By Aaron Lecklider
As every smart person in America knows, nobody pushes political conversations forward more effectively than people on the margins who support the status quo. Whether its Bernie bros praising free markets, immigrants fighting for more steel slats, or Milo Yiannopolis gleefully marshalling Boston’s Straight Pride parade, no one generates more ad revenue – I’m sorry, more productive discourse – than those who reject the activists fighting on their behalf. Thus it comes as no surprise that James Kirchick, a Brookings fellow described on the esteemed Institute’s website as a “leading voice on American gay politics and international gay rights,” has gotten some notice by publishing a bold essay declaring in no uncertain terms that “The Struggle for Gay Rights Is Over.” Having attended a Creating Change conference like a year and a half ago (“the various panel discussions left me confused”), Kirchick is well equipped to contribute to our moment’s thrilling wall-to-wall ad-generating Stonewall 50 coverage by declaring that he is just so over whiney queers griping about the idea there might be more activist work to be done. The United States is a post-gay country, Kirchick effuses. Why are these queens still so hysterical?! (I’m not being hyperbolic – he actually writes against “hysteria about America’s supposedly deepening homophobia.”)
While it’s hard to take Kirchick seriously since he himself does not take seriously any of the activist work that is still happening across the country, I would like to do so very briefly, if only to make very clear that Kirchick’s framing of “gay rights” is so limiting, so utterly bounded in a solipsistic white gay male interpretation of LGBTQ+ history, that he is actually not wrong. In Kirchick’s world, “the top priority item for the gay-rights movement today” is “the congressional ‘Equality Act.’” In Kirchick’s world, “gays economically outperform heterosexuals” (never mind that the statistics he uses to back this up specifically studied only gay men). In Kirchick’s world, a stunning “609 companies earned a 100 percent rating” by the HRC’s unassailable “Equality Index” in 2018. In Kirchick’s world, “discrimination against gay people simply on the basis of their sexual orientation is not widespread.”
And the thing is, in Kirchick’s world, where gay equals white gay men, where congressional policy sets the agenda for gay politics, where corporate indexes produce social change, things are looking pretty rosy. I have a feeling that Peter Thiel had a pretty good day yesterday, and I suspect he’ll have a pretty good day tomorrow. As a white gay cisgender male professor with tenure, I’m having a pretty good summer myself. The gay rights movement was designed to fight for me and James Kirchick and Peter Thiel, so big surprise – we’re doing great.
Which is precisely why talking about gay rights is the last conversation we should be having right now. Like it or not, transgender Americans continue to confront stigmatization, professional obstacles, and violence against their personhood every day. Like it or not, queer people of color continue to battle against both racism and homophobia in this country. Like it or not, undocuqueers are living in the United States in precarity, each announcement of ICE raids an existential threat to their lives and the lives of their families. Like it or not, working-class LGBTQ+ people working minimum-wage jobs are going to be evicted from their homes if their employer decides their particular form of gender expression is not consistent with their manager’s values. Kirchick’s myopic version of “gay rights” that pushes for equality at the expense of all those who confront multiple forms of oppression succeeds precisely because it has no space for worrying about those who fall outside the narrowest definition of whose “rights” matter.
If one is to assert that the gay rights struggle is over, one must also believe a whole series of related historical claims. One must understand that there was a gay rights struggle, probably beginning with the homophile movement in the 1950s, passing through a riot in 1969 that was subsequently reduced to one political tool for gay people (visibility), then through same-sex marriage, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal, and now, I don’t know, Pete Buttigieg. The problem with this story – well, a problem – is that it omits much of what queer history has taught us: about cultural survival methods that refuse to operate in the register of straight history; about the complicated ways race, ethnicity, and nationality inflected the very meanings of sexual identities; about the weird political alliances that were built through, for example, labor unions where gay men and single women organized together as flight attendants, and about the failure of gay-rights history to even properly tell the history of gay rights. If those whose rights are now putatively protected rose on the backs of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the American Indian Movement, and any number of other social movements of the past hundred years or so, it feels a bit premature to close the book on the gay rights struggle as so many rights are still being denied (same-sex marriage has not, as far as I can tell, stopped the Dakota Access Pipeline).
Albert Einstein was a fan of thought experiments, so let’s try one here. Like many 45-year-old men, I’m a fan of pudding. I eat many tubs of Kozy Shack each month, and my favorite variety is rice. Suppose I were to write a think piece for The Atlantic about pudding (memo to self: send pitch to Jeffrey Goldberg), and suppose my lede was “I briefly wondered if I had wandered into the wrong supermarket.” See, I had gone to a supermarket that sold nothing but pudding and they had only one aisle of rice pudding! What kind of supermarket was this? How dare they stock varieties of pudding that are not my favorite variety of pudding? What is this Cinnamon Raisin bullshit? GIVE ME MY RICE PUDDING! PS: Rice pudding is fantastic.
In this thought experiment, one might expect The Atlantic would look at my piece and give me a few notes: 1. You are writing specifically about rice pudding, but you’re just calling it “pudding.” 2. Not everyone shares your taste for rice pudding, so maybe throw a bone out to the cinnamon raisin fans in the audience? 3. Your article is garbage because rice pudding is available literally everywhere, so why are you whining about one supermarket that carries other varieties?
But alas, that is not what The Atlantic would say, because The Atlantic knows its readers include fans of rice pudding, and fans of rice pudding really love reading about rice pudding. So they would not only publish my piece about rice pudding, they would sell advertising space to companies that have discovered rice pudding lovers are a growing market.
I am fully aware that gay rights are not pudding, and it might be offensive to even suggest something as important as gay rights is reducible to thought experiments (did I mention Einstein was a fan?) on this, the 50th Anniversary of Stonewall. But the thing is, taking James Kirchick’s piece seriously is changing an important conversation about LGBTQ+ liberation that’s happening right now, and changing a conversation about liberation, intersectionality, and precarity (such as Abusable Past offered in Emily K. Hobson’s Histories of Queer Radicalism microsyllabus) to one about white gay male triumphalism wastes all of our time. Time that might be better spent thinking about pudding, or better yet eating pudding, or dancing in queer spaces, or binge-watching Murder, She Wrote. It is difficult to know how to respond to publications that take advantage of Pride month to make space for white gay men to recast themselves as victims of LGBTQ+ activists, but I propose our response begins by doing what queers have been doing in the face of injustice for longer than James Kirchick has been alive: rolling our eyes, laughing in his face, and making him look ridiculous. It can be done. The proof is in the pudding.
Aaron Lecklider is associate professor and Department Chair of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is the author of Inventing the Egghead: The Battle over Brainpower in American Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013) and the forthcoming “Love’s Next Meeting: Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture” (University of Chicago Press). He has published articles in Slate, Salon, The Huffington Post, and other media outlets.