From the pages of slick magazines, Melissa Etheridge and her (now former) partner, sporting broad smiles and holding hands, display chic Cartier bracelets on their wrists; a male couple with a young girl and a yellow Labrador Retriever smile as they are all seated on the floor beside their Ikea couch, a lesbian couple learning American Sign Language in advance of their adoption of a young deaf girl in an ad for Wells Fargo Bank, and there’s Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series.
Then there are shows like “Glee,” “Modern Family,” “Will and Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Ugly Betty,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Project Runway,” “Orange Is the New Black,” “Looking,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “How To Get Away with Murder,” “Scandal,” “Shameless,” “Empire,” “The Fosters,” “Transparent,” and movies like Brokeback Mountain, The Kids are Alright, The Single Man, The Imitation Game. These represent only the tip of the proverbial iceberg of recent examples of media visibility.
These characterizations, though on occasion representing minoritized races and ethnicities, comprise largely white and middle- to upper-class people. While the majority today would be considered by many as “positive” representations for the most part, which may more fully and accurately represent some of our lives relative to the rather sad and miserable or violently threatening characterizations presented previously, the majority depict the upwardly mobile, socially assimilated character who poses little overt challenge to the status quo, those who function rather successfully in the competitive corporate world, those who shop for a dishwasher or go on an expensive vacation with their heterosexual friends and relatives.
While many benefits accrue with these representations, such as providing better role models for our youth, helping to overcome many of the stereotypes and reducing prejudices, the capitalist system seems to have employed these images of “we are just like you” in its attempts to coopt critique and possible challenge to that very system.
A few years back, I entered my university classroom and was about to introduce that day’s lesson when a large poster pinned to the bulletin board caught my eye. It displayed a tightly clenched raised fist, reminiscent of the iconic Black Power symbol popularized in the 1960s. Above the image read the words in large capital letters, “JOIN THE FIGHT.”
Encouraged by the sight, I walked over to the poster hoping to find some indication of resurgent social activism. To my dismay and utter aversion, however, appearing in smaller letters, the poster advertised “The Fighting Burrito,” a local fast food campus hangout. The profit motive transformed this iconic symbol into a sales pitch for burritos, tacos, carbonated drinks, and nachos.
In our communities, the “pride” marches of the past have morphed into parades and festivals funded on major corporate sponsorship and capitalist consumption. Parade contingents now include large canvas banners affixed with familiar logos of national and local banks, insurance companies, soft drinks and beer, and real estate offices. Ironically, some of these same companies not so long ago refused to hire “out” members of our communities, but seeing how our business will improve their economic bottom line, we are now happily welcomed.
Along the parade routes and at rally sites, companies and individuals display and sell their wares, from internet and phone company subscriptions to rainbow-colored everything imaginable: from t-shirts to teething rings, and from towels to toilet seat covers. Gucci just introduced their new rainbow pride-theme sneakers for the bargain price of only $995.
In addition, merchants and artisans borrow the pink triangle — the Nazi patch gay men were forced to wear on their clothing when incarcerated in concentration camps — to fashion glimmering pink Rhinestone jewelry worn as glamorous fashion accessories.
Originally, the pink triangle, this symbol of ultimate oppression of gay men in Nazi concentration camps, in the 1970s our communities deployed as a mark of solidarity, in the AIDS activist movement of the 1980s and 1990s, as an emblem of resistance in mobilizing against the intransigence of governmental and societal inaction, and today often as simply as accoutrements of vanity as a fashion statement.
The latter is an example of what I refer to as “the tchotchetization of a movement” (“tchotchke” in Yiddish means knick knacks, small objects, etc.).
However, are we actually contributing to the ever-widening income gap that has overtaken our country? And what about the folks and entire communities we dislocate as we gentrify entire neighborhoods?
More often than not, these gentrifiers include white gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women who conform fairly closely to traditional conceptualizations of gender expression, as cisgender. Lesbians and bisexual women, as women within an overriding sexist society, however, statistically earn less than their male counterparts, and individuals who present along the transgender spectrum continue to find less freedom of expression, and, therefore, far less job security.
While upward mobility stands as a somewhat laudable goal, I believe that if we are going to achieve a truly equitable society, we must reach higher, wider, and broader. As important as economic security may be, I hope we do not envision this as the final resting place over the rainbow.
If the relatively few of us who attain this security, after having been seduced by promises of achieving some degree of credibility and respectability, I fear we will have become part of the very problems that so many of us have fought so tirelessly to eradicate.
Metaphorically, oppression operates like a wheel with many spokes. If we work to dismantle only one or a few specific spokes, the wheel will continue to roll over people. Let us, then, also work on dismantling all the many spokes to conquering all the many forms of oppression in all their many forms.
Until and unless we can join in coalition with other groups, I consider that the possibility for achieving a genuine sense of community and a genuine sense of equity will be unattainable. I believe also that sexual and relational attractions and gender identities and expressions alone are not sufficient to connect a community, and by extension, a movement for progressive social change.
We must, therefore, look beyond ourselves and base a community and a movement not simply on social identities, but also on shared ideals and values among individuals from disparate social identities, with like minds, political philosophies, and strategies for achieving their objectives.
Let us revel in our past victories, for we have fought tirelessly for them. But let us not dwell there because we have further to go to ensure a truly just and equitable society and world.
In the final analysis, whenever anyone is diminished, we are all demeaned, when anyone or any group remains institutionally and socially marginalized, excluded, or disenfranchised from primary rights, benefits, and resources, the possibility for authentic community cannot be realized unless and until we become involved, to challenge, to question, and to act in truly transformational ways.
I hope, therefore, that we can reignite the revolutionary and transformational flame of what was Stonewall.