, as opposed to receiving prejudice,being kept down, refused privilege, or kept from being able to advance in thethings that are most important to them, they go to these fringe communities.Lesbians and gays have won a lot of recognition in Western society. We are at aplace where lesbians and gays really have a political force. Queer others andsexually different others do get some value out of associating themselves withthese groups. The lesbian and gay communities have been pretty wiling to acceptpeople who are sexually different, like the heterosexual sadomasochistic typesand all the rest of the people who express sexuality in a different way. Thosewho cross gender behavior from the standpoint of what the mainstream sees asthe sexual binary almost always gravitate toward the gay and lesbiansubcultures and communities. There is some power in that, in numbers; andpolitical organizations that are already established, and have their in-roadsto various powers-to-be as well as with corporations have the money to supportpolitical pursuits.”
Is thata good or a bad thing? He wonders: “(…) I can’t really be sure. Regardingsexuality, because I do identify as intersex, then homosexuality is the badthing right? We don’t want to be homosexual, but if I am intersex, when is itthat I am homosexual? Am I homosexual when I sleep with a male partner becauseI happen to look male, or am I homosexual if I sleep with a female partnerbecause I am really intersex? Am I only homosexual when I sleep with anotherintersex person, and how do we define that? How do we make sure it is really anintersex person so we can be sure I am really homosexual? From the standpointof the gay and lesbian movement, are intersex people just more homosexualsjumping on the bandwagon? Well no, it is kind of hard given our very strictdefinitions that are completely gender biased and binary. What is the sexualityof the intersex person? What if they don’t identify as male or female? You knowwe all get to look at these definitional questions when we try to make sense ofhow we are going to arrange our prejudices.”
Therelation between intersexuality and transgenderism is not straightforward either.Marit Vaula Rasmussen explains these difficulties. “(…) People are juststarting to understand homosexuality. They are maybe starting to understandtranssexualism and the difference between transsexuals and transvestites. Sointersex gets added to those groups. I think it is really interesting that theactual surgery is never talked about, the techniques for creating bodies,because this is what you do with the knives: You take tissue, human flesh, andthen you transform it into something else. Of course, not all the techniquesare the same, but the whole idea of transforming one type of flesh into anotheris inherited from the trans surgery, and this is never talked about becauseneither of the two groups wants to be associated with the other or discuss thedifferent kinds of surgery. These are the kind of paradoxes that I find veryintriguing.”
JustusEisfeld highlights the significance of this relation in strategic terms. “(…)For many intersex people, bodily variety and not gender identity is really theissue. Many intersex people can be happy with the gender they were raised andare happy to conform to those gender norms. That isn’t true for all intersexpeople of course, and that is where the overlap is, but a lot of the issuescenter around genital bodily variety and respect for the rights of children tohave an intact body, whatever that may mean. These are all issues that are notvery central to trans people. That being said, we have worked to supportintersex activists in their work and to connect with intersex activists. Wewill continue this work because we do feel we have a duty to support thebuild-up of an intersex movement just as we have a duty to support a transmovement and we will support the intersex movement as they build their ownstructures in any way with that we can.”
Thatis also Dr. Tiger Howard Devore’s position when he calls attention upon thevalue of tactical alliances with trans organizations. “(…) There are people whoare intersex who don’t want to be called transsexual. That is a bad word tothem, and they don’t like that association. (…) I think there is strength innumbers. I think we are fighting for many of the same things and are stupid notto associate. I think we need to be able to bring the rights of gender andsexually different people forward and I don’t care if you identify as intersexor trans sex or queer or gender different. I think as a group we need to beable to work together, bring our money and organizations together to make thischange happen within a larger society. As long as we are jealous and fightabout turf, within this kind of a movement, it is going to be very hard forprogress to occur.”
Gran Fury, Silence = Death Project, 1987. Source: http://www.ves.fas.harvard.edu/ACTUP.html
Silence, Stigma, Militancy and SystemicTransformation: From ACT UP to AIDS Today
In the mid 1980s a groupof activists founded ACT UP- The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, agrass roots civil movement that responded using “direct action” and civildisobedience to the inefficacy and irresponsibility of the U.S Government regardingthe AIDS epidemic. Silence, stigma, discrimination and lack of governmentaction toward AIDS and its victims not only resulted in millions of deaths, butalso unveiled the racist, classist and homophobic tyranny of American politics.ACT UP achieved monumental effects. The perseverance of its members, theurgency of their actions and their militancy changed the course of the epidemicin terms of medical research, access to drugs and treatment, and policy making.
Eric Sawyer, co-founder of ACT UP NY, HousingWorks, Health Global AccessProgram (Health GAP)and currently working at UNAIDSexplains ACT UP’s modus operandi: “(...) ACT UP took many of its owndevelopment queues for the early gay and lesbian liberation and the anti-warmovements. We decided really early on that we were going to use ‘Robert’s Rulesof Order’; that we were going to be an equalitarian organization where everybody’svoice had equal weight and that we were going to do a majority rule votingprocess to determine what we would do. We decided that members of our groupwould facilitate discussions, that anyone could present ideas, and that wewanted to do ‘in your face’ street theatre type demonstrations that would benon violent in nature, but that would draw public attention to our issues.”
These demonstrations were a form of “directaction,” which according to Sarah Schulman, also an ACT UP member, “was a concept thatcame from Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and the early labor movement. The ideawas to actively take an action that creates the condition you need in order tomove forward. You are not involved so much in theory, but much more involved inthe application of theory to practice. (…) Martin Luther King’s piece, Letter from Birmingham Jail outlinesexactly what the ACT UP strategy was. Even though we did not study DoctorKing, we absorbed that this was the way to go. First, you highly educateyourself so that you completely understand all the issues, then you propose asolution to the powers that be; a solution that is entirely winnable,reasonable and doable. When they oppose you, they are now in a position wherethey are unreasonable, so you do direct-action to force them, or embarrass theminto having to respond to you. That is the strategic sequence and that is how ACT UP was effective.”
Embarrassingand “(…) drawing attention to governmental leaders who were shirking theirresponsibilities,” was one of ACT UP’sstrategies, comments Eric Sawyer. “(…) Ronald Reagan never said the word ‘AIDS’or talked about HIV for the first seven years of his presidency, so webasically called him a murderer. We did things like constructing aconcentration camp on the back of a float-bed truck for gay pride parade in1987; the first ACT UP presence in New York City’s gay pridedemonstration. We literally, me with my power tools and some friends,constructed a tower on the flatbed of a pickup truck using two-by-fours for a fencepost and barbed wire and mesh to make a concentration camp on the back of thetruck with a rifle tower up by the cab. I sat on the roof in a suit with aRonald Reagan mask on and wearing yellow rubber gloves, laughing and pointingat the AIDS victims that were dressed in black, while people in police andmilitary uniforms with masks and rubber gloves walked around the perimeter ofthe concentration camp. The banner on the side of the float said ‘Test Drugs,Not People.’”
