F or most of my young adu lthood, I’ve wanted to dedicate my life to queer–and more specifically, trans / gender non-conforming–activism. I knew that in college and post-graduation I would want to align myself with activists and advocates who are doing the work of protecting and promoting gender and sexuality diversity. However, over time I have become more and more disillusioned with what constitutes mainstream understandings of “activism” for queer people.
One might think that the best way to serve queer and trans populations is to primarily focus attention and resources on issues that are seen as “inherently” queer. By this logic, queer activists should focus on issues such as marriage equality, inclusion in the military and employment discrimination.This seems to be the most logical step, right? In these areas, queer and trans people are targeted specifically for their gender identity and/or sexuality. Shouldn’t those who focus on these issues be the people that we call “queer activists?”
Unfortunately, the idea that real queer activism prioritizes these issues specifically is one that not only causes major rifts in queer and trans communities, but actually harms these communities as a whole. As queer and trans people, our activism means nothing if it does not prioritize combating racism, colonialism, ableism, state violence, misogyny, capitalism and other systems that seek to subjugate people based on their identities, whether they are queer or not.
This is not to say that fighting against sexuality- and gender identity-based discrimination isn’t important. But pouring all of our efforts and money into these causes without focusing on taking an intersectional approach only really benefits queer and trans people that already have access to privilege and don’t have those other systematic barriers to overcome.
Queer activism has seen a major shift throughout recent history. Those who fought most fiercely in the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969–a launching point for modern queer activism–were transgender women of color who prioritized fighting back against police brutality and providing housing for homeless youth. This legacy of true queer activism has quickly been subjugated to the point where violence against trans women of color still runs rampant, but large, wealthy LGBT marriage equality organizations can afford to spend thousands of dollars on networking galas to “build community.”
A marriage license does not mean much for people who are facing police brutality. Seeking further inclusion in the military does not help queer and trans that are facing military violence and occupation. Telling people not to discriminate on the basis of sexuality in the workplace means nothing for those who have been imprisoned because of racist and classist criminalization.
When put into practice, this type of intersectional activism has a much larger effect and reaches more people. For example, Palestinian queer activist Haneen Maikey heads the organization alQaws , which is dedicated to not only advocating for queer and trans people in Palestine, but also to centering resistance to occupation and military violence. Activists across Penn’s campus, from groups such as Penn for Palestine, Queer Student Alliance, and Penn Arab Student Society, brought Haneen to campus last Fall to speak about this work. This solidarity among campus communities is exactly the type of work activists — regardless of their primary focus — should strive to do.
Further, we must not limit what communities and what people we fight for to just people that identify as queer and/or trans. Doing so is basically a veiled attempt to justify ignoring straight and cisgender people who face violence and discrimination due to other factors simply because they are not a part of our “community.” As a white queer person, I have the privilege of being able to ignore racist violence but still be recognized as an “activist” as long as I fight for queer issues. It is my job and the job of all other people who claim the label “activist” to prioritize fighting those systems of oppression in the work that we do.
Are we really activists if we don’t take a stance against genocide and state violence happening abroad?
Are we really activists if we don’t work to redistribute wealth that has been dealt out unfairly under capitalism?
Are we really activists if we only fight for people that have similar experiences to our own?
The simple truth is that none of us who claim t he label “activist” are perfect. However, we can, and indeed, must, continue to learn and become better if we want to make real tangible change in the world. This means expanding our definitions of “queer activism” and working in solidarity with other social justice movements.
Roderick Cook is a College junior from Nesquehoning, Pa., studying gender, sexuality and women's studies. Their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. "What's the T?" appears every other Thursday.
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