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(Re)Mapping the centres Membership and State

Trevor Harris

Somewhere Inside the Rainbow: the Use of Marginality in the Lesbian and Gay Movement in the U.S.A.

Guillaume Marche

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1The contemporary lesbian and gay movement in the United States has undergone tremendous changes since its inception in the 1960s. Its major progress is the visibility it has achieved, particularly in the 1990s. Its main strategy, currently, aims to take it nearer to the symbolic center of power by going "over the rainbow" into a realm where homosexuality is normal. This objective, however, raises problems as it tends to promote a somewhat "ideal" – hence inaccurate – image of the lesbian and gay community.

2Arguably a binary approach in terms of integration versus separation – or sameness versus difference – can only be limited. In effect the dominant, "mainstreaming" strategy is being challenged by a more radical approach, confronting the difficulties which the former would overlook or bypass. The latter strategy thus resists downplaying the marginal status of lesbians and gays, so as to authentically reflect their experience.

3The contrast between these two main strategies not only offers an alternative to limiting dichotomies, it is furthermore not symmetrical. By laying the burden of transformation upon the center, a radical politics envisions a much broader challenge of social norms. It thus uses marginality to further the advent of an altogether new social paradigm.

Overall changes since the 1960s

4The contemporary lesbian and gay movement broke out in June 1969, when during a routine police raid, the patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York, expelled the police and walked out into the street to protest long years of police harassment. The riot was soon joined by lesbians and gays from all over New York and lasted for several days, giving birth to the Gay Liberation Front (D'Emilio, 1998, 231-33). Until then homosexuals had largely been invisible, except as subjects for medical scrutiny – the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a sociopathic disturbance (Miller, 1995, 249) – or scapegoats in nationalist propaganda – many homosexuals lost their jobs, especially in the armed forces and education, during McCarthyism (D'Emilio, 1998, 40-49). Since all but two states classified sodomy as a felony (ibid., 14) and police systematically raided bars and meeting places (ibid., 49-51), homosexuality could only thrive under cover. Most individuals remained "in the closet", same-sex couples sometimes even passing for heterosexual and leading double lives (Miller, 1995, 71-74).

5The contrast is striking with the 1990s when, for the first time, a presidential candidate openly and successfully courted gay and lesbian votes, and appointed several public homosexual figures to his administration. Many celebrities have come out as gay or lesbian, fostering tremendous, often sympathetic, publicity for homosexuality in the media. Though less visibly, a constant current of local organizing has had sodomy statutes repealed in twenty-nine states, and civil rights provisions banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation adopted in ten states. Of course these changes have met with backlash, most notably Anita Bryant's successful 1977 "Save Our Children" campaign for Dade County (Miami, Florida) to repeal its newly enacted gay rights protection, and California Senator John Briggs's unsuccessful state-wide "Proposition 6" in 1978, for homosexuals to be barred from the teaching profession (Miller, 1995, 401-4). Nevertheless, the number of lesbian and gay political, cultural, social, charitable and professional organizations has skyrocketed, more and more companies and local authorities grant domestic-partnership benefits to same-sex couples, so that in more and more places, more and more people can afford to be gay or lesbian all the time.

6As a result countless gays and lesbians have come out of the closets to be visible as such to their friends, families and co-workers. Gays and lesbians have thus got nearer than ever to the center. But if they have become "virtually normal" – as the title of a recent book by Andrew Sullivan has it – should they take his advice that "following legalization of same-sex marriage and a couple of other things... we should have a party and close down the gay rights movement for good" (quoted in Sex Panic!)? Shifting the focus away from homosexuality to fully take part in the center would imply discarding self-representations which emphasize difference. Some gay and lesbian leaders thus argue that the time is ripe for a "post-gay" movement.

Normal or Marginal?

7In the past 30 years mainstream American views of homosexuality have become less radicalized. Despite recurrent religious and right-wing attacks the public debate revolves less and less around whether homosexuality makes one either better or worse a person. The gay and lesbian movement has generally ceased placing a particularly positive value upon homosexuality, as it did in the "Gay Is Good" days of the early 1970s — in self-defense against the then predominant medical, judicial, political and psychological harassment that bore upon the lives of homosexuals. This movement has now shifted to expounding that homosexuality is not a function of one's morality.

