Is the queer community losing its soul?

  • by Kate Raphael
  • Wednesday July 6, 2016
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A large contingent supporting Chelsea Manning marched in<br>last month's San Francisco LGBT Pride parade. Photo: Rick Gerharter
A large contingent supporting Chelsea Manning marched in
last month's San Francisco LGBT Pride parade. Photo: Rick Gerharter

In May 1987, the United States sent 7,000 troops to Honduras to participate in an exercise called Operation Solid Shield. The show of force was a warning to the socialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua that the U.S. could invade at any time. On the third night of this mock invasion, 1,000 angry queers marched through San Francisco, nonviolently confronting police and chanting support for the popular movements of Latin America. The AIDS Action Pledge (later to become ACT UP/San Francisco), which modeled itself on the Central America solidarity network Pledge of Resistance, was a key part of this mobilization. Even Gilbert Baker was there with the rainbow flag he designed.

Four years later, when president George H.W. Bush launched the first assault on Iraq, known as Desert Storm, queers poured into the streets again. Affinity groups from ACT UP joined with Queer Peace, a spinoff of Queer Nation, along with Lesbians and Gays Against Intervention, Revolting Lesbians, Arab Lesbian Network, Radical Faeries, Somos Hermanas, Men of All Colors Together, Lavender Veterans for Peace, dozens of other groups and hundreds of unaffiliated queers, to shut down a whole side of the Federal Building.

Most of us didn't want cops in our parades in those days; we definitely didn't want their protection, and they didn't want to protect us, so all was good. We waved pictures of those burning police cars from May 1979 and they declared martial law in the Castro in October 1989 to put down ACT UP.

The queer movement was born in the struggles against colonialism, racism, militarism, and patriarchy. Years before Stonewall, gay men who well understood the risks used the army's homophobia to stay out of the draft, not only to save their own lives but because, to paraphrase the late Muhammad Ali, "no Vietcong ever called them faggot." In 1972, three gay men who were extras in the San Francisco Opera unfurled a banner onstage reading "Dykes and Fags Support the Vietnamese Peace Plan."

Chelsea Manning probably did not know these histories when she made her courageous decision to bring U.S. war crimes to light, but she knew what lay beneath them all: People fighting to live and love freely cannot kill others for doing the same.

The government knew it too. In 1994, while the ink was drying on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the Pentagon entertained a $7.5 million proposal to develop a "gay bomb," a chemical weapon that would cause enemy soldiers to fall in love with each other. (They also considered bombs to cause bad breath and flatulence.)

Twenty years later, the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee revoked a democratic decision to honor Manning as a grand marshal. Some in our community proposed to open the festival to military recruiters, who lure young people into an institution where they are far more likely to be sexually assaulted than graduate from college. Does anyone think it's a coincidence that the military decides it's OK to be gay, even promises to pay for gender reassignment surgeries, just when they're sending more troops to Iraq and Syria?

In the terrible wake of Orlando, even right-wing culture warriors said nice things about queers. That may not mean they've changed. It might mean we have.

The Puerto Rican queers killed at Pulse were living in Florida because of our country's more than century-long colonization of theirs. Robbed of their resources, forcibly sterilized, repressed, bombed and bankrupted, Puerto Ricans have been driven to U.S. cities where they are profiled, underemployed and over-policed, all the more so if they are gay or trans. Yet when Democratic Congress members used their deaths to strengthen a racist secret "terror watchlist," some of us actually cheered them on.

Manning cautioned against this trap in an eloquent op-ed in the Guardian newspaper days after the massacre in Orlando. "Current proposals for hate crime laws and terrorism enhancements only take more power away from our community," she wrote. "We consolidate power with law enforcement only to have those same mechanisms turned against us."

I planned to march in the Chelsea Manning contingent this year, as she prepares to appeal her sentence. But I could not, because our community leaders chose to increase the militarization of our own celebration, making unsafe the very people who were to be honored " Black Lives Matter, Transgender Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, and St. James Infirmary, and making a mockery of the theme of "For Racial and Economic Justice." Since when does banning shopping carts and speakers " not, as far as I know, preferred weapons of any terrorist cell on the planet " make us safer? Even if it did, we've never been a community that prized safety over freedom. The fags who came out in Selective Service offices, the dykes who started whistle stop brigades, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries and the AIDS activists who shut down the FDA and the Golden Gate Bridge, didn't do it all so we could sacrifice each other on the altar of security.

As Manning wrote, "Our safety and security will come when we organize, love, and resist together."


Kate Raphael is a member of LAGAI-Queer Insurrection, former community grand marshal, and author of the novel Murder Under the Bridge: A Palestine Mystery.