Sunday, June 26, 2011

When Are Radical Gender Activists Going to Get Out of Our Own Way?

This morning, in observance of Corporate LGBT Pride Day, KPFA talk show host Philip Maldari actually devoted an hour to radical queer politics, or more precisely, to a critique of gay marriage. It was not bad. Of course, the two guests didn’t give credit to any of the people who have been making that critique and doing the activism to back it up for years, but they raised important issues. But then Philip, a gay man who until quite recently never identified himself as such on the air, said that he, and KPFA in general, never interviewed Harvey Milk back in the day because they considered Harvey too reformist for their then-revolutionary station.

“He was getting people to register to vote, saying ‘Forget about the revolution,’” Philip alleged.

Now first of all, that’s just not true. Harvey Milk was probably an arrogant jerk in a lot of ways, but he was very radical, and he never said anyone should give up on the revolution. He was pursuing electoral office, yes, but as part of a broad progressive coalition that briefly transformed San Francisco politics. He was the one who went bar to bar to get gay bars to drop Coors beer, building a coalition with unions to oppose Coors’ anti-gay and anti-labor policies.

And secondly, if that were the reason for ignoring Harvey Milk, you would assume that KPFA had interviewed a lot of radical queers to critique the mainstream gay movement. I’m pretty sure if you go back and look through the archives from that period, you’re going to find that they did not do that.

The real reason that the dominant group at KPFA didn’t interview Harvey Milk is the same reason they have not covered the campaign to get Israeli money out of the LGBT film festival or the Ban the Army, Not the Queers work: because they’re f***ing homophobes and have no critique of the patriarchy. It’s the same reason staff members like Philip are always trying to get rid of the one hour a week of gender-oriented programming KPFA has had for the last six years, and the reason KPFA has no queer show.

The Marxist left defined the gay movement and the women’s movement as bourgeois and reformist. To this day they refuse to pay attention to any but the most mainstream elements of those movements, and then use their bourgeois reformism to justify ignoring queer and women’s issues.

Neither of Philip’s guests challenged his revision of history. Of course, neither of them was living here during the time of Harvey Milk (I wasn’t either, but I moved here the year after Milk was killed, and got involved in the still-very-vibrant queer left within a few years of that), so they may not actually know either how progressive Milk was or how uninterested KPFA was in anything queer. They also didn’t challenge him because they are part of an unfortunate tendency by radical feminist and queer activists to collude in our own expungement.

The fact is that pretty much every social movement has its assimilationist mainstream, its radical and conservative wings. The queer movement is in no way unique in being painted in the mainstream media with the single brush that makes us look the most like the dominant society. But the women’s movement, and by extension the LGBTQ movement which grew out of it, may well be the most universally blamed for our own repression.

A couple weeks ago I went to a panel at the Queer Women of Color Film Festival where Erica Huggins, a leader of the Black Panther Party, spoke. She said that one of the things that contributed to the downfall of the Party was not dealing with misogyny and sexism in the group. I have heard a few women make statements like that before, but I’ve never heard anyone say that the main reason the Party ultimately failed to make lasting change was because of such internal problems. Clearly internal dynamics, including between men and women, contributed to a culture of suspicion which was exploited by the FBI in its COINTELPRO. But if divisions had not already existed, the FBI infiltrators would have set out to create them. Most of the left recognizes that it took a mighty effort by the government to bring down the Panthers.

Students for a Democratic Society, the Free Speech Movement and other parts of the student counterculture were as white and middle-class dominated as parts of the second wave women’s movement and the post-Stonewall gay movement. But I don’t hear people using the cultural and class homogeneity of the student movements to dismiss their achievements, despite the fact that they didn’t bring down capitalism or end U.S. wars for empire.

But when the women’s movement is discussed in left-wing circles, its failures are attributed almost solely to its racism and narrow class base. Hardly anything is ever said about the concerted effort to dismantle the gains of the feminist movement, a backlash as intensive and pernicious as COINTELPRO. (In fact, it bears mentioning that parts of the women’s movement were targets of COINTELPRO.) If you listen to the mainstream media, patriarchy’s resurgence can be laid at the doorstep of male-bashing sex-negative bra-burners. If you listen to left media, you’ll blame the bourgeois biases of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.

Young women who are products of Women’s and Gender Studies programs at prestigious colleges say, “I don’t call myself a feminist because feminism is a white thing.” That’s almost the only thing they know about feminism. They don’t know that Michele Wallace, author of Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman and a member of the Combahee River Collective, says “I’ve never understood how any woman could not be a feminist.” They don’t know that Egyptian doctor and former political prisoner Nawal el-Saadawi, said in a recent interview, “There are many feminisms, and I am a revolutionary anti-imperialist feminist.”

Revolutionary feminists and queer activists have an obligation to stand up for our own history. Everyone loves to believe they are doing something brand new and exciting, but the honest truth is, few of us ever are. It doesn’t make what we’re doing less valuable to give credit to those who came before us, and to those who are standing right beside us.