Last Thursday Lady Bunny’s Facebook post made the rounds of my feed, mainly from my gay artist and performer friends. Most seemed to repost it as an affirmation of her views. I think that this happened because, as a subculture, we are not actually aware of our own history. I find the post highly problematic for a few reasons. I am going to start my critique with a close read of the post:
“Let’s cancel gay pride! Instead, let’s just fight over the fucking flag this year! Let’s fight over the correct terms for everybody. Let’s dismiss everyone who doesn’t want to transition as a privileged cisgender. Let’s spar over the name of our own damn community–is it gay, LGBT, LGBTQ, LGBTQIA or did we bring back two spirits yet? I also saw a Y in there recently and have no idea what that even is.”
Here we have the hook that is supposed to interest us (“Let’s cancel gay pride!”), which of course, is satire. And then we begin to see the serious argument behind the satirical rhetoric in her use of “fighting” and “spar.” She is referencing the internal debates going on within the movement. In the last two lines we see where her argument will eventually stand regarding these internal debates as she laments the amount of letters in our name, and ending with a comment on the letter “Y” in which she has “no idea what that even is.” This is the first sign she is talking to the older, more conservative (and I will argue later assimilationist) factions within our movement who see this kind of ultracategorization and its resulting internal debates created by the newer members as out of control and therefore problematic.
“Let’s admit right now that we hate each other as a community, and that we’re too ungrateful to celebrate the freedoms which we do have once a year. Let’s compartmentalize ourselves into bears, twinks, butches, femmes, trans, tops, bottoms and those who claim they have no gender to further divide an already small community which does not have rights to equal housing and employment. And we’re even barred from using the bathrooms of their choice in some states!”
Here her argument is becoming more explicit; these internal debates are actually manifestations of the hate we have for each other, and those of us engaging in it are “ungrateful” of the “freedoms which we do have.” She moves this logic further to suggest that these ultracategorizations and internal debates are impediments to specific political goals such as “equal housing,” “employment,” and the way in which our trans members are discriminated against in regards to the use of public bathrooms.
“That’s a surefire way to make sure we’ll never get equal rights.”
With this line she has moved beyond specific political goals, stating sarcastically that these ultracategorizations impede us from obtaining “equal rights.” She does not specifically define what she means by “equal rights,” so one must assume that she is using it in the assimilationist sense of traditional identity politics, in which an oppressed group must ask permission from the ruling class for rights denied and sufficiently prove it deserves those rights by proving any othering characteristics are both immutable and benign before being granted access to said rights under conditions termed by the ruling class.
“Let’s boil it down to the tiniest arguments which will mean nothing in six months or even six days.”
We have a further degradation of these internal debates suggesting that ultimately they are meaningless.
“If we took the energy and vitriol we reserved to pounce on one flag variation in one city and turned it on those who seek to destroy our rights, we’d be running the world tomorrow and we’d all have gorgeous new hairstyles to boot.”
Here Lady Bunny makes a reference to the change in the Philadelphia pride flag which adds brown and black stripes as way to include queer members of color. She seems to suggest that the people who have “pounce[d]” on this “flag variation” have wasted their “vitriol” which, if used correctly, could forward some sort of fantastical political agenda in which through some unknown apparatus, we as the queer community usurp the ruling class and run “the world tomorrow.” Of course, leaving aside the incredible misunderstanding of how an oppressed group even obtains rights using traditional identity politics to begin with, this argument is illogical when looked at in the context of the rest of her argument; if it were not for the ultracategorization and internal debates she is arguing against, our queer members of color would have never been heard and therefore the additions to the Philadelphia pride flag which she implicitly argues are good would have never been suggested and adopted.
“And in our supreme jadedness of which I am also guilty, let’s try and remember that there are young members of our own tribe who have gotten nothing but soul-destroying messages from their schoolmates, their churches and even from their families. Do they need our help? They need to see large groups of their own tribe in a festive environment so that they don’t feel so alone. They need to see happy and proud gay, lesbian, transsexual and every color of the rainbow folk actually liking and supporting each other.”
Now she has moved the argument into new territory, suggesting that these internal debates are not only ungrateful, a manifestation of our hate towards each other, meaningless, and impediments towards gaining further rights, they also do a disservice to those not out yet, who need to see a unified front from us in order to feel any self-worth. Of course, this front of unification in which we are all “actually liking and supporting each other” is unification only for a part of our members, the older (and mostly whiter and richer) faction she is speaking to in the last two lines of her first paragraph. She speaks of “every color of the rainbow” but what does she mean by “color,” the traditional white supremacist association or the newer intersectional one? We can only use the context of the rest of her argument to understand this, so one must assume she means the prior. Again, without these internal debates, our more marginalized queer members such as our trans members and members of color would not be heard and included, so, Lady Bunny, who exactly are we all supposed to act “happy and proud” for?
“Or would youth even want to join this community if they saw the way we’ve been acting lately?“
This last line, a rhetorical question, is not necessarily illogical in the ways I’ve pointed out with the past passages but, more dangerously, shows a lack of awareness of our movement’s history. This line, asking why any youth would want to enter our movement considering “the way we’ve been acting lately” suggests that these actions, this ultracategorization and these internal debates, are something new which are ruining a movement that was traditionally unified.
