The following excerpts are from a talk on “LGBTQ: Rights, Liberation and Solidarity” given by Shelley Ettinger, a former WW managing editor and author of the novel “Vera’s Will,” at a Workers World Party forum in New York City on June 26. “Vera’s Will” is available at major online book sellers. Go to youtu.be/L7U9rQMZYB8 to view Ettinger’s talk.
There was big news out of Washington today, but I’m not going to start with that. I’m going to start with the big event here today, and the big news out of Washington two days ago.
Today was the 11th annual Trans Day of Action here in New York. I was at work and couldn’t be there, but I know it was full of anger, beauty and fighting spirit. The Trans Day of Action came just two days after a sister named Jennicet Gutiérrez, a Mexican undocumented immigrant trans woman, courageously disrupted a White House LGBT Pride event, interrupting President Obama’s speech to call on him to release all LGBTQ immigrants from detention. Shamefully, she was roundly booed by those gathered, the bourgie-ass Barneys-clad representatives of various class-collaborationist organizations that claim to speak for our communities but whose close ties with the capitalist ruling class, the corporations and banks and politicians, actually distance them from most lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Sister Gutiérrez was booed and dragged out for daring to speak up for some of the most oppressed.
But in the aftermath of her bold action, she has also been applauded, supported, cheered and thanked, by many, many people. All over social media and traditional media, there has been an outpouring of pride and solidarity with Jennicet Gutiérrez for, as she herself characterized her act, reviving the spirit of Stonewall.
So that’s how this year’s Pride Week opened. Next comes tomorrow, the annual Dyke March here in New York City, and on Sunday the big march down Fifth Avenue that commemorates those glorious nights in late June 1969 when trans people, gay men and lesbians resisted a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, physically fought in hand-to-hand combat with the cops, uprooted streetlights and swung them at cop-car windows, rose up, in other words, and with their uprising sparked a new movement.
If this were an ordinary period, my talk would be mostly about how that movement has developed, about the dialectics of that movement 46 years on, its class character, its contradictions, its successes and failures, and its prospects in the period to come. And it will be about this, but only partly, only briefly, because this is an extraordinary period and there are more pressing matters to address. Namely solidarity. That is, not only the struggle of those of us who are oppressed as LGBTQ people, but solidarity with the most important struggle facing the U.S. working class today, which of course is the anti-racist struggle.
Today, nine days after the Charleston Massacre, filled with rage and horror and disgust at the endless racist rampages throughout this country, we must say it over and over: Black lives matter. Black trans lives matter. This must be our rallying cry for Pride 2015. Not only because it’s right, not only because the moment demands it, but because it will build unity, it will strengthen the class struggle, and that is what will ultimately be the way forward for all oppressed groups and our entire class as we build a fighting movement to overturn this vile capitalist system.
That is my most important point: our commitment to building LGBTQ solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement; our recognition of the need to fight hardest alongside the most oppressed in our LGBTQ movement, and that is LGBTQ people of color, especially trans people of color; and the particular responsibility of white LGBTQ people in this regard.
Marriage’s history & this victory
I will come back and say more about that. First, though, let’s talk about today’s historic Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. In their ruling, the Supremes established marriage as a constitutionally protected federal right, between any two adults of any sex or gender. The court found, in other words, that no state has a right to bar anyone from marriage — very much as it ruled in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia, when the court overturned so-called miscegenation laws that banned so-called interracial marriage and finally recognized as legal the marriage of Mildred Loving, who was Black, and her husband Richard Loving, who was white.
This comparison, by the way, between the same-sex marriage case and the Loving “miscegenation” case, is not mine. The comparison, the argument that same-sex marriage should be allowed for the same reasons that “interracial” marriage was allowed, has been made by many groups and individuals including the NAACP, the late Coretta Scott King and, most strikingly, by Mildred Loving herself. In a statement Mildred Loving issued on June 12, 2007, the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Loving v. Virginia, just one year before she died, Ms. Loving said:
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was the ‘wrong kind of person’ for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have that same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights. … I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness and the family that so many people, Black or white, young or old, gay or straight, seek in life.”
I find Mildred Loving’s support — her active support, her decision to take a vocal stand 40 years after her own court victory against the racist state — deeply moving.
