Part 2: Queer Activism and the Failure to Help Queer Youth
Angel White (any/all)
TW: Discussions of ableism, ageism, biphobia, christianity, classism, homophobia, misogyny, pedophilia, racism, transphobia, reclaimed use of d-slur
In the first part of this article, the problems facing queer children were examined. We saw that queer children aren’t given the freedom to escape oppressive families or treated like people. These issues were then connected to the social construct of childhood. After this, we looked at the nuclear family and revealed that family institutions are oppressive and also socially constructed. Finally, we looked at Gay Liberation organizations and their interest in the liberation of queer youth. These groups had a radical worldview which included Youth Liberation and meant that they demanded social change to the situation of children. Together, all of this showed the system oppressing queer children, how that system developed, and what about it needs to be changed.
Still, even with their radical demands and actions, the Gay Liberation movement was unable to liberate youth. This happened because the conservative backlash against queer organizations in the 1970s and 1980s pushed these radical organizations underground. But this doesn’t explain why such collapse was possible for this movement, or why youth liberation demands didn’t return in the 1990s with the emergence of the modern queer movement. While outside forces were responsible for the collapse of youth liberation demands, I think we need to figure out what allowed such a collapse to happen. Only when we understand the shortcomings of previous activists can we avoid repeating their mistakes.
Therefore, in this section, I want to turn our attention to the history of queer activism. I will first look at modern queer activists and how their political positions have prevented the re-emergence of youth liberation demands. Then, I will turn to the Gay Liberation Movement and why they failed to implement their radical demands, including those of youth liberation. Through such an investigation, we can be in a better position to figure out what direction a modern queer youth liberation movement could take to be better than those of the past.
Before I begin, I want to note that my critiques of modern liberal queer organizations or gay liberation organizations are towards how these groups act generally. As with any movement of such size, there are always exceptions, groups which don’t follow the trend. Therefore, my critiques aren’t always universally applicable to all queer organizations within a movement. Rather, they are meant as general insights into how these movements have failed. While the tone of these sections will be heavily negative because it is necessary to understand why these groups failed, it is not an outright condemnation of their actions. While these groups did accomplish a lot for queer people, their shortcomings prevented them from doing better. Finally, while I think this conversation is necessary for this discussion of youth liberation, the critiques here are not limited to issues around queer children, and I don’t mean to claim that this is their only application.
The modern queer movement began in the 1990s as an attempt to stop the continual retreat by queer activists that had occurred in the 1980s. While this led to a number of different approaches by queer activists, the most prominent has been liberal queer organizations like Humans Rights Campaign (HRC) or the National LGBTQ Task Force. These organizations tend to identify with progressive movements, advocate for policy changes, and push narratives surrounding queer acceptance within society. These groups are responsible for the political victories people think of when queer activism is brought up in the modern day: anti-discrimination laws, gay marriage, hate crime legislation, etc. Their influence is shown by the fact that today it can be hard to think of queer activism without immediately considering such ideas.
These liberal queer organizations have a few things in common. First, they tend to focus on questions of visibility and frame issues like “coming out” as questions of visibility. These organizations also tend to focus a lot on anti-queer, specifically anti-gay, violence. Further, they tend to have a very legislative focus, and care about pushing legal changes. While this focus on legal institutions isn’t new, the changes being presented are. Instead of demanding the abolition of certain legal structures like Gay Liberation groups did, these newer, more liberal groups focus on adjusting laws to benefit queer people. Overall, this really was a major shift in what “systemic change” meant to the queer community. Gay Liberation groups believed systemic change meant getting rid of institutions deemed bigoted to queer or other marginalized people (military, marriage, parental power, etc.), while these liberal organizations wanted to change these institutions to include queer and other marginalized people (trans people serving in the military, gay marriage, queer adoption rights, etc.). In other words, Gay Liberation groups wanted queer liberation, while liberal queer organizations wanted queer acceptance.