This could not be further from the truth. A homogenized movement in which everyone agreed to fashion themselves in the same vein as the Civil Rights movement to garner political power is a fiction, created in the 90s as we began gaining ground, a fiction which happens once a marginalized population begins making strides within the system (the same thing happened with the Civil Rights movement) as both a way for the ruling class to rationalize giving some of us access under certain conditions, and as a disciplinary action against those of us within the marginalized group who are imagining an actual equality which moves beyond the boundaries of the current political system.
These internal debates began as early as the 50s, in which more radicalized groups were upset with what they perceived as the lack of progress of the Mattachine Society, a group of gay men who worked for slow political change within the system. By 1969 we had the Stonewall Riots, which, by the accounts of the people actually there, was violent and radical, using methods outside of the accepted political discourse to initiate change.
As early as the late 60s and early 70s, publications were calling for a separatist movement, in which gays and lesbians should create their own community outside of straight people because there was no way straight people would ever let us be fully free (Streitmatter).
In 1978 we have the introduction of the English translation of Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality Volume One, which would turn intellectual, activist, and finally popular thought regarding sexuality on its head. It argued that rather than essential, sexuality is a complex societal construction used by the ruling class to either reward or punish, mainly through the apparatus of the medical field. This idea of sexuality as construction directly defies and destabilizes the essentialist assumptions needed to operate a successful assimilationist movement fashioned after the Civil Rights movement using identity politics.
By 1980 there is a splinter along gender lines. Adrienne Rich’s Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence maps the continuum of a woman-centered political struggle, arguing in part that lesbians needed to align themselves with the feminist movement because gay men were always going to side with what was best for them as men rather than what would be best for the queer minority they felt they were representing. The 1980s also see a number of articles by intellectuals, such as Gayle Rubin and Judith Bulter among others, who use the constructionalist theory to continue destabilizing traditional notions regarding how identity and politics interact.
As early as 1991 more splinters appear with intersectionality at the forefront in such works as Tomas Almaguer’s Chicano Men: A Cartography of Homosexual Identity and Behavior and Phillip Brian Harper’s Eloquence and Epitaph: Black Nationalism and the Homophobic Impulse in Reponses to the Death of Max Robinson which explore the ways that ethnic and racial identities (in these specific articles the Chicano and African-American identities respectively) intersect with the queer identity.
The 90s also see the shift in our movement to a focus on marriage equality, a shift which was not universal and did not consist of members even pretending that we were “actually liking and supporting each other.” In 1996 Andrew Sullivan’s Virtually Normal made the conservative case for marriage equality in which he refers to gay men and lesbians as the “complementary other” to straight people. By 1999 Michael Warner had rebutted with The Trouble with Normal, and expanded the argument outside of marriage, deconstructing the word “normal” and lamenting that the movement had reached the height of its assimilationist fervor. As late as 2010, activists were still arguing against the focus on marriage equality.
This is by no means an exhaustive account of the contrary thought that has gone on in our movement in the last 50 plus years. I hope that it does help rebut the re/visionist historical notion which Lady Bunny and others in our movement seem to hold in which there was a monolithic movement in which contrary thought was not tolerated in exchange for a unification that would better equip us on a narrow assimilationist road towards “equal rights,” a monolithic movement now being ruined by “ungrateful” activists. I would argue that the contrary notions which arise from these ultracategorizations Lady Bunny so loathes are actually healthy for our movement and have benefited us in ways we can only see through the rear view mirror. For example, there are some historians who believe that the Stonewall Riots might have never happened if it hadn’t been for the work of the Mattachine Society. The Stonewall raid felt so intrusive these historians argue because raids had been becoming less frequent due to the Mattachine Society’s work. And while we have marriage equality today due to assimilationist activists, one could make a clear connection between the decades of queer theory thought and the fact that millenials are the queerest generation on record. Finally, more and more white queer activists are seeing other movements such as Black Lives Matter as part of their own movement, understanding that our movement must become more inclusive. I would argue that both the ultracategorization and internal debates Lady Bunny sees as unproductive are actually quite productive, although we may not understand how so in that particular moment.
I also want to issue a warning to both Lady Bunny and any queer member of our community who sees this Facebook post as affirming. Acquiring rights using a traditional and assimilationist mode akin to the Civil Rights movement is a dicey endeavor. The oppressed group is only allowed to join the ruling class under certain conditions, and this membership can be revoked at any time for any reason. Who is considered acceptable and who is not within the oppressed group by the ruling class is always in flux. Drag queens are a prime example. With drag performers now complaining of the problems with so many straight women attending their shows, and with the recent move of Rupaul’s Drag Race from the queer network Logo to the straight network VH1, we see that drag, especially the traditional drag Lady Bunny performs, has secured itself a spot within the ruling class. However, this wasn’t always so; in fact drag queens were some of the most marginalized of our members, so much so that in the 60s The Advocate warned against letting drag queens become the face of our movement because they would reinforce the idea that we were mentally ill (Streitmatter).
As our movement continues, for those of us who find ourselves granted access, we must remember that this access is always temporary. And rather than seeing these new activists and latest iteration of ultracategorization and internal debate as hindrances, we need to understand what this new internal debate is actually about which, to me, is about the limits of identity politics. If we want this movement to actually be inclusive and create authentic freedom for ourselves and our members, we must begin figuring out how to foster a new social framework which moves beyond the current political framework, a process which will be much more painful but in the end much more rewarding than the more conservative and assimilationist track which Lady Bunny seems to be arguing for in that post.