During the post-CNN/Dan Savage Prop 8 debacle, it fell to black queer people to remind the “community” that we existed and that we did not all come from offensively homophobic families just itching to burn down gayborhoods like white people did to Rosewood, Pierce City, and others in the past. It also fell to the entire queer community/ies of color to remind both gay and straight white people that they had not authored, sponsored, nor ushered in the bill and that homophobia crosses race, class, and gender lines. More than that, people of color and allies had to trot out endless evidence that they had in fact organized against Prop 8 and that many had done so with no funding or support from larger queer organizations. It was the stuff of nightmares that reminded us all that despite all sharing one identity, the intersections crossing that identity meant that we were still, sadly, on different & exploitable divides.
Enter the immigration debate. At this past week’s Netroots 10 conference, at least one panel on immigration included a discussion in which a white queer blogger argued correctly that gay rights people need to fight for immigration issues because “when one of us is not free, none of us is free.” Though I share his sentiment, the juxtaposition of one community with the other once again renders them mutually exclusive. Yet gay immigrants not only exist, they have the unique distinction of being cut out of one of the major ways to gain legal access to citizenship in the U.S.: family reunification. After all, if your family isn’t legally recognized neither is its reunification. Even if queer immigrants are able to come here legally through other means, they also run the risk of having their legal marriages abroad considered null and void in the majority of the United States. So the marriage issue is in fact an immigration issues and vice versa.
Queer immigrants are also routinely denied asylum despite the fact that homophobic harassment, especially by police or military, should clearly qualify them. These denials have often sent queer petitioners home to their deaths a distinction they share with women escaping domestic violence and government sponsored rape and torture or immigrants whose ethnic or religious affiliation is no longer of import or has never been important to the political aims of the U.S. When HIV exemptions were still on the books, many gay men were denied citizenship, even when legally petitioned for as part of a larger family unit, based on the erroneous fear they were infected. Sometimes, the HIV exemption was used to punish citizen and asylum seekers for being gay; though statistics on how many were denied for this reason is hard to comeby, anecdotal stories from lawyers and advocates exist. The list of discrimination goes on.
So whether we are talking about equal access to marriage or not, as long as gay people have limited or no rights, certain immigrants will lack certain rights and vice versa. Ultimately gay rights and immigrant rights are not just equally important because of how oppressions are linked but also because for some people they are the same thing.
Understanding these connections are fundamental to an effective and inclusive gay rights strategy. Yet, prominent gay or queer (as a verb not a noun) artists seem to understand this less than the movement(s) itself. Last week Elton John played Tuscon AZ despite massive protest. In response, he told his audience:
“We are all very pleased to be playing in Arizona. I have read that some of the artists won’t come here. They are f***wits! Let’s face it: I still play in California, and as a gay man I have no legal rights whatsoever. So what’s the f**k with these people?”
His comment stood in stark relief against his decision to play Rush Limbaugh’s wedding, which not only flew in the face of the gay marriage ban in multiple parts of the U.S. but also his own rights as Limbaugh has spoken out against them on his show and supported others who have done so. More than that Elton seemed to turn the idea of shared freedom on its head, claiming “if I am not free, who cares if you are” in place of “if one of us is not free, none of us are.” Not only is this sentiment self-interested, hypocritical, and oppressive it also shows the underlining issues with how SB1070 is perceived and likely to be applied. After all, Elton John has no more legal right to be married in AZ than he does in CA but more than that, if the judge had not put on hold the ID portion of SB1070 this week Elton would have had to carry his papers to do any future concerts in the state. He did not think about that because he is white and European and like everybody else, he assumes he will not be stopped, harassed, or “accidentally” deported because he does not “look like an illegal immigrant.” That difference and the privilege to not only exploit it but also be completely oblivious to it is one of the fundamental problems with queer organizing in the U.S. and to a lesser extent Britain. Both groups continue to articulate themselves as white, upper class, and male. While they claim to be interested in socio-political issues outside of themselves, there is very little stated or real effort to be interested in issues related to poor people and people of color (both of whom are assumed to not be queer).
Elton is not alone in his complete denial of the import of immigrants’ rights. Lady Gaga plans to play Phoenix AZ at the end of the month. Though her appeal crosses sexualities and genders, Gaga has become one of the queer icons, in every since of the word, of our time. Like Madonna she has been taken in by a community that she claims while keeping her sexuality largely out of it. Like Elton John she has also made headlines for oppressive decisions like mocking trans women. And also like Elton John she has no qualms with playing a concert in a state that most artists have refused to play until the pass law comes down. Gaga’s concert also coincides with a week long solidarity effort called for by queer organizations, immigrants rights activists, and progressive organizations across the country asking everyone to use the week to raise awareness, organize protests, and refuse to have anything to do with AZ accept boycott. So in essence, Gaga’s concert not only violates an unspoken decision to boycott but also a very clear picket line.
In both instances, artists with considerable international fame and connections have simply snubbed their nose at human rights in the name of the almighty dollar. Neither Gaga’s silence nor Elton’s tried and true tactic of “hey look at that over there it’s much worse than this” can mask the fact that in a very public way white queer performers have failed to see the connection between the struggles of people of color and their own. They have once again transformed the public face of the movement(s) into one of racial privilege and racial disdain despite the work that queer people, regardless of race, have been doing to support immigrants rights and communities of color. They have made it that much harder for coalitions to be formed in the future and for new generations of activists to see their lives and their work implicated in the lives and work of people they perceive to be different from them.
Arizona is not California. But every activist involved in ending Prop 8 learned a valuable lesson about racial exclusion and racial myopia that everyone else should take note of if we are ever going to get equal rights in the U.S. Race Issues are Queer Issues. Queer Issues are Race Issues. And anyone who does not get that needs both education on oppression and an end to ticket sales. If you can boycott AZ businesses in the name of solidarity, you can stop listening to Lady Gaga too. There are several petitions circulating to try and get Gaga to cancel her concert, the most legitimate one seems to be here.
(Update, this post was written prior to Gaga’s concert. You can read my response to her Sharpie activism during that concert here.)
images of Gaga, Elton & Eminem unattributed