Lessons From the ENDA Mess

Regardless of whether or not Congress, in the days ahead, passes an Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) that protects all LGBT people, there are lessons to be drawn from the controversy that has been roiling our community for weeks now.

Let’s briefly recall the facts. Late this summer, the Human Rights Campaign cut a backroom deal with the Democratic House leadership to strip from the original ENDA bill introduced in April any protection of the transgendered or of those who present their gender identity differently from the heterosexual norm — like butch lesbians or effeminate gay men.


But HRC did not inform the rest of the community of the deal for a truncated ENDA, and the rest of us only found out about it some three weeks ago.

Disgust and revulsion at this betrayal of the most vulnerable among us swiftly became widespread — and within days, a broad coalition of national, state, and local LGBT organizations, called ENDA United, had sprung up to oppose the version of ENDA that failed to protect gender identity and expression and the transgendered — because if a shorn bill passes, the transgender community is so politically weak and unpopular Congress will never grant them protection separately.

As of now, more than 300 organizations have joined the ENDA United alliance, leaving HRC all alone in failing to oppose passage of the stripped-down bill.

Thus was revealed a deep fault line in our communities, one that can be traced back to the death of gay liberation and its replacement by what Jeffrey Escoffier, in his seminal 1998 book "American Homo: Community and Perversity," called "the gay citizenship movement."

How did we get to where we are?

When Sylvia Rivera and other transgendered and gender rebels launched the fight-back against a brutal police raid at New York’s Stonewall Inn 38 years ago, that signaled the birth of a radical rebellion — against the State, which made us criminals; against the medical and psychiatric professions, which declared us sick; and against the culture of heterotyranny which made us the targets of disdain, ridicule, opprobrium, hate, and violence.

Born in the wake of the Stonewall rebellion, the gay liberation movement insisted — to borrow from the title of an early film by the gay German cineaste Rosa von Praunheim — that "it is not the homosexual who is perverse, but the society in which he lives."

Drawing from feminist critiques of the tyrannies of patriarchy and the family, gay liberation rejected the white, middle-class culture’s patriarchal rigidities, hierarchies, and rituals; homophobia and misogyny were seen as two sides of the same coin.

Gay liberation insisted on the right to plural desires and opposed "any prescription for how consenting adults may or must make love," as the historian and gay activist Martin Duberman then put it. Gay liberation was, he wrote, "a rite of passage — not into manhood or womanhood as those states have been traditionally defined; not sanctioned by supernatural doctrine; not blueprinted by centuries of ritualized behavior; not greeted by kinship rejoicing and social acceptance; not marked by the extension of fellowship into the established adult community," but rather to placing "ourselves in the forefront of the newest and most far-reaching revolution: the re-characterization of sexuality."

In the early ’70s, when I came out, gay liberation saw itself as "a paradigm of resistance" to the stultifying political culture of the Nixon years, and was infused with a sense of commitment to unleashing the collective energies of a hitherto invisible people as part of the much larger effort to maximize social justice and human liberation for all.

Since official liberalism rejected gay liberation as a "pathetic" celebration of "perversion," we felt it was doubly subversive, and were proud of that.

The accomplishments of the gay liberation movement were many. It shattered forever the silence that had imprisoned same-sexers in untenable solitude and alienation; its raucous, media-savvy confrontations changed the nature of public discourse on homosexuality — symbolized by the insistence on the word "gay," a code word for same-sex love for more than a century, instead of the clinical, one-dimensional "homosexual."

The most significant victory was the successful fight to have the American Psychiatric Association drop same-sex attraction from its catalog of "disorders" in 1973. And, of course, gay liberation made coming out — the most radical act in a homophobic society — not only the basis of mental and emotional health for gay people, but the imperative for creating the political movement that could carry through the fight for civil rights.

As more and more people began to come out, thanks to the liberationists’ clamorous visibility, the out gay community increasingly began to reflect the demographic, political, and cultural makeup of the society as a whole. And thus the gay liberation movement became the gay rights movement.

Gay liberation considered innate homosexuality as much a challenge to a suffocating and unjust social order as the political radicalism that many of its proponents, including myself, embraced. But it was transformed in a relatively short time into a more limited quest for gay citizenship.

Or, as Escoffier wrote, the liberation movement "celebrated the otherness, the differentness, and the marginality of the homosexual; whereas the gay politics of citizenship acknowledges the satisfaction of conforming, passing, belonging, and being accepted."

