Monday 1 June 2020

Of battles won and battles yet to come

Today is the first day of what would usually be Pride month, a month of joy and celebration of battles won as well as a reminder of battles yet to be fought. Given the current situation, many of us probably don’t feel much like celebrating. But while we watch the news about race riots in the US, and while we have such clear evidence of the fact that the battles yet to be fought concern not just our own community, but other communities that are faced with their own forms of oppression, it might do us good to remember that rights and freedoms are rarely won entirely peacefully and that the road to LGBTQ+ “liberation” also started with a riot.

The Stonewall uprising in June 1969 was a reaction by members of the LGBTQ+ community against a police raid that began at the Stonewall Inn, a gay pub in Greenwich Village, New York. But while that raid was the spark that caused the explosion, it is clear that the fire had been smouldering for a long time, caused by the enduring persecution of LGBTQ+ people by the police and other state bodies. 

In the same way, it is clear that while the current riots were sparked by yet another senseless killing of a black man by a police force that seems to think itself immune (maybe rightly so) from any repercussions for its actions, it is the word “another” that makes all the difference. The murder of George Floyd is not the first incident of this kind and we all know that it is unlikely to be the last. Racism is systemic in our societies in the same way that homophobia, misogyny, ableism, colonialism and the class divide are. We are all part of it as we live our lives in blissful ignorance of the many ways in which we benefit from existing inequalities. This is the case even where we face our own form of oppression because we are queer, or disabled or women or immigrants or poor. And every time we #alllivesmatter someone else’s struggle - as we are often wont to do because we, too, suffer in our own way - we are essentially playing into the hands of those that divide and conquer all of us for their own benefit. 

I am because we are

If there is one truth universally acknowledged, it seems, it is that there is nobody so low in the pecking order of society that they cannot be made to feel better about themselves by being told that they are at least superior to the other guy (or girl). And it is often this idea of superiority, this perceived hierarchy of suffering, that prevents us from joining together to make the changes that are necessary to lift all of us above the water line. We see it in the trans exclusionary debate, where cis women (and lesbians) make an enemy of trans women because the latter allegedly lack “the shared experience" of an oppression that is presented as being specifically, genetically “female”. We see it when women’s experience of sexual and domestic abuse is minimized on account of their economic wealth and is put in competition with the real deprivation suffered by many working class men and boys. And we see it with race, when we white members of the LGBTQ+ community disregard the experience of our POC brothers and sisters while we focus, in our political work, solely on issues that advance our own goals rather than challenge the underlying structural inequality we all face. For whatever reason, it seems to be so much easier to let ourselves be divided than to unite. But selfishness, even of those that are themselves in precarious situations, is a poison that can (and, given half a chance, will) kill us all. 

I protect you, you protect me

The responsibility for resistance is arguably on us not just in the cases where we ourselves are the oppressed, but, more importantly, in the areas where our own interests align with, or ARE, those of the oppressor. It is easy to protest when it concerns a grievance that negatively affects you. It's a much harder thing to do when the situation you protest benefits you personally.

When we look at our own lives, it should be clear that we are all part of this dynamic in one way or another, that we are all privileged and oppressed in our very own ways and that we are all in danger of focusing on the areas of our lives where we suffer rather than those where we are complicit in causing the suffering of others. But if we want to effect real and lasting change, it is important not only to shift our focus in an abstract way, but to ”check our privilege” and to examine our own behaviour. To be a good ally we have to inform ourselves and make ourselves aware of the plight of other “Others” and follow through on that new found knowledge by making changes in our own daily lives.

Because even if we have made strides and inroads with regard to addressing our own oppression, those wins are fragile and liable to being overturned at any point. Because, by definition, none of us will truly be equal until all of us are. Because while the arc of the moral universe may ultimately bend towards justice, it may yet take a few detours along the way. Because if we don’t, THEY will win. 

The centre cannot hold

Many LGBTQ+ people instinctively know this. Matron herself is painfully aware of how quickly things can change just from three different Pride months she was able to experience (which was, in itself, a privilege) in New York between 2015 and 2017. 

In 2015, she and Mrs Matron arrived in New York on the day the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalised same-sex marriage in all of the US. Although it was late, she and Mrs Matron headed downtown to the very Stonewall Inn where not 50 years previously that journey had begun and where, on this day, people had already been celebrating for hours. 

The Pride March two days later was maybe the biggest event of collective happiness, Matron has ever experienced. However, with the benefit of hindsight, it now also looks like the last time we were able to ignore so comprehensively the fact that progress is not always linear.

A year later, on 12 June 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Matron woke up to that news in the same AirBnB in Brooklyn, where a year earlier she had celebrated her second honeymoon. That year, she spent the same weeks in a state of shock. The Pride festivities were, predictably, a much more somber affair, with celebrity hosts reading out the names of the dead and the rainbow colour scheme supplemented by orange bands of those in mourning. A young man, Matron encountered on the High Line, embodied what we all felt as he just sat there with a homemade sign reading “Homophobia Kills”.

It was this realisation, a reminder of what we already knew, that sent the kind of shockwaves through the community that we maybe had not felt since the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, London was attacked by a bomber in 1999. It is one thing to know, in an abstract way, that you are hated by so many. It is another to have such visceral proof of it.

That, too, is where we can relate to the way so many must feel this week after watching a video where a white police man puts his knee on the windpipe of a black man and rocks his body in full view of the cameras with impunity while that man gasps that he can’t breathe. Just like the attack on the Admiral Duncan was only the third in a series of hate crimes committed by the same man. The first two attacks targeted the black community in Brixton and the Asian community in Brick Lane. What Pulse made us understand, or remember, is that none of us can breathe. We are not safe. Not yet. And maybe never.


And so we came to June 2017, the first Pride month with a US President in charge, who physically embodies all the hate by everyone against everyone and whose sole objective is to divide and conquer us all in the service of a minutely small group of people at the very top. And it made people angry. 
Matron came out more than 30 years ago and in that time has attended many a Pride event. But that Pride March was probably the angriest she has ever seen people be. 

It was also the most political and intersectional Pride March she ever saw, and, noticeably, the March when it became possible again to question not just the ongoing commercialisation of the event but the presence of police and military groups. It was as if Trump had reminded us that neither the big corporates nor the organs of the state had always been our friend and how easy it would be for the tide to turn again.

We're all facing the same storm, but we're not all in the same boat

What we should have remembered even then, of course, was that the big corporates and the police are still not the friend of many others either. 

That we still live in a world where our POC friends do not see themselves in the advertising of all those corporations handing out branded rainbow bracelets and where a black gay man may justifiably be reluctant to cheer a bunch of NYPD officers walking down 5th Avenue in formation accompanied by a marching band. In the happiness over our own "liberation", we did not always notice those things. That's on us.

So today, on the first day of what would usually be Pride month, a month of joy and celebration of battles fought and won, we must also remember that some of the most ardent fighters in those battles past were people from communities that we are still not seeing fully and whose grievances have yet to be addressed. People like Marsha P Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Stormé DeLarverie - LGBTQ+ but also POC. People, who have long been ignored by many even for their contributions to the LGBQ+ struggle but who are almost never recognised by their white LGBTQ+ peers as fighters in that other struggle they also face(d). 

Those are only some of the battles yet to be fought but they are also our battles. Or at least they should be.

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