8That is why two main perspectives for the future have engaged in intense competition. One is a mainstreaming approach stemming from a conception that homosexuals are normal, and that society should therefore be blind to sexual orientation and guarantee the full participation of gays and lesbians. Its promoters do identify resistance to the prospect, for instance in Senator Trent Lott's recent declarations that homosexuality is a misdemeanor caused by a psychological disorder, like kleptomania. Less extreme though it may be, one cannot ignore Congress's failure in 1996 to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act at the very same time as it adopted the Defense Of Marriage Act (PFAW, "On Capitol Hill"). This act allows individual states not to recognize same-sex marriages which might in the future be declared in such states as Vermont and Hawaii, and has subsequently encouraged various states to enact definitions of marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman (Fassin, 1998, 67).

9In the mainstreaming logic, the reason why gays and lesbians have yet to be granted equal membership, is that some purposely and unabashedly defy social mores: they insist for instance on labeling themselves "queer" and indeed act accordingly, parading in provocative attire, or indulging in promiscuous sexual behavior. Such resistance to assimilation does hinder devoted efforts to gain inclusion in a pluralist society. Hence the vocal calls by gay figures like Andrew Sullivan, Michelangelo Signorile or Bruce Bawer, for the gay and lesbian community to shed its once useful, but nowadays counterproductive, differentialist ways, to present itself to the world as a group of "average, boring people with boring lives" — in the words of a member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (Cathay C., personal interview). Such views in fact address a deep aspiration to normalcy among those who are less committed to social change than to getting on with their lives (Liz C., personal interview).

10Other, more radical gays and lesbians consider these views to be at best apologetic, at worst reactionary. They think homosexuality is still predominantly regarded as a function of a person's morality, despite conscientious efforts to prove otherwise. Such activists characteristically refuse to win acceptance by changing themselves: in the words of a member of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP), "it's not just saying: we're just like anyone else, so treat us like anyone else... but saying: it doesn't matter; we're not just like you and we still have a right to not being discriminated against" (Laura T., personal interview). In other words, what ought by right to be changed is not so much the gay and lesbian mode of presentation, as the dominant representation of homosexuality.

11For instance, just because the dominant group does not accept people who dress in a parody of Catholic nuns' habits and wear the most outrageous make-up and provocative paraphernalia, as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence do, does not mean that the Sisters should dress down (Sister Phyllis Stein, personal interview). The more radical activists are determined to force the dominant group to question its own views of propriety. Furthermore, as one Sister puts it, "the most flamboyant queens are like the canaries they used to take into mine-shafts, so that if there were gases the birds would croak first. So if they ever snuff out the Sisters, then the rest of the community had better run and hide" (Gordon E., personal interview). In plainer terms, the stigmatization of the "queerest" gays and lesbians is but the visible part of the hostility which, in harsher times, could be unleashed against all sexual deviants.

12In reverse, just because it has become more comfortable to be gay in many places does not mean that all gays and lesbians enjoy that improvement. Liberationists therefore insist that "none of us can be free until all of us are free" (Vaid, 1995, 281). The founders of Sex Panic!, a New York-based group opposing the recent attempts to normalize the lesbian and gay lifestyle, concur: "we cannot expect to gain respect by casting derision and shame on others who fail to meet the standards of propriety set by an imaginary mainstream. Sooner or later we all flunk that test" (Crimp et al.). Their criticism of an accommodationist strategy is that it could only get the most "acceptable" gays and lesbians accepted: if the current social norm cannot validate all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people, that norm is to be challenged.

