A Critique of the “Post-Gay” Thesis

I faced a peculiar coincidence this afternoon. I was sitting in my office in Amherst, Massachusetts transcribing an interview with a 21-year-old, queer-identified, white, male-bodied person for my dissertation research on queer subcultures in Minneapolis. Cody (a pseudonym) had told me about how his participation in one of the queer subcultures in Minneapolis had given him confidence in his body, exposed him to new ideas about gender and sexuality, and helped him get over a serious bout of depression.

After finishing this interview, I checked Facebook and Cody had just posted a status update indicating that he’d been “clocked” by a man while he was getting off a city bus in Minneapolis. I contacted him and was struck by his nonchalance with the matter. He said that the man had been harassing him with homophobic comments while on the bus ride, that he had stood up for himself, and then, while exiting the bus, had been attacked. When I asked if he filed a police report, he told me that since he argued with the man that it would probably just look like “it was his fault.” His nonchalance was telling—this is not out of the ordinary.

Being Gay Not a Privilege

Back up four days and I’m sitting in a coffee shop, meeting with a professor. At one point he tells me that “being gay” is actually a mode of privilege in that “men make more than women and, when you put two men together they double their privilege.” I sit with words and phrases running through my head, trying to unpack what he’s just said. I’m thinking, “not all non-heterosexual people are white and have middle-class jobs, not all non-heterosexuals are cis-gendered….” When I finally speak, all I can manage to say is that in most states you can still be legally fired for being gender non-conforming or non-heterosexual. He immediately dismisses the claim, saying that it hasn’t been empirically documented and probably is not that frequent in occurrence.

Later in the conversation, he’s fascinated when I tell him about how a group of GLBTQ folks of color in Minneapolis are active, “out” community organizers and activists. His amazement is telling. He just realized that people of color can and sometimes are gender non-conforming and non- heterosexual—and can be quite vocal in either or both of these ways.

Although these stories may seem unconnected, they speak to the way in which non-heterosexuality is typically conflated with whiteness and middle-class status, resulting in a dismissal or downplaying of the violence and discrimination that both white and non-white GLBTQ people experience on a daily basis.

This conflation of queerness with whiteness and middle-class status is the result of the efforts of strange bedfellows: the right-wing’s argument that gay rights activists are seeking “special rights,” the mainstream gay rights movement’s disproportionate control and direction by gay white men, and the disproportionate media visibility and buying power of middle-class gay white men and their construction as a niche market for corporate marketing.

These comments are indicative of a broader cultural notion that we have reached a post-gay society where gay people have supposedly reached parity with heterosexuals in terms of access to dominant institutions, including the military and marriage (in a minority of states). Embedded in this notion is a myopic understanding of identity, where sexual identity is assumed to override or exist separately from race, class, and gendered social locations.

We typically do not think of white as a race in the United States (white people are people, black people are people of color). We also typically think of everyone as middle-class and assume that everyone falls either into male or female boxes of gender identity and typically characterize the figure of the “gay person.”

Widespread Violence

The fact is, violence against white and non-white queers is widespread. For example, a Human Rights Campaign report on hate crimes against LGBT people finds that: “Since 1991, more than 100,000 hate crime offenses [against LGBTQ people] have been reported to the FBI.” The report goes on to say that these numbers are most likely not accurate, due to the under-reporting of hate crimes (such as Cody’s experience). In my own research interviewing queer-identified people in Minneapolis, I was told numerous stories of violence experienced by queers. In one story, a young white woman and her boyfriend at the time were attacked outside of a bar. The man who attacked them broke the leg of the queer-identified woman and forced her boyfriend to “bite the curb.”

Furthermore, a recent report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that in the U.S., 50 percent of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) murders in 2009 and 44 percent of LGBT murders in 2010 were of transgender women. Particularly troubling is the fact that hate crimes legislation—thought to be a deterrent to bias-motivated violence—has not performed this function. For example, as Victoria Law points out in Truthout.org, following the passage of Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Crimes Prevention Act, two young queer people of color were murdered in Maryland and Puerto Rico, prompting a number of organizations to criticize the Act for not allocating resources for prevention.

Hate Crimes

The notion that getting anti-hate crime legislation on the books will reduce violence against GLBTQ people is belied by the facts that trans youth face discrimination in access to housing, employment, health care, and education (what sociologists call “structural violence”), and that trans- gendered people of color are three times more likely to experience hate violence from police. A National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs report shows that transgendered people of color are the least likely to report hate crimes, either because of police indifference or because of previous experience of police hate violence.

The empirical data should give us pause about the prevalence of violence against queers and the ability of hate crimes legislation to prevent or curtail such violence. Furthermore, the ways in which this violence is patterned by race, class, and gender inequalities should thoroughly debunk the notion that gay people have reached parity in terms of access to resources and citizenship. This data should also prompt a redirection of the mainstream gay rights movement, which has framed the struggle of the GLBTQ community in the narrow terms of access to marriage and the military.

The logic of the mainstream gay rights movement is akin to trickle- down economics, where the most advantaged and those most positioned to enter into the dominant institutions are displayed as exemplary candidates for real citizenship, and then admitted into mainstream institutions with the expectation that their privilege will seep down and undo the inequalities that queers of color, trans people, and working-class queers face everyday.

However, getting married is not going to bestow living wages, access to jobs with health care benefits, affordable housing, and resources for HIV/AIDS meds to queers who lack those resources to begin with. As sociologists have shown, most people marry within their own economic class. Marriage cannot be our end-all, be-all. Grassroots activism, organizing, having hard conversations about race, class, and gender privilege within our movement, and broad- based coalitional, community-based responses can and should be our goal.

No Post-Gay Oasis

Our communities, our friends, our families, and our loved ones are under attack. At every turn we must refuse to abide by the notion that we live in a post-gay oasis for GLBTQ people. Because we do not. We must continue to make our struggle broad-based, connected and mutually-interdependent with struggles to fight for the people who need the most in our communities. This means recognizing that fighting for equality for people of color, people with disabilities, women, trans people, the rights to have our unions recognized and to control our workplaces are our fights as queers with multiple facets of identity and multiple oppressions and privileges. This is the promise of a queer politics and queer activism. If we stray from it we will all lose out in the end.


Donovan Lessard is a graduate student in the sociology department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Photo: Gay Rights demonstration, 1976; from Wikimedia Commons.