Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Sometimes there are moments of great tragedy when gay and lesbian inequality is made visible. These moments are painful and profoundly disturbing. I think of the murder of Matthew Shepherd and the murder of Sargeant Allen Schindler. Two brutal murders motivated by hatred for gay and lesbian people. There is wide-spread agreement in the United States that murdering people because they are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is wrong. It is a public tragedy that diminishes all of us.

By and large, however, gay and lesbian people live peaceable lives. The vast majority of us live without being targeted for discrimination, harassment, or murder. Yet, regularly, we obscure this reality. We perform a victimized status for the American public and for our legislators in an attempt to pass laws. This performance and these laws emanate from a civil rights paradigm that is a close, but not quite fit for the queer community. It’s time for a change.

We in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community—the queer community— are not going to achieve equal rights through the demonstration of hardship, or victimization, to the American people. Not because that hardship isn’t there; it is. It can be found and performed as we have just seen in the performance for the passage of the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2007. We can find and tell individual stories of brutality and harassment for the benefit of Congress and the public. We can even put it together to create a pattern. The reality is, however, that the pattern of violence and abuse of gay and lesbian people in contemporary culture does not rise to the level of the reality that was experience by the African-American community during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s which lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

On one hand we could argue that nothing should ever rise to that level again. We could argue that we should learn from our past and take action earlier to smite injustice and strive for equality. In fact, I think that is the respectful framework that our queer civil rights organizations have adopted, but the time for that has now passed. It is time to reframe the debate.

For us queers to present our experiences in this country within the civil rights paradigm now and in the future is a strategic error. First, our experiences do not rise to the level of intensity or repulsion for most Americans as the experiences of African-Americans did during the 1960s. People recognize this fact; they know it. We must acknowledge it through a change in strategy. Second, a focus on violence and brutal repression has a different impact on the American people today in 2007 than it did in 1967. If we were still sensitive to violence and death, would we be in Iraq?

Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people are not going to achieve rights by asserting victimization. Our story, while compelling to us is an adequate parallel. What we should do instead of seeking to honor the civil rights movement by mimicking it, is to craft new messages. They may emerge from the history of the civil rights movement, but we must transform them to make them our own.

Our messages are not about violence, victimization, and harassment. Our messages are about the ordinary and the everyday. We will achieve equality by demonstrating the ordinariness of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender life. The banality of our lives, the everyday similarities of our lives to our heterosexual counterparts, is the message that people will understand and believe. It is the message or ordinariness and dailiness that will help us secure equality.

We need to turn up the volume and energy on these messages. Certainly, we stand on the shoulders of all who have worked for justice and equality in the past. We must honor their work, but when standing on the shoulders of greatness, we are most able to keep our balance by looking forward or looking upward than by looking downward or backward. To have a vibrant contemporary queer movement, we need to reach to the future, not the past.

Julie R. Enszer is a writer and poet who lives in University Park, MD. You can read more of her work, including her blog, at www.JulieREnszer.com.

This is column #10 dated September 4, 2007 in the series, CIVILesbianIZATION.

Word Count: 694

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