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What’s a queer political issue?

(Originally posted on The Bilerico Project)

I got into an interesting discussion with Jim Burroway over at Box Turtle Bulletin in the comments last week about what exactly constitutes an “LGBT issue”. The list of possible lists is seemingly endless – from the absolute expansiveness of “everything is an LGBT issue” to HRC's “Queer Liberation in 15 Steps” to, what I suppose homophobes would believe, nothing, since the L, G, B, T, and definitely Q don't exist and are all perversions of S.

So consider these five issues, arranged in decreasing degree of acceptance as LGBTQ issues:

  1. ENDA
  2. Comprehensive sex education
  3. Federal funding for HIV treatment
  4. Universal health care
  5. Ending the death penalty

Thinking back to Melissa Etheridge's fawning over Dennis Kucinich and Jonathan Capehart's statement that Kucinich is “seemingly for everything the gay community wants,” as if there is a monolithic “gay community” that has neat, limited wants that we all agreed on and agreed not to accede lest we lose the absolute support of Dennis Kucinich, I wonder if we've forgotten how to want, to want well and want expansively. Then again, how should a list of such issues be expanded? What standard do we use to see if a policy proposal is gay enough?

But first, what's the function of such a label? Being an LGBTQ issue probably increases the material support for it among LGBTQ people, increases the visibility of those people who identify as queer in some way and are on the short end of that issue's stick, helps identify for society at large what is important to us as an identity, and articulates the importance of such policy to straight people who might be far removed from them. Let's try to keep function in mind when discussing topicality.

The first issue on the above list is extensively accepted as LGBTQ because of the specific mention of sexuality and gender identity in the bill itself. If that is the standard by which such issues are defined, though, it's the only one there that's a queer issue.

The next, comprehensive sex education, made the list of 15 issues the HRC asked the presidential candidates about in their survey, because we are erased from discussions within abstinence-only curricula, in the broad, homophobic, sexophobic, and psychologically and physically damaging call for our youth to wait for straight marriage for sex. But the REAL Act, the proposed solution to abstinence-only education, doesn't mention sexuality or gender identity; it only affects intrinsically along the lines of LGBQ identity. (Heterosexuals are affected by sex education to a significant degree as well, but I'm referring to the queer specific aspect.)

The third, HIV treatment funding, was also included in the HRC's list but unlike the previous two issues doesn't inherently stem from the line between straight and queer. HIV affects LGBTQ and S people. But it does have a long history with gay men, it does disproportionately affect same-gender loving people, and refusal to help seropositive people often stems from homophobia.

The last two issues were not included on the HRC's survey to the presidential candidates and are less often seen as LGBTQ. Lack of health care disproportionately harms LGBT people, considering that our country distributes it according to one's ability to pay for it or one's ability to maintain a good job that will provide it or one's ability to marry someone who can do the first two. Since we're discriminated against at our jobs, are more likely to be homeless and jobless, and unable to marry in 49 states, each of us probably more likely to appear among the uninsured than the average straight person. Universal coverage is most likely the only way to solve this as gays and lesbians will probably be less likely than straights to marry even if same-sex marriage were legal all over the country and legal solutions to employment discrimination aren't even close to 100% effective. (Universal health care was one example I brought up that Jim wouldn't accept as a queer issue, only as “an American issue”. He asked me if a gay who doesn't support universal health care would be any less gay, and I wonder if consensus can be a standard, considering that there are queers who oppose ENDA, the hate crimes enhancements, same-sex marriage, etc., and if it's not absolute consensus, then what percentage of us have to agree?)

The last issue is one of the few issues I know where I don't know of any evidence that it affects queer people more than straight people. But it does plug into the moral frameworks we often use to justify our rights. Social justice would require the removal of the death penalty, which is applied in a systematically racist manner. Other moral frameworks that seek to expand life, love, and autonomy can be applied to both issues. So why not “think global, act local” in terms of identity politics?

So there are the five standards that I could think of – specifically mentioning sexual orientation or gender identity, being intrinsically linked to a line of queer identity, ameliorating an effect of homophobia, disproportionately benefiting queer people, and working within moral frameworks we use to advance our fight for social justice. If you can think of others, please add them in the comments.

Personally, I would most support the fourth as the basis for an identity politic. Since what gets into the wording of legislation is often based on power and privilege, since what gets categorized as “intrinsic” isn't materially as important as what is systemic, and since “homophobia” is such a nebulous concept, I'd much rather develop a queer politics around what'll benefit us most. And I've never been a fan of moral frameworks.

But I hope that an examination and conversation about what is and is not an LGBTQ issue starts, since often we only see the LGBTQ issues that affect us personally without remembering those among our people who can't speak up for themselves. And it's in those cases where a bottom-up identity politics is transformative.

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Alex Blaze

Alex Blaze