Before continuing, I do want to note that the modern queer movement is bigger than just these liberal queer groups even if they are the most important part of it. The initial revitalization of queer organizing in the 1990s was mainly spurred on by more radical groups like Queer Nation or Lesbian Avengers and the rise of Queer Theory perspectives. These two movements fundamentally changed the activist landscape as well as the academic landscape, which created an environment for these more liberal groups to thrive. I’m not going to detail the influence these more radical parts of the movement had, or whether or not they deserve to be included in the criticisms I want to make, but it is important to note that they did have an influence. The idea of sexuality and gender as social constructs comes from Queer Studies, and this radical concept has deeply influenced queer activism. Further, radical organizations’ ideas, such as Queer Nation’s reclamation of the word “queer” or Lesbian Avengers’ Dyke March, have major influence on the movement even today. While I’m not focusing on these groups, it would be inaccurate and would perpetuate the whitewashing of queer history to ignore the work that these groups did.
The problem which recent liberal queer activism has shown is that queer acceptance comes with a very heavy cost, one that is too much for us to accept. To understand this, I want to look at examples of queer martyrdom mentioned in Brett Krutzsch’s “Dying To Be Normal.” Krutzsch’s writing examines the case of Matthew Shepherd, a gay college student at the University of Wyoming who was targeted for his queerness and beaten to death. What makes Shepherd’s case so notable is that it was the first time that large numbers of straight people were upset over the murder of a gay man. A lot of this has to do with the way in which Shepherd was portrayed by queer activists. Shepherd was a middle-class, evangelical, white man, the perfect example of how queer people were “normal.” Specifically, Shepherd’s Christianity was focused on showing that queer people could (and should) follow Christian norms as well. There was even a “Vanity Fair” article comparing Shepherd’s life and murder to that of Jesus, emphasizing how devoted he was. Overall, Shepherd represented what Krutzsch calls the “model gay citizen.”
Unfortunately, the issues with this become apparent rather quickly. This specific portrayal relies on the respectability of the victim in question. It advances the idea that Shepherd deserves to be cared about because he met cishet, white, Chirstian American values. While I doubt this was the direct intention of the queer activists who cared about Shepherd’s death, it was the result they created. Unfortunately, Matthew Shepherd is not the only queer martyr to be used in this way. Harvey Milk stands as another example. amMilk was polyamorous, and, as far as we know, had no interest in supporting gay marriage. Yet these two facts are very often ignored when Harvey Milk is portrayed or made into an icon. More than that, Harvey Milk became a gay icon in the 1990s because his death was a political murder, a death which straight people had a hard time blaming the queer victim for (unlike victims of AIDS). Further, it should again be noted that Harvey Milk was white.
Queer martyrdom, though, doesn’t fully encapsulate the issues at hand. This Respectability politics is also present in the issue of pink capitalism. When looking at markets, one interesting trend to note is that while the gap between gay and straight men’s earnings has nearly disappeared, studies of employment discrimination still find major obstacles for gay men. While on the surface these numbers may seem odd, it becomes easier to explain when one notices that most employment discrimination studies focus on openly queer people, which isn’t always the case for studies of earnings. And beyond that, most employment discrimination studies focus on new applicants out of college, not people with pre-existing wealth and status. Especially given the high rates of homelessness and poverty in the queer community, it seems clear that wealthy queer people are benefiting, but the whole queer community is not. This pink capitalism is not only seen in queer economic issues, but in how queer organizations advocate in other areas. For example, during the campaign for marriage equality in New York, the Human Rights Campaign argued that a benefit of passing gay marriage would be the economic benefits the state would receive. Here, we see that gay marriage becomes “good” because it helps the status quo. All of this shows that pink capitalism hurts queer people's economic status and organizational power.
This issue of pink capitalism is also reflected in what we focus on. We talk about how queer people can get jobs, become CEOs, get married, and generally incorporate into the capitalist system. Yet violence against queer people and homelessness in the queer community has risen in recent years. Queer children especially are affected by this because we talk about their ability to come out, but not really about their economic situation or the rising amount of queer youth homelessness. Further, the people who benefit from what we celebrate under pink capitalism are those who are white, wealthy, cis men. And these are the same people whom liberal queer groups promote as examples of queerness. This doesn’t just oppress the more marginalized parts of the queer community (though it does do that), it also makes these privileged queer people’s experiences the basis for judging the quality of life of all queer people generally. It allows us to ignore the worsening conditions for the majority of the queer community – especially working class queer people of color – in favor of those we have deemed its representatives because they are respectable in the eyes of society.
