Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Queer Institutions Have Stolen the Queer Community

May 1, 2007

Last night a friend and I went to a program about the embattled queer movement in Serbia. It was really interesting, and disturbing. It was held at the LGBTQ Center, a big, beautiful, five-year-old property on the edge of the Castro. My friend and I both commented that we had only been inside the building twice before; once for a meeting with officials of the "Pride" Committee, after we were kicked out of last year's LGBT Pride festival for trying to hand out leaflets shaped like sleep masks, and once for a community event. I had been outside the Center a few other times, most recently a few months ago to leaflet people going to a reading sponsored by the Israeli Consulate.

On our way out after the program, we decided it would be good to leave some fliers about some of our current campaigns on the literature racks. We went to see where we could do that, and encountered big signs announcing that any literature not approved by the front desk would be removed. We went to the front desk and I told the young man there, presumably a volunteer, what we wanted. I handed him one of our fliers, asking people to pressure Frameline, presenter of the San Francisco LGBT film festival, to stop taking sponsorship from the Israeli Consulate until Israel stops violating international law.

The young man looked at the flier and shook his head.

"It's political," he said. "We can't put up anything political, unless it's about gay marriage."

His face was deadpan, but I thought he was kidding. He wasn't.

"We can't have anything about protest, nothing against the Bush administration," he said.

"You're not serious!" I burst out, and he mumbled "Our nonprofit status."

"It's not electoral," I said. "It's just asking people to pressure our queer institutions …"

"Where is this policy written?" my friend asked.

"I don't know," he said. "But it's what I was told. Nothing about protest, nothing political, unless it's supporting gay marriage, because that's something that presumably the queer community all agrees on."

Well that's actually a big presumption, since we are queers who are not in favor of marriage in any form. But we didn't bring that up.

When I kept arguing, he said, "Well, we'll try it," and took a few of the fliers. I am quite sure they will never see the light of day.

Now this is patently absurd. First, no community center's nonprofit status is threatened by allowing free exchange of ideas, political or otherwise, within its premises. The Women's Building has been a community institution for over 25 years, and you can put anything you want on their shelves, to be ignored by everyone who comes there for Rhythm & Motion, AA meetings, poetry readings or whatever. When I went to the Embarcadero YMCA, there was a bulletin board where you could post pretty much anything. The Center is not being asked to put its name on the flier. In fact, by having a policy that literature has to be approved by them, they slightly increase their liability for its content; if they would just allow free for all, there would be absolutely no problem.

But if there were any validity to their concern about their nonprofit status, then why the gay marriage exception? Because lobbying for gay marriage is still lobbying. So it seems like the intent is more to avoid "controversy" than to shun everything political.

Finally, as I previously mentioned, they have hosted events sponsored by the Israeli consulate. They presented an event with Irshad Manji, a spokesperson for anti-Arab and anti-Islamic forces that many queers find highly offensive. These are just a couple things I happen to know about, but doubtless, they have also hosted any number of both left- and right-wing events, and many in between. And though I wish they would NOT cosponsor programs with the Israeli consulate, and was there urging others to tell them the same, in general I think it is good for the LGBTQ Center to provide space for the range of opinions and interests within our communities.

I spend a lot of time being depressed these days. There's a lot to be depressed about: The war in Iraq, the fact that there seems to be no way to end it, the fact that the enormous death toll has become so normal that even those of us opposed to it don't really think about it, the fact that immigrant children are being kept in prison, wearing little prison clothes and being threatened with isolation if they "misbehave." The ongoing disgrace of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the new humongous detention facilities in Iraq which are presumably being filled with the victims of all those house-to-house searches that were the basis of the "troop surge", and the fact that we haven't heard a word about them in months. The fact that in the endless media discussion of the various bad proposals for "health care reform" in California, it is NEVER mentioned that a single-payer universal health care bill passed both houses of the legislature more than a year ago, and was vetoed by the governator, who is now promoting a plan that will force low-wage workers without employer-provided health benefits to pay insurance companies for policies that won't actually cover their health needs.

Then on the personal front, there's the fact that I have breast cancer and am about to flood my body with carcinogens to hopefully prevent a recurrence that might not happen anyway. Add to that the fact that my insurance is for some reason rejecting my lab bills, and I'm getting incomprehensible bills from the anesthesiologists.

Compared to all these issues, the fact that we can't put out our fliers at the LGBTQ Center might seem pretty trivial. After all, it's unlikely that anyone who goes to the Center would even be interested in helping us get the Israeli government out of our film festival. But in fact, none of the other issues hit me as hard as this one, because it signals that an identity that is core to who I am, that informs all the other political work I've done for the last 25 years, has been stolen. Yes, stolen.

We cannot afford to be silent about this. We cannot afford to just shrug, like Gay Shame and other alienated queer groups do, and say, well of course, the Center is just bourgeois, it doesn't represent us, gay people are sell-out, forget them.

In the late 1980s, when ACT UP, Queer Nation, Stop AIDS Now Or Else, Men of All Colors Together, Let It All Hang Out, Lesbian Avengers and other grassroots queer groups were organizing active resistance, we waged a big struggle in the community around postering. There was a group called Golden Broom, that was going around tearing down the posters that groups would put up to let people know about actions and meetings, and they had the support of the police, and we fought for the right to use the utility poles and trash cans in queer neighborhoods to communicate with each other in an unmediated way. We lost.

Now, we've even lost the right to communicate with each other in mediated ways. Ordinary queers have limited access to the queer press, we have no access to queer streets, we can't afford billboards – in fact, we can't even afford to rent meeting rooms in the Center. The Pride Committee has two types of information only booths. One is for the 501c(3) nonprofits, with their grants and paid staff, and costs $65, plus a $40 environmental fee and $55 for insurance. The other is for "free speech" and costs $80 plus $40 + $55. Because of our experience last year, they were willing to waive the environmental fee, so we can have a booth for $135. How is that free speech? It's not, it's $135 speech.

To be told what queer literature can and can't be distributed inside the queer Center, or at the queer Parade, is to lose our community. How do we engage with each other on political issues? The answer is we don't.

Gay Shame and others who dismiss the LGBT community as apolitical and apathetic are in a way right. The organized LGBT community is sold out, in the same way that the organized Jewish community is sold on Zionism. But it isn't because LGBT people are sold out or apathetic or apolitical, any more than all Jews are Zionists. It's because while weren't paying attention, our progressive grassroots institutions turned into corporate monoliths. It's time to take them back.

These institutions take enormous resources from our communities. They get all the grant money, they get all the bequests, they get your $5 guilt money at the entrance to the Pride Festival and the Folsom Street Fair, and they use a lot of volunteers. According to the Center's website, its budget for 2006/07 is $2million, of which 32% comes from the government, 24% from foundation grants and 16% individual donations.

When they take all that and then deliberately exclude all of us whose priority is not gay marriage, they are basically stealing from us.

Our queer institutions, the Center, Frameline, NGLTF, HRC, GLAAD, NCLR, etc., also claim to represent us. Among the objectives listed in the Center's mission statement are:

"- unite our community across lines of age, race, gender and economics

- give visibility to the history, culture and diversity of our community

- organize and plan our political and cultural future"

So they are going to organize and plan our political and cultural future without even giving us the opportunity to weigh in on what our political and cultural priorities are? By what right do they determine that gay marriage is an important issue to queers but where our queer cultural institutions get their money is not?

We can whisper down dark alleys that they don't speak for us, but who is going to hear us? I for one am not about to let them get away with it.

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