“(…)At ACT UP,” says Mattilda BernesteinSycamore, a younger member of ACT UP San Francisco “(…) there was no shameabout being HIV positive, the shame was on the government, the politicians, theChurch, and the demagogues around the world who were facilitating the massmurder of people with HIV/AIDS. (…) Many people who became my queer heroes, orat least people who I respect, I found out about it in their obituaries. DavidWojnarowicz is an example, I read his obituary and I was like, ‘Oh, this personsounds great.’ ‘Fags’ living on the margins were dying, so there was thaturgency around needing to engage in direct action immediately to change the status quo. (…) There was a really integrated politic where people said: ‘You can’t fightAIDS without fighting misogyny, racism, classism and homophobia.’ It was alltied together.”
Atactical way of challenging the statusquo was infiltrating the mass media with clear messages, says Eric Sawyer.“(…) We quickly learned that street theater and sexy images, graphics andgimmicks were really effective at drawing media attention. We quickly learnedthat the media was really lazy, and stupid, and never properly represented theimages or the issues that we were trying to draw attention to in theirarticles. We learned that if we had posters and graphics that clearly spelledout the intent of the demonstration and our demands, the message would getconveyed to the public.”
Themessage was successfully conveyed according to Sarah Schulman when “ACT UP realized people would die because of what theCatholic Church was doing and that we had a moral right to go into their churchand interrupt their mass. We went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and did ‘Stop theChurch,’ one of ACT UP’s famous direct actions. Today, you can getcondoms in public schools and people’s lives have been saved because we tookthat action. At this time people asked how we could go into a church to disruptmass and we believed gay people’s lives equaled the church, that the church wasnot more important than gay people’s lives.”
Ryan Conrad, b.1983, postcard, 2009. Courtesy of the artist.
Representation of AIDS
Douglas Crimp, also an ACT UP member, was preoccupied by the representation of AIDS andresponded to the crisis by editing “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,”a special issue of the journal October.“My intention was simple. I was interested in the factthat there was an art world response to AIDS. There were many people in the artworld that became ill and died from AIDS. I was interested in the notion thatyou could use the monetary value of art to raise money for AIDS, whereas Ithought that a political subject like AIDS could actually be taken on byculture as a subject.” The issue took a “(…) mixed approach towriting about AIDS. For example, Leo Bersani’s famous essay ‘Is the Rectum aGrave?’ was published alongside people who had no academic credentials, whowere activists working in the movement, such as a prostitute who was doingactivist work around prostitutes and AIDS.”
One of Crimp’s concerns and thesubject of his famous essay “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” was the “(…) raging debate within queer communities at that time, really between what wemight call the pro-sex activists and the more conservative voices that weresaying gay people should basically stop having sex or stop having sex with toomany people, as if somehow having sex with only one person, if you happen to bealready infected, was going to make a difference. (…) I was very struck by thereturn to clichés of homophobic discourse and wanted to show the way in whichgay people themselves had fallen back on a discourse that labeled gay peopleas, for example, immature and irresponsible, within attempts to do somethingabout AIDS. My interest wasn’t to try to think about how you couldmaintain a healthy sexuality in relation to this epidemic through safe sexpractices, but about how you could maintain a pro-sex positive position. Howyou could think about promiscuity and what we had learned from the wide-rangingexperiences of having sex with many different people for many differentpurposes: For pure pleasure, for discovering things about yourself that youdidn’t already know through an encounter with another, etc. How you couldactually understand that as having given us the tools to invent the safe sexdiscourse in the first place. How, for example, you could have a viable publicsexual culture in terms of bars, bathhouses, and sex clubs and so forth thatwould also become venues for the transmission of knowledge about safe sexpractices. (…) Things changed very drastically after AIDS, not only because ofrepressive forces. I think that the crisis itself, and people dying cast a longshadow over the pleasures of gay culture; not only were bathhouses and sexclubs closed by city ordinances in 1985, but also people just weren’t going outas much and taking as much pleasure in gay life, partly because they wereafraid, but also people were busy fighting the situation or taking care oflovers and friends. The explosion of a public sexual culture, which hadhappened between Stonewall and the early 1980s was really shut down.”
Douglas Crimp goes on toassert, “(…) Something of an enormous shift happened in the wave of AIDS towarda conservative gay culture where issues like fighting for equal rights tomarriage and to fight in the military took precedence over what I think of as atruly queer culture, which is a culture that wants to change how we think aboutforms of human relations in a much more general sense. I still feel very muchwhat I learned from early second wave feminism, which was the critique ofmarriage as an institution and how marriage actually served governance as a wayof managing the complexity of relations that are possible among people.”
ACT UP Founder Larry Kramer at an ACT UP protest in 2007. Photo © Andrés Duque and Rex Wockner
The Demise of ACT UP
Addressing the conservativeshift referenced by Crimp above, Sarah Schulman reflects on the possiblereasons why “(…) ACT UP fell apart,” when she says: “(…) The rate ofdeath was so profound; the dying of leadership and the psychologicalconsequences on members surrounded by mass death for so many years had enormousimpact on people.”
Sawyer adds: “I think the demise of ACT UP (…) began when the HIV ‘cocktail’was approved. That primarily happened for two reasons: Firstly, when effectivetreatments became available all of our friends stopped dying; it was no longera ‘war siege,’ where the community had to engage as if we were fighting a war.The fact that people were getting on treatments and their health was beingrestored, and that the number of deaths was dramatically reducing, ended thecrisis siege. Many people who weren’t infected and who had careers, orwhatever, went back to their normal lives.” Schulman confirms and criticallyexpands Sawyer’s idea: “(…) The invention of protease inhibitors and AIDSmedications, which became available to people who could afford them and livedin a manner in which they were able to manage taking them, those peopleabandoned all the other people for whom that was not the case.”
Sarah Schulman adds: “(…) The election of Clinton was hugelydisruptive to building independent activist movements because people gave himtoo much power and had too much faith in him, so members began working in theDemocratic Party and got lost as they became part of the system.” MattildaBernstein Sycamore also believes that people felt like, “(…) We don’t need ACTUP any more, we don’t need to be on the streets, we need to be in the boardrooms, we need to be making policy, he’ll (Clinton) let us into the room, weneed to be acting more normal and respectable and aiming for his ear.”
