American Apparel has launched a new t-shirt. It comes in a range of colors, including teal and pink, and has the words “Legalize Gay” emblazoned in white across the upper torso area. Below this are the words, “Repeal Prop 8.” The company’s website includes this promo material: “In the fall of 2008, Proposition 8 passed in California, striking down the legalization of same-sex marriage. Now the decision rests in the hands of California’s Supreme Court, with state lawmakers declaring the vote unconstitutional. Equal rights for all – repeal Prop 8.” The t-shirts are a variation on AA’s “Legalize L.A” t-shirts, part of the company’s attempt to market itself as an immigrants-rights-friendly entity. Clearly, this new version is an attempt to tap into the gay market.
A brief introduction to American Apparel: Founded in 1997 by Dov Charney, AA became famous for being the largest U.S. clothing manufacturer based entirely in this country. In other words, AA doesn’t outsource its manufacturing. But, it also has no unions and that fact alone should give pause to anyone who thinks this is a bastion of progressive business practices.
Its background has allowed AA to garner a niche market of mostly urban hipsters who’d like to look cool and aspire to at least the semblance of progressive politics. This t-shirt proves that gay marriage supporters aren’t afraid to exploit other struggles in an effort to legitimize themselves as the most marginalized.
Legalize Gay? Who, in the wake of Prop 8, is illegal for being gay? Sure, gays and lesbians might not be allowed to marry in California but Prop 8 has not meant that those with otherwise unblemished records can no longer leave their houses, or buy cars, or keep their jobs. Do people wearing this t-shirt have a clue what it really means to be illegal? To be, for instance, an “illegal alien” who gets swept up in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid and be deported soon thereafter? To not be able to travel freely because they lack the proper documentation? To pay for their school tuition and rent in cash because they lack social security numbers?
It’s not just the undocumented whose lives are effectively erased by this t-shirt, but the millions who are being funneled into the prison industrial complex in order to increase its profits. According to Critical Resistance, the prison abolition group, the United States currently imprisons around 2 million people and nearly “6.5 million people are presently under some form of supervision within the criminal justice system. Women represent the fastest rising prison population. Since 1980, the number of women imprisoned in the U.S. has risen by almost 400 percent.” The numbers have exploded because the PIC has been relentlessly creating new categories of the illegal, and putting people in jail for longer periods of time. 20% of new prison commitments in the US come from California, according to a 2006 statistic from CR.
The “Legalize Gay” t-shirt allows the wearer to smugly pose as “illegal” while cluelessly erasing the reality that millions are actually illegal in the terms dictated by draconian laws around immigration and the prison industrial complex.