Returning to our previously mentioned issue of the nuclear family, we see a similar result play out. Queer parents, or allies, may take in queer children, especially trans children, given the high rates of homelessness within our community. This practice has been necessary to ensure our collective survival. But because those children are still considered to be under the control of their biological parents, this puts the adoptee parents at risk of being convicted of kidnapping. This is, to say the least, awful, but is structurally built into our ideas of the family. Instead of opposing the power exerted by the nuclear family, a lot of modern queer activists talk about how queer parents deserve these same powers over the children they adopt. This isn’t to say that queer people should be denied from adopting children, just that our current system is directly set up to oppose helping queer children, especially those who are homeless and in the most need of support.
The issue I’ve been describing when discussing martyrdom, pink capitalism, and the nuclear family in this section is called Queer Assimilation. It comes about out of reasonable goals: wanting to increase the acceptability of queer people in society. It also is a necessary pragmatic tool sometimes, as presenting yourself in a manner acceptable for society can be critical to one’s survival. For example, as a transfem person, I sometimes present more feminine than I want too to get people to accept my identity. But when we conflate this survival tactic with our goal, issues arise. I don’t want to be accepted into and become a part of the system which hurts so many of my fellow queer people.
To summarize, Queer Assimilation is harmful for three main reasons. First, it harms queer’s people’s ability to be ourselves. We often have to conform to social expectations to gain acceptance, and, by assimilating to this system, we promote its existence. While it may become slightly better over time, we will never be fully accepted into this social order. Second, only the most privileged queer people benefit from this arrangement. People who don’t conform to heteronormative ideas of sex, cisnormative ideas of gender, or are just generally not white, wealthy, able-bodied, neurotypical (or have any other margainlized identity) are hurt by this type of activism. If we are asked to become the oppressors to gain acceptance, we must recognize that as a horrible decision and one which we must not make. We aren’t done until every queer person is liberated from suffering and oppression. Finally, queer assimilation divides our movement. We’ve seen that pink capitalism led to a focus only on issues which helped wealthy queer people. This isn’t an outlier, and assimilationist politics doesn’t just choose who represents our movement, but whose issues we take up. To succeed in a queer movement, we need to truly have a full grasp on all the ways in which queer people are oppressed, not those which are most palatable to cishets. From all of this, I hope we can have a better understanding of exactly what queer assimilation does, and why we need to fight it.
So, what does all of this have to do with queer youth? Queer youth are often left out as they don’t fit into this assimilationist movement. Dealing with queer children requires an acknowledgment of children as sexual beings, something which makes cisheteronormative society uncomfortable. And, as we’ve seen time and time again, engaging with children as sexual beings leads to backlash claiming queer people to be pedophiles, groomers, etc. While these are issues, abandoning queer children can never be the answer. And, to some extent, more recent activists seem to have understood this and have stood with queer children more and more often. The fact that, for example, queer activists have put so much time and energy towards trans teens should be an encouraging sign. But while more attention to queer youth issues is being given, this hasn’t led to activists engaging with all the problems facing queer people under our ageist system. Instead of trying to liberate queer youth, these activists just want to deal with a few especially awful cases and ignore the larger problem. Currently, we have record numbers of youths coming out as queer, and instead of trying to give them a world where they can be free, we continually ask them to just deal with their oppressive circumstances.
This is made worse by our society’s view of children as not yet people. For the most part, we care about children in the fact that they are becoming adults, not because they are human now. We ignore how youth can contribute to society now, and only care about how they can do something significant when they become adults. Assimilationist politics, which recreates this system, does the same thing to queer children. Instead of seeing queer youth as being worthwhile now, we see their worth in what they can be in the future. In a very literal sense, we see them as queer-to-be. This just contributes to queer children being routinely abused by the institution of childhood, as no reform any of these liberal organizations propose will ever prevent their abuse. Queer children don’t deserve to live under these conditions so queer adults can appease an oppressive system, they deserve that system smashed to pieces. Due to this, liberal queer activists need to stop appealing to queer assimilationist politics when discussing children, and start offering a more radical youth liberation critique of the society we live in.