Explaining his personal reasons for having slowed down onhis work on AIDS, Crimp says: “(…) Like many of the people I know that wereinvolved in ACT UP in fighting the AIDS crisis, I felt burnt out.You could only do it for a certain amount of time while coping with everythingelse. It may have had to do with my own seroconversion as it happened somewhatsimultaneously. I felt I had done a body of work and that I also wanted to doand think about other things to give myself a break. Prior to the invention ofthe ‘cocktail’ another thing happened, which was the gradual recognition over timewithin ACT UP of the structural extent of the crisis of health care inthe United States. We have seen recently, under Obama’s presidency, how utterlyretractable health care is in this country. AIDS was mapped onto that, and wewere no longer just thinking about dealing with the question of say, drugs intobodies, but also the incredible discrepancy between the way rich and poorpeople could access those drugs once they came through the pipeline. We begantaking on a much bigger political issue, which felt insurmountable to somepeople. It became more consciously on all of our parts a huge global issue.”
Eric Sawyer further explainshow the focus began to shift “(…) from the United States or the developed worldcountries to center on the developing world. We were getting access totreatment, programs and safety nets in the U.S., Canada, France, and Germany,etc. But the developing world had access to nothing, so the focus of activismchanged. I was one of the first people that started organizing internationalthings because I was getting invited to many conferences, global meetings ofthe United Nations, the World Health Organization, and otherassociations of nurses, and medical doctors, to speak about AIDS activism,about living with HIV and about housing issues. I started meeting many peopleliving with HIV from developing countries who couldn’t even get aspirin and whocouldn’t get the most basic treatment.”
Is the crisis over? EricSawyer responds: “ (…) There is still a huge crisis in the developing world. Weare making a certain level of progress on that crisis, but for example in 2006there was a declaration of commitment signed at the UN by just under 200countries, where they made commitments to reduce the number of new infectionsand the number of deaths by HIV every year. They made a commitment to geteveryone access to HIV medications by December of 2010. We are in 2011 now, andwhile The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNAIDS’ statisticssay that around 15 million people need to be on HIV medications today, we havejust over 5 million people on HIV treatment around the world. Only a third ofpeople who need treatment today are on HIV medication. We have failed as aglobal society in obtaining the ‘Commitment to Universal Access.’ There will bea meeting in June 2011, which is one of the things that I am working on now,where governments will negotiate a new commitment to delineate the global HIV responseby governments for the next five or ten years.”
Tackling the perception of HIV/AIDS in the United Statestoday, Sawyer says, “(…) there has been a huge generational divide betweenqueer youth and my generation or the generation that immediately followed me.Most young people today, including queer people and queer activists, grew upafter the HIV virus was discovered, and after the HIV epidemic was widelyknown. Most of them became teenagers and young adults after the AIDS cocktailcame to the market, so now we are in 2011, and many of them think of HIV as achronic illness that you can take medication for and live a healthy life. Theydon''t see AIDS as a crisis. They don''t have a sense of urgency, they don''t fearHIV, and so they are not that concerned about getting HIV, they engage inunsafe behavior, they are unwisely and unacceptably exposing themselves to therisk of HIV infection and many of them are getting HIV.”
Crimp reflects on why this change ofattitude may be taking place: “(…) Certainly, even for someone who was asinvolved in it as I was and as someone who deals with being HIV positive andtakes the medications, HIV/AIDS doesn’t have the same meaning as it did then.The epidemic is also different for me than it is for many people, such aspeople in this country and other countries who do not have access to drugs andhealth care. I think relative to younger generations in the United States thereis no memory whatsoever, I mean there can’t be memory, they were born after allof this happened. (…) The sort of sense of a community dealing with acrisis at once is gone because it no longer feels like a crisis. (…) There isa big difference between a disease that will almost certainly kill you and onethat will almost certainly not. Even when I seroconverted, the ‘cocktail’ wasjust starting and I remember my doctor saying to me at one point that I wouldnot likely die of AIDS. (…) I remember when the presence ofAIDS was in the newspaper every single day. In fact, I remember fighting to getit in the newspapers every single day when it was not being covered as much aswe were experiencing it. I remember reading all kinds of articles on thesubject daily and I also remember reading obituaries of people who had died ofAIDS every single day. For many years my writing tried to follow and engagethese various materials. Now you can go for weeks at a time and never seean article about AIDS in the New York press.”
Eric Sawyer is also concernedabout how “(…) pharmaceutical companies present ads and commercials of menclimbing a mountain or running a marathon while they are taking this latestapproved HIV medication. People think that one pill is going to allow them torun marathons and climb mountains, not knowing that there are horrendous sideeffects, that drugs don''t work for everybody, that people are developingneuropathy, diabetes, liver and kidney problems, wasting syndromes,cardiovascular disease, peripheral vascular disease, and a whole laundry listof side effects that are debilitating and often kill people far earlier thansomeone would die if they weren’t HIV infected and getting these complicationsthat are caused by the drugs´ side effects.”
A Current Example
KenyonFarrow suggests HIV/AIDS is still a crisis in the United States, as it pertains tominority communities that have less access to treatment or infrequent access toHIV tests. He provides the example of incarcerated minorities: “(…) There is noarching policy or approach in terms of HIV transmission in prison, other thanit is illegal to have sex in prisons, and illegal to have drug paraphernalia,or do tattooing, which are some ways in which transmission may happen, butprimarily sexual contact is what we are talking about. (…) There is really nostrategy. What is interesting about the prison system and HIV, which goesagainst a lot of narratives that people think, is that of all the people whohave HIV in U.S. prisons, only about nine percent of them contract HIV inprison. Ninety-one percent of them came to prison HIV positive, and many findout when they are in prison because it is the first time they have ever beenoffered an HIV test. (…) There is public health research mounting that isbeginning to point to the connections between massive imprisonment and theHIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. If we consider New York City, which has one ofthe highest HIV rates in the country, about ten percent of all people with HIVin the United States live in New York City. Looking at New York Cityneighborhoods that have the highest HIV rates and incarceration rates, it isalmost a one for one match, with the exception of Chelsea being the outlier,because that is where white gay men also impacted by the epidemic live. Seventypercent of prisoners in New York State come from seven neighborhoods in NewYork City, all Black or Latino neighborhoods.”
Farrow continues: “ (…) If you thinkabout that and think about a high percentage of people who are constantly beingmoved in and out of the state prison system, the social and sexual networks anddynamics change as people are constantly changing partners because of theimpact of prison. Public Health researchers are actually looking at massiveimprisonment in the U.S. as an actual driver of HIV transmission and to a farless extent sex that may be happening in prisons itself, though some studieslook at this, even in states like Georgia, which criminalizes sex betweenprisoners. (…) There was one study done by the Center for DiseaseControl (CDC) and they concluded most prisoners were trying to figure outways to have protected sex, using Saran wrap, and a range of different things,as condoms were not available or were considered contraband. It is not asthough people in prison are not trying to protect themselves. The otherinteresting thing about that study was that a lot of sex that was happening,about thirty to forty percent of it, was with guards and other staff ratherthan with other prisoners, so there is also a relationship between coercion andsystems of security or the conditions in which prisoners sleep with guards inorder to be able to get certain kinds of privileges. These are just some of theways HIV transmission and prison connection defies what people often think.”
