Why BGLAD?

by Teresa W. Lau

Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Awareness Days (BGLAD) are again upon us,
and once again, it's that time of year when the GaMIT Thistle takes
the opportunity to wonder aloud, "Why BGLAD?" Presented with the task
of exploring this question, I sat down to write about the ways in
which I am glad-glad to be a student at a school whose medical
department refuses to provide anonymous HIV testing and insists on
keeping documentation of who has and has not been tested (see "HIV
Testing," pg. 12), glad to be a queer student at an institution with a
Gay and Lesbian Studies program that hasn't offered a single class in
over 2 years (see "Whatever Happened to Gay and Lesbian Studies?," pg.
10), glad to be a lesbian investing inordinate amounts of energy in
events attended mostly by gay men, glad to be the general coordinator
of a group pathologized as a pack of perverts (see "Mommy, Where do
Perverts Come From?," pg. 2), glad to be Asian Pacific American in a
predominantly white queer community that refuses to address race as a
cogent issue-one that is used as a tool of marginalization and
exclusion from that community. Knowing all this, why should I be glad?
I began to wonder then whether the question was even directed at me;
just who is supposed to be glad anyway? Or perhaps more interestingly,
who is allowed to be glad, and at whose expense or exclusion?
	Recently, factions of the queer community have taken to
seeking societal acceptance by catering to the traditional values of
the so-called straight community, assimilating as quickly and as
thoroughly as possible. The now familiar chorus, "We're just like
straight people" dominates their approach, hence distilling the goals
of gay liberation into a solitary aim-to eradicate the distinction of
the homosexual from the heterosexual, to regain the privilege lost
after coming out. But what, or rather whose, privilege is being so
passionately defended? These so-called assimilationist gays presume a
specific narrative of prejudice against queer folk, one which
considers one and only one form of oppression as relevant, ignoring
the ways in which people of color, women, drag queens, bulldykes,
transgender people-anyone who is neither white nor a man, are
discriminated against. The perception of homophobia as singular,
uniform, and universal for all queers is childishly simple, and is
indicative of a ridiculously narrow conception of the freedom that we
as queers are supposedly fighting for.
	To be sure, there are those who go so far as to believe that
we already are free, or at least that we will be free once we, too,
enjoy tax breaks for getting a marriage license (see "For Better or
For Worse," pg. 4), and once the armed forces trust us enough to give
us M-14s and fatigues of our very own. But this approach to gaining
acceptance from the so-called straight world is endemically set up to
fail; aping mainstream postures and discourse serves only to kowtow to
the very structures that have established and are perpetuating our
oppression.
	Touting themselves as the opposing camp, self-identified
"queers" scoff at the idea of donning the robes of the Order of the
Mainstream. But all too often, they nourish a very visceral connection
to those same notions of reclaiming privilege. But again, what are the
implications of the privilege they seek? These queer folk share with
the so-called straight-acting gays both the assumption of a singular
source of prejudice, as well as a sense of self-evident entitlement.
When asking why be glad, there is a presumption that everyone has the
same access to gladness, the same opportunities to be free, or to feel
like they are free-that everyone has the same access to anger,
righteousness, and passion. For some, the fight for gay rights is
motivated by a perceived entitlement to opportunity, a somehow
deserved right to be glad. People who have been allowed to and have
indulged in privilege react to prejudice with self-righteous anger and
indignation; discrimination is an affront, an unwarranted threat or
attack on their "inalienable" rights. The perspectives and analyses of
those who are not allowed to enjoy such an arrogant perception of
their place in society, of their status in the queer community, are
either overlooked or deemed to be counter-productive to the queer
movement, and perhaps even self-hating.
	In their frenzy to reclaim privilege they believe has been so
unfairly robbed from them, self-identified queers refuse to recognize
or examine the ways in which privilege and power play out in their own
backyard.  Any challenges to the accepted sense of entitlement, any
objections to the implications of privilege being fought for, any
criticisms of dynamics within the community that systematically and
repeatedly marginalize certain groups of people in the name of
Community-these are all dismissed as cluttering the issues, as
muddying the waters with unnecessary complaints. In the dank silence
that surrounds issues of race, people of color suffer being repeatedly
ignored, tokenized, and then held up as testimony of a defensive
