Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid

Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation by Urvashi Vaid


Media coverage of the Million Man March on Washington generated five stories for every one accorded the Gay Rights March on Washington in April 1993 — this despite the fact that the National Parks Service estimated both marches drew roughly the same number of participants. So noted a press release issued last November by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which also stated that the difference in mainstream attention caused “envy and disappointment.” The board of directors of GLAAD was criticized for this statement by the Lesbian and Gay People of Color Steering Committee as “speaking on behalf of a predominantly white, middle-class organization,” and a public apology was demanded for this “ignorant and insensitive” press release.

Yes, it was ignorant and insensitive: an example of how one group in a “movement” can promote its own agenda, oblivious to the diversity within its own ranks and counter to that organization’s commitment to justice and freedom for all. The feminist “movement” has a history of similar blunders, and while many of us are angry and vocal when they occur, there is very little continuing dialogue about the work we must do around racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia within our organizations.

The importance that this continuing dialog plays in any movement for change is an integral part of Urvashi Vaid’s Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay & Lesbian Liberation. This ambitious book is an effort to assess where gays and lesbians are at this moment in our history, and how we got here. It is also a plea for an inclusive “movement,” an analysis of our conflicting agendas, and a suggestion for how we might strive to meet the needs of an extraordinarily diverse group of people. This makes for a dense, sometimes confusing, and often fascinating read.

Urvashi Vaid is no stranger to political life. An activist for gay and lesbian rights for more than 15 years, she was named not long ago, one of Time magazine’s “Fifty of the Future,” a list of America’s most promising leaders aged 40 or under. Another way the mainstream sows those seeds of “envy and disappointment” is by bestowing attention and a meaningless title on a single activist.

I spoke to Vaid in Minneapolis during her book- promotion tour and asked who was attending her readings and lectures and what concerns they were voicing. I was eager to have her define the “lesbian and gay ‘movement.'” Well, she told me, there were men and women, both of color and white. They were old, young, closeted, veterans, activists, “newly outs,” conservatives, and progressives. Their agendas ran the gamut from a place at the table to revolutionary social change. So, can we call this a “movement”? Not really, answers Vaid, who also confesses to being very tired. I can imagine why.

In Virtual Equality, Vaid is constantly wrestling with our diversity. What unites us? What divides us? It isn’t easy to answer the former. Our common bond seems to be that we seek partners of the same gender, Vaid notes, and sex remains problematic to Americans: “When a public health expert like former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders can lose her job for merely acknowledging that people masturbate, sex itself is not respectable, and queer sexuality has a long way to go.” During her tour, Vaid was struck by the number of people in her audiences who had nothing in common but who were committed to coming to agreement. But there can be no agreement, she says; we are a contradictory lot. At this point in history, she admits, gay and lesbian centrists and rightists do appear to dominate the discourse, which disappoints progressives. Vaid sees as key the negotiating of the tension between legitimization and liberation — two divergent but compatible goals. “The former makes it possible to imagine the latter.”

By promoting single-issue politics, Vaid states, we gloss over divisions among us. But what constitutes a gay and lesbian issue? Well, it depends on who you ask. “For lesbians,” says Vaid, “the status of women is a lesbian issue; for black gay men, racism is a gay issue; for poor gay and lesbian people, the issue is working to raise the minimum wage and expand job training. For middle-class white men, stigma due to homosexuality itself is the issue.” Searching for the single issue, she says, flattens these deep disagreements, and until we face that which divides us and confront it head on, we are going to continue to make mistakes. “We must end the silence and develop a movement courageous enough to articulate gay liberation’s approaches to broad social crises,” Vaid writes. “Gay people do not fight for freedom to live in a lavender bubble, but in a more just society.”

Virtual Equality is at its best when Vaid takes on the differences between gay men and lesbians: “Gay male leaders talk about a coalition with the women’s movement as if it were something separate to begin with. Conversely, the mainstream women’s movement has retreated from its critique of gender itself to the less threatening critique of gender inequality. Lesbian activists who bridge both movements are handicapped by the sexism of the former and the homophobia of the latter, and have been unable to make either acknowledge the value of accepting both movements as subsets of one common movement.” She also insists that we take responsibility for our mistakes. Because consensus was favored over majority vote at the National Lesbian Conference held in Atlanta in 1991, it was impossible to reach conclusions. To this day, she reminds us, no lesbian has taken any responsibility for the waste that conference represented.

We often trip ourselves up in our eagerness to reach our place at the table. “Our use of racial analogies is suspect,” writes Vaid, “coming as it does from a movement deeply splintered over the relevance of racism to the fight against homophobia. Interestingly, even those who believe that the racial justice movement should be completely distinct from the gay rights movement often draw analogies in order to defend gay rights. This dichotomy between our actions and our rhetoric leads a largely white gay movement to sound hollow and opportunistic and fuels tremendous resentment.” Vaid herself was strongly criticized for organizing protests against the Rodney King verdict. What, she was asked, did this have to do with gay people? “If we believe our analogies, we must act as if we cared about racial discrimination as much as about homophobia,” writes Vaid. “We must have positions on affirmative action, welfare, and economic justice. Our tendency to see ourselves as an exception, as a special category rather than as one group of many, backfires. We lose the respect of those who could be our allies.”