Photo by Carlos Motta
Whenasked to give his perspective on the gay sub-culture of “Barebacking”;communities of gay men that engage is unprotected sex and oftentimes seek toget intentionally infected with the HIV virus, Eric Sawyer replied: “(…) I think it has becomedesirable because it is new and dangerous. It is exciting because it issomething you are not supposed to be doing. There was a time period whenpornographers felt a sense of responsibility to ensure that all of their actorsengaged in safe sex and they made big deal of showing people putting oncondoms. There was an effort to try to eroticize condom use. Then a few peoplestarted saying: ‘Well fuck that, it’s really hot to take a load of cum up yourass,’ and started doing bare backing videos, and then it was like: ‘Oh, my goddid you see that? Oh, my god that’s so hot!’ So it became edgy and in vogue tosay: ‘Oh fuck it, don’t tell us how to fuck.’ Barebacking porno became cool andit is really awful because it is encouraging many people to take risks thatthey are eventually going to really regret.”
Onthe same subject, Douglas Crimp said: “(…) I myself don’t know what to think ofa culture that involves notions of wanting to belong to the group of theinfected, that sense of belonging that Tim Dean theorizes (in Unlimited Intimacy 2009) as a kind ofhistorical kinship. It is a kind of metaphor that I am not sure what I thinkof, the notion of the virus as connecting you to all the other people who havetransmitted the virus. I don’t actually know what drives barebacking and Ithink probably most of barebacking culture, and this is only just anassumption, takes place among people who are already infected. I think thepeople who are tops and the people who are bottoms may take for granted alreadyhaving the virus and are not particularly worried about the so-called‘reinfection.’”
Crimp further reflects: “(…) It is very abstract for a young person to say: ‘This disease meansthat I will have to see a doctor every three months as part of the standardcare, and that I will have to take medications for the rest of my life,medications which have side effects, medications which mean I must be consciousevery day of taking them at a particular time and not taking them may meandeveloping a resistance that could become dangerous to me.’ All of the thingsthat have to do with managing a disease are not transparent. You don’trecognize the reality of managing a chronic disease until you have one. It maynot be AIDS, it could be diabetes, it could be many things, but the kind ofdrag it is to deal with managing a disease is something that changes your life.I think young people who expose themselves, whether deliberately or not, torisk are not really fully conscious sometimes. Maybe some of the people inbarebacking culture are conscious, maybe they have friends who know what ittakes to manage the disease.”
Finally,Crimp says: “(…) The trouble is that the question of mortality is different whenyou are young. For example, when you first lose a parent, there issomething about that loss in and of itself that disturbs one’s psyche terribly.But one of the aspects of that disturbance is that you are confronted withdeath, not just your parent’s death but also your own. The encounter with deathin general is like that: It is always double. When you lose someone you alsorecognize your eventual death and as you grow older, mortality becomes morepresent in your life in many ways. It could be because of an extreme illness ormany deaths in your life or because you begin to lose your youthful vitalityand don’t have the energy you once had. There are many ways that mortalitybecomes something we absorb as an aspect of living. This was always aconsideration when we talked about the problem of teaching young people aboutsafe sex, as an aspect of youth is the feeling that you will live forever, youhaven’t confronted mortality yet, you are invincible.”
Emily Roysdon, Ecstatic Resistance (schema), 2009. Courtesy of the artist.
Queering Art Discourses
Therelation between art and homosexuality is complex. Artists, writers,performers, filmmakers, as well as art critics and art historians havedeveloped lifelong critical projects that situate the importance, articulationand recognition of sexuality as central to artistic production. The notion of aqueer art; an art that represents, names, discusses, engages and insists onsexual difference is a fundamental part of art discourses. Queer art, however,has been consistently silenced and censored by the status quo, the art market and institutions. Sexual difference isoften relegated, according to American art historian Jonathan D. Katz to “abiographical category.”
Speakingabout the value of art as a register of what wants to be told but also of whatwants to remain hidden, Katz affirms, “(…) pictures can say things writtenmaterials cannot. Words carry political significance and legal weight, butpictures can evade things. You can notice things in a picture or not. You canmake something available to one audience, while excluding another. Pictureshave the ability to articulate a scene in a number of different social andpolitical registers and so we have this extraordinary archive of queer Americanhistory and queer art history that we never thought to look at preciselybecause we have never approached it this way.”
Katzhas “(…) begun to curate what I think will be a series of national exhibitionsattempting to end the blacklist on sexuality that has been in play since 1989with the censorship of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery. (…) I would say there is a shortageof queer discursive frames, and until there is a greater acknowledgement of thediscursive import of sexuality, it will not matter how many works by queerartists museums buy. It is also the case that because of this reign of silence,we have actually falsified American art history.” Katz suggests there has beena self-conscious effort to erase themes of sexuality from art history. “(…) Itis not just self-conscious, it is aggressively policed.”
Respondingto whether or not he thought American morality was responsible for suchpolicing, he replied: “(…) I think what is at the top of the list is money. Weonce had an idea of the museum as in the service of the public interest and insome sense trying to elevate the public through exposure to culture. Howeverpatronizing that 19th century model, what has happened in museums over the last25 years is the way in which they have become an extension of private capital.We see this most readily in the case of the L.A. MOCA (LosAngeles Museum of Contemporary Art) when after financial problems, a majordonor dictates the terms under which the museum will reinvigorate itself byselecting a new director who is an art dealer. The process becomes full circlebecause collectors are telling museums to hire dealers, making currentdirectors nervous; and that is because we effectively have high volumecommodities. Essentially, the focus of our forms of inquiry shifts to allowmarket forces to mitigate against the discussion of sexuality. Ellsworth Kellytold me once that if people found out he is queer, it would hurt the price ofhis work. Worrying about prices and what the imputation of his queerness woulddo to the price of an artwork, tells you a little something.”
Colombian art historian VíctorManuel Rodríguez also believes art has been distanced from a discourse ofsexuality. “(…) The relationship between art and sexuality in Latin America hasbeen a relationship that has been constructed through silence regarding thatsexuality; it is not a question of demanding that people should speak about itbut of showing other ways in which silence operates, which does not necessarilyimply vindicating silence as a strategy of self-representation and culturalfight. Silence functions as a strategy of the historical artistic discourse butalso as a strategy of resistance, and such is the case of the gay couple thatpurchases the painting because it allows them to hang the image of the nakedman in their sitting-room while at the same time they can keep the secret oftheir sexuality, since what they have is a work of art, and they can thus avoidthe violence of homophobia”. He perceives “(…) a double record in thedevelopment of these artistic works: on the one hand, there is the subject ofthe cultural construction of sexuality, and on the other, how these works holda critical dialogue with respect to the art institution.”
