There’s … a lot of freedom and mobility in being gay. And choosing not to raise children. Without the status of children, we’re not validated in society. My point is less wanting to get validation from someone else. It’s more important to be self-fulfilled. It’s a point of empowerment. You’re not trapping yourself by convention, buying into status-quo. I still think working toward self-fulfillment will gain the same financial rewards or benefits that “selling yourself to a corporation” would buy.
Having been in a different situation, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to use others’ measuring sticks of how I should view myself in the world. This automatically sets you up for failure. Everyone has a little bit more, someone else is a little bit taller. Ranking is dangerous. Some status that you fall short of makes you self-hating, self-destroying.
B.Michael Hunter in “Windows & Water Towers”, an essay written with John Manzon-Santos and published in Queerly Classed: Gay Men and Lesbians Write about Class (South End Press: 1995, ed. Susan Raffo).
In our book, you wrote about love. This is what you and Johnny decided to share. You wrote about love and relationship but not in that starry-eyed, soften all-the-edges way. Instead, the two of you argued, you disagreed, you rubbed up against each other, and you showed in a hundred small ways the depth of your commitment. You wrote about what it means to pay attention to your relationship, about the ways you are gay and the ways you are different from each other, how these differences are the core of your relationship, the things that make you disagree, and what strengthens your commitment.
For the last six years our relationship, perhaps like any other, has been in search of anchorage. We have learned how commitment, trust and yes, intimacy, can ebb and flow over time. What grounds us is when we attempt to break our familiar Catholic patterns of silence, especially when it feels most risky. In this case, we hope that our talking through issues together (and sharing them via a transcribed dialogue) – seams and all – will demonstrate some of the ways in which we struggle to understand how class is braided with other factors in our relationship.
Windows & Water Towers, 1995
You died, my friend, just at the turning point for how gay – and all kinds of queer – relationships would be understood. You died on the edge of a lot of change and oh, my friend, you’ve missed some things. You’ve missed this moment when love turned from something generative and unapologetic, the radical compost of having to find it deep within ourselves to fierce-claim our love of another person, to something that has the necessary legal support needed to make its revolutionary nuances disappear. I am talking about marriage. I am talking about the capstone on a struggle for acceptance and safety that started when AIDS became, not a crisis that brought care and compassion, but an excuse for making our queerness disappear.
You are now on the other side, Bert. An ancestor. I am telling you about what you have missed but I also know that you know much of this already.
In the essay in Queerly Classed, you wrote about being on the founding board for the Audre Lorde Project, about organizing the People of Color contingent for the 1990 Lesbian & Gay Pride March. The two of you list a who’s who of radical queer New York POC organizations, most of which don’t exist anymore. While we were talking about the book and your essay in it, the March on Washington was getting ready. In 1993, an estimated 1 million people attended the March on Washington for LGB Equal Rights and Liberation. Were you there? I was there with my partner at the time and thought it was amazing. The march platform focused on reproductive justice, racial and economic justice and universal health care.
At the 1993 March on Washington, not a single part of the platform included gay marriage in any form. We said things like “family liberation,” saying, just as you said in the book, that family is not about having or not having children. It’s not about getting married. It’s about deep commitments to each other’s well-being. Like universal health care, we were demanding that those things traditionally accessed through marriage become available outside of that traditional institution, like shared health care, economic safety and the right to have our children no matter the shape of our families.
It was also in 1993 that organizers on the Right started to gather around the idea of “traditional family values.” This was brilliant, right? A coalition of religious fundamentalists and economic conservatives began to build a base that would have enough power to push back the love and rights based work of the Left. Their fundraising and mobilization work called out AIDS as a threat to the traditional American family. They mobilized fear. They began to design their new enemy, using our bodies and their terror to justify all kinds of things from disappearing manufacturing jobs to earthquakes and floods. You know this, Bert. You were in those conversations while you were organizing in New York.
1993 was the year they passed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It was the year when the film Gay Rights, Special Rights went viral. This was a new kind of film, one that was designed to drive a wedge between LGBT and Black communities by positioning gay folks as privileged white rich people who just wanted to have everything our way, to operate outside of morality. Again, you remember this. We all talked about this, pushed against this, struggled with this.
In 1993, few of us were interested in or advocating for legalized relationships. Gay marriage was not a mainstream or even much of a marginalized LGBT issue. Prior to 1993, there were only 8 attempts to either enable OR prevent same-sex marriage through some form of legislative or court decision. Each was an isolated individual initiative, not connected to a broader movement. But between 1993 and 2000, right before you died, there were suddenly 26 attempts to prevent same-sex marriage from becoming legalized. Each of those 26 were organized by these Right coalition groups like Focus on the Family and others. Between 1993 and 2000, there were 6 pro-same-sex marriage campaigns and 4 of those were in 1999. Let me spell that out more clearly – the coalition Right created gay marriage as an issue. They spent seven years getting it into the national imagination as a threat that had to be stopped. It wasn’t a threat. Us queers weren’t talking about marriage. We were loving each other, surviving AIDS and talking about healthcare. The opposition named same-sex marriage as a threat to traditional family values, they raised lots of money and we started to fight back.