Vaid also cautions about how we view mainstream political avenues for change. When we celebrate victories for gays and lesbians in the courts, for instance, many of us have a tendency to overlook the class discrimination that is an important part of this country’s legal system. She uses two adoption cases from 1993 to dramatize this. In Virginia, a state supreme court denied a lesbian mother the custody of her own child, while in Massachusetts, the Supreme Judicial Court allowed the adoption of a child by the lesbian lover of the mother. What made the difference, Vaid writes, was the economic status of the two sets of mothers. “Upper middle class gay people are the first to benefit from the progress the movement makes — but such progress is not automatically available to working-class or poor working people.”

Gays in the military, explains Vaid, was an issue for women way before it became the political hot potato of the 1992 election. “In the military, women were discharged for homosexuality at a far higher rate than men, and ‘lesbian baiting’ was used against straight and gay women. If a woman refused a man’s sexual advances, she was threatened with being labeled a ‘dyke,’ an accusation that could trigger a career-ending investigation. As soon as men got behind the gays in the military issue, the experiences of women in the military became nearly invisible.”

A notable omission from Virtual Equality is any in-depth discussion of pornography and S&M in the gay and lesbian movement. Vaid makes passing references, but she does not give these subjects thoughtful attention, which they surely merit in a book of this scope. She notes that we have a tendency to see these issues in terms of those who are for or against us and cautions us against simplifying the complex. Yet, early on in Virtual Equality she lumps together those not aspiring to middle-class mainstream life — drag queens, effeminate men, butch women, political radicals, multiculturalists, sadomasochists, etc. — as if those groups themselves were monolithic. Later on in the book, Vaid agrees with Suzanne Pharr’s assertion that “in order to develop positive community standards we should hold sexual practices up to the ethical question: Is there use of power and violence and control to violate the integrity, autonomy, and wholeness of another person? If so, then we know we oppose that behavior.” If ever there was an assertion that begged for discussion in the gay and lesbian community, it is this one. And yet Vaid chooses not to deal with it, leaving it where it originated — with Suzanne Pharr. In a book that advocates vigorous, honest discussion around issues that divide us, this omission is major. Vaid seems more comfortable discussing mainstream electoral politics. Although she is a staunch advocate of the ballot box as an effective tool for change, she admits that the theory of electoral politics is far simpler than the practice. The theory is: Elect people who support you, and they will do the right thing. Gays and lesbians, like the country as a whole, have been unable to learn that this is untrue. Vaid believes that when a broad-based protest movement shifts its major focus from community organizing to electing their own, the movement loses momentum even as it gains mainstream acceptability. She quotes Harry Hay, cofounder of the Mattachine Society: “The Mattachine after 1953 was primarily concerned with legal change, with being seen as respectable — rather than self-respecting. They wanted to be dignified by professional ‘authorities’ and prestigious people, rather than by the more compelling dignity of group worth.” This trend continues today. The AIDS movement, Vaid tells us, “substituted nondiscrimination for liberation and instead of placing its political faith in training and organizing gay and lesbian people and our allies into an electoral coalition, it placed its faith in high places.”

Gays and lesbians are as susceptible as anyone else to the attention we receive from people in power, and this has led us, Vaid explains, to make some serious errors. In 1988, for instance, we found ourselves divided over a frankly homophobic candidate in Michael Dukakis. This, Vaid writes, reveals the truth about electoral politics: “The choice is often the lesser of two evils.” Gay people’s collective crush on Bill Clinton caused us to appear politically naive as movement leaders and notables, invited into the inner sanctum for intimate chats with Bill, were seduced into believing that this politician, like no other politician before him, would do what he said he would. Gays in the military became the one issue around which we chose to rally, and we were caught off guard by a politician who was doing his job, looking for votes.

At this point in history, Vaid feels, gays and lesbians are in a paradoxical spot: “We are mainstreamed at the same instant that we remain marginalized. Most of us struggle with the same issues that our movement has fought to resolve for decades. The mainstream attention we now receive is proof that the battle has widened, not that it has ended.” It is crucial, she continues, to think politically: to see people as committed, resistant, pragmatic, or uninformed. Instead of trying to simplify the conflict between identity politics and a broader liberationist movement, we should accept that there is room for both as parallel movements that can form coalitions around certain issues. But we must agree on structural equalities around race and gender. We must give more than lip service to rights. Rights need to be asserted and legally guaranteed, and they need to be seen as fairness to all rather than a privilege for some.

It is common for books that discuss the problems facing a community to contain an action section, and Virtual Equality is no exception. Vaid calls it “There Are Things to Do” and includes some unsurprising suggestions, one of which is participation in an organization such as GLAAD.

Virtual Equality is far from comprehensive, but it is one of the few books for gays and lesbians that tries to open up a dialogue around our differences. As committed people, we have an obligation to heed Vaid’s exhortation to examine our attitudes toward one another, be conscious of the contradictions, and seek ways to be inclusive. Virtual Equality does not provide the answers, but it asks many of the right questions. And for that, it should be commended.

SALLY OWEN is book review editor for On The Issues and former co-owner of Judith’s Room in New York.