Korean lesbian activist andcultural producer Susu thinks there is art that addresses issues of sexualdifference in Korea, “(…) but it is not part of the mainstream. Most queerartists are kept in the dark. Only a couple of gay artists are invited to largescale exhibitions held at national museums; and even they are not perceivedprecisely as queer artists dealing with homosexuality, but simply as individualartists who have their own unique style.” Susu mentions the work of “(…) Oh In-hwan, which focuses on theinvisible presence of gay sexuality. One of his works is about old gay bars inJongno, which are more than a hundred of them, clustered but hidden. He spreadout a map on the floor and placed incense or scented objects on the spots thatcorresponded to the locations of the gay bars. He used smell to express theinvisible. Another work by him is a poster for a holiday party he had with hisgay friends. The guest list is written on it, but because their names couldn’tbe legible, all names are blacked out. The core of Oh In-hwan’s work is showingthe unshowable.” Oh’s work however,“(…) is normally understood as postmodern art. His works are read asinteractive and participatory projects; art that goes beyond the borders ofvisuality... However, it is not so much interpreted in relation to the generalqueer culture or history. (…) When a new discourse comes in from overseas, forinstance post-colonialism, every critic uses it as his or her methodology; andif it doesn’t really fit in, they look for another discourse. So all thefeminism-related works are scattered about, not being able to form a stream.Artists like Oh In-hwan himself must have seen some of those works withoutunderstanding their significance. (…) It becomes almost impossible for youngqueer artists to continue doing work on sexuality, gender or feminism, becausethe evaluation of the work always shifts along with new trends and does notmaintain a consistent context. If your work isn’t applicable to the latestdiscourse, there is no place for it in an exhibition. Artists are bound toconsider adapting their work to this mold.”
Thiscompulsory heterosexuality is reaffirmed broadly in American culture, as SarahShulman demonstrates when she speaks about the different cultural realms:“Theatre is so conservative in this country it is shocking, and I am aninsider. (…) Theatre is obsessed with telling the one story they think is atthe center of the culture, which is the coming of age of the white male, (…) itis the only story that is seen as important. Literature is different because itis a mass art form and publishers want to sell as many books as possible toreach a wide audience, so all different kinds of people can publish books. (…)Still, the dominant apparatus containing this genre remains the white straightmale as the emblematic voice of the culture. There are a few exceptions, butthey are always decontextualized, like Toni Morrison or someone like that. Wewent from Hemingway and Fitzgerald to Bellow and Roth, and now we are on toFranzen, so it is always the replaceable straight white male author dominatingthe culture of publishing. Cinema is about niche, so there is the BlackQueer Film Festival, the Arab-American Film Festival, and so on.People cannot get seen in the mainstream, so they produce work at a very lowbudget. (…) The work is only shown in queer environments and you can’t get the moneyto move the work forward, so it remains a satellite around this impenetrabledominant culture that never sees any of this as part of the world, people whospend their whole lives looking in the mirror and thinking it is a window withno idea what is going on outside (…)”
EdmundWhite, too, is also concerned with the exclusively heterosexual expectations ofcreative work. He believes they subvert cherished values such as universalism.“(…) Universalism was an idea the French invented in the 18th century and itwas a very progressive idea at the time because it basically said a black womanfrom the Antilles and a white man from Paris are the same, they are bothindividuals and they are citizens. The kind of universalism of that period wasvery progressive. Now, when people use the word ‘universal’ it is almost alwaysreactionary, because they are really trying to say that if you are not writingabout a white heterosexual man, then you are not writing about somethinguniversal, your work is too particular, you are only writing about a ChineseLesbian, for example, and who could possibly care about that? Straight malecritics still dominate the literary field, so the reception of literature,whether it is in universities or critical establishments, is still informed bythese tastes and prejudices, that are defended by being called ‘universal.’”
Poster by Amy Sillman for "A Lesbian Show" organized by Harmony Hammond in 1978
Breaking the Silence
American artistEmily Roysdon has attempted to break that silence by resisting to the dominant forcesof what we may deem impossible. She developed the concept of “EcstaticResistance,” which she articulates as: “(…) The horizon of the impossible is always shifting. At one point, it wasimpossible to think black people would be free in America. At another, it wasimpossible to see women voting. Thinking about politics as a system ofimpossibilities, where people control the imaginary of what is possible to be,I started to think through “Ecstatic Resistance” as a force against that. The“ecstatic” is about an encounter to me; is an encounter where you get turned onjust enough that your boundaries shift for a minute. I am interested in workthat brings you to this place and presents an alternate reality as apossibility, works that somehow physically affect you. (…) I ampositing it as a relation between, an encounter you can have with a person, anartwork, or your own self I guess. It is the encounter that addresses ourconcept of the other, and my desire is to position that encounter as presentand ecstatic because I want it to be developmental and challenging.”Throughout her career as an artist, writer, editorand curator, Harmony Hammond has actively resisted the forces of invisibilityby naming and representing lesbian artists. Speaking about the “Lesbian Art and Artists” issue of the 1970sfeminist publication Heresies, whichshe co-edited, Hammond highlights the importance she saw in the act of naming:“(…) To name, to make present. If you do not name, you do not have a culturalhistory, you do not exist in a sense. Everybody understood that as a basicthing. (…) We also wanted to go back and bring some historical lesbian artistsinto the magazine to create a visual and textual conversation about what itmeant to be a lesbian artist in that time and place. We found there was notmuch we could draw on historically and that we had a lot of trouble gettingwomen willing to be named.” (…) One of the things she did was “to look at workby women who identify as lesbians and as artists to see if there was somethread or commonality of theme, approach, or whatever. But there just was not acommon thread. This was informative.” Hammond says: “I had full politicalawareness of what I was doing. (...) You do not take on editing a lesbian issueof a magazine, or organizing a lesbian show unless you have full awareness ofthe political gesture of your actions. (…) If the artist is out as lesbian, sheis part of the discourse, even if the art is abstract. That was difficult todeal with; what we would now say is a ‘queer’ reading of the work.”
Artcritic Douglas Crimp “(…) is motivated by the notion of making available a kindof queer culture that I think has a lot to teach us about how we could be queerin the present beyond the kind of conservative identity-based, rights-based,normative gay culture of today.” He is working on a book about Andy Warhol’sfilms: “(…) I have a chapter on Chelsea Girls, which is a canonical andprobably the most important Warhol film, but there is not great literature onit. My essay is called ‘MisfittingTogether.’ The title is taken from a Warhol quotation where he sayspeople presumed that people from The Factory all thought alike but were infact just a group of Misfits ‘misfitting’ together. I used this idea to thinkthe double screen projection in Chelsea Girls. Actually, Yvonne Rainer wrote a review of the film when it cameout and she talked about how watching Chelsea Girls is about watching the linebetween the two frames. I take this as a kind of deconstruction of the notionof the couple, or the idea that “two become one” because in Warhol two does notbecome one: It is a resistance to the notion of coupling. (…) It is about thatkind of reclamation of accessing that notion of queer which pre-existed what wethink of it. I mean we think of that as the time of abject sadness among gaypeople, as prior to their liberation, but of course it was a much richer scenethan that.”
