In 1997, Leo Bersani, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, gave a symposium at the Centre Pompidou in Paris as part of a colloquium on gay and lesbian studies. At the time, the entire world was similarly roiled in a paradigmatic public health crisis: HIV/AIDS, having swallowed the globe, gave newfound urgency to the project of LGBTQ rights advancement. Much like today, protests and counterprotests percolated throughout the U.S. landscape; violence ensued. “Identity politics,” Bersani lamented, “is far from dead.” His words were prescient, to say the least. Turning inward, Bersani stated that, in seeking marriage equality, gay men and women were assimilating rather than subverting heterosexual paradigms, effectively “de-gaying” themselves.
Bersani said that to marry is to “melt into the very culture [gays] like to see themselves as undermining,” going as far as to say the accomplishment of marriage equality would calcify not only the dominance of an assimilative queer practice, but the homosexual itself as “a failed subject,” one whose legitimacy has become predicated on self-hatred. This failure has largely played out in modern media portrayals of our LGBTQ community. In 2015, the year the Supreme Court codified Obergefell v. Hodges into law, a study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that depictions of LGBTQ characters across 700 of Hollywood’s most popular films released between 2007 and 2014, paltry as they were, were overwhelmingly white and male: 84 percent and 63 percent, respectively. These numbers largely held in the Annenberg School’s 2019 repeat of the study: 68 percent white and, again, nearly 64 percent male.
Our representation is permitted—but only occasionally, narrowly. We’re a welcome spectacle on the screen, so long as we are digestible to its audience. The fight for the right to marry, to raise kids—to embody the heterosexual nuclear family—has largely eschewed our fight for the right to be otherwise. Queerness is then partially recognized, welcome to permeate the hermetic seal of U.S. culture so long as it doesn’t burst the bubble of homogeneity. This dislocates the issue: It’s, ostensibly, no longer queerness per se that bothers, but queerness as difference. An olive branch for white, gender-conforming gays and lesbians, this conceptual analgesic sends the U.S. bourgeoisie to bed and our fight for equality to the grave. Locked in a positive feedback loop, media’s obfuscation of our difference naturally extends to politics.
In writing about the queer opposition to Pete Buttigieg for the New Yorker, Masha Gessen put it best when they wrote that he is “a straight politician in a gay male’s body.” A war hawk, a consultant, and a top, Buttigieg’s rise to prominence was born of his precise ability to be gay in nothing more than name alone. Lacking a substantively progressive bent, he believed he could garner LGBTQ support for his otherwise lackluster political platform by bloviating about his sexuality. This drew the ire of many queer and Black activists who, in unearthing the alarming injustices of Black and Brown neighborhood development during his tenure as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, effectively demonstrated that Buttigieg was just as much an acolyte of the status quo as his straight counterparts. Buttigieg’s brand of racism-cum-gentrification is nothing new to white gay men.
In writing about San Francisco for a 1987 issue of October, Bersani claimed that gay men are “no less reactionary and racist than heterosexuals,” content to vogue the night away in San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood while evicting Black families unable to pay rent in the Western Addition. Since then, little has changed in the city, sans its demography: Accounting for more than 13 percent in 1970, San Francisco’s Black population dove below 6 percent in 2015, according to the Seattle Times. The gay community boasts an unsettling history of Black displacement, one that real-estate tycoon and general scrub America Foy has referred to as “a long and rich history of pioneering” as recently as 2014. Shelving the perturbed gesture to colonialism, a more immediate truth becomes clear: In acquiescing to a philosophy of sameness, white gays have marginalized people of color, the paragons of American “difference.” Barring the bleaching of our entire community, there will always be LGBTQ folk who are Black, not to mention different in less marked though equally vulnerable and appreciable ways. For many, assimilation is not an option.
Our fight for sameness has sidelined the fight for legitimacy beyond marriage: to have and love multiple partners; to be trans, intersex, or nonbinary; to be fluid, dynamic, or uncertain about who you are. Returning to media, an institution that has lagged consistently behind social change, we see total absolution from keeping pace. In the first of the aforementioned USC studies, transgender characters featured in a whopping zero of the 700 movies; in the second, out of the 500 top-grossing films from 2014-2018, the number crawled to one. As the increasing focus on varying gender identities and sexual orientations among queer youth accentuates, marriage equality is insufficient solution for the problems of an increasingly complex and colorful queer America. It’s a palliative, a smoke screen for liberal progressives behind which our larger queer struggle, in media and beyond, rages on.
Transgender rights are again under siege. Anti-LGBTQ hate groups are on the rise. And, much like with communities of color, coronavirus is impacting us disproportionately. Structural violence and viruses know no boundaries, and they’re equally unsympathetic to our love in holy matrimony. Though recent advances from the Supreme Court have been cause for celebration, further scrutiny suggests otherwise. Similarly, setbacks in health and medicine are likely to have far more outsize (and dangerous) consequences. Numbers speak where words fail: Trans women are by some estimates as much as four times more likely to be murdered than cisgendered individuals, over thirteen if they’re not white. While mathematically derived, statistics are politically constructed: Disquieting as these failures are, their measurement at least substantiates their existence. It’s those statistics that aren’t being logged that reflect the most malignant crimes.
Fifteen states don’t even recognize sexual orientation as a motivator for hate crimes; fifteen jumps to 26 when we incorporate gender identity as a motivator and 29 when we consider that Indiana, Michigan, and Rhode Island only collect data on, but do not protect against, gender- and sexuality-based violence. If our oppression isn’t measured, it isn’t seen, snaking into the deepest crevices of our social, political, and economic lives, untouched. Less obvious, less understood, and less surmountable than marriage equality, these problems lack a similar promise of placation for the American liberal. “Let us love” is a sexier refrain than “let us live.” But can one exist without the other? The fight for marriage equality, and the continued decay of the queer rights movement thereafter, reflects a contradictory approach, one by which we have empowered some at the expense of others.
Our fight for sameness has sidelined the fight for legitimacy beyond marriage: to have and love multiple partners; to be trans, intersex, or nonbinary; to be fluid, dynamic, or uncertain about who you are.
Ensconced in their suburban phantasmagorias, conforming lesbians and gays have left the rest of the gender and sexual minority alphabet to chart a path toward more substantive liberation on their own. Not coincidentally, those left behind are disproportionately vulnerable along lines of race and class, lines of difference that continue to violently divide the U.S. landscape. In this dark age of unrelenting police brutality and unconscionable Black death, the fight for difference is not only more inclusive, but profoundly urgent. Our struggle did not and cannot end with marriage equality. Our fight is beyond political. It’s ontological—a constant, iterative exercise in stretching what it means to express, to deviate, and to be.
Concluding his Centre Pompidou symposium, Bersani proclaimed that gay assimilation was nothing less than a betrayal of our own subjectivity. We erase ourselves, accomplishing what Bersani termed “the elimination of gays—the principal aim of homophobia.” Speaking today, Bersani would be no less perceptive: Sequestered in Fire Island bungalows and apartments outfitted with personal gymnasiums and monogrammed cookware, gays are currently taking refuge from the very forms of protesting that queers ourselves employed in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and beyond. Proselytizing on Instagram and derisory donations aren’t enough. We must go beyond recognizing our differences with cash and sympathies and instead celebrate them, fight for them, be one with them. “The only way we can love the other or the external world,” urges Bersani, “is to find ourselves somehow in it.” Our liberation is insoluble from Blacks’ and other vulnerable persons’ freedoms, as Miss Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera knew all too well. Though marriage equality is now the law of the land, our fight is not over; in fact, now hidden behind veneers of equality and sameness, it may be harder than ever before.