A Critique of the Gay Liberation Movement
Before we discuss how modern queer organizations could re-embrace past radical demands like youth liberation, I think we need to discuss the Gay Liberation groups which made these demands. There is a (false) story about these groups which I see all too often from leftist queer people. That is, that Gay Liberation groups, with their socialist politics and radical demands, were basically perfect, while their modern queer counterparts, being liberal and watered-down, are less effective and don’t make major changes. I believe this narrative about Gay Liberation groups comes about because many people uncritically engage with their work and don’t fully evaluate these organizations for what they did and believed. It should be noted that for everything the Gay Liberation groups did, they failed to implement the radical ideas they held, like youth liberation, on a wide scale. Further, they ultimately failed to overcome conservative beliefs and collapsed from right-wing pressure. If we are going to try and re-embrace such radical positions, we need to evaluate why this failure occurred, and thoroughly critique these Gay Liberation groups.
Gay Liberation organizations often treated many parts of the queer community terribly. For example, many of these organizations had a problem of rampant transphobia. In 1973, Sylvia Rivera was booed at a gay liberation event by a group of lesbians who didn’t want trans people speaking at queer events. STAR, the organization Sylvia Rivera & Marsha P. Johnson formed in the 1970s to help house trans people, had many experiences with such issues, and frequently ran into problems with Gay Liberation groups refusing to center trans issues. Further, many major queer authors, especially ones who were radical feminists, wrote openly transphobic works. Janice Raymond’s “The Transsexual Empire,” a 1979 book which claimed that (binary) trans people reinforced gender stereotypes, is the most famous example of these. These opinions are equivalent to what modern TERFs and other transphobic bigots believe, and were much more openly accepted by queer movements during the Gay Liberation period then they are now. Therefore, it should be clear that Gay Liberation groups didn’t engage with trans issues enough, or try to deal with transphobic members.
A similar example of inter-community bigotry can be seen in the treatment of bisexuality. In a retrospective on lesbian space during this time, Sharon Dale Stone discussed biphobia she witnessed. She notes that bi people were often discussed at lesbian events, and demonized by many lesbians at the time, especially those with more separationist views. At the same time, lesbian publications didn’t discuss bisexuality, and pushed the topic away from national discussion. These issues were compounded by the belief that many lesbians had at the time that women who slept with men were opposed to women’s liberation. This led to bi women being pushed into only sleeping with women, and ostracizing those who wanted to be authentic with their attraction from queer spaces. Such biphobia can also be seen in school programs. These school programs were something that gay liberation organizers pushed for and had a major influence in setting up. One of these programs in Los Angeles was found in the 1980s to be openly teaching that bi identity was a “step toward full acceptance of one’s homosexuality.” It should be clear from these examples that biphobia was prominent in Gay Liberation spaces.
Racism was also very prevalent within Gay Liberation groups. Sharon Dale Stone, within the same article mentioned above, notes that the group of lesbians she was a part of was mostly “white-skinned and in our twenties and thirties.” This problem of underrepresentation of non-white people is also seen within the wider Gay Liberation Movement at the time. While Gay Liberation groups were more open to non-white people then previous queer organizations (and were based on organizational tactics from groups like the Black Panthers), they didn’t directly promote queer black voices or focus on queer POC experiences. Further, the majority of members of organizations like the Gay Liberation Front were middle to upper class white college students. This was reflected in decision making within such organizations. For example, Gay Liberation Front New York saw many of its members leave because it was proposed that they provide funding to the Black Panthers. These white people held power in Gay Liberation groups even though it was poor, QTPOC people who were doing the activism and doing the radical actions like the Stonewall riots. Overall, while Gay Liberation organizations were more inclusive of non-white queer people then previous queer organizations, these groups were still predominantly white and had issues with racism.
