The return of vintage homophobia calls for vintage queer tactics
Today the New York Times newsletter’s headline read “Good morning. How did L.G.B.T. rights again become the subject of a culture war?”. The authors outlined two explanations: a “new conservative aggressiveness” resulting from the Trump era; and “conservative public opinion on gender identity and transgender rights”.
I would include three other factors: a lack of interest from the community for what it perceives to be marginal issues; the inability of LGBTQ+ leadership to dispel that notion and build a unifying strategic response; and a vested interest of progressives in having trans lives remain a “wedge issue”.
LGBTQ+ people who once did not mind protesting, picketing, and getting arrested, let the “Don’t Say Gay” bill “prohibiting classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” make its way slowly to DeSantis’ desk without much resistance. If you google search the bill, almost all hits are dated after the bill passed. Our current outrage is only commensurate with our passivity before the bill passed. As for anti-trans bills, they have been rolling through local legislatures opposed by timid online petitions, angry op-eds and memes.
My personal theory is that Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek was responding to this inertia when he justified his deafening silence on the bill by suggesting that “corporate statements do very little to change outcomes or minds”. He assumed we did not have any longer the clout, resolve and unity to secure public support from our proclaimed allies. And although the focus has been on Disney, it seems that many of our corporate “allies”, from Florida to Alabama, feel the same way. This is the list of the 15 companies that signed the Florida business letter, the missing names, including LGBTQ+-owned businesses, are flagrant. In fact the reason Florida did not experience economic sanctions is because gay men were opposed to take any action that would jeopardize their economic interests. Thankfully, a handful of self-organized principled Disney employees and Gen-Z students single-handedly pushed back.
There is nothing unexpected about the backlash on LGBTQ+ rights. We always knew that the more we would become visible, and the closer we would get to equality, the harder the resistance would be. Vladimir Putin justifying the war in Ukraine using Pride Parades, Nigeria targeting cross-dressers with a new bill or Republicans re-framing us as “groomers”: it is expected. It is unfortunately part of the journey.
What is unexpected is our community’s apathy over these new attacks and the lack of a strategy beyond condemning republican sponsors and organizing lawsuits which end up in unfavorable courts.
HRC’s State Director for Alabama, Anderson-Harvey — commented today on Ivey signing the anti-affirming care bill: “This year, it was really more centered around political scoring […] We’re all distraught right now … because we were caught by surprise.” Where is the surprise exactly ?
Democrats do express outrage. However, we cannot forget that this outrage serves their political purpose too. Progressive politicians have a vested interest in ensuring conservatives remain villains in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality. To be blunt: republican and democrat politicians are both using LGBTQ+ lives as a wedge issue ahead of the mid-term elections. It is better for democrats to oppose “Don’t Say Gay”, have it pass and get outraged than for the bill to die in committee or never emerge. LGBTQ+ people are political pawns in both hands. Therefore, the complete merger of LGBTQ+ organizations and the Democratic party is worrisome. Our interests do not systematically align. In an ideal world, human rights should be a bipartisan issue.
Ultimately this backlash will pass, and equality will prevail. One day. There is more progress than setbacks. For every anti-trans bill which passes in the US, there is more significant positive legal changes somewhere else in the World. Yet, these bills are unequivocally damaging to LGBTQ+ people. Already 15 states are planning Florida copycats for the next legislative session. And they affect our rights everywhere, not only in the US. How can the State Department advocate against “LGBTQ+-free zones” in Poland when the US has now a law like HB 1557 on the books? Where is its credibility?
And other questions remain: how long will this backlash last? How many trans kids won’t have access to affirmative care? How will this onslaught of bills affect our community’s well-being? How many will be denied the dignity and economic opportunities they deserve? And, where will it stop? Today The Nation ran a piece suggesting Republicans will make Obergefell v. Hodges their next target.
Some LGBTQ+ Americans feel we have mostly “arrived”. And maybe we have to some extent. But it would be dangerous to give up before the finish line.
My personal preoccupation is to preserve corporate engagement. Companies cannot have us as consumers, employees, and investors if they do not stand by our side in our journey towards equality. With the privilege of making profit with us comes responsibility. Corporate voices, despite Bob Chapek’s belief, are perceived as more neutral in the culture war and therefore are more impactful. However, most companies only support us under duress and when the community and its leadership stop applying pressure or accept minor symbolic gestures as expression of support, corporations revert to passivity. The conversation is harder today than eight years ago, the statements and signatures are performative rather than heartfelt and the financial contributions are diluted by a complex system of patronage disconnected from the important battles.
A lot of it boils down to a crisis of leadership.
We need a functional LGBTQ+ leadership, with some level of independence from politics, which has the willpower to coordinate a unified and strategic response is necessary. A leadership that instead of letting us getting dragged in girls’ sports, bathrooms and curriculum one bill at a time, one state at a time, regains control of the human rights narrative. A leadership that is not afraid of the most radical voices in our movement and can say hard truths. A leadership that uses strategically the economic and business leverage and manages resources carefully. A leadership that is able to coordinate our response with other movements instrumentalized by American politics: reproductive rights, gun rights and voting rights.
A leadership that has the ambition, creativity and grit of our early days. The return of vintage homophobia (to borrow Frank Bruni’s line this week), should resurrect vintage queer tactics.