Let’s Be Real, Mainstream LGBTQIA+ Organizations Aren’t Really Showing Up For QTPOC. Here’s What They Need To Do Now

Two people embracing.

‘It’s 2018! And you’re still homophobic?’

Comments like these create the illusion that queer and trans people are good in 2018. We can get married to the people of the “same sex,” so we’re happier than ever.

And why wouldn’t we be? We’re finally just like cisgender straight people! Love is love! Love trumps hate!

I’m sorry, but give it a rest y’all. The idea that there’s some linear path of progress in the LGBTQIA+ community can sound really nice, but the mainstream LGBTQIA+ movement has actually invisibilized the concurrent struggles of the most vulnerable LGBTQIA+ folks while it’s popularized this pleasant narrative.

All of us queers have not all been holding hands during a long climb to the top of the mountain of justice.

It’s been more like this: Black and Indigenous trans POC (BIPOC) led the climb up that mountain, warding off the mountain lions and shit. Then the white cis gays paid the mountain lions so they would chill and the white cis gays could get married. And then the POC were left dealing with the same nonsense…mountain lions and all.

Except, after that, things were almost worse because people didn’t think the mountain lions were a threat anymore. But the mountain lions have been there! And so have the strong winds, the solitude, and the possibilities of starvation!

The point is—not everyone in the LGBTQIA+ community was able to manifest their goals in that climb.

Just look at where we are now. It’s March of 2018, and “same-sex” marriage is legal. But around 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. Intersex people are still being medicalized, stigmatized, and erased. Transgender people are being murdered at a steadily increasing rate with the count at 28 reported deaths in 2017, and the majority of these homicide victims being women and of color. Already, in 2018, 6 trans women have been murdered, and four of those women were of color.

It’s frustrating to hear people talk about 2018 as the pinnacle of ‘gay rights,’ because that’s exactly what they mean: white cis gay rights. Prioritizing white cis gay rights in conversation erases the urgency and importance of the daily struggles faced by the most marginalized LGBTQIA+ people.

This issue extends beyond simple conversations, though. ‘Gay rights’ became conceptualized in the mainstream in this way due to the structural power held by national, white-led LGBT organizations.

I want to address the power these organizations hold, how they use it, and how people who are inside and outside of the organizations can challenge them to do way better.

I interviewed Melissa Moore, the white queer, non-binary executive director of We Are Family Charleston, who has worked closely with organizations like these in the early years of their career.  They echoed my sentiment that the majority of national LGBT organizations are led by white gay cisgender men “and sometimes [lesbians].”

The people who lead them “run in the big money circles. They get money from large foundations who don’t fund small grassroots organizations [and] pull in large corporate dollars from places like Microsoft, American Airlines, BP, Intel, and Citibank to name a few,” Moore continued.

National organizations like these favor assimilationist, rather than revolutionary, politics. They don’t want justice for all trans and queer people, but instead, they want to blend into respectable white cisgender, heterosexual society. White-led regional non-profits espouse these politics as well.

Here’s what we need to do to challenge these white-led national LGBT organizations, and the white-led regional non-profits too:

1. Urge organizations to divest from exploitative, complicit corporations.

Take Human Rights Campaign (HRC) as an example. HRC is the “largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights organization” and they’re funded by Target, BP, Citibank, Mastercard, Shell, and TD Bank amongst others.

Trans Southeast Asian scholar Cash Huynh takes a stand against these types of corporate sponsorships, claiming that “these mainstream organizations need to disregard capitalism from their organizing. These organizations need to adopt a new theory of change and a capitalist agenda isn’t one. Letting money make decisions on what we’re doing isn’t the type of work we should be engaging in because then we’re working for big money.”

Seeking corporate sponsorships, and maintaining those ties even when corporations prove themselves to disregard and exploit the lives of the most structurally vulnerable people in this world, is not something we can get behind.

Huynh goes on to argue that “money is important to building resistance, but if this money is coming from people who don’t believe that Black lives matter, then it’s contradictory to the movement we should be building.”

