On the Measure of Freedom and Equality

by BB

Yesterday, Friday June 26, 2015, before the Supreme Court of the United States closed session, they issued an historic decision that has finally extended marriage rights to same-sex couples. This is an amazing double blow to radical conservatives who not only believe that homosexuality is immoral, but also believe that individual states have the right to govern without interference from the federal government, regardless of how egregious their policies are. Yet, even as a queer black woman, I find myself unable to celebrate the victory with the millions of other same-sex loving people and our allies across the country. While many talk about dignity and equal rights having arrived for the LGBTQIA community, they are speaking about a small sector of the community that we see sensationalized in the media: white, primarily male, able-bodied, and bourgeois. I ask: What about dignity and equal rights for people of color, for black and brown people, many of whom are also LGBTQIA and may be differently-abled and living at or below the poverty line? The complexities of LGBTQIA identities and the degrees to which many members of the community live precarious lives have been flattened by the near exclusive focus on marriageability. The progress this historic ruling signals is hollow, at best, because the racist/sexist/classist violence that dogs people of color and excludes us from the body politic continues and it has become clear that post-Civil Rights American jurisprudence is alarmingly out of touch with this reality.

In the early hours of the morning before the announcement of this historic ruling, another unarmed black man was gunned down by police in Owings Mills, Maryland. His name is Spencer Lee McCain, he was 41 years of age, and was in emotional turmoil. Three police officers arrived at his home and fired no less than 19 bullets at him. They claimed they feared for their lives. Two days before, a black church was set ablaze in Charlotte, North Carolina. Thankfully there were no deaths, but that fact makes it no less tragic. And we would do well to remember the multiple jeopardy that  queer people of color (QPOC) and trans people of color (TPOC) face in this country. In her article, “Living Color: Love is Revolutionary When You’re Black and Transgender,” Danielle Moodie-Mills cites alarming statistics from the 2008 study, “Injustice at Every Turn,” a collaboration between the National Center for Transgender Equality, National LGBTQ Task Force and the National Black Justice Coalition. According to the report, “[b]lack transgender and gender non-conforming people are likely to live in extreme poverty making less than $10K a year, twice the rate of the transgender community and four times the black population; [a]lmost half of the over 6,000 respondents [to the survey] have attempted suicide; [o]ver one-fifth reported being HIV positive; 41% experienced homelessness; [and] 53% of survivors of hate crimes are people of color, transgender and gender non-conforming, but 73.1% of homicides.”1 Having the right to marry offers no protection against these conditions.

After hearing of SCOTUS’s decision, I waited for the Human Rights Campaign and other organizations of the gay rights movement, which we have to admit is largely a bourgeois white male movement, to make a statement about the ever-rising tide of anti-black and anti-brown violence. I have been waiting a long time, since November 4, 2008, the day that California voters approved Proposition 8, making same-sex marriage illegal in California. Rather than point the finger at the Mormon Church, the lobbying efforts of which rival those of any superpac, white liberals pointed their fairweather fingers at black voters. In an interview with Andy Towle, Sean Penn said, “The black constituency that supported Prop 8 should be ashamed of itself.”2 The loud and rancorous anti-black rhetoric coming out of the Left, the Human Rights Campaign and gay rights movement, after Prop 8 passed not only felt like a kick to the stomach—after all, they borrowed many of their strategies and much of their rhetoric from what has been erroneously called the black Civil Rights Movement—but also served as a kind of violence that excluded QPOC and TPOC from the LGBTQIA movement. I have been waiting since June 26, 2013 when SCOTUS dismissed the appeal to uphold Prop 8 after it was struck down by the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Just the day before, on June 25, 2013, SCOTUS gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) of its powers of federal oversight guaranteed by Section 4 of the VRA. Five justices, including Sotomayor, argued that it was unconstitutional to subject to federal oversight those states, cities, and municipalities notorious for violating the voting rights of the racially minoritized. They claimed the voting rights of racially minoritized voters are no longer at risk of violation. Almost immediately, states below the Mason-Dixon Line and along the Mexico-U.S. border instituted Jim-Crow identification laws making it effectively impossible for a great number of their black and brown constituents to vote. Marriage equality and gay rights activists celebrated SCOTUS’s dismissal of the Prop 8 appeal, but voiced nary a word of protest against its VRA decision.

So here we stand again, at another historic threshold where our ethical responsiveness to human degradation is being tested. It is not simply about social justice or petitioning the State to recognize more of its constituents or its most vulnerable citizens. The simple fact is that the State cannot because it relies on divisiveness to govern. It relies on scapegoats who are marked as troublemakers that must be expelled in order to guarantee the privileges of those, hetero or homo, who have demonstrated their fitness to participate in and benefit from the system in its current form.3 From where I stand, it appears that being fit to participate in or benefit from the current structure requires silence in the face of domination. It requires asking those of us who do not conform—simply because we physically cannot conform—to get with the program, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, heed the voice of authority, and stop complaining or leave because it could always be worse. But what can be worse than social death?4 What can be worse than knowing you are a member of a group that is always already living on borrowed time because we were never meant to be free, never meant to experience dignity, never meant to live self-determined lives? If we accept access to marriage as the measure of freedom and dignity, then we are a long way from either.


2. http://www.towleroad.com/2009/01/sean-penn-on-mi/

3. Jasbir Puar. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

4. Orlando Patterson. Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982); Jared Sexton. “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism,” InTensions Journal, Issue 5 (Fall/Winter 2011); Fred Moten. “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” The South Atlantic Quarterly 112:4 (Fall 2013).