Articles that have appeared in various publications.
At first glance, Winston’s Internet Café is a coffeehouse like many others. Filled with comfortable leather armchairs and sofas and nooks where customers might browse the internet or catch up with friends, the place offers the kind of public solitude that is a hallmark of café culture. In one corner, two computers offer free access to customers. A long L-shaped bar is made of concrete, and both it and the dark wood cabinets gleam softly under the care of owner Jim Stephens, a long-time carpenter who made all the woodwork himself.
A closer look reveals the kind of details rarely found in your average neighborhood café. Most establishments of its type take pains to appear cheerfully haphazard, with their collections of dumpster-dive and garage sale furniture carefully arranged to make you feel like you’re in the home of your most lovable eccentric aunt. But the furniture in Winston’s is both new and carefully coordinated. The restrooms are lined with soothing quarry stone tiles—there are no chalkboards inviting your impromptu thoughts here. There is a back room with another bar. Finally, the metal ball and chain at the door provide a clue that this establishment has, perhaps, different aspirations than a run-of-the-mill coffeehouse.
Winston’s, named for Stephens’ dog, was originally meant to be the reincarnation of the Chicago Eagle, the leather bar that once existed just a few doors down from the café located on Clark and Argyle. The Eagle’s owner Chuck Renslow, founder of the International Mr. Leather contest, shut down the bar in 2008. Stephens had worked at the Eagle for fourteen years as a bartender and manager, and he had always wanted a business of his own. He also felt strongly that the city needed an Eagle.
Renslow and Stephens bought five store fronts, including Eagle Leathers and Tattoo Parlor and Clark’s on Clark on the corner of Clark and Argyle. Stephens’s plan was to open the Eagle at that location. The trouble began at that point. Stephens learned that Clark’s, which officially closed in 2007, had been operating without a lease. He began working on renovating the space for the new business and applied for a liquor license in February 2009 but was denied.
It turned out that neighbors had been agitating in the neighborhood to have a license denied on the grounds that Chuck Renslow would be operating the business. They insisted on this even though, Stephens points out, the business has no ties with Renslow. Stephens added that the public applications would have made this clear. According to him, one of them went to some lengths : “He made a notice that he stuck on car windows and doors stating that the guy who’s going to be getting the license is also a previous owner of Chicago Eagle and that he rents to the tattoo parlor, which is involved with gang activity. Both claims are untrue.” Windy City Timesmade several attempts to contact and speak to the person and/or group who made these claims, but they did not respond.
To complicate matters further, the city had received eight letters of objection. Stephens put in the legwork and got seven of them to rescind their letters and even had friends and family members write in support. He applied for a revocation of a revocation but that was also denied. An additional wrinkle: although Clarks’s had closed in 2007, the city only revoked its license in May 2009. Under law, a location that has had its license revoked cannot have another for a year and a day after the date of revocation.
In the meantime, Stephens had incurred vast amounts of debt and seen the kind of setbacks that take small business owners by surprise. At one point, a compressor on the roof was stolen, setting him back by $5,000. “It’s a struggle to open a new business in the middle of winter in a horrible economy,” says Stephens. He adds that “most people have a year set aside, of running in the red.” In his case, it has taken a little over three years and family and friends have chipped in to help. But he has no plans to give up. To staunch the flow, he decided to open Winston’s as a 24-hour café, in order to recoup at least some of his expenses and keep things afloat. He plans to reapply for the liquor license at the end of May.
Winston’s opened to a slow but steady start in November 2009, during a particularly bleak winter. Recent visits to the café indicate that business is brisk, and the longer days and increasing sunshine appear to have drawn neighborhood people here in good numbers. The café offers the usual range of caffeinated drinks, and the coffee and sandwiches are made to order. To his surprise, Stephens has found a new and unexpected clientele—university students from institutions like Northwestern University and Truman College. Given the rarity of non-liquor 24-hour establishments in the surrounding area (the beloved all-night diner Standee’s, in Edgewater, closed in January), it’s not a surprise that students and neighborhood residents should be happy to have found a place that can serve as a study spot, a pause in bar crawling, or simply a place to find a few hours to read in peace or socialize. Stephens is hopeful about picking up more grab and go business during the morning rush, which accounts for 75 percent of coffeshop revenue; traditionally, the sit-down business only accounts for 25 percent.