The de-radicalization of the gay movement was accelerated by a number of factors. For one thing, gay liberation was largely the work of people who had been participants in or influenced by the ’60s movements for black civil rights and against the war in Vietnam, or by labor struggles. As the first generation of activists began to burn out, the movement was populated with younger people with little or no previous history of political protest.

Simultaneously, the fulgurant rise of the commercial gay ghetto and the emergence of the gay market contributed to the rapid growth of an out gay middle class, which saw itself as having more of a stake in the dominant culture than did the young marginals and intellectuals who made up the movement’s first wave.

Finally, the backlash against visible homosexuality and against the demand for full gay citizenship drove the movement to seek political advances through a more traditional form of interest-group politics. The need to appeal to the non-gay electorate helped water down and eventually extinguish the radical liberationist discourse; in this, the gay movement did not escape the similar fate of other initially radical social protest movements.

And then came AIDS.

From 1981, when it was first identified as a "gay cancer," until well into the ’90s, AIDS was used to stigmatize homosexuals, especially gay males, by the political homophobes of the right.

And whatever shards of liberationist thinking and attitudes that remained in the gay community were effectively snuffed out.

First, the epidemic and the social opprobrium it brought with it forced the gay community to turn back in upon itself in a struggle to survive.

Government was entirely absent from the fight against AIDS in the Reagan years, so the burden of prevention, education, and even care for the sick fell upon gay people themselves.

AIDS consumed an enormous amount of the gay community’s money and energies, as we took day-to-day responsibility for our afflicted "extended families" of friends and lovers.

Worst of all, this grimmest of reapers also took away forever thousands of gay liberation’s most original and tireless activists, a loss unparalleled in the history of any other US social movement. I always think of my late, dear friend Vito Russo as symbolizing the enormity of this lethal hemorrhage of irreplaceable talent.

Finally, any radicalism that still existed in the gay community was increasingly channeled into the fight against AIDS with the founding of ACT UP. The struggle for simple survival took primacy over the larger issues of social and sexual transformation.

By the end of the ’90s, the institutionalization of the gay movement was complete. HRC, the wealthiest national gay organization with the largest staff, some 114 people now — to which today’s corporate media invariably turn for the "gay view" on issues — adopted a top-down, corporate structure that demands little more of its members than writing a check or attending a black-tie dinner, or occasionally writing a letter, or more likely sending an e-mail, to a public official.

In their endless search for corporate sponsorships for gay events and activities, in their insistence on presenting a homogenized and false image of gay people, the gay institutions like HRC and their access-obsessed gaycrats are committing serious strategic and tactical errors — like acquiescing in an exclusionary version of ENDA — that play into the hands of our heavily funded and organizationally sophisticated enemies on the right.

Yes, the political center of gravity in this country has moved significantly to the right in the decades since Stonewall — and with it the political center of gravity of the out gay community. But I detect something enormously hopeful in the unprecedented mobilization we’ve seen in these last weeks against the exclusion of the transgendered and gender non-conformists from ENDA.

Since the ENDA controversy erupted, I’ve heard more real, heart-felt debate about what values a gay movement should hold dear and immutable than I’ve heard in years. There’s also genuine anger at the lack of accountability by the top-down institutions, like HRC, whose un-elected leadership elites claim to speak for all of us.

Moreover, now that three and a half decades of struggle have created an ever-enlarging cultural and political space for LGBT people, I’m sensing a hunger for a return to some of the earlier principles of sexual liberation for all with which our movement began, not just here at home but abroad — and that includes a growing demand for our gay institutions to abandon their navel-gazing isolationism and embrace international LGBT solidarity.

In the long term, developing new strategies of resistance and liberation will require the gay movement, which has become so embourgeoise, to begin a serious and radical rethinking of homosexualities and gender identities so as to understand at a deeper level why the fear and loathing of same-sex love and gender variants are so deeply engrained in society and culture not only here in the United States, but around the world.

This also means breaking the forms of social control implicit in the gay market ideology. And re-connecting to other movements for social justice who should be our natural allies — all the while remembering the dictum of a great black civil rights organizer who also was gay, Bayard Rustin, who taught us that "all successful coalitions are based on mutual self-interest," which means embracing the struggles of others as we ask them to embrace ours.

But, as important as the demands of the gay citizenship movement are, ultimately one cannot change minds and hearts simply by legislation alone. Only a fundamental redefinition of human freedom that includes a re-characterization of human sexuality in all its glorious varieties — the original project of gay liberation — can do that.

Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND.

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