Speech: Beyond Identity Politics

Commentary by Warren J. Blumenfeld

The following address "Beyond Identity Politics" was given by Warren J. Blumenfeld at the 15th Annual Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, transgender Pride March and Rally, Northampton, Massachusetts, on Saturday, May 4, 1996.

I am very honored to have been asked to speak today here in my home town on Pride Day. Before moving here two years ago from Cambridge, Mass., I knew there were lots of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people, and heterosexual allies in this area. In fact, this reminds me of a joke I heard, which goes: "How can you tell when it is the Pride March in Northampton? That's when everyone walks in the same direction." I'm grateful, too, when we walk in all directions.

It wasn't always like this in other towns I've lived in, and at other times. I'm thinking back to my first Pride March. The year was 1970. The place was San Jose, California, where 28 of us walked very tentatively down the main street, while bystanders hurled vicious epithets and pelted us with garbage and an occasional rock.

After graduation from San Jose State University in 1971, I moved to Washington, D.C. and became one of the original members of the Gay Liberation Front -- one of the first groups to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the Stonewall Riots. The group adopted a set of principles emphasizing coalition-building with other disenfranchised groups -- women, ethnic minorities, people of color, working-class people, young people, elders, people with disabilities -- as a means of dismantling the economic and social structures we considered inherently oppressive.

We held GLF meetings in people's living rooms, Unitarian and Episcopal church basements, and storefronts. Members insisted on the freedom to explore new ways of living as part of a radical transformation of society. Meetings provided us the space to put into practice what feminists had taught us -- that the "personal is indeed 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. We came to consciousness of how we had been stifled growing up in a culture that taught us to hide and to hate ourselves, and to bury our emotions deep within the recesses of our souls.

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 mere reform, seems now to lay dormant in many sectors of our community. In fact, last year I was told that the Boston Pride Committee (and some other Pride Committees around the country) refused to allow any "political" speeches at the rally. Their reason was that they were concerned that people only wanted to listen to entertainment and to celebrate.

I thought to myself as I heard this, "Where is this movement going? Has AIDS been cured? Has the political and theocratic right withered away? Have racism, sexism, classism, ageism, anti-Semitism and other forms of oppression been fully addressed both within and outside our communities? Has our internalization of society's negative notions of us been purged from our psyches, and has the high rates of youth suicide been eradicated? And, without my knowing it, has the United States been listed among the ranks of the 'sex positive' countries of the world?"

Maybe I have missed something, but I still believe that my very being is political. Therefore, I prefer to call today's event a "March" rather than a "Parade," because a March signifies a consciously and deliberately constructed political event.

Yes, this is a day to party, to celebrate, to reconnect and catch up with those we have not seen in the space in between. But today can also provide us with a chance to reflect and to re-energize for another year of walking the walk.

So therefore I say, let us continue to work on issues around domestic partnership and same-sex marriage, and on lifting the ban against gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in the military, and passing anti-discrimination laws and eliminating restrictive statutes where they currently exist, but let us not limit our efforts to defeating homophobia, heterosexism, biphobia, and transphobia. Let us also work toward conquering all the many other forms of oppression.

For there is a cultural war being waged by the political right, a war to turn back all the gains progressive people have made over the years. Until and unless we can join in coalition with other groups, I believe the possibility for achieving a genuine sense of community, a genuine sense of equality is unattainable.

I believe that sexual object choice alone is not sufficient to connect a community (and by extension) a movement, and that we must, therefore, look beyond ourselves and base a community and a movement not simply on social identity, but also on shared ideas, on ideology, among individuals from disparate social identities, with like minds, political philosophies, and strategies for achieving their objectives. This is my vision of a movement.

Because, when members of the so-called "Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians" attempt to take away reproductive choices from all women, that's when we must speak out because it is our issue.

When gay and lesbian people restrict inclusion of bisexuals and transgendered people from our organizations, our agendas, our communities, and our movement, that's when we must speak out because it is our issue.

But also, when college tuition increases push out deserving students from working-class backgrounds, that is our issue too.

When people on welfare are vilified, and blamed for the economic problems of this country, and as the gulf between rich and poor ever widens, that is our issue too.

When our older citizens and people with disabilities are denied their fare share of Medicare and Medicaid benefits, and whenever any person is denied quality health care based on their ability to pay, that is our issue too.

In this country of immigrants, when the U.S. Congress and states like California pass anti-immigration laws like Ballot Initiative 187 restricting social and educational services to children, that is our issue too.

The rights of women to control their bodies are under attack, that is an issue for all of us.

When doctors are shot and killed at women's clinics, that is our issue too.

When affirmative action programs to improve the chances of people of color and women are branded as nothing more than "reverse discrimination" and steps are taken to abolish these strategies without replacing them with acceptable alternatives, that is our issue too.

When the U.S. Congress threatens to privatize our national parks, and to loosen environmental and consumer protections of all kinds, and when mining, oil, and lumber companies lobby to exploit the land, that is our issue too.

When Jews are viciously slandered by the likes of Farrakhan, Muhammad, Jeffries, and Martin, this is our issue too.

When the theocratic right pushes for school vouchers to funnel money into their parochial institutions at the expense of public education, that is our issue too.

When legislators attempt to impose English as the "official" language of this country, thereby threatening bilingual education and stigmatizing non-English speakers, that is our issue too.

When forces are gathering to reintroduce prayer into the public school, that is our issue too.

When politicians and business owners attempt to co-opt and decertify labor unions, that is our issue too.

When the government sets the standards for acceptable art and censors all else, that is our issue too.

When wars rage in Bosnia, Somalia, Angola, Northern Ireland, Central and South America, the Middle East, anywhere around the world, that is our issue too.

For in the final analysis, when ever ANY one is diminished, we are all demeaned and the possibility for authentic community cannot be realized unless and until we become involved, to challenge, to question, to act.

If indeed it is true, as the old saying goes, that the fish is the last to see the water because it is so pervasive, then from our vantage point at the margins, we have a special opportunity, indeed a responsibility, to serve as social commentators, as critics, exposing and highlighting the widescale inequities (of all kinds) that dampen and saturate our environment, and to challenge the culture to move forever forward and to grow.

I would like to close with a poem by one of my favorite poets, Pat Parker, whom I feel puts the political connections into perspective:

Each generation improves the world for the next. My grandparents willed me strength. My parents willed me pride. I will to you rage. I give you a world incomplete, a world where women still are property and chattel where color still shuts doors, where sexual choice still threatens, but I give you a legacy of doers of people who take risks to chisel the crack wider.

I challenge you to chisel the crack ever wider. Thank you.

Warren J. Blumenfeld is editor of the Journal of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Identity, editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price, and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life.
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