No, James Kirchick, The Gay Rights Movement Isn’t Over

In a recent article for The Atlantic, the noted gay conservative James Kirchick sets out to prove that the gay rights movement is over, its job accomplished. The only thing remaining, he claims, is a bunch of bitter leaders, desperate for some attention and frantic to cling onto some vestige of the power that they once possessed. To do so, he argues, they have taken to inventing new causes for the movement which, in his telling, are frequently arcane and have no basis in actual oppression. Rather than continuing to drum out this misplaced outrage, Kirchick suggests, the queer left should just admit that it’s one and go home.

Now, that might seem to be a really big claim to make, one that would be difficult to sustain, even in the form of a (long) piece in one of the nation’s foremost magazines of ideas. And, indeed, the piece doesn’t really hold up to even the faintest bit of hostile scrutiny.

Probably most egregiously, Kirchick makes the claim that, marriage equality having been won, the attention of activists has shifted to trans rights. Nor is he subtle about it, writing: “But it is the conflation of transgender issues with the gay-rights movement, a recent development and not one undertaken without some controversy among gays and lesbians themselves, which accounts for much if not most of the evidence cited as representing regression on gay rights.” A recent development? Clearly, someone should educate Kirchick about the history of the movement that he seems to know so much about.

Indeed, for a cis-het white man to make this claim on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall — when trans women of color fought back against oppression — is truly staggering. I cannot, for the life of me, find words to convey my fury at the disingenuousness of this claim. One can’t help but wonder whether is truly so ignorant that he doesn’t know that it was trans women who led the charge at Stonewall, or whether he is merely making a straw man argument to paint trans people in the most unflattering light possible. How else to explain this seemingly deliberate jettisoning of the work and toil and suffering of those many trans individuals who have often been at the vanguard of queer organizing?

He also makes it seem as if all queer people are virulently anti-police. There are, of course, many reasons to seek to reform the police rather than to jettison them altogether, not least the fact that, for better or worse, queer people must often rely on the justice system to help prosecute hate crimes (and to prevent them from happening in the first place, hence the presence of police at Pride). And I think that many queer people would advocate for such reforms. However, to pretend that police violence doesn’t harm many people across various lines of difference is to woefully (and probably purposefully) misunderstand the traumatic history between and among queer people, the police, and people of color.

All of this points to one of the most glaring of Kirchick’s underlying flaws: his complete inability (or unwillingness) to engage with or recognize the value of intersectionality. To his mind, the struggle for equality for queer people — by which he presumably means white, cis men and maybe, just maybe, women — is utterly disconnected to other forms of social inequality. Especially frustrating is his inability (or unwillingness) to admit that his own privilege may be skewing the ways that he looks at this issue. To be generous to him, I can only assume that he has never given a thought to the ways in which his own positions of privilege have insulated him from experiencing the types of intersectional oppression that so many other queer people face. One would think that a queer intellectual writing in 2019 would give more than a casual dismissal to one of the most important intellectual developments to come out of the latter half of the 20th Century.

Nor does Kirchick stop there. Not content to dismiss the needs of trans people — to say nothing of the other members of the queer community that aren’t gay men and lesbians — he then goes on to take a swipe at the actual efforts of those who wish to enshrine the protection of LGBTQ+ people in law. For some reason that eludes me, he comes out with guns blazing for the Equality Act. Immediately after noting that numerous states still do not have any legislation protecting queer people, he makes the bonkers claim that, since so many queer people already live in states that do, that we shouldn’t worry about it. That might come as news to the trans people who struggle to even be able to use the bathroom, or to the many rural areas where it is still dangerous to be externally queer, or to the people who can get married on a Friday and get fired or evicted on Monday.

To make this claim, he leans rather too heavily on a recent New York Times piece from trans author Samantha Allen, who argues that queer people in red states are, all told, doing just fine. I have a lot of issues with the piece — and with the book upon which it is based — but for now I’ll just say that is laughably naïve to think that, just because queer people feel comfortable in red states doesn’t mean that there aren’t still powerful (and rural-dominated) state legislatures that are ready and willing to try to turn back the clock on LGBTQ+ equality. Indeed, even if (and it’s a big if), local jurisdictions do pass laws protecting LGBTQ+ people, the lack of a federal statute means that states have the power to overrule local law, as was the case with North Carolina a few years ago. (And, of course, all of this relies on the fact that it is cities that typically provide queer protections. I daresay that rural queers might sing a different showtune).

