Last week I attended a community meeting for queer people of color in the Chicago area. Held in a QPOC-owned cafe on the west side, the gathering was organized by several groups, including Amigas Latinas and Soy Quien Soy, with the goal of introducing and uniting different QPOC communities across the city. Several of the other attendants were also new to the city and looking to find Brown, queer spaces and people with which to connect. We discussed the social and cultural divides which existed in the city, both amongst queer communities of color, and between QPOCs and the more centralized white queer community. We talked about what steps might be taken in the future to create a QPOC-centered and controlled space, and how to unify the activism of multiple queer groups towards challenging the great lacking of resources for all poor, brown and TLBG residents.
At this small, welcoming, multigenerational gathering, I was the only cis-gendered man out of about fifteen attendants. This may have been attributable to any number of factors–the groups organizing the event, the location, even the local history of the discussion at hand and whom it has involved. It gave me pause, however, because it has been such a theme of my experiences in radical activism in general, and queer activism specifically. I have often been among the only cis-gendered queer men in much of the organizing and community work I have done, and have had trouble connecting other queer men in my community–even those of multiple oppressed backgrounds like myself–to the struggles that matter so deeply to me. This, again, could be the result of all kinds of complicated factors, including the limited ways we tend to define activism and organizing. (Isn’t sex work profoundly politically engaged? Aren’t houses and drag shows effective ways of organizing and vocalizing marginal communities?) Even so, I still think there are deeper questions at play about what keeps so many queer cis men separate from other queer communities, and disengaged from radical action.
The divide may have to do with male privilege, and the ways in which even those of us who are gender-subversive have been taught to express and enact our manhood. It may have to do with the radicalizing effects of being a cis woman or trans person that many cis men never experience or need to contemplate. I suspect it may have to do with the ability that men often have–even those without other kinds of privileges–to control and to takeover spaces for themselves, which those of other gender identities do not. Yet another crucial factor are the ways in which we as queer cis men have historically engaged our subversion, ways which connect us to many other queer traditions: Creating exclusive spaces to ensure the safety and liberation of our desires; Partying, and using celebration as a means of gathering, connecting and empowering one another; Sex, at times hidden away from the sources which might meet it with violence, but simultaneously performed in public, where it has to be acknowledged as real, necessary; Public displays of our queerness, including sex, but also love, dance, dress, protest, drag, and a whole host of art and cultural forms which refuse our being denied or ignored. We should remember that these histories and traditions are ours as queer cis men, and unite us with other queers, though more and more they are appropriated in ways which stratify us.
Speaking in general terms, I think it is a misnomer that queer cis men are politically unengaged, and don’t maintain our own radical history. I do think, however, that our separation and lack of investment in the struggles of those who share that history cannot be denied. Moreover, we continue to rely on many of the same historic tactics to organize ourselves and subvert authority, even though some decades of those tactics have shown us the dangers of exclusivity, the complications of excess, and how easily cultures based on consumption can be appropriated by advertisers and other economic forces. I don’t think we are sold out, nor that we don’t care. I think that, as a community, we have not questioned what the shifting visibility and corporate allegiances of our culture has meant for its ability to challenge and subvert, and that, as a result, we have allowed other queer and oppressed communities to struggle without our support or concern.
For myself as a queer cis man, having this discussion is not about guilt or accusation. It is about looking honestly at what our community’s political engagement truly consists of, with the purpose of uniting us in genuine bonds with the struggles of other queers, and of all oppressed people. We belong to a subversive culture, one which has lessons to teach other queers, just as we have lessons to learn. We have a radical history, one which already ties us to countless other communities and their longstanding movements of resistance. How do we learn to celebrate those histories in ways which acknowledge their interconnectedness, and threaten all the structures they struggle against? How do we learn to fight the systems which oppress all people, instead of accepting their sponsorship?
*Cis or Cis-gender is a term which refers to any person whose assigned gender identity–the one given to them by their family, the medical establishment, their school, etc.–matches with their own personal gender identity.