Saturday, January 3, 2009

culture, class, and grassroots activism

Contrary to the probable beliefs of the HRC and similar local organizations (namely the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center), any progressive movement that leaves out those who are most vulnerable is not at all progressive nor will it be as effective as a movement that is committed to inclusion in word and deed. It takes mass participation, and not just the expectation to come out regardless of the personal consequences or just to vote the way one is told to vote by the HRC, but active participation and contributions. For all the appropriation of minority movements that the upper middle-class gay rights movement likes to do, they have a penchant for neglecting the most important parts of the struggles of the 50s and 60s. The most powerful movements do not look at laymen and the working class as mere numbers to be rallied, but as active participants who have something to contribute. Just as the members of DuBois' "talented tenth" such as Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr. contributed mightily to the cause, so did those who lacked formal education—people like Fannie Lou Hamer, who did not have half the formal schooling of the aforementioned leaders but her famous words "I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired" in her powerful speech to the delegates of the Democratic National Convention are as prominent in the cultural lexicon as the first few words MLK’s "I Have a Dream" speech. Yet MLK and Thurgood Marshall are more widely known than Fannie Lou Hamer...but that's a whole 'nother topic.

My point is not to talk about race here, but rather class and culture. The expectation that those of us who do not live on the coasts or in any of the 10 largest American cities, whether or not by choice, should look at those places as an ideal to aspire to is inherently classist and an example of how inferior or nonexistent results are considered desirable when it's not that target demographic of upper middle-class gays who are affected.

Duanna Johnson, Tiffany Berry, and Ebony Whittaker had as much a right to a fulfilling life as anyone in San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, or anywhere else. They did not get that chance. Moreover, we have a right to our culture. There is no one right way to be gay or trans and there are many here who wouldn't live anywhere else even if we were given the chance. We like our gritty, working-class, raucous, barbecue-soaked, kinda sleazy city. We like the close-knit community here that results from not having hundreds of thousands of gays and trans people. For us, smaller is not necessarily worse, and bigger not necessarily better. We have families here, both chosen and natal, that we don't want to leave for our own safety, nor should we have to. We know that California is not the land of milk and honey, that it has its own issues. Contrary to the stereotype of Southerners, not all gay and trans people have hostile families, and we all don't walk around barefoot fucking our cousins and siblings. Not all white people here are racist, and there are quite a few white gays outside the south who are. There are progressive individuals and organizations to be found in the unlikeliest of places; my own experience has taught me that. The organizations that one thinks are progressive often aren't. The MGLCC and TEP certainly are not progressive by any stretch and they are guilty of "not getting it" more times than not on trans issues relating to race and class. I have experienced that first-hand. The grassroots "radical" organizations, on the other hand, tend to get it more often than not. It is with them in mind that I suggest that truly progressive people of all gender identities and sexual orientations stop supporting organizations like the HRC and their local analogues. If the leadership will not listen because they have their paymasters to appease, we should take direct action on our own as much as we could and look beyond the obvious allies. That is my philosophy on activism because even the most well-meaning individuals and organizations are too stubborn and thoroughly entrenched in their own privilege to ever bother to "get it". The one thing I want to be a part of before I go back to school this fall is to help start an organization for trans people in the Memphis area. To use an example, MGLCC is just that: primarily for gay men and lesbians (in hierarchical order, too) and trans people have to educate and explain their own existence to those who claim to be allies. And all the good intentions in the world alone will not change that.

No comments:

Post a Comment