Going for Broke
[Contribution to the Reimagining Society Project hosted by ZCommunications]
In the early days of the epidemic, gay men and a few lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists gathered together in cities across the U.S. to seriously discuss what we would do if our government decided to require mandatory HIV testing. If people were found to be positive, would they be sent to a detainment camp? Would our sero-status be branded on our bodies?
This wasn't a paranoid conversation among a tiny number of wild-eyed queers; rather, it arose as an urgent and serious discussion in direct response to the increasingly evident fear, hatred, and rising levels of brutality directed against people with HIV and AIDS in this country.
That is the history which eventually gave birth to the LGBTI Health Summits. Those were the conversations many of us in this room—including Eric Rofes, who dreamed this into being—were part of. And that history is a critical marker of the extraordinary distance we have traveled, as well as a painful reminder of how much more remains to be done.
It is why I want to talk to you today, in a different way, about vision. I could name the issues I see occupying us for the next 10, 20 or 30 years—the specific work I think most crucial to pushing our agendas forward. I could give you my list: universal health care; rebuilding a social safety net for all the people in this country by daring to re-establish the basic assumption that we are all interconnected and that we are all responsible for each other's well-being and safety, that the fabric of our society is no stronger than its weakest link, that caring for one another is our sacred human duty. There are more.
Instead, though, I want to go in another direction, one that is not so issue-specific, so bullet-pointed. Because, before any LGBTI movement for health and wellness can determine the queer agenda for the next 10, 20 or 30 years, a deeper set of questions must be answered. These questions lie at the center of who we are; and the answers we provide will also furnish the pivot and the engine for our progress.
The two questions I begin with are these:
For what purpose, and to what end?
And: Am I willing to be an "equal" in an unequal world?
In other words: Am I willing to give someone else up, desert and abandon them, in order to attain some aspect of seeming equality or freedom? What price am I willing to pay to be given a slice of the pie, to be asked to sit at the table?
Here is what these questions mean to me, and why I ask them first.
One: Opportunities to advance our equality often look enticing at the outset. They seem to afford the potential for important advancement or breakthrough. But to ask why we are seeking to move in a particular direction, and where that might leave us when we get there, means that we are not automatically acting on opportunities offered by someone else. It means that we are trying to think through all the ramifications of what we choose to fight for, in all of its complexity; we are trying to understand what some of the unintentional consequences might be. Commitment to a broader, longer-term vision might force us to face the underside of what we dream for—that potential set of results which, on further consideration, might put us in greater danger and make us more vulnerable.
The second question is terribly difficult. The question of "equality" is never simple, especially when what we are asked to give up in return doesn't appear to be central to most of us. Gay men and lesbians were willing to fight for legislation that would protect sexual orientation, for example, but not gender identity. Later, we said to those of us who were gender nonconformists, we'll include you next time. But we know those arguments all too well. We are all living with the consequences. And we will be trying to undo that strategy for many, many years to come. This is a perfect example of what appeared to be a short term advance that has created a long term wound.
Vision isn't practical. Vision is fueled by the dreams we bring to our aspirations. Vision drives the urgency and passion behind those everyday steps we take in our fight for justice; it is the yet-to-be-feasible idea; it is the bold leap of heart and intellect into an unknown future. It is our stubborn refusal to give up the possibility of living in a world where human beings may dwell without penalty or punishment, without paying a horrible price for what they are and who they love.
Our answers to these questions will tell us much about the substance of our vision. They will tell us whether we have decided to put up a limited fight in a small world with a narrow plan designed to achieve a minuscule success, or whether we have decided to go for broke. We have a choice.
I am asking you to go for broke.
My plea to you, my personal insistence on this larger vision, has been framed by the forces that formed me, the difficult forces that shaped my life and that I choose to remember, never to forget. Those forces were not just difficult; they were profoundly dangerous. I'm not talking about romantic danger. I'm talking about the danger of growing up hungry and dirt poor. The danger of being a mixed-race child whose father and grandmother carried KKK branded on their bodies. The danger of being a sex worker. The danger of being considered abnormal, a sexual deviant, a pervert. And, after finally finding a social movement that was my freedom, the danger of being cast out, disowned, because I desired women who were butch, who often passed or lived as men, who were not gender-feminine. These were the women who blew me away with their touch, their power, their grace. But my desire for them meant that I was a high femme lesbian in a movement that would not accept this kind of queer desire; and so, I was in trouble again. That's what I mean by dangerous. The kind of dangerous that is most terrifying because it threatens you in exactly the place where you have the most to lose, where you are most profoundly dispossessed.
And here is what I am asking you to consider today: What if we said we wanted everything, differently? What if we said that no one, not a single one of us, would get traded for socioeconomic access or the achievement of short-term legal goals? What if we began to really talk queer—beyond identity categories? What if we decided to build and lead a movement to transform this nation—a movement to make this country a global partner instead of a global bully? What if we claimed all of the following as queer:
What if we said universal health care was a queer issue?
What if we said that the enfranchisement of immigrants—those upon whom the economic future of the nation rests—was a queer issue?
What if we broadened the fight for marriage equality to include all the unique ways of partnering, creating families, building communities? What if we said that was a queer issue?
What if we said that desire, the erotic pulse, the intimate and essential transgression of sexuality, was not simply a queer issue but a human issue?
What if we said that aging was a queer issue? And that the agenda of the for-profit prison industrial complex—to build more geriatric prisons, and more state-of-the-art high-security prisons, and more and more and more and more prisons—was a queer issue?
What if we said to everyone: Join us. Dream with us. Dare with us. Go for broke. Change the world.
What if that was our vision?