Workingtogether with a collective of cultural producers in Bogotá, Víctor ManuelRodríguez, “ (…) presented the exhibition ‘Yo no soy esa’ (I am not thatwoman), which inquired into the different forms of resistance of the queerBogotá of the 1980s. It attempted to establish a connection between artworksand non-official sexual practices within a framework of resistance both to thenormalization of queer lives during that period and to the art institution.Such is the case of Miguel Ángel Rojas. In the 1970s and 1980s, he produced aseries of photographs showing the spaces for gay encounters in theaters, publicbathrooms and parks. The first time he was asked to exhibit in a gallery, heshowed these photographs in a 0.5 millimeter in diameter format. Nobody seesanything, and I wonder: What is this work resisting? What it is resisting is,precisely, that this queer world be transformed into art and strengthen the artinstitution. It seems to say: This world is not for you. This world is not atthe service of artistic voyeurism, so to speak. The work alwaysresists being seen, being understood, and there is a scenario that renderstranslation impossible. One sees this photograph, and if one does not form partof the universe of this subculture, one can hardly realize that one is in therestroom of the Faenza Theater, looking at someone who is returning the gaze.”
Throughlive performance, Mx. Justin Vivian Bond has found a way to resistheteronormativity and to denounce American conservative politics. As “Kiki” ofthe performance duo “Kiki and Herb”: “(…) I railed against Reagan and Bush. Irailed against the war. I took on homophobia by talking about creating a gayson for myself. I talked about women''s issues, as a woman who had her childrentaken from her because she was too wild. I could say everything in this crazyway because people would understand my character as a drunk. One of the classiclines was: ‘The saddest day of my life was the day John Hinckley missed when hetried to assassinate President Reagan,’ and then I would go off in this dirtyrant about Reagan. It was funny.”
Bond“(…) was always interested in performing. (…) I found that when I wasperforming I was in control of what I was presenting to people, because if Iwould be walking down the street or if I was at school I never knew how I wasbeing perceived. When I was on stage, performing, I knew exactly what I wasputting out, and people seemed to respond positively to what I did. I havenever felt safe in a crowd, but I have always felt safe in front of one.”
“(…)There were so many people out there who were uninstructed and suffering, like aseventeen-year-old boy living in a small town in Missouri, so the idea that youcould actually reach and reassure these people was interesting, I liked it.”Says Edmund White, who has written more than 25 books, most of them with gaycharacters. “(…) When I wrote States of Desire, I wanted to travel andactually meet some of these people. When I wrote A Boy''s Own Story, I wanted to show an in-depthportrait of one of these people, although it is fictional.”
SarahSchulman considers the act of representing queer subjects to be a fundamentalact of resistance: “(…) I have published sixteen books, including novels andnon-fiction books. Each has gay, lesbian, or HIV-positive protagonists andpeople as its primary subject matter. As a playwright, I have produced playswith queer subject matter and am now writing movies featuring lesbian and queerprotagonists.” Additionally, she has “(…) always approached things by creatingmy own institutions. When Jim Hubbard and I founded the MIX Festival 25 years ago, it was becausemainstream gay festivals were not showing formally inventive work and theexperimental community was not interested in queer work. Now there are peopleshowing in that festival who were not alive when we started it. What we learnedis how creating venue creates artists. When people see they can go somewhereand see work that is about them, they become motivated to make work, but iftheir story is not ever represented they become alienated from the entireprocess, so we have done this alternative institution building. (…) I havelearned to set my own agenda and create my own institutions.”
March against the censorship of David Wojnarowicz''s video Fire in My Belly from Hide/Seek, NY, 2011.
JonathanD. Katz addresses censorship when referring to the recent removal of DavidWojnarowicz’s video “Fire In My Belly” from the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in AmericanPortraiture,” an exhibition he co-curated at the National Portrait Gallery.
“(…) The Right, as allideologues claim, wants to supplant a notion of a pluralistic democracy with anidea of a singular vision dominated exclusively by their perspective. They wantto supplant discourse with abject props and look away from precedence, back toa realm of surety in which their particular ethnic grouping was unquestionablydominant. That vision of America is, thank God,dead except within the ideological Right, but they are doing their best to usethe politics of representation to weepily bring us back to small town Americaand its fictive constructs, and to there by soldering an increasinglyfragmented movement around an America that never was.”
“(…) Since the Mapplethorpeexhibition in 1989 there has been a blacklisting on sexualityfrom art,” Katz asserts. “(…) Here we are in 2011 and my show is the firstmajor queer show, which is ridiculous after years where queerness is inevidence in the realms of music and film and television and other power centersin American life. Yet the museum world, which understands itself as progressiveand is credited as such, is now behind international banking in its politicalopenness. What worried me was the social and political gesture that wasintended to ultimately kill the blacklist has, at least for now, the distinctprospect of having reinvigorated it. It is funny, we will see in the nextcouple of years whether or not this show had its intended effect, but it hascreated so much controversy, I am not entirely clicked whether a museum willtake sexuality under consideration. In this sense the Right got what theywanted out of this. They want pages, they want commentary, they want to makethemselves central to definitions of culture and they have done that. Now whenwe make exhibitions about ourselves we necessarily must reference or addressthem. Any museum proposal that goes forward is going to have to talk aboutwhat happens when The Catholic League attacks. They achieve this act, not on their own, let us be clear, butbecause Republican leadership jumped into bed with them as a needs of appealingto a tea party base.”
Katzfurther says: “(…) The show was up for a month before they attacked and I would notbe surprised if they did focus groups trying to find a handy way to get itcensored. Paradoxically, this shows a certain form of progress because inprevious years, you could simply identify a work as queer and it would bekilled. They can’t be nakedly homophobic any more so they find new ways ofgetting what they want and in America, the discourse of religious offense,which called the work ‘hate speech,’ appropriating our language and using ourstrategies against us. It is not about religion to be sure; it is not evenabout our sexuality, it is just about gay power. It is about playing the oldgame of divide and conquer and building your base by in-common hating. That isa cynical, hateful anti-American politics that has moved alongside otherAmerican political developments since the founding of this country and itcontinues to deliver, which is why they do it. Old habits die hard”.
