Systemic Transformation v. Reform: Beyond ‘4 Ms’ of Queer Politics

Political pundits have positioned candidates, such as Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg, as the “let’s get back to normal, pragmatic, ‘liberal’ sector,” and others like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the side of those advocating deep structural “transformational” or “radical” change to the U.S. economic system.

In political and sociological terms we sometimes call this “horizontal hostility”: infighting within different strands of a particular social movement, organization, or political party, denominations within a religion, hostilities between various subjugated groups in competition for resources, rights, or acknowledgment, or hostility between similar groups where one may seem more “mainstream.”

While many people agree that we must vote Donald Trump out of office, how many of us really wish to “get back to normal” and how many would rather use this opportunity to bring about real transformational change that will begin to undermine the seemingly insurmountable and continually expanding inequities in the current system?

These critical questions have ruminated in LGBTQ and other subjugated communities since the inception of these movements for social change. I give some reflections in my own history of political organizing.

A Cautionary Critique

A few years, before the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, I watched breaking news of the New York State Senate, following the House of Representatives’ lead, pass a bill legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. Within hours, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo proudly signed the bill into law.

TV cameras then focused on a crowd, which spontaneously organized at the historic Stonewall Inn in New York’s West Village. One reveler interviewed on camera stated that she showed up “to be a part of history.” Also, some of the nation’s leading economists estimated the potential for enormous revenue increases to New York’s businesses because of the expected surge in marriages conducted in the state as a result of this legislation.

For me, though, watching the news accounts brought to the surface a full array of emotions from subdued optimism to discomfort and even anger.

There are moments in history when conditions come together to create the impetus for great social change. Many historians and activists place the beginning of the modern movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans equality at the Stonewall Inn, a small bar frequented by trans people, lesbians, bisexuals, gay men, students, and others of all races located at 53 Christopher Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

At approximately one-twenty on the morning of June 28, 1969, New York City Police officers conducted a routine raid on the bar on the charge that the owners had been selling alcohol without a license. Feeling they had been harassed far too long, people challenged police officers on this morning lasting with varying intensity over the next five nights by flinging bottles, rocks, bricks, trash cans, and parking meters used at battering rams.

In reality, even before these historic events at the Stonewall Inn, an action preceded Stonewall by nearly three years, and should more likely be considered as the founding event for the modern LGBTQ movement.

In August 1966, at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, in what is known as the Tenderloin District in San Francisco, trans people and sex workers joined in fighting police harassment and oppression. Police, conducting one of their numerous raids, entered Compton’s and began physically harassing the clientele.

This time, however, people fought back by hurling coffee at the officers and heaving cups, dishes, and trays around the cafeteria. Police retreated outside as customers smashed windows. Over the course of the next night, people gathered to picket the cafeteria, which refused to allow trans people back inside.

Out of the ashes of Compton’s Cafeteria and the Stonewall Inn, people, primarily young, formed a number of militant groups. One of the first was the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). GLF was not a formalized organization per se, but rather a series of small groups across the U.S. and other countries. GLF meetings took place in people’s living rooms, basements in houses of worship, and storefronts. Members insisted on the freedom to explore new ways of living as part of a radical project of social transformation.

GLF adopted a set of principles emphasizing coalition-building with other disenfranchised groups — women, minoritized racial and ethnic groups, working-class people, young people, elders, people with disabilities — as a means of dismantling the economic and social structures we considered inherently oppressive.

During the early 1970s, I was an active member of GLF in Washington D.C. We held early meetings at Grace Church, the Washington Free Clinic in Georgetown, and All Souls Church on 16th Street, and we rented a brownstone on S Street in Northwest D.C. for the establishment of a GLF living collective. Meetings provided a space for us to come together and put into practice what feminists had taught us — that the “personal is the political.”

We laughed and we cried together. We shared our ideas and our most intimate secrets. We dreamed our dreams and laid our plans for a world free from all the deadly forms of oppression, and as we went along, invented new ways of relating.

For the men, we came to consciousness of how we had been stifled as males growing up in a culture that taught us to hate the feminine within, that taught us that if we were to be considered worthy, we must be athletic, independent, assertive, domineering, competitive and that we must bury our emotions deep within the recesses of our souls.