These issues of transphobia, biphobia, and racism demonstrate a major issue of bigotry and ignorance within the Gay Liberation Movement. While these Gay Liberation groups often wrote about supporting other marginalized groups, this didn’t actually turn out in their actions. It should be noted that the Gay Liberation Movement was still an improvement from the homophile groups and other previous queer organizations on questions of inclusion and diversity. But this didn’t make them great at such diversity or effective at implementing it, especially not to the level that is often claimed. Any radical movement which doesn’t focus on its most marginalized members and their issues is likely to fail, and it is clear that the Gay Liberation groups of the 1960s & 1970s did not do this. This legacy of bigotry prevented Gay Liberation groups from implementing and advancing their radical ideas. Any modern queer organization which wishes to push similar radical perspectives like Youth Liberation must do better than these groups.
Bigotry and ignorance is not the only issue which Gay Liberation groups had. These Gay Liberation groups also had problems with how they advocated for youth liberation specifically. In the previous part of this article, I mentioned how often queer youth were not always engaged with or viewed as equal contributors to their adult counterparts. Problems which queer youth organizations wanted to focus on, like coming out as a child or school survival, were not actually focused on by Gay Liberation organizations. Further, like a lot of other marginalized communities, youth issues were often only discussed, and not actually built into activism done by these organizations. This lack of addressing actual queer youth issues was a major reason for the formation of groups like Gay Youth. Overall, while Gay Liberation organizations engaged with Youth Liberation ideas, they didn’t actually implement Youth Liberation practices, at least not to the extent required to make such a radical change for the world.
Further, Youth Liberation demands were often connected to reactionary beliefs. Most problematic was the connection of Youth Liberation to the abolition of age of consent laws. It should be acknowledged that our current age of consent laws aren’t perfect and we tend to dismiss the voices of children, those actually affected by pedophilia, in these discussions. But these rules exist because of the physical and mental power dynamics which arise from youth/non-youth relations which can’t be ignored. Instead of providing ways to improve such rules, many Gay Liberationists opposed them fully. A famous example is Harry Hay, one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Movement, who spent a lot of time in the 1980s advocating on behalf of NAMBLA, an organization which opposed age of consent laws. Hay, and many other former Gay Liberation Front members, would even set up their own New York pride festival in 1994 after NAMBLA was banned from participation in New York’s main pride festival. Instead of taking such harmful positions, modern queer organizations should more carefully evaluate what a Youth Liberation world should look like.
Finally, the essentialist perspective of Gay Liberation groups prevented them from attacking the root of issues like youth liberation. In the previous part of this article, I discussed how understanding childhood to be a social construct is important to Youth Liberation. Childhood is the basis for oppressing young people, by forcing them to conform to a made-up categorization method. While Gay Liberation groups did care about liberating children from oppression, their lack of a systemic analysis about the nature of childhood prevented them from seeing the core of the issue. This helps to explain the issues with youth liberation demand in the 10-point demands of Boston Gay Men’s Liberation. Boston Gay Men’s Liberation wanted to abolish the legal power of parents over children, which is a necessary step towards Youth Liberation. But instead of suggesting that without these power dynamics traditional forms of raising children would become unnecessary, they argue that we need to make child raising a “collective responsibility.” In reality, this doesn’t solve the issue, just dilutes the problem by limiting the power any one adult can have over their child. This isn’t to say that collective child raising doesn’t have any merit, just that it and child care centers aren’t sufficient for the liberation of children. From this, I think we can see how essentialism prevents the radical demands of Gay Liberation organizations from truly reaching their potential.
From all of this, I think we can see that the Gay Liberation Movement failed in three major ways. First, they weren’t as inclusive as claimed and groups like bi people, trans people, and QTPOC weren’t entirely represented or given space to address their issues. Second, Gay Liberation groups failed to truly implement their radical demands and, instead, often promoted problematic policies. Third, Gay Liberation groups held an essentialist viewpoint of identity which prevented them from fully critiquing social identities or truly dealing with the core of oppressive systems. Modern queer organizations need to not repeat these mistakes. While we may admire Gay Liberation groups for their radical demands and how they pushed queer rights forward, we need to see the ways in which they failed so we can do better. If we are to again demand for the liberation of youth, we must embrace them without the same problems as our ancestors.