Stephens hasn’t given up on his dream of owning and running the Eagle leather bar, hoping that he might be able to run that and a coffeshop with a tavern license: “I love bartending. I don’t see myself sitting behind the desk; I’m not an office person. I’ve spent hours tearing down drywall, replacing the floors, redoing the restrooms. I wanted a leather bar for people who can appreciate a nice place. And I want to work at a place where I can be comfortable with who I am.”
Winston’s 24-hour Internet Café is located at 5001 N. Clark; 773-728-0050.
This article is the first in a series looking at systemic, structural problems in the arts community. It explores the very real problems of undervaluing artists and their labor, privatization of the arts, and the structural problem of shifting social justice work from the state to artists. Part II is forthcoming.
Art has never been too far away from social justice. Artists have, accurately or not, been considered the radical visionaries of society. In recent years, the concept of art as social justice has become prominent in the non-profit and organizing worlds. Everywhere you turn, it seems, there is a mural about community or a hip hop performance about racial harmony. Art is no longer merely to be seen and consumed; it has now become a conscious mechanism in the resistance to neoliberalism, the intense privatization of everyday life which has brought us to this current economic disaster.
I am a writer and activist. My projects focus on issues like comprehensive immigration reform, which I support, and the privatization of the public school system, which I oppose. A significant part of my writing appears in left/progressive publications devoted to social justice. A life like mine, which combines my art with social justice, might well be considered the best response to the injustice that pervades the world.
That is one way of looking at it. The truth is the opposite. I am, in fact, neoliberalism’s wet dream come true.
I contend that our current obsession with the amalgamation of art and social justice is no resistance to neoliberalism but a key component of it.
How could this be, you might ask? Surely, you might wonder, there is nothing like the blending of art and social justice to prove that the artist is working consciously to alleviate current conditions of economic and cultural inequality.
In “Against Diversity,” the critic Walter Benn Michaels outlines the crucial distinction between a neoliberalism of the left and a neoliberalism of the right. Michaels illuminates this in the context of the relentless emphasis on racial and cultural diversity, long considered a panacea for all social ills in the United States, but his distinction is immensely useful in taking apart the notion of art as social justice. As he puts it, we might imagine that the desire to prioritize diversity in the workplace is an important step towards eradicating inequality but it in fact contributes to it by making diversity rather than the eradication of economic inequality the solution for our troubles. Left neoliberals “think that fighting against racial and sexual inequality is at least a step in the direction of real equality” while right neoliberals think “inequality is fine as long as it is not a function of discrimination.” In other words, both sides are neoliberal to the core, but our blindness towards inequality persuades us that only those who oppose diversity outright are the neoliberals we need to worry about.
That distinction between left and right neoliberals is key when it comes to the world of the arts in the United States, where the culture wars have given us easy distinctions between the left and the right. Here, neoliberals who would crush the freedom of self-expression are seen as poised on the right against freethinking and brave artistic souls constructing radical political work, whom we perceive as positioned on the left. In this milieu, private or foundation funders of art projects with a social justice emphasis are seen as coming to the rescue of “the arts” and helping to create conditions that foster a better society.
The idea that art is part of a larger cultural project of social justice is not entirely new to the United States, which has a history of deeming art as worthless if it is not Good for You. A sequel to this piece will go into detail about key moments in the intertwining of art and social justice. For now, it will suffice to note that much of this relatively recent heightened attention is a result of the infamous NEA battles of the 1980s and 1990s, most famously around the works of artists like Karen Finley, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Andres Serrano. The attempts to censor these artists were rightly recognized and criticized as such by the arts community, but one unfortunate result has been that the production and evaluation of “Art” has since then been firmly entrenched within the struggle between two sides. As a result, our conception of art’s place in the public sphere - and whether or not we identify on the left or the right - has, inevitably, to do with how we respond to the controversies.
In this context, the neoliberals of the left are those who would press artists to continue to work for “social justice” and, perhaps, to fight against censorship. The neoliberals on the right are those who think that social justice is not a function of art. Both kinds of neoliberals want control over the production of art, and neither cares much about paying artists for their labor, and in that they are neoliberal to the core. In the new and exploitative world of art as social justice, we are all neoliberals now.
