Gay Rights Are Not Queer Liberation

Katrina’s Team Pick:

I came out as bisexual when I was 16. And although I had a girlfriend who I had very serious 16-year-old feelings about, my coming out always came with a qualifier. “I’m bi – I love my girlfriend, but eventually, I want to be with a man. I want to marry a man and have a house and have children and put them in that house.” When I was 18, I realized I was gay, and suddenly not only was the thought that I wanted to be with a man untrue, the idea that I could ever be married seemed completely impossible. This was in 2008. In 2008, I thought that, by being gay I had nonconsensually committed myself to a life off the grid, a life that would never be recognized or respected, a quiet life of commitment ceremonies in the woods, Birkenstocks, the inescapable word “partner” instead of “husband” and a lifetime’s supply of closet doors.

And in some ways, I was right. But it’s 2012 now, and New York, my home state, is celebrating one year of marriage equality. I’m gay now, and I’m also queer, and I’ve gotten to keep a lot of my original expectations. I got to keep the Birkenstocks, I love the word “partner” and a life off the grid doesn’t seem too bad. I’m not invisible, I have a future and if I want, that future could involve marriage.

Phyllis Siegel and Connie Kopelov, New York City’s first legally married same-sex couple

Last month, the New Yorker posited marriage equality as a “historical inevitability.” And it’s not to say that the fight has not been hard-won, it’s just that in the larger scope of history, marriage won’t be the end, and “what people say about it now, for and against, will be seen in that light.” Basic legal rights have a tendency to always seem obvious to those who have access to them.

But legal rights are not the same as human rights, just like gay rights are not the same as queer liberation. And that’s where Amber Hollibaugh comes in. Below is a video interview that Hollibaugh did with The Nation, in which she discusses movement priorities, economic justice and queer assimilation.

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Hollibaugh is the co-director of the New York-based Queers for Economic Justice, which, as its name suggests, is “a progressive non-profit organization committed to promoting economic justice in a context of sexual and gender liberation.” Founded in 2002, QEJ works to challenge and combat the systems that create inequality, taking into consideration the importance of race and class, and acknowledging that economic status and sexual identity are often closely tied. Because besides the idea that “love is love,” the right to equal benefits and protections under the law is one of the main arguments for marriage equality, isn’t it?

Hollibaugh speaks on the gay rights victories that have been won in the past three decades, but acknowledges that the progress we see now isn’t always the progress she’s had in mind: “Being respectful of the extraordinary work that’s happened within the last 35 years is not the same thing as it reflecting my values. I’m not sorry we can now enter the military, and I’m not sorry that we can now marry. But frankly I come from a moment in time, and a radical vision in time, that never made marriage or the military my criteria of success.”

As we move forward in the struggle to be regarded as fully human in the eyes of the law and within society, it’s important to remember that milestones like marriage and the repeal of DADT are certainly victories, but they are not end goals. When the queer liberation movement rose up in the 1960s and 70s, the goal wasn’t equal protection through matrimony, it was ownership of our bodies and the right to exist and feel safe in public spaces. We’re still fighting for that. Rights are only rights if everyone has access to them. Being queer is being anti-racist, being queer is being anti-classist. Acknowledging the struggles of people who aren’t white, who aren’t cis, who aren’t economically privileged, who don’t have access to the victories that have already been won isn’t being divisive, it’s being inclusive. And that’s what equality means.

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phoenix has written 64 articles for us.


  1. Brilliant article. I have to say the gay rights movement has not held true to its core principles and to be honest, I blame this on the overwhelming power and dominance of white gay men in the movement, scene and basically anything gay-related. Where I live, there is barely anything for women and all the main spokespeople are gay men. I feel like women and trans people, especially people who operate completely outside the gender binary, have been ignored and isolated.

    • Thank you. Totally.

      Laterality is a huge issue in our movement. Some gay men can be misogynistic and transphobic. Some trans women can be racist and homophobic, and some lesbian women don’t bat an eye at relegating trans people to their assigned genders via sexuality and exclusion.

      It’s not all about marriage. I feel like HRC is only recently integrating the discussion and consciousness of intersectionality into their movement.

  2. As soon as a saw the title for this, I was like “WORD.” QEJ is fucking amazing, also. Donate if you can!

    Queer liberation means solidarity with allied struggling communities, re-centering diverse experiences and multiple marginalized identities.

    Remember, kids: Stonewall was a riot.