Huynh and I met up in Portland, Maine last year for a protest to demand that TD Bank divest from financing the Dakota Access Pipeline. The bank evaded accountability and used liberal language to defend their actions. So is it right for an organization like HRC, that claims (broadly) to serve us, to have a merry corporate sponsorship with a company that is complicit in the continuing genocide of our Native siblings?

Not at all. And one of the big reasons that corporations make these choices is because their leadership isn’t negatively impacted by this violence. These leaders actually end up benefiting from it because the blood money they receive writes their paychecks.

2. Call out their majority white cis leadership.

Organizations with homogenous leadership will generally work toward their own interests. But this is especially true when they’re led by people who are systematically taught to privilege themselves and disregard the lived realities of marginalized populations.

And this doesn’t just apply to large, well-funded organizations. White- and cis-led organizations, however well-intentioned they may be, cannot serve POC and trans people as POC and trans people could if we were in leadership ourselves.

On this point, Huynh insists that, “We need to move away from platforms facilitated by white liberals. If they claim our victories, like the Democrats, did with the Alabama Senate election, then we need to let them know that the people are giving them power, not their platform.”

White leadership not only consistently fails to uplift marginalized communities, but it contributes to the historic and present erasure and further marginalization of vulnerable members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

In an Autostraddle interview, Miss Major, a Black trans woman, activist, and elder who participated in the Stonewall riots, comments on the statues erected across from the original Stonewall. These statues were built to pay tribute to LGBTQIA+ history but also completely white-washed (and probably cis-washed) it. Though Black and indigenous trans women were the most prominent actors in the Stonewall riots, the monument features four straight-nosed, seemingly white and cis figures.

In the interview, Miss Major remarked, “Let’s get together a group of people to redo those god damn statues across from the original Stonewall. Let’s have the building at least claim who the people were that were there, not these white people that they had on in the plaque in there. None of my girls were mentioned on that plaque, none of us.”

White leadership is not only covertly violent like this, but it also can produce immediate threats to vulnerable communities’ safety.

Like, when white gay activists buddy up with the police at protests or invite them to speak at LGBTQIA+ rallies.  

Or, when Stonewall Columbus, a mainstream LGBTQ group, helped convict Black queer activists for protesting Pride in 2017. Three of these activists were found guilty on six misdemeanor charges and one activist still faces a felony charge.

We need to problematize white and cis leadership in order to begin to address the needs of the most structurally vulnerable.

3. Demand they center the most structurally vulnerable, not just tokenize them.

It’s 2018, and liberal activism is canceled.

Yup, I said it. No more #alllivesmatter gay rights politics. The ‘LGBTQIA+ community’ is rife with hierarchies in power, and it’s been time to not just include, but center the most vulnerable members.

This means that we, inside and outside of powerful LGBT organizations, need to interrogate leaders who claim they’re serving everyone, and convince them that the most vulnerable members of our community require the most resources and urgency.

Powerful organizations need to invest in trans and queer POC leadership by giving QTPOC the resources they need for safety and growth.

They need to prioritize the needs of their QTPOC volunteers, interns, and employees by paying them and ensuring that they have safe housing. They need to train QTPOC with skillshares.

In the community, LGBTQ organizations should be investing in efforts to end mass incarceration, protect sex workers, and hire educators to teach the masses about gender and sexuality diversity without a curriculum rooted in the western gender binary.

Justice will never come if white and cis leaders continue to present the guise of diversity without divesting from toxic corporations, changing up their leadership, and meaningfully redistributing their resources; nor will it come if we continue to applaud any organization for token diversity without substantive action.

Ayesha Sharma is a non-binary South Asian scholar and artist continually negotiating a relationship with themselves and their communities through practices of decolonization. They are most interested in literal and symbolic reclamation as an art practice and investing themselves in community care. Ayesha has written for the Urban Democracy Lab and is published in ANTYAJAA: Indian Journal of Women and Social Change.