The notion that art and social justice are intertwined has spread to all levels of the art and funding world, but it manifests itself most clearly in various “public art” projects that take upon themselves the responsibility to not only make art but also heal entire communities. Recently, the Artivist Coalition of San Francisco launched 16 days of events on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence toward Women and Girls. The day’s events included a speech by Mayor Gavin Newsom, who had declared the 25th the day of commemoration in 2008. According to a piece in the San Francisco Examiner, the 16 days would include performances by artists like “Judy Grahn, choreographer Anne Bluethenthal, musician Diana Gameros, and Aztec Dancers Mixcoatl, among other community artists.” In the same article, songwriter Mamacoatl, who organized the events, is praised for her contributions to the project:
She remains clear about the integrity of the art. All artists volunteer their time. By relying on the passion that is the driving force, and not on the commercial benefits, Mamacoatl is “confident that something positive can happen.” There is no space here for the “plastic art” which can potentially taint work dependent on grants. Instead, what arises is “a harnessing of creativity,” a gift, through art, to the community. To incite, to inspire, to provoke awareness.
Here, “harnessing of creativity” becomes un-plastic and ethereal, born of wishes and hopes, adding to the pretense that what the artists produce – their grueling routines, their meticulously choreographed dances, their hours of work put into poetry making, their writing V – is worth nothing in material terms.
Therein lies another problem: the notion that the production of art is separate from the nitty-gritty of art as labor. While I would never blame artists for their woes in terms of getting paid, the truth is that many of us have a hard time seeing ourselves as laborers who ought to be fairly compensated. Most of us have been trained to think our work is sacrosanct, that our work is not labor, that it is above petty commerce, and that we must make art only for nobler causes. When you add on the patina of social justice, many of us are reluctant unable to negotiate with those who are supposed to pay us, in part because we do care about the issues and the people affected by them. And, in part, because, frankly, too many of us have assimilated a deeply privatized notion that our art is so profound that it can and should directly effect social change – monetary value be damned. The result, as Andrew Ross puts it in a seminal essay, “The Mental Labor Problem,” is that “…the new profile of the artist as a social-service worker is coming to supplant the autonomous avant-garde innovator as a fundable type, increasingly sponsored through local arts agencies.” In the case of the Artivist Coalition events, artists were deployed as semi-mystical healers, responsible for shining a light on matters that should be the purview of social workers and politicians.
What do funders have to gain from this peculiar commingling of art and social justice? I once found myself in conversation with a woman who was keen to begin financing social justice art projects. I asked her if the emphasis on private funding would not end up taking pressure off the state to fund the arts. Foolishly, I had assumed that people like her, who talked endlessly about the role of art in the public sphere, actually thought that at least some of the onus for arts funding needed to shift back to the state. After all, if we in the arts are to insist that our work is part of a larger cultural and political framework, we ought also to ask the state to take responsibility for it, and to do so without getting bogged down in the right-wing Jesse Helms-dictated fear mongering of the 1980s. To my surprise, she snipped that the responsibility lay entirely with private funders like her and that there was really no need for the state to play a role.
That was when it occurred to me that the woman was a perfect neoliberal of the left, concerned only with perpetuating the very model of privatized funding that has caused our economic crisis in the first place. For the most part, arts and social justice funding is infused with the aura of nobility, combining the portrait of the penniless but determined artist with the desire and drive to change the world. Alongside this figure stands the benign (neo)liberal funder, supposedly concerned only with making the world a better place. But the emphasis on social justice and arts funding does not simply come out of a new urge on the part of people to change the world; it is symptomatic of a shortage in arts funding where only art based on a “social justice” model can and – the logic goes – should be funded. This is largely a measure of economic stringency. Fund Arts! Change the world! Cut costs!
No one seems to have asked artists what it means to provide art for social justice. Looking in from the outside, it might appear that artists are naturally drawn to social justice because it is part of their DNA. But is it, really? Who ultimately benefits from this blending of art and social justice? Looking at the lives of writers, it becomes clear that art as social justice is simply part of the neoliberal model of exploitation.
Writing is the probably the most devalued form of artistic creation in the United States. A graphic artist can produce something suitable for framing, a dancer’s motions make dexterity and craft amply clear, a singer has a song. All these arts are presented in settings that highlight the end product. Writing is largely a solitary act, no matter what the proliferation of blogs tells you. At the end of the day, your writing is between you and the flicker of the computer screen, and if you are fortunate to have a community of fellow writers, it is between you and them as well. But the primary work, the hard work of producing and creating a coherent piece with an argument and an arc (as opposed to a blog that can be shot off without a backward glance) is yours alone. What emerges at the end of the hours of work is sometimes printed on the page, often, these days, digitized for public viewing on the web. There is no way for me to convey to you the hours of writing, research, and rewriting (as well as the hours put in by other writers who took the time to provide input) that this piece alone took. Yet, writing is profoundly devalued to the point where it is seen as work without labor – anyone can write, the argument goes. Just build a website, and pound away.
