Thursday, May 15, 2008

Today, in the News (Or Not?)

Word of California’s decision to lift the ban on gay marriage implemented in 2000 has spread like wildfire today. Though it is true that this decision could set a valuable precedent in terms of legal policy, I can’t help but be incredibly frustrated by the nearsightedness and narrow-mindedness of the gays who tend to dominate these political pushes.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is the perfect example of an assimilationist, visible gay rights organization. The HRC focuses on the legalization of gay marriage to the exclusion of numerous issues that are pressing to many LGBTQ people throughout the nation. This past year the HRC abandoned transgender people in their push to get an ENDA bill passed that would ban discrimination against LGBT individuals in the United States. Apparently, the HRC felt it would be easier to get the bill passed to protect the rights of gays and lesbians if they dropped the “T” and forgot about trans folks’ rights. So they did. Simple as that.

It is what is not so visible in the mainstream news today that betrays the fact that upper- and middle-class gays, as exemplified by organizations like the HRC, could not care less about more disadvantaged LGBT people.

Yesterday, a man named Willie Campbell was sentenced to 35 years in prison for spitting at a police officer in Dallas, Texas. The reason for such a severe sentence, for what could be passed off as an intoxicated slip-up? Campbell is HIV-positive and was therefore charged with assault with a deadly weapon. The arresting officer, Dan Waller, has been quoted as saying “I know it sounds cliché, but this is why you lock someone up, so our streets are safer… Without him out there, our streets are a safer place.”

Wait a second. I thought HIV couldn’t be contracted through saliva? Campbell’s sentence is obviously grounded in a stigmatization of people who are positive, rather than in any rational – or legal, or scientific!– concern that Waller had contracted HIV from Campbell’s spit. Are we going to begin quarantining people with HIV/AIDS now, because the world would be “safer”? The sentencing of Willie Campbell is a classic instance of fear tactic employment by the government, which uses idiotic law enforcement officers like Dan Waller as its pawns. Regimes, like George W. Bush’s, that operate by fear always designate certain bodies as “monstrous” or “scary.” They promise mainstream members of society that they will all be “safe” if those deviants are put behind bars and isolated from society. Trouble is, the only groups of people not categorically classified as “dangerous” seem to be white and upper- or middle-class.

What does all of this have to do with education and LGBT issues in schools? Everything, particularly because many of my students are young, low-income children of color deemed “unsafe” and closely monitored by law enforcement because of their demographic. The NYPD is already just waiting to pounce on if they make one misstep – and most of my students are acutely aware of this. Students in many under-resourced, urban public schools end up becoming less than human, becoming known and tracked by their scores on standardized tests. As I discussed in my first post, public schools often serve as funnels to channel society’s “unwanteds” into prisons. From the moment they are born, or from their second grade year when they missed thirty days of school, or from their fifth grade year when they failed their math class, many students in these schools are branded as “dangerous” or as soon-to-be criminals.

Where were organizations like Lambda Legal and the HRC while Willie Campbell was being sentenced? While Campbell's sexual orientation and sexual practices are unknown, and HIV cannot be considered an exclusively “gay” disease, HIV/AIDS activism has been a cornerstone of LGBT culture and recent history. After wealthy white gays initiated HIV/AIDS activism when the pandemic broke out in the United States in the 1980’s, all of a sudden they can’t seem to find the time, money, or energy to help communites grappling with HIV access resources. In more ways than one, the refusal of HRC and other LGBT organizations to lift a finger to combat HIV stigmatization and improve access to care in impoverished communities – where many severely underresourced schools are located - hurts students like mine.

Gay marriage is a pressing issue for only an elite subset of LGBT individuals. For mainstream gay groups to fail to address the dehumanization of people with HIV/AIDS by the criminal justice system is an utter tragedy. Many of the individuals - some LGBT-identified, some HIV-positive - whose lives are in the crosshairs of this issue attend public schools in the United States, right now.


  1. I very much share your frustration with organizations like the HRC and other groups who claim to include people in their mission statement and then arrogantly disregard of them when they leave them behind out of some twisted sense of convenience. I was glad that so many stood up and said that was not okay - including Safe Schools Coalition.

    Of course it wasn't enough. We've a lot of work to do and we need a lot more people doing it.

    I think marriage equality is an issue for same sex couples and their loved ones across class and color lines and many other communities.

    Not everyone wants to get legally married - straight or gay - but those who do are seeking more than just a committed relationship and shared values and goals. They are seeking all the legal rights that I was given without question all those years ago because my partner is male and I'm not.

    Objections to equal marriage rights for same sex couples in this country are based primarily on some religious sects' teachings - as is their denial of equal protection from hate crimes, access to health care and against discrimination in employment and housing, etc.

    Denying glbtq people the right to marry casts them in the role of second class citizens. It says you are a lesser being, and this has far-reaching ramifications for people of all races, classes and ethnicities.

    People with money and access to resources can buy some of those things (not all) with legal papers such as wills, while many cannot. Those who are not able to afford that live at risk of bigotry by our institutions and by hostile blood family who may technically be legally entitled to what they would never be entitled to in a just culture.

    If some people are able to contribute more than others to the work of changing unjust laws, then whether they are doing it consciously or not, they do so for everyone.

  2. I agree that gay marriage can be valuable, both personally and politically, in fostering broader legal and social recognition of LGBT couples.

    I also think this kind of "working from within" an institution has to happen simultaneously to a challenge to the institution of marriage as it has traditionally been implemented (as a tool of racism, misogyny, and homophobia).

    The HRC's exclusive focus on this issue is harmful to many lower-income LGBT individuals, but it's important not to end up completely downplaying the
    legal/social significance of gay marriage (whether we radicals like it or not), in the process.

    Thanks for making that point, Gabi.