My discomfort in watching the joyous revelers outside the Stonewall Inn at the passage of a statewide bill legalizing marriage for same-sex couples stems from my understanding and experience as a political activist and as a student of history, an understanding of the Stonewall rebellion as representing an impetus for revolutionary transformational change within an overriding oppressive social structure, as opposed to mere reform, accommodation, or assimilation.

When we consider the phrase, “Keep your eyes on the prize,” I now wonder what we consider precisely as the prizes, the goals, that we are working toward?

Are we working under the vision of Stonewall of “a radical project of social transformation” and “dismantling the economic and social structures they considered inherently oppressive?”

Or are we working to reform the current social system in order to assimilate and to gain rights to privacy? Or none of the above? I am sure each of us will have a different answer.

Looking back over the years, as our visibility has increased, as our place within the culture has become somewhat more assured, much certainly has been gained, but also, something very precious has been lost. That early excitement, that desire — though by no means the ability — to fully restructure the culture, as distinguished from our mere reform, seems now to lay dormant in many sectors of our communities.

In our current so-called “neoliberal” age, the emphasis is placed on privatization, global capital, reduced governmental oversight and deregulation of the corporate sector, attacks on labor organizing, and competition. We are living in an environment in which property rights hold precedence over human rights. In this environment, we are witnessing a cultural war waged by the political, corporate, and theocratic right, a war to turn back all the gains progressive people have made over the years.

Within this environment, however, I perceive four main themes as the major focus of the larger lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) movement, what I am calling the “4 Ms” of the mainstream LGB movement.

I do not include here trans identities because, firstly, I cannot discern a “mainstream” trans movement, and secondly, the 4 Ms in their current LGB mainstream construction exclude trans people.

According to my colleague, Chase Catalano:

The silencing of trans experiences often reminds me of how folks in leather, drag queens, and dykes on bikes were viewed with contempt when they wanted to be included in the early Pride events for being too contentious (folks didn’t want ‘those people’ getting the media attention from the ‘normal people’).

The four themes of the LGB movement comprise an assimilationist / reformist rather than a social transformational impetus. These Ms are: 1. Marriage Equality, 2. Military Inclusion, 3. Media Visibility, and 4. Making Money.

A Call to Further and Wider Action

While the “4 Ms” are all laudable goals, I believe that if we are going to achieve a truly equitable society, we must reach higher, wider, and broader. As important as these goals may be, I hope we do not envision them as the final resting place over the rainbow.

If we do rest here, after having been seduced by promises of achieving some degree of credibility and respectability or being given some basic human rights and hate crimes laws, I fear we will have become part of the very problems that so many of us have fought so tirelessly to eradicate.

I do remain hopeful, however. The increasing visibility and recognition of trans people and of the emerging discourse of Critical Trans Politics today has shaken traditionally dichotomous notions of gender, and in turn, other stifling hierarchies and binaries, which are the very cornerstones for the entrenchment keeping our society from moving forward.

Their critical stories and experiences have great potential to bring us into the future — a future in which anyone on the gender spectrum everywhere will live freely, unencumbered by social taboos and cultural norms of gender. It is a future in which the “feminine” and “masculine”— as well as all the qualities on the continuum in between — can live and prosper in us all.

Metaphorically, oppression operates like a wheel with many spokes. If we work to dismantle only one or a few specific spokes, the wheel will continue to roll over people. Let us, then, also work on dismantling all the many spokes to conquering all the many forms of oppression in all their many forms.

Until and unless we can join in coalition with other groups, until and unless we consider the intersectionality of identities, I consider that the possibility for achieving a genuine sense of community and a genuine sense of equity will be unattainable.

I believe also that sexual and relational attractions and gender identities and expressions alone are not sufficient to connect a community, and by extension, a movement for progressive social change, and that we must, therefore, look beyond ourselves and base a community and a movement not simply on social identities, but also on shared ideals and values among individuals from disparate social identities, with like minds, political philosophies, and strategies for achieving their objectives.

Let us revel in our past victories, for we have fought tirelessly for them. But let us not dwell here because we have further to go to ensure a truly just and equitable society and world.

In the final analysis, whenever anyone is diminished, we are all demeaned, when anyone or any group remains institutionally and socially subjugated, marginalized, excluded, or disenfranchised and prevented from being free to determine the course of their lives, the possibility for authentic community cannot be realized unless and until we become involved, to challenge, to question, and to act in truly transformational ways.

I hope, therefore, that we can reignite the revolutionary and transformational flame that was Stonewall.

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