If there are two stories that probably feel very familiar to progressives at this point, they’re the “war on women” and the “victory of gay marriage.” Since rights for women and rights for gay people are both things that the same far-right religious conservatives fervently oppose, it makes sense that one might be confused about why gays have allegedly seen “victory” while many women’s issues are still struggling. Especially given the nuanced conversation about the progress experienced by the more privileged subsets of the gay community, one hypothesis might be that the mainstream gay rights movement contains (and is mostly headed by) white gay men. Could their participation in the movement be part of why that movement has experienced more “success?” One person in fact posed this question to (gay cis male) AMERICAblog editor John Aravosis:
Do u think part of the reason gay rights has moved forward while women’s rights backwards is b/c gay rights includes men’s rights?
Aravosis’ simple answer is, essentially, “no.”
First, as for the gender issue, it’s hard to say. The conventional wisdom in gay politics has always been that lesbians were the kinder and gentler face of the movement. That straight men aren’t threatened by lesbians (and even, crudely, find lesbians “hot”). Whereas they hate gay men, are threatened by gay men, etc. And gay men represent the sexualized component of our movement, in part because gay men got AIDS, whereas lesbians didn’t in as great of numbers, and the religious right and their GOP allies were happy to use AIDS against us. So it’s not clear that the presence of gay men made the gay movement more sympathetic-seeming to the outside, but still, it’s an interesting argument.
There are a few logical fallacies immediately apparent here. First of all, Aravosis seems to be conflating “perceived as threatening” with “less privileged,” which isn’t quite how privilege works in this context. I don’t mean to erase the tragic history of gay-bashing, hate crimes, police abuse and the way in which AIDS was used to demonize the gay male community, or the hatred and abuse that gay men, especially young gay boys, still experience for failing to conform to traditional heterosexually masculine expectations and behaviors. But even though gay men may be perceived as more “sexually threatening” than lesbians, that doesn’t mean that it erases the fact that men in general are taken more seriously and their ideas and experiences are given more value. It also distracts from those groups for whom being seen as “sexually threatening” is an inherent element of their present oppression — trans* women (and especially trans* women of color) are demonized (and attacked, and murdered) much more than gay men, which has resulted in an aggressive sidelining of issues important to that segment of our community. In that light, it’s not clear what the fact that gay men may be “perceived as a threat” has to do with their level of privilege relative to gay women, and how that may impact the movement. To claim that gay women have been the more respected element of the movement is honestly preposterous.
Maybe the most important practical concern that Aravosis is missing here, however, is money. It’s no secret that political movements that are better funded and have more donors are able to be more successful. Regardless of sexual orientation, men still have access to more income and more wealth (income is what you earn, and wealth is the assets at your disposal overall). In terms of procuring funding and support for a movement, more individual gay men have the kind of money that gets them an audience with legislators, more access to powerful people, and it’s important to remember that men’s needs are seen as more important in this sphere just like anywhere else. Men have always had access to money, visibility, and political capital that women haven’t, and even when those privileges are being used in the service of a progressive agenda, that doesn’t mean they’re not privileges. Ignoring this fact perpetuates the implication that when activism led by women doesn’t progress in the same way that activism led by men does, it’s because women are incompetent activists, which is obviously untrue.
In addition to being more connected and having more access to decisionmakers, rich cis gay men also have a different relationship to the cause they’re trying to promote than women do. The way that Aravosis talks about “gay activism” and “the gay movement” in his piece, it seems like he’s pretty much just talking about gay marriage (“Women’s advocates, in many ways, are fighting a war of nuance. Where gays want to get married, women don’t want the right to choose…”). Marriage is an issue that, at least in terms of legal access, affects all members of the gay community equally; a white cis gay male lawyer who makes $200,000 a year is just as unable to marry as a lesbian single mother of color who works two jobs. Because rich gay men have a personal investment in marriage, they have an incentive to work to make it equal. Many “women’s issues” – reproductive rights, access to healthcare, employment discrimination, sexual harassment – can become much less of a pressure for women in positions of power and privilege. Which isn’t to say privileged women don’t support those issues, many do, but it’s possible that the disparity in funding could be related to the real-world impact of the legislation under discussion. Again, much of the impact of many movements comes down to power as determined by funding, and it doesn’t make sense to talk about money without also talking about gender.