To be clear, I think it is always a good thing if people want to write more. The problem is that the apparent democratization of writing today comes along with a profound devaluing of its worth as labor that ought to be fairly compensated. Take, for example, the notion of the “citizen journalist.” Someone once had the bright idea that all it takes for a robust and civil society is to turn a group of citizens, armed with little more than basic web access, digital cameras, and the ability to pound keys, to make society accountable for its ills. In return, they usually get little more than a free byline. So, really, the term “citizen journalist” refers to “an unpaid schmuck who will work for free in hopes of a byline.” I also happen to be a professional journalist. I once covered an event at City Hall and even managed to take some exclusive photos. When I returned home to file the story, I found that a local website had already “reported” on it. The “citizen journalist” for the site had simply cut and pasted a press release from one of the organizing groups, without even acknowledging that the words were taken verbatim from that document. A reader would assume that the reporter had actually talked to people at the event, and would be unlikely to see the inherent bias in the article. As as activist who has written a fair number of press releases, I know they are always written ahead of time, regardless of what might actually transpire at an event; they are carefully crafted messages that paint events as spectacular successes. Without important information about the source of the material being divulged to the reader, the “citizen journalist” was able to pass off a cut-and-paste job as journalism. In the end, this is the sort of shoddy work that brings down the quality of journalism in general and it makes the work of journalists look like something that requires no effort and, hence, something that can be done for free or very little.
Let me be fair: I am also a blogger, and that work is entirely for free (a fact that escapes the notice of irate readers who summarily call for my “firing” by editors who are themselves making barely enough to keep the sites up and running). I understand the value of producing work that might entice and create a reader base for my writing. But all of this goes on in a social and political environment where people assume that it is not only okay to underpay writers, but that writers should, if worth their salt, be willing to be exploited. A number of my friends work as staff journalists for print magazines and newspapers, and you would think that they would at least have the comfort of a regular job that pays them for the hard work that goes into reporting and reviewing. Yet, increasingly, journalists and reviewers are being asked to blog in addition to their day jobs, and that work can turn into hours of uncompensated labor. The question: “What do you think?” addressed to anyone who alights upon a publication’s website, has become ubiquitous. Writers are asked to go above and beyond the labor they’ve already put into their pieces and “agree” to endless engagement with readers/trolls. Some members of the public might have intelligent questions but the majority of them appear to simply be delighted with the prospect of treating a writer the way they might treat outsourced workers working on their consumer complaints: badly. Piffle to the travel, the interviews, the photographs, the analysis, the writing, and the filing by deadlines. All of the necessary work that actually goes into writing a piece becomes secondary to this specious form of “engagement” with people who might not even read the original article in its entirety.
The situation is hardly helped by the fact that artists like me are expected to function without the basics like health care and that, as a freelance writer, I cannot seek unemployment. I have sprained the same knee twice in two years, leading to a drastic reduction in my earnings. Intrepid journalism is hard or impossible if you have to ask a fast-trotting subject at a political rally to please slow down so that you can keep up with them. I live with the knowledge that a slightly more serious accident could wipe me out. I do various gigs around town to make what I can and I try to carve out chunks of that most precious commodity, the drug of choice for writers: time.
I do this because I would not be doing anything else. But the fact that I, and the millions of professional writers like me, would rather not do anything else does not mean that we are pleased with a system that so completely devalues our work. People wonder why my fellow writers and I will not just “get regular or part-time jobs” to pay the bills, but they forget that the current crisis means that even a part-time job is really full-time, and a full-time job automatically means unpaid overtime – if you want to actually keep the job. I taught as an adjunct for three years. I had a teaching schedule that tenure-track faculty would never endure, at about a quarter or less of their salary, without any time afforded for research or “professional development,” and without time for my own writing. Most people unacquainted with the reality of a writing life cannot grasp the fact that while writing is not taxing in the same way as hard physical labor, it is draining, and not something you do on the fly. People tend to assume that writing is like having a word processor in your head. They imagine that you get on the train, you do your adjunct gig, you write in your head all the while, and you come home and hit print – because somehow, somewhere, it has all been typing itself.
