Occupying Gay Rights: Against Equality and the Neoliberal Project of “Equality”

 In the last year, recent movements purportedly against capitalism, such as Occupy Wall Street, have proliferated across the North American continent. What looks like a mass movement against neoliberalism has captured the imaginations of many and has, to a degree, created a consciousness about disenfranchisement.  For the first time, it seems, connections are being made between the forces that generate mass profits for the few while ensuring the exploitation of the many.

Image by Ryan Conrad

All of this has also persuaded activists of many stripes to make the case for their causes to be embraced in this new “anti-capitalist” fervor.  Among these are gay rights activists, who have been making connections and intersections between gay rights–gay marriage, the effective repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), and hate crimes legislation–and movements centered on economic and political justice. The mainstream movement for gay and lesbian rights has seemingly had much to celebrate as of late. The end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has now resulted in several internet memes, of happy gay couples reuniting as one of them returns from a triumphant stint in an overseas US military base. The Mathew Shephard and James Byrd hate crimes act has recently been used for the first time to prosecute a “bias crime” against gays.

President Barack Obama has been much lauded for his tepid statement, made in June 2012, about supporting gay marriage. DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman) is federal law and cannot be waved away by Presidential decree. Yet, to many of the most vocal supporters of gay marriage, Obama’s words seem like divine intervention. Straights and gay allies have gone about declaring that this is a new era for gay rights, as if marriage, the military, and hate crimes legislation were the beginning and end of our long and fraught queer history.

Against Equality (AE), a radical queer editorial collective asks: How is any of this progress? Instead, we wonder, are these not backward steps in a rich, dense queer history where queers and many allies fought for justice and against war, the confines of gender norms and marriage, and the prison industrial complex? In the first of our trilogy, Against Equality: Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage, we interrogated the project of gay marriage, and argued that espousing marriage as the best and, indeed, only solution to homophobia and inequality in fact disenfranchises the millions who want nothing to do with marriage. In states like Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal, even those in domestic partnerships must get married if they are to maintain health care coverage for their partners.

In other words, gay marriage, far from being an economic leveler, plays into the disenfranchisement of many and is part of the intense privatization of the neoliberal state. In videos put forth by Lambda Legal in support of its recent Illinois suit for gay marriage, several gay and lesbian couples argue that civil unions, so very recently celebrated in Illinois as law, are inadequate and deny them the protections of marriage. As in the multi-million dollar and ongoing lawsuit against Proposition 8 in California, Lambda and its clients argue that “only marriage” would grant their children the respectability of marriage. Civil unions, they claim, are not understood by administrators who are reluctant to grant them housing assistance as families, and they want to be able to bestow their benefits upon their spouses.

Yet, in all this hand-wringing, surely we can resort to simple remedies. If children only see marriages as “respectable,” surely the greater problem is that they are being raised by these couples to stigmatize unmarried people. How is that any different from the Right’s emphasis on respectability and social norms as determinants of people’s welfare? If administrators in Illinois, a state that only granted civil unions starting June 2011, a year ago, don’t understand the concept of the same, surely the issue is to ensure that there is more adequate training. Most importantly, we might all do well to ask: why limit such essential benefits and the determination of what counts as a family to married people? What happens to the unmarried who wish to leave their social security benefits to their friends? Why continue to bolster a state where the unmarried are cast as social and economic pariahs? Whatever happened to the gay movement’s call for universal health care in the 1980s in the wake of AIDS?

Against Equality (AE) is a geographically diffuse five-member (at this time) editorial collective comprised of activists, academics, and artists. It was originally the brainchild of co-founder Ryan Conrad, who began the project in 2009 as a web archive to document decades of queer radical resistance to the gay agenda. AE developed from that point to become a publishing collective and has since been at the hub of resistance to a mainstream gay agenda.  We have presented our work at numerous venues, and helped produce various forums and public discussions that enable people to articulate and bring into play ways to radically dismantle and transform a neoliberal vision for a just society. A neoliberal state only evokes the concepts of “inclusion” and “diversity” in order to perpetuate a privatized system where subjects are compelled to take on “responsibility”  for their own health.  Against Equality’s greatest success has been in challenging that status quo and compelling conversations about how to remake and rethink structures of access that are truly equitable.  

Our second book, Against Equality: Don’t Ask to Fight Their Wars! takes on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and argues that the celebration around the repeal applauds the military as a guarantor of “equality” and occludes the militarization of our everyday lives, present in the growing links between the army and “law enforcement.” The celebration of “equality” and “love” between returning “warriors” and their partners also obfuscates the deadly force of the US military worldwide. That deadly force includes the killing of uncounted gay and lesbian people in other countries and the ongoing violence amongst military personnel, especially against gay and female service members. Our third book, in progress, Against Equality: Prisons Will Not Protect You, makes connections between hate crimes legislation–which exerts lengthier sentences for “bias”–and the extension of the prison industrial complex. We believe that hate crimes legislation is a punitive way to extract vengeance for crimes against gays and lesbians by instituting enhanced sentencing, including the death penalty. In our varied essays from prison abolitionists and critical legal experts, we call for a queer future that acknowledges the rampant and still-persistent violence against queers while engaging a world where an end to the same is not based on perpetuating the violence of the prison industrial complex.  

Long before the Occupy movements, Against Equality aimed to interrogate the project of gay rights as a project of economic justice. In particular, we consider how the mainstream gay and lesbian project of “equality” threatens to overtake the civic infrastructure of Chicago and other cities. A recent Chicago report on LGBT Health prompted the City to declare that “hate crimes” were now a health issue for LGBT people.  We see this as yet another way that a mainstream neoliberal agenda–in this, one of the most neoliberal cities in the world–colludes with a mainstream gay agenda to deny the living reality of queer people for whom the lack of health care is a far more life-threatening issue than the implementation of hate crimes legislation or the “freedom” to fight in imperial wars.

We argue and show that another and more radically just world is possible–where the question is not about “equality” for the few who choose to marry, join the military, or are able to invoke hate crimes legislation. Rather, we envision a world where the priority is to first guarantee access to basics like health care to all, a social support network for all, and education to all.

In formulating resistance and different agendas, AE’s effect has been on both the micro level of intense, engaged discussions as well as on the macro level of creating alternative spaces of change. We allow readers and fellow travelers access to a quickly growing archive of historical and contemporary material which documents the persistent and alternative queer vision of a just world. The conversations we have produced in turn allow for a radical rethinking of how to bring about structural change. For instance, we have been approached several times by readers who have told us how useful our documentation has been in helping them reformulate policies and politics at the places in which they work and/or inhabit.  

As a small collective without the resources of a conventional non-profit, we have been frequently derided by our opponents in the gay mainstream as “fringe”, set with “unrealistic” and “utopian” visions. We take pride in the fact that, today, as the gay mainstream agenda in fact appears to be advancing, there is also a critical backlash and that the arguments of many of the writers and activists whose work is organized in our books and archives are now making their way into a national discourse around equity and access. If this is what a “fringe” group looks like, we are happy to be it.

Against Equality can be found at http://www.againstequality.org