A New Way Forward
Both the Gay Liberation and Modern queer movements have consistently failed in multiple areas. Both have failed to properly represent anyone who isn’t a white gay man (or sometimes a white lesbian woman). Both have failed to directly advocate for what they claimed to stand for. While these failings were based on different ideological issues – the assimilationist policies of modern queer groups or the essentialist beliefs of gay liberation groups – the results have been the same: an incomplete perspective on politics and queerness. I want to be clear that this isn’t to take away from what all of these groups have done for queer people and society in general. But I think we need to stop idolizing organizations and people. This idolization puts us in a place where we are pushed away from doing better than these groups because, after all, if these groups did everything right, how could we be better than them?
Further, these perspectives have been massively detrimental to queer children. Children, and especially queer children, are never engaged with as equals. When Gay Liberation organizations engaged with youth demands, it was almost always in context of what liberating youth could do for adults. Liberating children could help women be free from the burden of child rearing, or could lead to critical thinking adults. This isn’t to say there wasn’t any acknowledgement of youth’s conditions – there definitely was – but it was often framed around these perspectives, instead of starting with what youth themselves wanted. These organizations wanted to liberate youth, but wanted this to be done by adults. Youth Liberation needs to be led and focused on the perspectives of youth, as you can’t liberate a group using institutional power gained from oppressing that group.
These same problems are endemic to modern queer organizations as well, but now queer organizations have stopped trying to liberate children even in the abstract. Currently, organizations focused on queer youth are mostly run by adults, and those that are run by youth aren’t treated as serious organizations. Further, these organizations often directly support models of adoption and marriage which push the nuclear family and parents having power over their children. When asked to solve issues like parental acceptance, these groups don’t ever seem to have any real solutions, just vague ideas of “educating” parents. And, even more importantly, these groups only seem to care about offering support after abuse happens. They are there to give us therapy, maybe a bit of financial assistance, and wait for another queer child to be brutalized. This focus prevents modern, liberal queer organizations from demanding societal change which would solve these problems. This is a result of these organizations needing approval from those in power, and their willingness to sacrifice the most marginalized members of the queer community, like queer youth, to do that. Ultimately, we need to see that Queer Liberation doesn’t come without Youth Liberation. Queer adults who take control of children and control them as a nuclear family aren’t good just because they're queer.
In conclusion, queer youth need better representation and need their demands cared about. Children often complain about their situation. It isn’t uncommon for young people to talk about wanting more support, wanting to run away from home, wanting to do something that is restricted to adults, and many other things. Yet we very rarely take them seriously. We laugh at them, call them naive, and tell them to stop “whining.” This is even worse for queer children who are forced by our society to be at the mercy of non-queer adults. When these queer youth ask for help, the best they are often given is that people care about them abstractly, and maybe other non-queer adults with political power will help them (as if what they need is another group of adults to control their lives). Even in the rare circumstances where queer adults can directly support queer children, it is still uncommon for queer children to be given power or allowed to take the lead on their own battles. Instead of continuing this cycle and using their adult supremacy to gain legitimacy for only themselves, queer adults need to do better to liberate and uplift queer youth.
Now that both the importance of Youth Liberation to queer activism and the failures of past queer activists to liberate children has been shown, we need to turn our attention to how we can go about achieving youth liberation. Due to this, the question of what steps can be taken towards liberating queer youth is what I wish to discuss in my final article. I want to look at how we break down barriers preventing queer youth from advocating for themselves. I also want to look at how our systems of education, politics, and families could be changed to achieve youth liberation. But beyond this, the most important thing for all of us to do is actually engage queer children with these ideas. We can help provide and guide them towards a framework for understanding their issues but, in the end, queer youth themselves will be necessary for achieving this world. After all, this is about their future, so they deserve to choose it.