    • ^this. a riot mostly started by young gay men and transwomen of color, many of them homeless and economically marginalized, in which a butch lesbian was one of the first to be collared by the cops.
      let’s resist whitewashing queer history!

  3. “Being queer is being anti-racist, being queer is being anti-classist. Acknowledging the struggles of people who aren’t white, who aren’t cis, who aren’t economically privileged, who don’t have access to the victories that have already been won isn’t being divisive, it’s being inclusive. And that’s what equality means.”

    Perfect summation of what it means to be queer, Katrina. I always love your work, and this is a good example of why. I’m going to carry this quote with me now.

  4. Awesome. That video just changed my perception. We’re not just fighting for our rights, we’re helping our whole society be less neurotic about sex.

  5. Finally, someone who has been echoing what I have been stating for the longest time. Thanks for this article, it’s nice to see proponents who don’t get distracted by “same sex marriage equality,” and see the bigger picture of what I believe the focus should be, that is, human rights for all people.

  6. I do generally share the ideology of Q4EJ and support their mission, but I’m not sure I agree with much of what Hollibaugh says in the video. I agree that it’s important to have greater acceptance of our desires/sexuality, that we shouldn’t have to hide who we are, but I feel like the accomplishments the gay rights movement have already made have helped a lot in that regard. I mean, how many pictures of same sex couples have been published in newspapers and online? and how many pictures of same sex couples in the military kissing, now that they can be openly gay? personally I think that the more that straight people see same sex relationships, same sex physical embraces, etc, the more acceptance we’ll have. SCOTUS overturning sodomy laws is also a huge deal in terms of gay people not having to hide their desires/sexuality. so I dunno, Hollibaugh seems not particularly impressed by the gains of DADT, same sex marriage, etc, but I feel like they’ve helped further what seem to be her goals of queer liberation.

    • I think you have misinterpreted what Amber Hollibaugh viewpoint is overall and I believe she spoke pretty clearly on what her focus was.

      The movement within the LGBTetc communities is focused on same sex marriage, this is what you hear the majority in the LGBTetc community harping about, however this is not the movement Hollibaugh aligns herself with because that was never her goal or focus. Her goal is radical, her goal is bigger than that. That movement is merely a stepping stone. Is she denying that this stepping stone hasn’t amounted to anything? Not at all. What she is stating, is that she sees the bigger picture, while everyone else (for the most part) is focused on one tiny minute detail, that being “same sex marriage,” she sees many “details” that creates the whole picture that are not being addressed, that she would like to address, which is her radical view and has always been her focus.

      Basically, while everyone else is trying to sweep the leg (“Sweep the leg Johnny!” – Karate Kid reference), she’s going for the fucking jugular with a knife and I have the same radical view as she does.

      • I’m with you and a knife at the jugular all the way. Itsy bitsy baby steps aren’t sufficient pace for change when queers are dying every day because of who they are.

      • Thank you. I feel the same way. There’s some messed-up stuff happening in Queensland atm with defunding and removal of legal rights, but so much of it sounds like “it’s only a problem when it happens to white privileged queers, and then when that small problem is solved everyone is happy!”. In the meantime the people that were hurt and affected from long ago, even before this change of Government, still get ignored because their problems aren’t that of white privileged queers.

  7. fking fantazmagoric. thank you. long live that voice of All desire, which is the most radical voice, the anti-christ, the impossible itch. class lurks underneath. as with any gains toward ‘inevitability’, keep knowing what is missing. [my freedom means nothing without yours]

  8. especially when you look at gay rights from an intersectionalist perspective (which you SHOULD), the people benefiting are those who already have a lot of privilege: they’re generally white, thin, cisgender, professional, upper middle class, normatively abled, and a slew of other privileges.

    so yeah, great, same sex marriage and gay folk in the military.

    but the battle is still against privilege and our current discourse ignores that. that’s a battle that isn’t won just through law-making. it requires a paradigm shift in how we talk about rights, people, respect, and representation.

    • Wait, upper middle class white people are the ones who join the military now? And they’re the ones who cannot afford to get lawyers to draw out documents that would be unnecessary if they had marriage?

      While I agree with the overall point of queer liberation, I think it is simply silly to say marriage and DADT is something that only the most privileged among us benefit most from. Looking at the benefits in question make it fairly obvious that it isn’t.

      • This! Drawing up the legal documents for power of healthcare attorney, wills, etc. was $200 when if I were straight I could have gotten a fucking marriage license for free.