13The latter view finds a justification in the violence facing gays and lesbians. Whereas violent crime in the United States is dropping, violent crime against GLBT people is, indeed, on the increase: the number of anti-gay murders rose from 18 in 1997 to 33 in 1998 (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force [NGLTF] "Hate Crimes"; National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects [NCAVP], 10-11). Besides, FBI statistics that year counted 1,102 crimes which were believed to have been motivated by their victims' sexual orientation – accounting for 13.7% of all officially reported hate crimes (NGLTF, "Background"). Furthermore GLBT people are particularly reluctant to report incidents to the police – because of its consistent record of ill-treatment against homosexuals – for fear of not being taken seriously or of being further abused. In 1998 campaigns encouraging victims to file complaints caused the number of reported crimes to rise by 53%, nevertheless accounting for a mere half of the total number of incidents known to gay and lesbian organizations (NCAVP, 22). The proportion of all hate crimes actually committed against GLBT people is therefore bound to be higher than 13.7%.

14Hate crimes are never exclusively instrumental: they are always geared at symbolically differentiating between "us" and "them" (Wieviorka, 1991, 140). The NCAVP only classifies thefts and robberies as hate crimes if tangible elements – like abusive language – indicate that their victims' sexual orientation motivated or worsened the crimes (NCAVP, 6-7). This violence thus shows the extent of the stigma attached to homosexuality. Consequently, however hard homosexuals try to "be normal", says a member of ACT UP, "to most people we are just a bunch of queers who deserve what they got" (Michael L., personal interview).

15Violence against GLBT people supports the view that even though homosexuality may often be tolerated, it is not generally accepted. While toleration could be achieved by reassuring the "general population" that gays and lesbians are not monsters, actual acceptance would indeed require a more drastic challenge of "heteronormativity", the norm which holds that heterosexuality is best.

16The point therefore is not whether homosexuals are the same as, or different from, heterosexuals because – as symbolic violence shows – difference is not a choice, but a fact (Guillaumin, 1992, 99). The classic dichotomies – sameness versus difference, integration versus separation – are thus not adequate for an understanding of the current dynamics of lesbian and gay movement. I will therefore try shifting to a different dichotomy, normalizing versus minoritizing — or mainstreaming versus queering.

Mainstreaming versus Queering

17This dichotomy firstly applies to the debate concerning gay sexual mores, which is particularly vivid in New York. A 1995 zoning law led to the closing down of adult businesses in Times Square and Greenwich Village (City of NY). Some out and visible gay figures have formed a group – Gay And Lesbian HIV Prevention Activists (GALHPA) – to actively support the City's initiative (Pendleton, 1996, 374), arguing, as Gabriel Rotello does, that gay culture's emphasis on sexual indulgence and promiscuity accounts for the spread of AIDS (Oppenheimer, 1997, 41-42). GALHPA hoped that the City's new policy would forcibly help gays to amend their sexual culture.

18Though sanctioned by some prominent newspapers and gay leaders, this initiative was met with outrage on the part of other activists, some of whom organized a group named Sex Panic! (Pendleton & Goldschmidt, 1993, 30). They stood in defense of an idiosyncratic sexual culture, arguing that for purposes of HIV prevention, pornographic magazine and video stores as well as sex clubs are ideal spots for targeting people with multiple partners and those with no other contact to the gay and lesbian community than commercial sexual venues. Without appropriate encouragements to practise safer sex, these people are indeed at a higher risk of HIV infection (Jane G., Ananda L., Kendall T., personal interviews). The self-labeled "pro-sex" activists thus accuse the City of closing down adult businesses out of mere narrow-mindedness in sexual matters (Crimp et al.).

19The latter activists therefore oppose normalizing gay sexual lifestyles into a semblance of heterosexual monogamy. To that extent, they undeniably adopt a minoritized, marginal subject-position. Their political stance however calls for sexual non-conformers to force society to deal with sexuality differently. It would thus be inaccurate to assume that claiming difference is necessarily separatist, just by virtue of being minoritizing: rather, one may use difference to point to the liberal system's failure to grant recognition to deviants (Taylor, 1994, 43).

20The dichotomy secondly applies to the controversy caused by efforts to prove that homosexuality is genetically determined. This notion both fits many gays and lesbians' intimate sense of "always being that way" and serves a specific instrumental purpose. For if sexual orientation were proven to be an "irrevocable, involuntary characteristic", this would be a political opportunity for gays and lesbians to benefit from the civil-rights protection currently offered to ethnic minorities, without even needing to get the law changed. Some advocates of lesbian and gay rights therefore endeavor to prove that homosexuality is but a particular instance of a normal pattern of minority identity (Nestle, personal interview).