Another place where Aravosis’s argument seems to be lacking some nuance is when he makes the claim that the progress of the gay rights movement seems more impressive because “gays have the ‘advantage’ of being further behind women, which makes our message clearer.” He’s arguing that because there are concrete rights that gay people lacked that women didn’t, gay progress appears to have made greater leaps. There are a few issues with this. First, it should be noted that it doesn’t really even make sense to talk about “gays” and “women” as separate groups – many gays are women and many women are gay, so comparing them is at best difficult and at worst problematic. Perhaps more troublingly, this argument gets dangerously close to referencing a hierarchy of inequality, or an “oppression olympics.” This can be seen even more clearly when Aravosis tries to compare the civil rights movement to the current mainstream gay rights movement:
People see African-American CEOs, doctors, lawyers, astronauts, and might think “they’ve won, employment discrimination over,” without understanding that, in some ways, it may never be over, at least not for a very long time. But the devil is in the details much more so than it is with gay rights because we’re still fighting for some of the rights that African-Americans got (at least on paper) fifty years ago.
This is deeply problematic because firstly, as already mentioned, talking about African-American or black people as distinct from the “we” is just objectively wrong. Many black people (and other people of color) are gay; many gay people are black and/or of color. Second, comparing oppression in this way totally ignores the stratification within the mainstream gay rights movement; while it’s true that black people were able to legally marry each other (and interracial marriage was legalized) before gay marriage, when one compares the level of day-to-day privilege that Aravosis likely has as a white cis gay man to the day-t0-day experiences of, say, a poor trans* woman of color, or even to a straight cis black man, that fact is pretty meaningless. This argument relies on an oversimplification so extreme that it doesn’t make sense to draw any real conclusions from it. It doesn’t work when Aravosis makes a comparison between gay rights and women’s rights, either:
As a man, it’s not as easy to see where women are still lacking in rights (that doesn’t mean they aren’t, I’m saying that clarity of the harm isn’t as stark as perhaps it once was). On gay rights, there are hate crimes that shock the sensibilities.
Especially in the wake of Steubenville and the combination of horror and total apathy in response to it, it’s ludicrous to make the claim that gays suffer crimes motivated by hate and women don’t. If the openly broadcast gang rape of an unconscious girl and a subsequent public shaming of the victim doesn’t constitute a violent, hateful crime that shocks the sensibilities, it’s hard to imagine what would — and sexual assault, as a gender-based hate crime, happens every two minutes. There are about 207,754 victims of sexual assault per year. According to the FBI, there were 6,216 single-bias hate crimes reported in 2011; 20.8% of them were reported to be based on sexual orientation, which makes ~1293 anti-gay hate crimes in one year. Granted, much anti-gay violence goes unreported or are not categorized as hate crimes, but then again, 54% of sexual assaults aren’t reported either. If violence is going to be the premise upon which you base the idea that gays are “worse off” than women, the only way that argument can make sense is if the person making it is totally unaware of the degree to which the threat of violence defines women’s lives, including queer and especially trans* women. You want hate crimes that shock the sensibilities? Here.
But if these arguments don’t necessarily hold together, then why is the gay rights movement more successful than the “women’s rights” movement? Part of the reason that these arguments fall apart is because that’s not actually true. Two large and visible issues — marriage equality and the repeal of DADT — have made major strides this year. But that’s not the same thing as being successful. Many of the more marginalized groups within the mainstream gay movement are just as disadvantaged, if not more so, than a year ago. And the way that the women’s movement has been struggling isn’t actually very different from the way those groups are struggling. For instance, take the saga over VAWA’s renewal this year: the crucial bill that provides funding for support of survivors of intimate partner violence was suspended for months because of new updates to the bill that would explicitly provide support for queer, Native, and immigrant women. It’s clear that women’s safety and security isn’t a priority to a legislature that would refuse to renew a bill that is so obviously necessary, but it’s also clear that the rights of gay people can’t be much of a priority if their safety and security is so distasteful to the legislature that they’re willing to scuttle an effective and necessary bill just to deny them support. Anti-LGBTQH murders have actually risen in recent years, not dropped, and reached a new all-time peak in 2011. Still, 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, an obviously disproportionate number. When you look at issues outside of marriage equality and DADT, gay rights haven’t actually moved forward in the spectacular way that Aravosis describes, and since the causes that are still struggling for recognition tend to be those that relate to the experiences of the most vulnerable in our community, it seems like it’s only reasonable to talk about how those discrete successes probably are due to the most privileged members of the gay community: cis white men. John Aravosis is only one writer, but the arguments he’s putting forward aren’t unique to him, and it’s important to talk about why they’re flawed so that we can move on to authentic success. The sooner everyone, including cis white men, acknowledge that, the sooner we can see movements working in coalition with one another that are successful for the whole community, not just those who are already the most powerful.