        And good point about the military. Not exactly a bastion of white, class-privileged new enlistees.

      • I mean, I think more people of color join the military (regardless of their sexual orientation) because they have fewer opportunities for education and making decent money and feel that the military is one of their only options. So while allowing queer people to openly serve was a great thing in my opinion, we should also be looking at the class and race politics of military recruitment/the makeup of the U.S. military and how it perpetuates inequality. The same thing is true for marriage: marriage is a way of privileging certain relationships–a way that is heavily entangled in religious and cultural stereotypes. Rather than simply allowing gays to marry (which may exclude other people or types of relationships from the benefits marriage affords), it would be cool to try to reshape marriage as an institution. I think Amber is saying that those victories were important, but there are other maybe bigger issues facing low/no-income queer people, like homelessness and workplace bullying.

  9. Thank you so much for this post, it’s a breath of fresh air on AS. And also… queer liberation means fighting against cissexism in all its forms, ablism, lookism (that’s right, holding out specific looks as exemplars of queer style/beauty really isn’t very queer). It means valuing white lives and experiences more than of-color lives just plain isn’t acceptable. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen in San Francisco, Portland, Brooklyn and Seattle (4 queer meccas) is a whole lot of perpetrating much of the same bs queer liberation is supposed to be fighting. Too much of the self-ID’d queer community is centered around mostly white FAAB masculine expression… not that there’s anything wrong with that, but just not at the expense of everyone else. When things become that codified— it ain’t queer.

  10. i feel like everyone’s got a different definition of queer, and this one is great. gonna try and find the whole interview…

  11. um, this is EXACTLY what I just asked for in the reader survey! way to read my mind, autostraddle.

    • YESSSS I would love to see more stuff like this on AS please!!!
      This is totally my point of view.

  12. What a great article/video interview etc. I agree with those asking for more content like this.

  13. “[The goal was] ownership of our bodies and the right to exist and feel safe in public spaces. We’re still fighting for that.”

    Fuck yes! I live in a state where gay marriage is legal, but I still don’t feel safe in some public spaces, and my girlfriend and I have experienced harassment even in supposedly queer-friendly areas. I don’t have full ownership over my body if I could be beaten up for holding her hand or looking the way I look, if I don’t feel safe sitting on a bus or using a restroom, if a nurse or EMT could refuse me treatment for being trans*.

    There’s still a lot we have left to fight for.

  14. I just wanted to link to this excellent piece by Jos at Feministing which is an addendum to your post and can be extended to many different aspects of the queer and gay communities:

    Before anyone starts revolutions, it’s important to examine exactly what assumptions you’re carting into it. And that anyone calling themselves queer, without a willingness to truly re-examine their assumptions (much less glibness) about social, sexual and gender injustice, might not be quite as queer as they think.

  15. i was really happy to see this go up on this website! we do need more stuff from a radical queer POV here, i couldn’t agree more — so thank you, katrina!

  16. I have so much to say on this, I want to write an editorial (not sure what you would call it) on it. In fact, I’m going to start now.

  17. Pingback: Gay Rights Are Not Queer Liberation | girlDick journalism

  18. i think gay marriage and gays in the military are just the tip of the iceberg, and just the beginning of what we are going to accomplish.

    in “normal” america with the middle class husband, wife, 2.5 kids, white picket fence, and a dog living in suburbia – by getting them to see that gays have just as much of a right to marry as straights, and just as much of a right to be killed in senseless wars as straights, they will in time come around to treating “different” people with respect and tolerance. because those are institutions that are important to them – marriage and military is their language.

    most non-gays (btw, i use gay/gays as a catch all for anyone not straight – forgive me for the political incorrectness) dont know much about trans issues, and they dont know much about gender issues, queer issues, ect. i think that the more mainstream issues like gay marriage will open their eyes to what else is wrong in our country – the racial and economic inequality, the violence against people who are trans or otherwise dont fit into gender norms, ect.

    the most important next fight for me personally (cisgendered lesbian), is trans rights. they suffer so much violence and stigma every day, and they as a group are IMO one of the most marginalized. hopefully all of the organization that has gone into gay marriage will be used to fight for queer liberation.

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  20. If only I could begin to explain what this article meant to me.. Thank you for lending me your eloquence where before I had only passion!

  21. Pingback: The Fraught Identity Politics of LGBTQ Liberation | Brown Political Review

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