However, I also know that the same-sex marriage issue is not the most pressing issue on our agenda. Not the most important struggle now facing the LGBTQ community. And definitely not the most important struggle facing our great multinational working class. This is what marriage is not. But what is marriage?
Well, marriage is definitely not as Justice Anthony Kennedy described it in his majority decision today. Kennedy wrote: “From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons.” Uh… no, not true, not at all. Completely inaccurate and ahistorical.
In reality, the historical roots of marriage go back to the origin of patriarchal society, the tragic triumph of the male-supremacist social order that is still in place today and the defeat of the classless matriarchy, which was the original organization of human society that had held over the roughly 150,000 to 200,000 years from the time the modern Homo sapiens species emerged until the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.
With agriculture came, in fairly short order, material surpluses of the sort that had never before existed, and with surpluses came the emergence of social-economic classes. Simultaneous with these developments came the discovery of paternity — the male’s role in reproduction, which unfortunately humankind figured out around that point. And this led to patrilineal inheritance — that is, accumulated wealth being passed down from father to son. And with it came the new configuration of patriarchal marriage, which was basically a vehicle for passing ownership of female human beings from father to husband, ensuring paternity for purposes of inheritance, and enshrining male supremacy on the private household front as well as the public sphere.
So. Why would any self-respecting queer person want anything to do with such an institution rooted as it is in patriarchy and the subjugation of women?
I believe there are two answers to that question of why a same-sex couple might want to marry. First is that legal marriage comprises over 1,000 federal rights and benefits not available to couples who are not married. Looking at one arena alone, federal income tax, I can testify from personal experience that for a working-class couple the difference between filing as two single individuals and filing as married can amount to thousands of dollars a year. This in itself is enough to explain why many same-sex couples, especially workers, might want to marry. To finally get this little bit of financial break that straight couples have all along gotten. There is a misconception that the marriage right is basically a middle-class or bourgeois matter but just the opposite is true: as, again, I can personally testify, it confers material concrete benefits most of all on couples who don’t have high incomes, couples for whom a hundred or a thousand dollars is a very big deal.
The second answer to the question of why queer couples might want in on marriage despite its oppressive roots and meaning is: Who cares? Whose business is it why any given couple decides they want to get married? If this is a right available to opposite-sex couples, it is our duty as supporters of equality to insist that it must be available to same-sex couples. Period. As communists especially, we don’t impose some sort of self-righteous condescending more-revolutionary-than-thou anti-marriage judgment, shake our heads and tsk tsk at lesbians, gay men, or anyone else who decides they want in on a right, marriage, from which they had been excluded up to now. I repeat: it is a question of equal rights and of course we support equal rights, without any judgment on the attitudes or motivations of those who choose to exercise the newly available right.
It’s necessary for me to say this because there’s a whole current inside and outside of the LGBTQ movement that opposes same-sex marriage and chides any who take part in it. I am not talking here about those who say our movement is about much more than marriage – we say that ourselves, and it is completely correct. I am talking about those who condemn same-sex marrieds as heteronormative wannabes, as pro-establishment, as bourgeois. It is this position itself that is petty-bourgeois, fake-radical, antithetical to a Marxist view of oppression and how to fight it. And this position is divisive, when what we need is a united struggle on all fronts, fighting for all our demands and rejoicing together when any of them is won.
Is marriage the same thing as liberation? Of course not. Does marriage, now that it has become law, mean we’ve won? Not in the least. There is still no federal protection against discrimination, violence against our community is still rampant, especially against trans people, especially against trans people of color, queer kids are still being driven to suicide. Is it just, is it correct, that any rights, from health benefits to taxation, have anything whatsoever to do with anyone’s relationships? No, of course it’s not right. There should be universal health care, like in Cuba, quality care for every human being. So much, obviously, remains to be done, in the LGBTQ struggle and in the working-class struggle as a whole.
Furthermore, it is absolutely accurate to say that the single-focus obsession with the marriage issue serves to obscure the life-and-death struggle to survive that so many sisters and brothers, especially trans people of color, face. When the cops are beating you in the streets, when you have nowhere to sleep or medical care or food or a job, marriage is not exactly at the top of your agenda. That it is presented as though it is the top issue testifies to the way some of the LGBTQ movement has drifted away from its radical roots, the way especially many of the official organizations have become so thoroughly bourgeois in character. We must always be sensitive to this and not make this mistake ourselves.
