Last Tuesday, the first day of Pride Month 2021, Google honored gay rights activist Frank Kameny by turning him into a “doodle.” His efforts to overturn the federal government’s systemic employment discrimination against homosexuals were finally heeded by the Supreme Court in 2020—more than 60 years after he began his campaigning.
But despite last year’s surprising win for LGBTQIA rights, there is still work to be done. “What disadvantages trans and queer people the most is not individual or corporate or even state-sanctioned transphobia or homophobia,” Paisley Currah commented in his analysis of Gorsuch’s majority option, “but the structures and processes of late racial capitalism, which conservatives continue to police ferociously even as they relax their grip on sex.”
Indeed, history provides some cautionary lessons about legalistic approaches to LGBTQIA rights. Archival essays from Hugh Ryan and Michael Bronski show how the movement for gay marriage prioritized cisgender queers who were interested in replicating the nuclear family; polyamorous queers, trans people, and others were excluded from the fight. In addition, directing most of our praise to those responsible for legal victories would simply center white, cis, men, at the expense of other activists. We have seen a similar narrative in the historicization of the AIDS crisis, too, where a small group of gay men were lauded for their work in ACT UP. Instead, as Sarah Schulman’s new book makes clear, there were no singular heroes: ACT UP was most effective when it had the broadest coalition of members.
The fight for trans liberation is a long and complex one, but these are important lessons to be heeded, showing us how the struggle can’t be won solely in the courthouse. As Jules Joanne Gleeson argues in a new essay excerpted from her book Transgender Marxism, “it’s urgent to not only respond to offensives against trans people, but offer our own understanding of what gender transition amounts to. Transgender liberation will not be a purely defensive process.” And while cultivating community can offer respite from a transphobic world, it is not a total salvo either. “Keeping one another alive cannot be collapsed with revolutionary change,” Gleeson writes, especially when such communities can be full of trauma—a sentiment echoed in a personal essay from Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore.
Together these essays show us how surpassing these divides requires a new movement, “which we so far have only the haziest picture of: an anti-capitalist struggle fully responsive to, and in part growing out of, the existing struggles waged to secure our basic subsistence.”
The public’s obsession with why some people are trans burdens an already marginalized community, and it misses an opportunity to ask more interesting questions about identity formation.
In 1961 Frank Kameny became the first person to ask the Supreme Court to protect the employment rights of homosexuals. The fact that the Court finally has—sixty years later—points to both the successes and agonies of a legalistic approach to activism.