insistence on enlightenment and savvy in the realms of race and
racism. Any attempts at insisting on visibility, at being out about
your difference from other queer folk, are seen as either hostile acts
of disloyalty, or eccentric displays of racial furor that are
tolerated with benevolent condescension, at best. Anger and hurt
fester as race is continually dismissed from queer discourse, with
communities of color categorically belittled as "especially
homophobic" or too culturally alien to be taken seriously.
	The atmosphere of silence in the queer community surrounding
race influences not just the ways in which people of color are
perceived and their communities marginalized, but also extends to the
treatment of queers of color who bring these invisible issues into
focus. The task of ensuring an honest examination of specific
instances of explicit (and implicit) bigotry, of victimization within
the community, of the mechanisms through which that victimization
occurs, of certain answers to the question "Why BGLAD?"-the
difficulties in engaging the privileged in these kinds of
conversations are yet another aspect of the idea that gladness is more
complex, more layered than the question inspiring this article
suggests. For those who would prefer not to think about their
privileged position as white people, criticisms made by people of
color about the status of race as a non-issue for the queer community
prompt immediate indignation and are seen as affronts to the
sensibilities of "the Progressive Queer." And even when the
conversation is finally begun, it is those who are being challenged
who somehow end up doing the interrogating, and who don't wait around
to hear the answers anyway. The consistent dismissal of people of
color and women is only a symptom of the underlying need of queer
white men to be central, to be normal, to be "straight," in at least
one community. Indeed, this perpetuation of marginality is analogous
to the so-called straight-acting gays' aping of mainstream values and
assumptions; someone must be the strange, the abnormal, the "queer,"
in order for the rest of us to feel secure in our own normality, in
order for the rest of us to claim some domain of power.
	You would think that having to deal with all this shit, queers
of color would not remain in predominantly white communities, drag
queens and bulldykes would not continue to rally behind the political
issues of those who would in turn exclude them from whatever gains
might be achieved, and lesbians and bi women would not return time and
again to organize and lead efforts for the sake of gay men. But they
do. Isn't it interesting that the folks with the least privilege in
both the mainstream and queer communities are so often the ones to
commit themselves to working for queer liberation-that the demonized,
marginalized, and scorned members of GaMIT are so often the officers?
Isn't it interesting that it is so often the women and the people of
color who plan and put on the events, the dances, the study breaks for
the entire community? Some people get to come out, be glad, and have a
party, and some people get to come out and clean up afterwards.
	But at least we're allowed at the party. Transgenders are even
refused access to the margins; they hold effectively no position
within the queer community, not even that of cleanup crew. We glibly
add transgender to the litany of identities that the "G" in GaMIT is
supposed to stand for, but the inclusion is in name only. There is no
space for them, they don't feel welcome, they aren't made to feel
welcome. It's all just so much farce, really, because transgender
people are set apart as the truly (i.e. medically diagnosed) queer. At
the same time that they are included under the banner of gay
liberation, transgenders represent the deviants among the deviant; it
is the post-op transsexual, the F-to-M transgenderist, and the drag
queen who are the real "queers" the so-called straight world has been
complaining about all along. Queer folk engage in the same tactics of
pathologizing transgenders, of (cross) dressing them in the same kinds
of stigmatized notions of sickness and perversion as the mainstream
applies to queers when it seeks to define itself as "normal".
	The idea that being "normal" should be a goal of queer
liberation is indicative of the extent to which queer folk are
entrenched in the traditional values of the mainstream and how those
values are preserved. By failing to recognize the paradigm behind this
insistent distinction between the natural and the perverted, between
the healthy and the sick, queer folk effectively recreate and
reinforce the power relations we are supposedly battling against in
the first place. The difficulties around issues of race, privilege,
and legitimacy within the queer community are the places at which our
efforts should be focused. The paradigms of exclusion, of deserved
privilege and assumed access that permeate the queer movement must be
acknowledged, examined, and challenged: why is it that certain people
are allowed to claim legitimacy, while others are not?  And how are
these roles maintained?  

[thistle homepage] [Volume 9] [9.3 - contents]