But we must also always, as communists, defend every concession we can wring from the ruling class, and we must be sensitive to those who cling to the victory. And the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage is a victory. If you go down to the NYC marriage bureau as I have done, you will see couple after couple — two Filipino men from Queens, two African-American women from the Bronx, a white man and a Latino who’ve driven up from Florida, and so many others — getting married. Or go to San Antonio, Texas, where my wife’s sister’s husband’s niece, a young Latina who has had a very hard life, recently announced her engagement to her girlfriend. Or tonight, after this meeting, walk down the street to the Stonewall Inn where thousands are gathered to celebrate. Go and look any of these folks in the face, faces that are wet with tears of joy, and tell them, sorry, you’re just a bunch of heteronormative sellouts just begging for acceptance by and assimilation into straight society.
No. What they are is oppressed people, grabbing onto a small piece of equality at last. No one has a right to denounce them for that. This win is not everything, but it is something. It is progress. Just as we would never denounce a group of workers whose union has won them higher wages or better benefits, it would be a grave error to denounce those celebrating tonight.
And you know what? I’ll take it even further. If there are some queer couples who do want to be accepted by straight society, if some folks do want nothing more than to blend in with their neighbors, join the PTA and go to backyard barbecues with them, no longer be stigmatized, be different, be other — well how dare anyone deride them for that? Sometimes all you long for is normalcy, acceptance, and I for one will never look down on any of my sisters and brothers who cling to this modest dream.
Solidarity with anti-racist struggle
Some of us, of course, want much more. We want liberation! In every possible sense of the word! We want to tear down the whole structure of this exploitive, oppressive, racist, vile, destructive society. And we want to replace it with a whole new one, a society that frees up every human being to explore her fullest potential and express himself in every way free of the fetters of old strictures and structures. And free of all the old divisions, none of which is “natural,” all of which were created and imposed by the ruling class, and all of which block our efforts to forge class unity and build a revolutionary struggle.
There is no more important, more invidious, more destructive, more crucially urgent matter facing the struggle of the working class and oppressed peoples than racism. Racism is and always must be the number one concern of every revolutionary. Now, at this moment in this country, the rampage of racist murders looms above everything else.
Murders by individual ideological racists like the scum Dylan Roof, who massacred nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston last week. Murders by killer cops gunning down Black people with impunity. The prison-industrial complex incarcerating and killing Black people in ever increasing numbers. The militarization of the police and the rampant violence of this occupying force in Black communities.
There is a crisis facing the U.S. working class. It is the crisis of the state seeking to crush the Black nation. With raw armed force. On behalf of the capitalist ruling class.
But here’s the thing, comrades and friends. The bosses and bankers cannot crush the Black nation.
Not only can they not crush the Black nation — the Black nation is rising up to crush them! Oh what a wonderful development this is.
A new movement has arisen in this country. With amazing speed, with inspiring strength, with profound militancy, with all the brilliance and rage and focus that they possess, Black youth have birthed this new movement that is sweeping across the country and thrilling everyone who has longed for a renewed fightback.
This is “Black Lives Matter.” It is the grand civil rights movement of our time, and it is more than that. It has within it the potential to arouse and awaken our whole great multinational working class. It is, I believe, the harbinger of the revolution that is surely to come. Because there is no single more crucial component of the class struggle than the national question: the oppression of the Black, Latino, Native, Asian and Arab masses. And there is no single more crucial aspect of the national question than the leading role of the great Black nation.
Black Lives Matter. What a simple declarative sentence, yet how bold and radical a statement in this most racist country. Black Lives Matter. How long have so many been waiting for someone to shout it in the faces of pigs? Black lives matter!
Michael Brown matters. Eric Garner matters. Ezell Ford matters. Tony Robinson matters. Freddie Grey matters. Trayvon Martin matters. Tamir Rice matters. Shantel Davis matters. Akai Gurley matters. Ramarley Graham matters.
And our nine sisters and brothers massacred in Charleston, they matter very much. Never forget their names. Cynthia Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lee Lance. Rev. Clementa Pinckney. Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Tywanza Sanders. Rev. Daniel Simmons. Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor. Myra Thompson.
