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The State of Queer Politics

Despite formal "equality," much work remains to be done

Kate Drabinski

2:01 PM EDT, June 10, 2014

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Meredith Moise has spent a lifetime working as a community organizer and offers a unique perspective on what has changed over the years and whether things have gotten better for LGBTQ folks.

"For some of us, for gay white men, it is getting better," she says. "For the rest of us, things have stayed the same or gotten worse."

That's quite a statement to make, given the great—and well-publicized—strides Maryland has made in the last few years. Sure, Maryland was the first state to explicitly define marriage as between a man and a woman, effectively outlawing same-sex marriage in 1973, but in 2013 we proudly became the first state to both legalize same-sex marriage and have it approved by voters in a referendum. We are celebrating again this year, as the Fairness for All Marylanders Act was signed into law, extending anti-discrimination legislation to protect transgender people in employment, housing, and other areas of civic and political life. Maryland is one of just a handful of states to offer these protections, and signature seekers failed to gather enough to put the legislation to a popular vote. Times they are a-changin', and with these great strides, how can activists suggest things are staying the same, or getting worse, for so many of us?

These legal milestones are incredibly important, formalizing bare equality in a legal framework, but much work remains to be done. Legal equality doesn't lead to social, political, and economic equality. Legally mandated desegregation of schools started in Baltimore in 1956, thanks partly to native son Thurgood Marshall. Here we are, almost 60 years later, and Baltimore's public schools are some of the most segregated in the nation. This is just one stark example of the limits of legal reform in making real, substantive changes in social, economic, and political life. Changing laws does not lead to equal life chances, a fact keenly understood by LGBTQ grass-roots activists—and people who still struggle to survive in the face of structural inequalities that have supposedly been legislated away.

For longtime activists, this isn't news, and new legislation simply means shifting how work is done. Doug Rose has been an activist and organizer in the community since the 1990s, working mainly in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and in health care access more generally. He has seen major changes in the issues around which activists have organized: "In the beginning it was probably a lot about LGBTQ people learning to accept themselves, and then it's been about fighting for equal rights. Now it's going to be more about ensuring quality of life issues for people who are LGBT." Legal change is vital to create a foundation for equality, "but now we have to turn to the details," Rose argues, because "there's still a lot of unique in terms of access to health care and quality of care," even as access to marriage might have helped some people obtain health insurance.

Legal changes are important largely because they give organizers the leverage to make demands in terms of specific details that affect LGBTQ people's access to health care more broadly. For example, health insurance companies rarely cover transition-related expenses for transgender clients. If the law prohibits discrimination against trans people, though, then how can our state insurance plans discriminate against trans-specific health care expenses? Those same health plans often cover some aspects of infertility treatments for married heterosexual couples but do not offer benefits to same sex couples seeking to use the very same technologies to have children. The equality enshrined in the law gives activists a new way to argue for extended coverage. The recent ruling lifting the ban on Medicare coverage for sex-change surgery suggests Rose might be right that legal equality can help pave the way for lived equality, but only if activists continue to struggle for those changes. For Rose, that means continuing his 20-plus years of work in the politics of health care; he was recently appointed to the Standing Advisory Committee for the Maryland Health Benefits Exchange, where he will join a group of people representing women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, people with substance abuse problems, and other groups with specific needs that are not being met, even with our supposed universal access to health insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

Rose sees his work on behalf of the LGBTQ community overlapping with work on behalf of other communities, because "LGBT people face a lot of the same issues that other minority populations face," including income inequality and lack of access to social benefits. Beyond this, LGBTQ people are often also members of other minority populations; our identities are intersectional, and so are our needs—and our demands. In her work as interim executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center of Baltimore and Central Maryland, Kelly Neel knows this all too well. When asked if these recent legal victories have lessened her workload, she laughs the laugh of the exhausted organizer. Her list of the concerns in the LGBTQ population is a long one: drug addiction, homelessness, sex trafficking, a lack of acceptance among service providers, and more. "Those are the issues that float under the radar for the general population," she says, "and also in the LGBT population." Awareness about discrimination against LGBTQ people is up, but that's a far cry building a just world for all of us.

Rebecca Nagle, an organizer with Baltimore's FORCE, a group that challenges rape culture and fights sexual and gendered violence, is keenly aware of the limits of awareness campaigns that leave out members of minority communities. Much activism concerning violence against women has failed to address the specific needs of the LGBTQ community. Mainstream feminist activism has tended to focus on intimate partner violence between heterosexual couples, and that's where the law has focused as well. "Violence in our communities doesn't get talked about and it doesn't get named," she says, even as statistics show LGBTQ people also face high rates of intimate partner violence. Part of the problem, in Nagle's view, is that LGBTQ people depend so heavily on the community that naming violence in the community can be especially fraught; the risk of ostracism is just too high for some of us.

Nagle argues that "we need to create queer community that's literate and can provide support for survivors," something she's helping to do by holding special LGBTQ workshops for survivors as part of FORCE's larger Monument Quilt project, where survivors tell their stories in quilt squares that are sewn together and publicly displayed, supporting rather than shaming survivors. FORCE is also working on a messaging campaign aimed at LGBTQ people to promote an anti-violence hotline in Virginia. The hope is to increase access to existing services to LGBTQ people while also making public a conversation about challenging that very violence. This brings up another issue, however; state-based services such as shelters and hotlines often discriminate against or can be retraumatizing for members of the LGBTQ community. For example, shelters can turn away trans clients who have not undergone sex reassignment surgery or who do not have identity documents that match their gender. Police violence against trans and gender-nonconforming people as well as communities of color can make calling the cops the worst kind of answer for people suffering violence.

These concerns are what preoccupy Meredith Moise as she continues to organize today. The Fairness for All Marylanders Act might be important, but Moise asks, "How does this benefit everyday trans folk who are trying to survive?" For many queer people, particularly queer people of color, the issues are employment, housing, and safety. And when the state is a perpetrator of violence, how does this state-sponsored bill ensure substantively improved life chances for the most marginal among us? There is still, in her view, "violent racism in the LGBTQ community," and it manifests itself in the political choices of mainstream organizations whose agendas purport to represent all of "us" but do not. She gives the example of organizing around HIV/AIDS. Baltimore and Maryland have some of the highest rates of transmission and infection in the country, but because those rates are highest in the black community, Moise feels white-led LGBTQ organizations no longer see it as a core issue of the LGBTQ movement.

So, what is to be done, now that the laws are passed and formal equality is here for many of us? For Rose, his volunteer and activist work continues as the law means even more work to make its spirit real in the lives of the LGBTQ community. According to Neel, legal changes do not mitigate the need for ever more outreach to marginalized communities and the need to raise awareness of the ongoing struggles of these groups. Nagle will continue her work with FORCE, pushing, alongside co-organizer Hannah Brancato, for real conversations within the LGBTQ community about the fact that, yes, intimate and partner violence is a problem here too. For Moise, communities of color need to "continue to have this dialogue in our communities. We need to come out and be visible." And these conversations might need to take place outside of the primarily white power structure that dominates many mainstream organizations, because the issue is ultimately self-determination. For Moise, that means defining self for ourselves, building our own network of services and supports, and refusing the assumptions of others about what we need to survive.