Yet, if we follow Kirchick’s sanguine attitude, none of this really matters. The Equality Act is just another instance of leftist overreach. And, of course, he uses the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in his argument, suggesting that many of the queer people he knows would be just fine going with another baker. Of course, this line of argument is specious on many grounds, not the least of which is the fact that, if allowed to stand, such decisions make discrimination legal. And, as we all know very well, it is very frequently a very short step from “legal” to “common.”

Yet what upsets me almost as much as Kirchick’s thinly-veiled racism and transphobia is his intellectual dishonesty. He cherry-picks those examples that he feels are “representative,” when what he is really doing is choosing those that he knows will inflame the passions and ire of those who already view academics (and activists) with nothing but contempt and, in some cases, hatred. And, has has been the case with a lot of writing in The Atlantic regarding work done in the academy, he sneeringly refers to the work of academics as if it has little to no value in the “real world.” And, to add insult to injury, he holds up people like Andrew Sullivan and Camille Paglia as somehow the standard-bearers of political rights, a claim so patently ridiculous that it hardly bears refutation, as is his claim that their work (reactionary and toxically conservative as it frequently is) is in some way better than that undertaken by intersectional scholars working today.

The fact that The Atlantic, one of the premier journals of ideas still standing in the twilight age of magazine culture, would publish this article as it is greatly distresses me. For one thing, the title, and the article’s central claim, doesn’t really stand up to even the most cursory amount of intellectual rigor. For another, this article is in the same vein as other conservative intellectuals who engage in bad faith arguments in order to paint the left as a bunch of kooks out to overturn every societal institution (both Ross Douthat and Bret Stephens at the Times are perpetrators of this dreck). I have no problem with conservatives going to bat for their principles, and I welcome the chance to debate such people, but only when they do so in good faith and only when they don’t rely on straw man arguments to bolster their claims. I have no interest in debating people who don’t fight fair.

It is precisely this intellectual disingenuousness that I find so frustrating and disheartening. It reveals just how far we as a culture have come, that this is what passes for intellectual discourse at one of our nation’s leading magazines. I wouldn’t be nearly so angry with Kirchick’s claims if they weren’t given the implicit seal of approval by those in power at The Atlantic (which seems, these days, to have cornered the market on bad faith ideas masquerading as intellectual discourse). Nor, for that matter, would I be so upset if someone, literally anyone, at The Atlantic had held this up to the scrutiny that it deserves and demanded that Kirchick correct his leaps in logic that undercut his own arguments. If he wants to be taken seriously as an queer intellectual, he should write like one.

Let me be clear, however. We have made a lot of strides when it comes to queer equality. I do see same-sex marriage as a win, and I do think that, overall, the country is moving in the right direction in terms of the acceptance and celebration of queer lives. There are so many things that we have accomplished, and we shouldn’t be afraid of embracing them.

But (and this is a very big but), it is important to recognize how precarious this progress is. One has only to ask any minority group that has ever gained equality in this country how well their efforts have fared, and they will tell you that every inch of progress must be defended and continually fought for. For make no mistake: we live in dangerous times. And while Trump is probably agnostic about queer issues, many of his supporters are not, and they explicitly embraced him because they thought he would bring about a return to the days when queer people lived in the shadows and were treated as pariahs and outcasts).

If we really want to move forward in the battle for equality and justice for all, we must, contra Kirchick, embrace intersectionality as a source of strength rather than as a weakness or a distraction. We must continue to have difficult conversations with our friends and family about the importance of our identities. We must continue to fight back against people like Kirchick who would distract and delude us with false narratives and intellectual dishonesty. Frankly, we deserve better of our queer thought leaders, and we should demand more.

What we must not do is give in to the forces of complacency. It is easy to read narratives like the one that Kirchick constructs and see victory. But, as with all narratives, we must always be aware of who exists outside the frame, who is excluded from the triumphalist stories that writers like him attempt to tell us. If we scratch the surface, we will find that for many of the most vulnerable members — including and especially trans women of color — it sure doesn’t look like total equality has been won. The fact that so many trans woman of color have been murdered this year alone seems like a grave disservice to those many trans folks who have given up so much for a community that still struggles to fully accept them. We surely owe the spirits of women like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson a better memorial.

The winning of gay marriage might have been a victory on the field of battle, but there is still a war to be fought.

And, make no mistake, we will win it, come what may.

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