Regarding the moment of normalization of mainstream gay politics, Katz sees equivalencesin the realm of art. “(…) I see a lot of work about normalization, whichessentially embraces the idea of queerness by playing with the prospect ofmutability, either in gender terms or in erotic terms. It is also interestinghow many of the aesthetics of resistance or dissonants of the work are nowreanimating punk modes and other historical modes of resistance. Underqueerness you really don’t want to claim any kind of essentializing identity orhistory, so there are gay artists who aren’t invested in queerness because theydon’t care or understand it, but there are also queer and post queer artistswho are interested in exploring the limitations of the queer discursive framefrom a position that understands what that politics was able to proffer andunable to see.”
We WhoFeel Differently is composed of interviews with fifty queeracademics, activists, artists, politicians, radicals, and others in Colombia,Norway, South Korea and the United States. These self-presentations were excerpted from the interviews. Click on a name or image to watch/read the full interview.
Mauricio Albarracín (Colombia): Ihave had a very legal life in the sense that when I began to study law I alsobecame engaged in activism in favor of the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual andtransgender persons.
Hossein Alizadeh(USA): I am the Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human RightsCommission (IGLHRC).
Arnfinn Andersen(Norway): I am a sociologist working at the GenderResearch Institute in the Universityof Oslo. My current project is on friendship; on how friendship has changedin society, on how some people have ten friends and others don''t have anyfriends at all.
Norman Anderssen(Norway): I am a professor of social psychology at the University of Bergen. I have had two main research topics: Healthbehaviors using standardized and survey methods, as well as statisticalprocedures, etc., and gay and lesbian issues.
Virgilio Barco(Colombia): Six years ago, together with four other persons I founded Colombia Diversa.
Mx. Justin Vivian Bond (USA): I am an artist, a performer, asinger/songwriter, a writer and a painter.
Cheon Jae-woo (Korea): I am 40 yearsold, gay, and living in Seoul. I work as a doctor and I have been a member of Chingusai since its early days. I amalso part of a gay chorus called G-Voice.
Choi Hyun-sook (Korea): I joinedsexual minority activism in 2004 and have been an activist ever since. Ifounded the Sexual Minority Committeein Korea’s New Progressive Party(NPP). In 2007, I fought against the “Anti-Discrimination Act” for not includingdiscrimination on grounds of sexual orientation. That same year, a decision wasmade in the Party to put forth an out-homosexual candidate in the followingyear’s general elections. I ran for office in 2008.
Ryan Conrad (USA): I am the foundingmember of Against Equality, an onlinepublishing, arts collective and archive doing work to challenge the idea thatqueer and trans people need to be included in heteronormative institutions.
Douglas Crimp (USA):I have been working as an art critic since 1970. I took a big swerve in mycareer as editor of a cultural journal called October when during the AIDS crisis I decided to do a special issueon the subject of AIDS. This propelled me into the AIDS activist movement.
Dr. Tiger Howard Devore PhD (USA): I have a PhD in clinical psychology and I am aCertified Sex Therapist. I have been working with people who are sexuallydifferent and I have been advocating for their rights for 30 years.
Justus Eisfeld (USA):I am a trans activist. I have been working for Global Action for Trans* Equality (GATE) as co-director togetherwith Mauro Cabral.
Dag Ø. Endsjø(Norway): I am a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Bergen and the leader of the Norwegian Human Rights Alliance in Oslo, an independent alliance oftwelve human rights organizations working against discrimination based ongrounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, gender, ethnicity,etc.
Kenyon Farrow (USA): For the lastfive years I have worked in different capacities within the organization Queers for Economic Justice. QEJ does community organizing, advocacy,research, leadership development, and work on economic justice issues thatimpact the LGBT community in the United States.
Karen-Christine Friele (Norway): I am nearly 75 years old. At the age of 26,I joined the gay and lesbian movement.
Franklin Gil Hernández (Colombia): I work at the School of Gender Studies at the National University. I occupy a hybrid place because I have participated in the LGBT social movement, I was the spokesman for the Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans Table in Bogotá, and I am engaged in academic issues.
María Mercedes Gómez:My academic career began with philosophy. For many years, I devoted myself to the field of epistemology. (…) I always had a great interest in literature, political philosophy, psychoanalysis and cinematography. At a given moment, I dedicated myself to political philosophy, and at a later stage, to legal philosophy, all this with a strong interest in the way in which cultural models, literature, films, and to a certain extent music, have a bearing on the construction of subjectivity. This led me to ponder on the legal issue, and more specifically, to inquire into the spaces of justice related to groups that had not been traditionally represented in those abstract images of subjectivity.
Harmony Hammond (USA): I do community work in the village, have been avolunteer in the Fire Department for ten years, and I am an artist and writerin the community of Santa Fe. I am part ofbicoastal, intergenerational art and queer art communities.
Hanmuji(Korea): I am what people normally call FTM, but I identify myself as a transman. The word “to” in “Female-to-Male” has so many connotations that I feel Ican’t fully express myself by saying that I have transitioned from female tomale. In general, trans people try to erase their past before the surgery. ButI still want to embrace the time when I had women’s breasts, although they wereso burdensome and hideous.
Tone Hellesund(Norway): I work at the Rokkan Centre forSocial Studies, in Bergen. I have a PhD in cultural anthropology and I aminterested in different kinds of themes revolving around gender and sexuality,as well as around inclusion and exclusion, normalcy and difference.
Jeongyol(Korea): I have been an active member of the Solidarity for LGBT Human Rights of Korea for almost 13 years. Thecurrent issues I am working on are HIV/AIDS, LGBT teens and labor.
Jinki(Korea): I am 21 years old. I tell people that I am a lesbian out ofconvenience, but I am searching for a word that better suits me. Four years agoI formed Rateeen, an online communityfor sexual minority teens and I am still running it.
K (Korea): I am alesbian activist and have been a member of the Korean Lesbian Counseling Center since 2003.
Jonathan D. Katz(USA): I have begun to curate what I think will be a series of nationalexhibitions attempting to end the blacklist on sexuality that has been in playsince 1989 with the censorship of the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery.
KIM Sungjin (Korea): I have beenworking as a culture coordinator in Korea for about 10 years. I usually planand produce festivals and events. A couple of years ago I started doingprojects in the gay community. Presently, I am making a book with a collectiveof gay men.
Hans Wiggo Kristiansen (Norway): I am a social anthropologist; I did myfieldwork in 1993 in Santiago de Chile, where I wrote a thesis on malehomosexual identity, mostly in the poor neighborhoods of Chile. After that Iworked at the NOVA Research Institute(Norwegian Social Research), where I worked on a large-scale research projecton the living conditions of gays and lesbians in Norway, which was published in1999.
