There is Much More to the Fight Than ‘Respectability Politics’
by Joey Saunders
For three days in February, the Kansas City Convention Center was full of bad gays. More than a couple thousand LGBTQIA youths and speakers congregated in downtown Kansas City for the annual Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally College Conference (MBLGTACC), and most of them did not get the homosexual branding memo.
The gay rights movement seems to be more and more about assimilation and marriage equality. Good gays look, talk, and act like straight men and women. Homogenized homosexuals. Same love. If good gays had a choice, they would be straight, but they were born this way. Bisexuals and trans-people don’t quite fit this new American gay agenda, nor did most of the conference’s attendees and keynote speakers.
Instead, MBLGTACC (pronounced “Mumble-talk” or “Imble-tack” and devouring 75 percent of the alphabet) was a haven for radical ideas. Even the keynote speakers, like trans-lebrity Janet Mock, Iraq war veteran Rob Smith and fashion star Kara Laricks, veer off from your more traditional Human Rights Commission poster boys and girls. In short, it was a breath of fresh, queer air.
“We will never have a consensus, but as long as we’re willing to communicate and we strive toward creating a better world for the community, I think that’s really something to be hopeful about.” —Robin Ochs
MBLGTACC conferences have been held since 1993 and the 2014 conference was put on by a group of dedicated UMKC students and alumni. It drew a colorful crowd of more than 2,300 from Kansas, Illinois, Wisconsin, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Minnesota and Missouri.
Friday evening’s keynote speaker, Chely Wright, represents what you might expect to find at a Midwestern LGBT conference. Wright is a warm, pretty country singer with flowing golden hair with an equally lovely, blonde wife and twin boys. While Wright was the conference’s most traditional speaker, she has a rowdy streak: she won’t tolerate tolerance. As she entered the conference, Wright tweeted a photo of Westboro Baptist Church picketing before the doors, their stark, hateful signage clashing against the snow. Wright has been quoted saying she is dissatisfied with the word “tolerance.” “I am gay (…) not a negative to be tolerated,” she said. By the second day of the conference, the Westboro picketers found it difficult to tolerate the cold and left.
Being tolerated was something all the speakers seemed to reject, striving instead to be understood. Mock, who spoke to a very large, receptive crowd (one that preferred snapping poetry-jam-style to clapping), was at the forefront of the media that week for striving to be understood by CNN’s Piers Morgan after an interview incited a Twitter feud and subsequent on-air reconciliation of sorts.
Mock was tired of the way trans women are packaged as sensationalist news items. She maintained she was born a baby and that her gender, like her original name, was assigned to her at birth. To say she was born a boy and became a woman after a surgery she had in Thailand at age 18, erases her arduous, nuanced journey to self-discovery and womanhood. And so, Mock threw respectability politics to the wind and explained to Morgan how she was tired of nodding, smiling and playing nice. She was happy to be speaking at the conference after what she described as “one of the most trying weeks of (her) life.”
Respectability politics and playing nice seem to be the name of the game for most gay activists these days, like presenting a GLAAD and HRC approved image like Neil Patrick Harris’s beautiful family or Glee’s gay martyr, Kurt. But Mock is an irreverent diva with deep caramel skin and a giant, beautiful mop of ethnic, corkscrew hair who clawed her way from being an underage sex worker to an NYU grad and online editor of People magazine. Mock is what Rob Smith might call a “bad gay.”
Smith is a black, broad-chested Army veteran with a roguish half-smile and a resonant voice. He is the sort of gay man you might expect to have “Masc for masc” on his Grindr profile (he assures me if he had Grindr he would never put something like that on it). And yet, he describes himself as “bad gay.” But bad gays, he said, “are the ones who make history… Respectability politics are dangerous.” Rob Smith doesn’t support a “masc for masc” ideology because to him, “assimilation is not the goal.”
In 2010 Smith, along with a dozen other activists, was arrested for protesting the armed forces’ then-entacted don’t ask, don’t tell policy by chaining himself to the White House fence. The policy was ended the following year. People like Smith, Mock, Wright and everyone I spoke with at MBLGTACC weren’t interested in respectability politics, tolerance or assimilation. They were interested in change. Sometimes that means being a “bad gay.”
So what is a bad gay and what’s a good gay? Robyn Ochs is a self-described bisexual woman who speaks, writes and teaches throughout the country about our limited viewpoint of sexuality. She resembles a kind of sea sorceress with white hair that almost glows against her tan skin, eyes as bright and turquoise as her earrings and sweater, and she wears a gleaming labrys amulet around her neck.
Ochs surmised that a “good gay” doesn’t cause a lot of fuss, was probably white, “straight-acting,” monogamous, was born gay or lesbian (a Kinsey 6 without a choice) and was maybe an activist in the way Dan “It-Gets-Better” Savage or HRC President Chad Griffin is an activist. Which is to say, lobbyists, bureaucrats, respectable political types. Ochs was quick to mention she does not have any sort of problem with this particular brand of LGBT activism but was equally quick to embrace radical queers of every creed and color. She did admit that Savage has a tendency so make snide, flippant remarks about members of the LGBT community that don’t fit perfectly into a sexual binary.
In a workshop at the conference, Ochs distributed surveys to a crowd of students to illustrate just how limited mainstream views of sexuality have become. The survey results pointed toward the incredible fluidity of a person’s orientation. While your sexuality may not always be a choice, rarely is a person ever 100 percent gay or straight. Ochs supports one’s right to actively explore his or her sexuality, and she is interested in empowering students to cast aside the usual labels and tools used to measure orientation. Many of her workshop attendees identified as gay, straight or lesbian but just as many preferred to be called other things: bisexual, queer, trans, asexual, intersex, gynephilic genderqueer, heteroflexible – the list goes on.
Ochs doesn’t believe in such a thing as a “bad gay.” She sighed, “This is a vast, complex community, and we’re never going to come to a complete consensus unless we talk to one another. And even then I don’t think we ever will.” Is that a problem? “No,” she said. “I don’t think so. When you have a community this complex, everyone is going to focus on a different idea about what’s important – marriage, HIV/AIDS prevention, anti-discrimination – and the truth is, it’s all important.
“We will never have a consensus, but as long as we’re willing to communicate and we strive toward creating a better world for the community, I think that’s really something to be hopeful about.”
Mock put it nicely: “Marriage is everything, but it isn’t everything.” Not every member of the LGBTQIA community wants to be married, but it should be their right. Not every member wants to serve in the armed forces or play football, but they shouldn’t have to hide their sexuality to do so. When the final speaker, Kansas City native and NBC’s Fashion Star winner, Kara Laricks, took the stage looking like a chic cousin of Tilda Swinton, she spoke genuinely and effusively about being a closeted elementary school teacher in Missouri.
Near tears, she recounted finding an ally in the school counselor after one of her perceptive students drew her a rainbow flag. “(Gays) don’t want to worry about losing our jobs, we just want to be who we are,” she said.
The student attendees of MBLGTACC are the future of the gay rights movement. They were queer, colorful, ardent and diverse. Once marriage is accessible to everyone in the country, they understand the fight isn’t over. They understand tolerance is not enough. There is too much homelessness, violence and discrimination to just stop fighting when the “good gays” can marry each other. There is more to the fight than that, and more to the community.