You were already sick in 2000 and so you might have been watching this happen or you might have just ignored it as your world got smaller. Things always get smaller when we are preparing to pass. Almost everything shifted and reversed right around the time of your passing. Starting in 2000 and 2001, there were twice as many attempts by the LGBT community to legalize same-sex marriage as efforts to prevent it. It took the Right seven years to ramp us up but then, starting just as you were dying, we reached down and picked up the rope and starting pulling hard against them.
What do we do when someone wants to pick a fight? Evolution tells us we are hard wired to either run, freeze up or turn around and fight back. What is hardest to do, even when the lion is running straight at us, is stop and take a deep breath and determine the best course of action. Liberation is about choice. About stopping and breathing and noticing, rather than responding to this fight that we didn’t pick. What would happen if we just ignored them? Turned our backs on their fear and refused to engage?
The National Millenium March in 2000, an incredibly white and professionalized march, focused their platform on hate crimes legislation, the right to marry, employment non-discrimination and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. In addition, they had a range of soft goals that said things like LGBT People of Color exist and need to be more visible! Liberation politics, Bert, had turned to inclusion politics in only 7 years. The specificity of our experience, the foundational leadership of Trans and queer people of color, and the beauty of our sex that had been branded as diseased by the US mainstream: all of this was disappeared into a platform focused on being included in middle class US rights. By the 2009 National Equality March, there weren’t even any soft goals related to the breadth of our experience. By 2009, 16 years after the March on Washington, the platform was simply a call for equal protection under civil law. Inclusion. Inclusion. Inclusion.
Your essay in Queerly Classed refuses to define your selves or your relationship by comparison with any external standard of success. Instead, you choose to spend time deeply inquiring over the histories and experiences that have led you to make the class-based choices you have made. You died, Bert, before we had internalized their stories about us; before we believed that our right to marry is part of what legitimizes our right to exist.
Bert, they used our greatest vulnerability against us. You write in this essay about what it felt like to be young-old, someone who had seen so many of your people die as a result of AIDS. You and John both write about what it is to be in relationship when one of you is positive and one is not. You talked about how you navigated this. John noticed when things shifted so that AIDS no longer felt like it was ready to pounce from just around the corner. And it was still there, the truth of it, there in your home as you talked about family and race and the differences in calling a cab in New York when you are Black or Filipino.
They used our greatest vulnerability as a weapon to further destroy our belief in our own lives. And we helped them. We were not immune from the wounds of this country: white supremacy and its dance with capitalism being the base that brought the concept of land ownership and the ownership of human beings to the oak savannah and prairie where I live. The patterns that this violent founding established showed their way into our fabulous queerness just like everywhere else. Like a form of disaster capitalism, the coalition Right used the fear and vulnerability that came from seeing so many lovers die to inflame the mix of internalized oppression and race and class supremacy to move rapid-fire away from our beautiful differences to the death knells of inclusion and assimilation.
In the midst of the marriage fight here in Minnesota, a friend reminded me that all legalized discrimination needs to end. And this is true. Yet in its ending we lost so many other things. Some of us are very safe now, Bert. There are gays and lesbians and bi folks with legally recognized relationships and protected retirement funds and no need to do what we did: get all of the legal papers needed so that we could tend our lovers when they died. Just like before, the queerer you are, the Blacker or more Native or undocumented you are, the less those legal rights guarantee a difference in your living condition. It always comes back to this, doesn’t it? From the beginning of this country, it’s what it comes back to. Those first wounds of attempted genocide and the institution of slavery are the foundational trauma that is not finished. Like all trauma, these wounds and the systems that protect them find a way to come back and recenter themselves again and again.
I don’t know what you would have thought about marriage, Bert. So many folks surprised me by their excitement for this protection. So many others, people our age and older, quietly told me behind the scenes that they hated everything about it but also believed that legalized discrimination should end. We sat and felt frustrated with the steps that had led to marriage as the moment of our supposedly greatest victory.
So this is what I want to tell you, Bert. I want to tell you that as messy as things were before you passed, as much deep grief was (and still is) not healed or integrated from what AIDS did to our communities, still there was clarity. While we described it in lots of different ways, still, there was often a shared sense that as gay or queer people, we had a special insight on sexual liberation, on gender liberation and on family liberation. And together we were struggling to link this truth with the truth of the original wounds of this land. We knew that things were not what we had been raised to believe. Many of us were actively struggling within our identities as lesbians, gay, bisexual and increasingly transgender to more deeply understand and fight-feel for our shared liberation.
Some of us are safer. But many of us are not. It’s just that those who are not safer no longer turn to LGBT organizing as the place of changing that. And that makes me sad. It’s not a good way of memorializing all of you who passed, whose lives were shortened because the U.S. was afraid of our beauty and so refused to show up when we were sick and dying.
© Susan Raffo 2017