The protests that have swept the streets of the country, shutting down highways and businesses from Los Angeles to New York City, from Oakland to Boston, and of course from Ferguson to Baltimore, are like a righteous cleansing flood. They have shocked and terrified the state and the bosses, while electrifying everyone who hates the state and the bosses.
Some of the key leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, which emerged in Ferguson last summer after the police murder of Michael Brown, are African-American LGBTQ people. (In fact, and this is just a side note but I wanted to mention it, two Black lesbians who met during the Ferguson protests in August, Alexis Templeton and Brittany Ferris, announced a few months ago that they are engaged to be married.) The prominent role of openly queer Black leadership in Black Lives Matter is a great development. So is the fact that speaker after speaker at all the anti-cop rallies that I know of, queer and non-queer speaker after speaker, say “Black queer lives matter” and specifically “Black trans lives matter.” Solidarity among the movements has grown and deepened. This is a new day, sisters and brothers, and I believe the entire working-class movement has the Black Lives Matter phenomenon to thank for this.
Now it is the responsibility of the LGBTQ movement, most particularly it is the duty of white queer people, who for too long have been presented as the most visible face of the movement, to step up and do the right thing. It is our job to stand with fast food workers, mostly people of color, many of them queer, as they fight for a $15 minimum wage. It is our job to stand shoulder to shoulder with Black Lives Matter, against the scourge of racist killer cops, against mass incarceration, against the whole structure of institutionalized racism and the racist capitalist state. It is our job to stand shoulder to shoulder with the immigrant-rights movement against ICE and mass deportation and mass killings and imprisonment of migrant youths. It is our job to link hands with our Palestinian sisters and brothers and say no to the Israeli settler state’s pinkwashing, that is, Israel’s PR campaign to portray itself as some sort of haven to gay people — white gay people — all the while maintaining and intensifying its brutal racist genocidal occupation of historic Palestine.
All of this — stepping forward as queer people in solidarity with the struggle against racism and imperialism — is our duty for two reasons. Because it is the right thing to do. And because it will strengthen the overall class struggle, which is the way forward to combat and someday defeat all forms of oppression.
Finally, and I left this for last so that it would have the most impact, so that I could leave you with these thoughts, I am going to end as I started by focusing on the most oppressed in our LGBTQ community. That is trans people, and in particular Black and other trans people of color. It is true that the recent period has seen an unprecedented flowering of the trans liberation movement, a great new visibility and a growing societal acceptance of trans people. Some see Caitlyn Jenner’s debut on the cover of Vanity Fair as a tipping point. Whether that will prove to be the case remains to be seen. What is undeniable is that more and more trans people, genderqueer people, people who identify and define themselves in various ways that don’t fit into the rigid gender norms of this society, are coming forward, courageously and defiantly telling the world: “This is who I am. You must accept me as I am, and I have as much worth as anyone else.” This is a magnificent thing, and we in Workers World applaud it. It’s been a long time coming.
However, along with the advances have come terrible, painful, vicious attacks. Reactionary politicians call for imprisonment or even death for trans people. Religious fundamentalists decry the trans movement. Government blocks equal rights laws. And, worst of all, and all over the country, trans people face bloody violent attacks. Anti-trans murders, ignored or encouraged by the cops, are epidemic.
The most oppressed face the worst of it. The toll of our people of color trans sisters and brothers, mostly Black, mostly sisters, who have been murdered recently is terrible to recite. Michelle Vash Payne, killed in Los Angeles in February. Ty Underwood, killed in Texas in January. Londyn Chanel, killed last month in Philadelphia.
Islan Nettles. Maya Hall. Papi Edwards. Lamia Beard. Taja Gabrielle de Jesus. Penny Proud.
According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Progams, 72 percent of hate crimes against LGBTQ people are against trans women. Of these, 90 percent are against trans women of color.
If that is not a call to action, I don’t know what is. These are our sisters, and they are being killed.
The dead cry out for vengeance. The living must be defended.
Black trans lives matter! This must be our promise and our pledge.
Black lives matter!
And we in the queer community must put our bodies on the line for this great cause.
Onward to liberation for all! Fight back, fight back, fight back, in the spirit of Stonewall!