Kirsti Malterud(Norway): I am a Norwegian medical doctor living in Bergen. I am 60 years old,a general practitioner and a professor of general practice. In the last fewyears I have been doing and supervising research on lesbian health and onhealth services for lesbian women. I am a lesbian myself.
MONG Choi (Korea): I entered alesbian rights group in 2004, which led me to become a sexual minoritiesactivist. I formed an organization called MujigaeHwaldong (Rainbow Action) along with many activists.
Ellen Mortensen(Norway): I am a Professor at the Department of Literature and Head of the Center for Women''s and Gender Research atthe University of Bergen.
Diana Navarro(Colombia): I am thirty-seven years old, and I am the Director of the Corporación Opción por el Derecho de Hacery el Deber de Hacer. I am a well-known transgender person in Bogotá.
Joshua Pimiento Montoya (Colombia): I am an anthropologist from the National University of Colombia and I amcurrently taking a Master’s course in Public Health.
PARK Kiho(Korea): I am the director of Chingusai(Between Friends), a Korean gay rights organization. Chingusai''s core members are gay men and our activities focus onpromoting sexual minority human rights, developing cultural diversity and humanrights sensibility, etc.
Karen Pinholt(Norway): I am the President, theelected leader of the board, and the Executive Director of LLH, The Norwegian LGBT Association.
Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad (Norway): I was named Esben, which is a typicalNorwegian male name, when I was born, so I added the Esther and the Pirellilater, because for me there is no point in being either a man or a woman. I ama trans person; that is my gender, so to speak. I think the double name, Esbenfor the male and Esther for the female, suits me very well. I am a medicaldoctor, a pharmatherapist and an Associate Professor at the University of Agder in Southern Norway.
Marit Vaula Rasmussen (Norway): I am 29 years old and I am a doctoralcandidate in Social Anthropology. My doctoral project is about the intersexconditions in Norway, also called “Disorders of Sex Development” (DSD). I aminterested in the larger scale of these themes, such as the history ofmedicine, the law and the nation-state.
Esteban Restrepo(Colombia): I am currently a professor at the University of Los Andes Law School.
Germán Rincón(Colombia): I am a lawyer. I have carried out activism from the juridicalsphere, without neglecting the social issue. In a parallel way, I organizedstudy groups and the Pride March in Bogotá.
Víctor Manuel Rodríguez (Colombia): My connection with the subject ofsexuality comprises two components: An academic and investigative one, for Ipursued studies and obtained my PhD at RochesterUniversity in New York and one of the central subjects in my academictraining was queer studies, and on the other hand, I am involved in a sort ofactivism within the local artistic milieu.
Åse Rothing (Norway): I am a researcher for a strategic researchprogram of the University of Oslo,called “Cultural Complexity in Norway.”
Emily Roysdon: I identify as an artist, a writer, and an organizer.
Ruin(Korea): I usually introduce myself as an MTF transgender lesbian. I am also avegetarian and a cat lover. I started thinking about gender issues in 2004, andtwo years later I became an activist.
Marcela Sánchez(Colombia): I am a social worker, a feminist, and I have worked with issues ofwomen’s participation in politics, sexual and reproductive health, and violenceagainst women. I am the Director of ColombiaDiversa.
Eric Sawyer(USA): I am a co-founder of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)in New York, of Housing Works and of Health GAP. I now work for UNAIDS, whose Secretariat is responsiblefor the primary policy setting and program development involving HIV, and forcoordinating the efforts of all UN system organizations against AIDS.
Sarah Schulman (USA): As a writer, Ihave published sixteen books, including novels and non-fiction books. Each hasgay, lesbian, or HIV-positive protagonists and people as its primary subjectmatter. As a playwright, I have produced plays with queer subject matter and amnow writing movies featuring lesbian and queer protagonists. As an activist, Ihave participated in foundational political movements in this country.
Fernando Serrano(Colombia): I am an anthropologist. At present I am in charge of the so-called“LGBT Community Centers Strategy,” which is a part of Bogotá’s LGBT publicpolicy, and which seeks the development of a series of services for thatspecific community and for the community at large, on issues of sexual andgender diversity.
Tarald Stein(Norway): I am a 31 year old trans man, transgender, transsexual, everythinggoes... I work at the LLH, The NorwegianLGBT Association in Oslo. I am working on a new project titled “GenderDiversity,” in which we are trying not to have an identity focus, but to baseour work mostly on the needs of the transgender population.
Susu (Korea):I work independently. My activism is mainly concerned with the art and cultureof sexual minorities, but also with everything that relates to my life andidentity.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (USA): I am a writer, activist, editor, socialcritic, a bit of a troublemaker, and a contrarian. My work is about challengingthe violence of the assimilationist gay movement.
Mara Viveros(Colombia): My initial training was as an economist, but I later became ananthropologist.
Edmund White (USA):I have written maybe twenty-five books. I recently finished a novel that willcome out next year, titled Jack Holmesand His Friend, which is about a straight and a gay man who are bestfriends in New York in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. I am currently working on amemoir about my life in Paris in the 1980s.
Kjell Erik Øie (Norway): I have been working on gay and lesbian issuesfrom two different positions: I was the president of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force in Norway for four years.Previously, I had held two positions in the Norwegian government, first asDeputy Minister at the Ministry for Childrenand Equality, and later as a political advisor to the Minister.
Carlos Motta is a multi-disciplinary artist whosework draws upon political history in an attempt to create counter narrativesthat recognize the inclusion of suppressed histories, communities, identitiesand ideologies. Motta''s work has been presented internationally in venues suchas Guggenheim Museum, New York; MoMA/PS1 Contemporary Art Center, NewYork; Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; Museo de Arte del Bancode la Republica, Bogotá; Serralves Museum, Porto; National Museum ofContemporary Art, Athens; CCS Bard Hessel Museum of Art, Annandale-on-Hudson;San Francisco Art Institute and Hebbel am Ufer, Berlin. Carlos Motta is agraduate of the Whitney Independent Study Program and was named aGuggenheim Foundation Fellow in 2008. He is part of the faculty at Parsons TheNew School of Design, The School of Visual Arts, Milton Avery School ofthe Arts at Bard College, the International Center of Photography and TheVermont College of Fine Arts.
Cristina Motta holds a law degree from Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia, with a Specialist Diploma in Political Science from Université de Paris, France, and LL.M. from Harvard University, United States. She received a Fulbright and a World Bank and Government of Japan (JJ/WBGSP) scholarships for her graduate studies in the United States. She has been a teacher and researcher as well as Director of the Center for Socio-Legal Studies at Universidad de los Andes Law School. Her areas of expertise include access to justice, right to information, public corruption, and the relation between gender and law. Her works include investigations for the World Bank and the United Nations Population Fund. She has also been a professor at the Law School of Universidad de San Andrés in Argentina. She is the author of several books and essays on women’s rights and ethics.