This summer I went to the Olympia Pride festival. It was pretty standard: rainbow clothing, tents selling novelty items, tables for advocacy groups and churches, a stage with gay kareoke. A lot of kids on leashes.
US Bank had a table, with little flags sporting their logo on one side and rainbows on the other. I guess this is the corporate analogue to the government’s recent warmth toward gay marriage. Which, okay, yes: it’s great that queer rights have enough heft that big corporations are specifically courting our community even at the risk of alienating e.g. the Christian Right. It’s great that we’re not totally marginalized.
And yet…Is assimilation, becoming an accepted part of the American system, really a good thing? It’s not clear to me that a US Bank which welcomes (at least marginally wealthy) homosexuals but still forecloses on the poor is much of an improvement. Nor is it clear that marriage rights for middle-class homos is the panacea to homophobia that it’s often presented as. Let’s note too that, since the rainbow is supposed to represent the plurality of identities within the queer community, mainstream appropriation of the rainbow flag (e.g. US Bank) is a bit misleading. Mainstreet USA might start to welcome homosexuals, but other kinds of deviancy (like not being monogamous, or disobeying gender norms) are still frowned upon. So it’s not like assimilation implies an end to homophobia.
Less obvious still is the claim that queer people becoming normalized members of US culture is preferable to the freedom of ostracised outcasts. Maybe I’m just sad that being queer won’t be edgy anymore, or maybe I’m only able to feel this way because my other forms of privilege (white, educated, male, straight-acting, etc.) shelter me from concrete homophobia.
Still, I think there’s something to be said for the fact that escaping injustice is not the same thing as opposing injustice. A small segment of our community–monogamous middle-class homos–are becoming less oppressed. That’s great in itself, but it doesn’t preclude other forms of oppression against our community, like anti-trans violence or homophobic charity (which charity is consumed by tons of queer youth). More importantly, it does nothing about larger social-justice issues likesystemic poverty, plutocracy (and see map here), prisons (and see here), etc. With or without gay marriage and corporate rainbow flags, people are still getting hurt, for being queer and especially for being poor.
In other words, assimilation can unplug us from the larger struggle for social justice, so that “gay rights” becomes a niche lobbying effort, instead of a demand for general human rights in a specific instance. And at least for me, this is what makes the demand for queer rights legitimate: we’re not pushing for fairness and dignity because we’re queer, but because we’re people. Freedom to marry, freedom to/from religion, freedom from violence and harassment: these are rights to which every human being ought to be able to claim. (Not to mention stuff like the right to medical care or to a fair trial by peers, which in theory ought to be available to all but in practice requires financial means.) In this sense, the idea of queer rights is conservative: we’re not demanding anything new, we’re just demanding the basic rights which everyone already agrees should apply to all human beings.
So it’s lovely that one segment of one oppressed group is becoming less oppressed by mainstream government and corporate America. But let’s not get distracted from the larger picture.
****PS: For an example of how “gay rights” get used as a pink-herring to cover up larger human rights abuses, check out this On the Media story and NYT op-ed about how semi-theocratic Israel is trying to co-opt queer rights for PR purposes.