Singing the Same-Sex Wedding Bell Blues

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Jennicet Gutiérrez in front of the Trans Pride flag.
Trans activist Jennicet Gutiérrez

In our day and age of carefully controlled media events crafted by public relations specialists, it’s rare when something occurs that requires the players involved to go “off script.” Oftentimes, though, it’s in these moments of spontaneous interaction that the real power dynamics underlying contemporary discourse get revealed. Such a moment occurred a few weeks ago when Latina activist Jennicet Gutiérrez had the audacity to hope that speaking out about the appalling treatment of transgender individuals in detention centers run by the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agency would find a supportive audience among her fellow queers at a White House event celebrating LGBT Pride Month.

It did not.

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Because nothing screams "fabulously queer" like two monochromatic parallel rectangles.
Because nothing screams “fabulously queer” like two monochromatic parallel rectangles.

Rather than coming to her defense when President Obama, in paternalist mode, chastised Gutiérrez for disrespecting him “in my house,” the assembled members of the gay insider class instead booed and shushed her, then applauded when she was escorted out of the East Room. Putting aside the fact that the White House actually belongs to the people of the U.S., this spectacle of the privileged ganging up on an undocumented trans woman of color seems to me to complicate the rhetoric put forth by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and other mainstream LGBT lobbyists that they are committed to fighting for transgender rights. In this moment when PR spin-meisters weren’t on hand to script a response, our community’s leaders showed their true rainbow colors by instinctively siding with a powerful man against one of their marginalized own.

Unfortunately, I’m not surprised. I’m as white and cis male as they come, but as one who is also non-alpha and non-hyper-masculine, I frequently find my opinions ignored, ridiculed, dismissed, and/or second-guessed by other white gay men. I can only imagine how infuriating it must be for those in my community who are more female-identified/presenting to constantly have to negotiate this minefield of misogynist micro-aggressions. Add to that unacknowledged biases around race, class and national origin (which aren’t categories I personally have to negotiate), and it’s no wonder that for a long time, non-gender-conforming, working class people of color have been complaining about serious structural problems within the community’s cultural institutions.

While I do think there is a legitimate debate to be had about her tactics, the condescending tone in many of the responses to Gutiérrez’s act of defiance from those in the mainstream of the community was disheartening. One post on Facebook referred to the transwomen whose plight Gutiérrez was championing as “special snowflakes,” seeking to be treated in ways that other inmates aren’t entitled to — I guess not wanting to be beaten and raped while in jail makes you a crybaby. I personally got into a Twitter spat with Richard Rosendall, president of the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance (GLAA) of Washington, D.C., and a columnist for the Washington Blade, in the aftermath of the incident. I’ll quote just a few of the lecturing tweets I received:

Because trans women of color being sexually and physically assaulted while in government custody is bad, but publicly holding our elected officials to account to do something about it is apparently worse?

First, since when does politeness have anything to do with the down-and-dirty work of political change? Second, no, no one’s “ignoring” the positive, albeit limited, work that allies like President Obama have accomplished; we’re demanding that they do more and better. Third, people in power are usually offended when their power is challenged. Besides, anyone who actually knows me knows I’m often civil to a fault.

And my personal favorite:

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There’s so much in this one sentence to unpack. Notice how Gutiérrez’s verbal protest to one individual is expanded into an attack on everyone present. (Replace “insulting” with “embarrassing,” and I think we’re closer to what’s really going on here.) And then there’s the implications of that phrase “a lot of people,” evoking scenes from black-and-white Hollywood movies in which spinsters signifying small-town Americana gather around the tea things to judgmentally cluck at the spunky heroine’s social transgressions. (Just add a “harrumph” to the above, and we’re in Margaret Hamilton territory.) Finally, there’s the reduction of Gutiérrez’s act of bravery — whether we agree with the tactic or not — to an adolescent prank. You can practically visualize a ’50s sitcom dad shaking his finger while admonishing his teenage daughter: “That’s not amusing, young lady.”

Harrumph!
Harrumph!

Of course, when these tweets were written, neither Rosendall nor I could know that ICE would change its policy with regard to keeping MTF detainees in men’s facilities. Maybe Gutiérrez speaking up wasn’t “wise,” but apparently it was effective.

In a post about the Supreme Court same-sex marriage decision, my colleague here at CFR, Beck Feibelman, included a link to a BuzzFeed story covering the recent internal review at HRC that analyzed its organizational “diversity.” While the study showed that trans people and people of color are represented on its workforce pretty much proportionally to their presence in the overall population, they are primarily employed in support positions. In other words, HRC’s leadership is largely a “white men’s club.” And those in the club have gotten what they want: respectability for their relationships and the economic benefits, like the avoidance of inheritance tax, that come with marriage — classic bourgeois preoccupations. In a sense, they’ve gained symbolic readmission into the patriarchy, if patriarchy is defined as the control of wealth by men through the familial means of marriage and inheritance. And now that this has been achieved, how much of that wealth will be diverted towards other issues? If the experience of Canadian LGBT organizations in the 10 years after same-sex marriage became legal there are any indication, the money that flowed into the coffers of groups advocating for marriage are unlikely now to be reallocated to address other issues facing the community.

In this post-Obergefell moment, I fear that those of us who can’t or don’t want to fit into a particular affectional model, who aren’t seeking membership in the patriarchy, will soon be thrown under the “white men’s” limo. Those in our community focused on basic survival rather than survivor’s rights are going to be abandoned by the wedding party. And the only acceptable vows for marginalized people will be ones of silence. In my next post, I’ll propose some areas on which to refocus the energy of the LGBT movement now that we’ve secured the matrimonial aisle, lest we risk this historic moment leaving too many of us singing the wedding bell blues.