21Among the more progressive lesbians and gays, however, are staunch opponents of this strategy, who argue that whether sexual orientation is a matter of nature or nurture can hardly be proved, and is of little importance. What does matter, they claim, is that people usually choose, for instance, whether or not to come out, and who to come out to. Even assuming that homosexuality were genetically caused, those who do lead a gay or lesbian lifestyle have chosen to do so (Vaid, 1995, 30). Besides, there are a variety of lifestyles to choose from, whereas insisting that homosexuality is a hereditary trait casts GLBT identity in a single and arbitrary homogenizing mold.

22Moreover, a qualitative study of gays' and lesbians' conceptions of sexual orientation as either chosen or genetically determined, has shown that gay men have more of an interest in the latter, since alleged genetic heredity is the basis of a sex and gender hierarchy which is favorable to men (Whisman, 1996, 6-18). Lesbians, in turn, more often regard their sexual orientation as chosen, thus enabling themselves to better critique the ascription of social statuses to allegedly natural factors, and to resist "[casting] male homosexuality as universal and lesbianism as particular" (ibid., 108-16).

23Insisting that choice is involved in GLBT identities means resisting attempts to have society consider homosexuality as one of two equally natural possibilities. This political option thus emphasizes the queerness of homosexuality. It nonetheless implies actual participation, albeit marginal, in the issues pertaining to the center. Joan Nestle, a socialist and feminist writer, claims that "we should be very flamboyant about our politics... [and] believe that we are a gift to this society." According to her, not only does queerness fail to disqualify one from influencing the center, one is in effect particularly apt to exert symbolical leverage upon the center by virtue of one's marginality. For example, gays and lesbians could be instrumental in extending the grounds for civil rights protection to chosen identities (Nestle, personal interview). Asserting a marginal identity can thus in itself be a significant step on the path toward social change (Melucci, 1985, 801-11).

24Vera Whisman's analysis of many lesbians' articulation of gender with sexual preference, is part of a broader critique of the American pluralist system, where various interest groups represent constituencies organized around a shared characteristic (Epstein, 1997, 34-42). Some organizations thus focus exclusively on the issues relevant to the constituency whose resources they mobilize. In its mission statement one of the main national gay and lesbian organizations, Human Rights Campaign (HRC), thus "envisions an America where lesbian and gay people are ensured of their basic civil rights – and can be open, honest and safe at home, at work and in the community" (HRC). By refraining from taking a stance on issues of racism, sexism or socio-economic inequality, in particular, HRC in effect pledges allegiance to the pluralist system, whose boundaries are designed by the center to monitor its dealings with its periphery. A member of HRC's steering committee interestingly states: "The fact that my partner and I don't enjoy the same benefits as our straight counterparts is increasingly galling. And since I can't depend on anybody else to make it happen for me, I'd better get out and fight for myself" (Alice D., personal interview). This white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class professional, thus implicitly declares her conformity with a dominant individualistic system, where each is to fend for herself. Gay and lesbian identity politics, for her, is anything but subversive: it is, ironically, meant to straighten up the twist that keeps her from enjoying the social privileges she feels entitled to. Hers is thus akin to the politics which one radical activist criticizes for being a narrow struggle against what "still prevents a rich white gay man from enjoying exactly the same privileges as any other rich white man" (Sherry E., personal interview). This approach undeniably resorts to a mainstreaming strategy which aims at nearing the center, but whose rules have been designed by the center (Vaid, 1995, 203).

25Others, on the contrary, believe that guaranteeing equality requires challenging this competitive, pluralist system. Since the 1980s shrinking public resources have indeed caused the various identity-based groups to compete for the same benefits (Escoffier, personal interview). This competition, which "undercuts the multicultural project" (Escoffier, 1991, 69), is particularly hard within the lesbian and gay community, which cuts across ethnic differences. An AIDS prevention and care activist thus complains that "people have worked so hard to create a strong gay agenda, that they think if you push ethnic-specific issues you are diverting energy or mobilization – or money – away from [it]" (George B., personal interview). A politics which relies too much on fixed identity boundaries thus represents minority groups as discrete, mutually exclusive categories.

