Subjugations of the Gay Mainstream
Marsha P. Johnson, Joseph Ratanski and Sylvia Rivera in 1973. Illustration by Gary LeGault
by Roderick Ferguson
Decades after the Stonewall rebellion, Sylvia Rivera, the Latinx activist and Stonewall veteran, reflected on that historic evening and what ensued afterwards—the continued marginalization of transgender people, the mainstreaming of gay liberation and the crushing impoverishment of large sectors of folks within queer and trans communities. In her reflections, she thought about some counsel that she received: “I remember this man telling me, a straight man who was my boss at the time, when I was working in Jersey—he said, ‘Ray, the oppressed becomes the oppressor. Be careful. Watch it.’ And I saw it. I still see it.”
Upsetting the progress narrative of gay politics and mainstream gay culture, Rivera went on to say, “Yes, I’m angry with this fucking community. I wish sometimes that 1969 had never happened, they make me so angry.”
Rivera’s remarks capture what my book, One-Dimensional Queer, tries to situate historically and theoretically—that is, the ways in which mainstream gay politics has not only left behind people like Rivera but how the mainstream agenda—quite explicitly—set about to suppress the other social struggles that informed Stonewall and the multidimensional radicalism that occasioned it and emanated from it.
Indeed, the historical record provides reasonable doubt that Stonewall did not arise from a singular focus on sexual freedom but instead was shaped by a range of contemporaneous struggles over racism, war, poverty and gender inequality. Attending to this multidimensional version of Stonewall is potentially a matter with devastating consequences for how we understand queer history and queer politics.
It’s devastating because it fundamentally upsets the narrative that we have all been fed, the narrative that not only grounds gay rights but queer life and politics in general—that Stonewall was the birth of the modern gay movement and that the modern gay movement was concerned only with sexual freedom. In fact, the Stonewall rebellions were much more than a quest for the mainstream via a one-dimensional focus on sexual freedom.
The historical accounts, as well as the queer organizations that were inspired by groups such as the Black Panther Party and the Puerto Rican Young Lords suggest that a broad (i.e. anti-racist, feminist, anti-capitalist) sense of gay liberation existed contemporaneously and contentiously alongside a single-issue conception of gay politics. We have been bottle-fed a story that gay liberation started simply with sexuality and much later opened its way to other social struggles. The deeper history reveals that the multidimensional version was in fact there from the beginning but brought low by a rivalrous and single-issue sibling.
Appreciating the multidimensional rendition of Stonewall demands that we approach gay liberation as a matter of historiography rather than a straightforward tale of how modern gay identity and politics in the U.S. came to be. By “historiography,” I don’t simply mean the academic study of how history is written. I mean something more akin to what Michel de Certeau said of historiography, that it is a foray into power/knowledge, that it posits a narrative that depends upon something that is unspeakable. In the context of Stonewall, the unspeakable is not simply that an ascendant cisgender phalanx discarded the trans women rebels who initiated it. The unspeakable of gay rights also concerns the fact that a one-dimensional focus on sexuality was won through distorting the nature and interests of multidimensional conceptions of gay liberation, particularly those that were anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist.
In an attempt to approach the single-issue invention of sexuality as a matter of power/knowledge, I analyzed how gay activists sympathetic to liberal capitalism suppressed multidimensional articulations of sexuality in the name of a one-dimensional politics that would fit sexuality within the ostensibly pragmatic and reasonable agendas of liberal politics and market capitalism. By way of example, look at how the popular magazine the Advocate and the venerable National Gay Task Force played a central role in grooming queerness for a liberal capitalist mainstream. Arranging queerness for the status quo required the aggressive and active marginalization of more radical practices and understandings of queer identity and culture.
This arrangement could be seen in the way that neoliberal urban planning changed cities within the U.S. What we now know and experience as the creative city—brought to us by the urban theorist Richard Florida—was designed via a particular promotion of one-dimensional queerness. Indeed, Florida used a notion of gayness that was divorced from working-class and non-white communities and cultures to solicit knowledge-based capital. This knowledge-based economy depended upon a one-dimensional interpretation of queerness and an accompanying excision/devastation of people of color, queer of color, and working-class communities.
This excision and devastation indict one-dimensional articulations of queer politics as facilitators of economic and state violence. In as much as the one-dimensional campaign worked to marginalize issues of race and empire, for example, it also helped to legitimize the violence of contemporary nation-states. For example, the expansion of the U.S. military industrial complex during the Obama administration hinged upon an ideology that equated gay liberation with the expansion (rather than the critique) of military powers.
Though I am queer and live in the world created by what I know to be a single-issue hijacking of queer struggles, my interest in this topic is motivated less by identity and more by a long-standing interest in what Louis Althusser identified in For Marx as the possibilities of social contradictions. One possibility for social contradictions is to produce a rupture with the social order. Another possibility is to reconcile those contradictions with the existing order.
In the days and years after Stonewall, there was a version of gay liberation that wanted to articulate homosexuality so that it would join forces with anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist and feminist struggles. Then there were those actors that wished to deliver gay politics to domains that would affix queerness to the imperatives of state and capital. Stonewall was, hence, the beginning of a struggle over whether homosexuality would harness other forms of difference to unsettle the social order or whether it would reconfirm the existing conditions.
One-Dimensional Queer’s investigation is not meant to immobilize but to clarify the dangers that single-issue politics hold for progressive social transformation. This is also a way of observing that there was nothing natural or pragmatic about single-issue politics. On the contrary, the book argues that a single-issue assertion of sexuality—taken for granted heretofore as the familiar ideal of gay liberation—must be made strange if we are to know the deeper currents that constituted gay liberation. In sum, a single-issue politics was not chosen because it addressed some essence of gay identity. It was wielded because it would achieve certain advantages and alliances with dominant modes of power.
To this end, the book turns to multi-dimensional (i.e. intersectional) groundings of queer liberation as the horizon of progressive politics. In its multidimensional articulation, a multidimensional queer politics provided lessons in recognizing political openings and seizing their possibilities for transformative ruptures, much like the queens at Stonewall did. Those politics were also designed to see the multiple currents that make up a social struggle and to determine ways to maneuver that multiplicity, never believing that a complex matter is a single-issue one.
Some among you must be saying to yourselves, “Stonewall again?” Isn’t this well trodden ground? Gay Pride is celebrated around the world, in metropolises and hamlets both. Why is this analysis needed now?” Plainly speaking, it’s needed now because we live in a world in which new outrages against the dignity of various types of people emerge every day. It is a world in which conservative forms of power do not have one objective but many—from the attacks on immigrants, to the violence visited upon people of color, to the disfranchisements heaped upon workers, to the ongoing harassment of cisgendered and trans-women, to the erosion of protections for queer people, to the growth of housing and food insecurity for increasing numbers of people, to the environmental devastations produced by corporations. In this time especially, the kind of multidimensional witness offered by Sylvia Rivera and others is the only analytic that can challenge these growing catastrophes.
About the Author:
Roderick Ferguson is Professor of African American and Gender and Women’s Studies in the African American Studies Department at the University of Illinois, Chicago (UIC). His focus includes work on African-American literature, queer theory and queer studies, classical and contemporary social theory, African-American intellectual history, sociology of race and ethnic relations, and black cultural theory. He is the author of One-Dimensional Queer (Wiley, forthcoming 2018).