26A multicultural lesbian and gay movement insists on undermining the effects of competition. The NGLTF, for instance, defines itself as "a progressive organization, committed to building coalitions with other communities working for social change. [Its] goal is to represent, and work on issues relevant to the full depth and breadth of diversity in our gay and lesbian communities" (NGLTF, "Information"). This organization thus endeavors to deal with the conflicting goals of representing a strong collective identity, without implying that all participants should be identical (Reagon, 1983, 358-63) and posits itself so as "to be inclusive of difference while appreciating similarities of experience" (Trend, 1995, 121). NGLTF in effect acknowledges that gays and lesbians have opponents in common with ethnic minorities, in particular, and that not all gays and lesbians are white and middle-class, while many gays and lesbians of color feel pressured into being, for instance, either black or gay (Joe P., L.-J. I., personal interview). NGLTF thus sides with the more progressive activists who insist, for example, that asylum rights and immigration are indeed lesbian and gay issues, as many people request, but are denied, access to the US in order to escape prosecution as homosexuals, or to join a same-sex spouse (Javid S., personal interview).

27This multicultural GLBT movement is determined to resist homogeneity, thereby putting itself at odds with the pluralist system of representation. In not disclaiming the minority, often disadvantaged, status of a significant portion of the GLBT community, it declines the offer of institutional access in exchange for compliance with the pluralist rules. But because it does not function merely as a discrete interest group, it helps to challenge a limiting system (Lorde, 1984, 112-13).

Using Marginality to Transform the Center

28Each of these three cases exemplifies the contrast between a mainstreaming strategy and a minoritizing one. The dichotomy is however not symmetrical, as the former strategy works within certain limitations, which the latter actually means to challenge. Mainstreaming aims at downplaying the difference implied in homosexuality, for the instrumental purpose of gaining access to the center, by seizing opportunities currently available within the dominant system. In the process, it is the subsidiary minority group which is to transform itself, in order to accommodate the status quo.

29A minoritizing strategy, on the other hand, stems from an urge not to deny de facto difference and sets symbolic goals on a par with instrumental ones. To assert one's difference in fact does not necessarily amount to separatism, but rather to pointing to the shortcomings of the center – its inadequacy in dealing with the basis of difference. The ultimate goal is therefore for the center to become transformed, so that it may encompass what it had so far excluded.

30As a consequence, the latter, queering strategy, is only marginal to the extent that it does not consist in pretending that difference and exclusion do not exist. It does in fact aim at bridging the gap between center and margin – only not at the margin's sole expense, as the former, mainstreaming strategy implies. It can thus be said to be working from inside the rainbow, because it implies an exploration of the complexity, intricacy and diversity of contemporary GLBT experience. But its assertion of difference primarily points to the contingency and reversibility of marginality: rather than settling for toleration at the periphery of the "in" group, this approach consists in using queerness as a creative potential, infused with the subjective experience of being in the "out" group, in order to alter the very structure of the "in" group.


Works Cited

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Personal interviews

Alice D. 28 July 1998.

Ananda L. 31 Aug. 1998.

Cathay C. 8 Apr. 1993.

Escoffier, Jeffrey. 15 Apr. 1993 and 20 Aug. 1997.

George B. 17 Mar. 1993.

Gordon Ε. 23 July 1998.

Jane G. 28 Aug. 1998.

Javid S. 17 Aug. 1998.

Joe P. 9 Apr. 1993.

Kendall T. 20 Aug. 1997.

L.-J. I. 28 July 1993.

Laura T. 21 Mar. 1993.

Liz C. 30 July 1997.

Michael L. 21 Mar. 1993.

Nestle, Joan. 16 Apr. 1993.

Sherry E. 14 Aug. 1997.

Sister Phyllis Stein. 17 July 1998.

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