Ironically, it may well be the world of unpaid blog writing that begins to shed some light on the conditions in which writers work, as more of them lose day jobs and publishing opportunities become scarce. The New York-based journalist Stephanie Schroeder recently began a blog to document her experiences in New York City’s Back to Work program. Schroeder had a day job at a public relations firm and also worked as a freelance journalist. She was phased out from the public relations firm in June 2009, after seeing her hours reduced in February. Finally, unable to find rent for December and without enough freelance assignments to fill in the gap, Schroeder found herself applying for Medicaid and temporary cash assistance and filling out forms for a case worker who could not understand how Schroeder came to be a “middle class white gerl [sic] with a graduate degree who says she’s working as a freelance journalist yet making less than $400 a month.” Schroeder’s point is not to privilege herself as someone who should not be in this position as a middle class white person with a graduate degree, but to point out that what outsiders to the world of writing fail to understand is the inherently unstable nature of writing as a livelihood, and the fact that one’s race and educational background do little to guarantee a steady income. As a freelance writer, Schroeder, like many writers, writes for hire and is paid only after the piece is published. The very idea that we produce work that does not even garner a small portion of the fee before the final product is delivered, is itself strange to most professionals.
Schroeder, in conversation with me, emphasized that the exploitation of writers begins even at the point of applying for writing jobs. For instance, job applications often require a writer to turn in 500-word essays on a topic related to the blog/magazine, with the possibility of a byline if the potential employer decides to use it, but without actually paying the writer for her work. Schroeder has responded to these advertisements by sending job posters her résumé and clips, along with an explanation of her fee rates.
The kind of arrogance that allows firms to assume that they can simply demand lengthy pieces from writers even before the point of entry and use their work to generate money is endemic in a culture where writing is considered a hobby and something that one is just born being good at – as opposed to the reality which every writer understands, that it is a craft steadily honed over a lifetime.
For writers, our work is not our reward; the amount paid for our work is the just reward. But getting people to understand or acknowledge that is uphill work, and my precarious position as a freelance writer also means that people have felt free to exploit me. When I first began my life as a writer, I was shocked to find that the most exploitative people are those embedded in the non-profit/social justice world. I once had the six-figure salary earning head of a domestic violence organization try to get me to write a grant proposal for nothing. I have had people change their minds about what they owed me after I turned in the work, which is a delicate way of saying that I have been cheated out of my wages (and yes, that did drive home an important lesson about contracts). At a meeting of activists and organizers, I listened to a high-minded discussion about how the role of progressive media would be to engage more fully with the public on vital issues, and that everybody would be required to make sacrifices for this noble goal. When I asked who would be paying the writers, all eyes turned to me as if I had dared to ask the cost of the china. Independently wealthy people, some with staggeringly large fortunes, dominate the publishing and foundation world, and they have no idea what it means to try to produce work while worrying about rent or food. Nevertheless, my question seemed, and still seems, a reasonable one. Writers provide the content that garners the advertising that keeps publishing alive. Why, then, are they the last and least to be paid? Why are writers made to feel like their work is only ancillary to the carpet and automobile advertisements in a newspaper, magazine, or website? Much of this exploitation has come at the hands of people who are deeply embedded in the arts/social justice world, who assume that their devotion to their causes justifies treating their workers like crap.
So, whose great idea was it to combine art with social justice?
Even putting aside the exploitation of the writer/artist: we have still not reached a point where we critically analyze whether or not an art/social justice project is actually left/radical/progressive; we simply assume it to be so. Art/ social justice projects are well intentioned and some are insightful, but the politics of these works rarely does much to challenge the status quo. Instead, the overwhelming message is usually that certain systems of oppression, like racism, sexism, and homophobia, are bad. There is little consideration given to a more nuanced and more devastating analysis of the ideological forces and the economic inequality that keeps those systems alive. Furthermore, some of these projects are implicated in the very problematic power dynamics they claim to dismantle. Over the course of my reporting and activism, I have interviewed or otherwise engaged with activist-artists whose work involve the incarcerated – remember the heyday of “prison art?” In this field, it is painfully obvious that that too many of those seeking recognition for their generosity towards prisoners are clueless or simply unconcerned about their relative privilege vis-à-vis the inmates whose work they want to highlight. One such artist conceptualized a project about women in prison. When I interviewed her, it became painfully clear that she had no idea who these women were (she could not even remember their names) beyond their roles as participants in her grandly envisioned project of self-expression. Making matters worse, she was oblivious to her relative privilege as someone who could afford to come and go as she pleased while her subjects were stuck inside. Talking about the interview afterwards, she complained to a mutual acquaintance that I had not asked her about her art; she could only see the end product as her “art,” a piece that would highlight her role as the spokesperson for the women. It never occurred to her that she would be questioned about the relations between her and the imprisoned women whose lives provided the material for the project. In another instance, a man who presented on his artistic work in a prison in the southwest spoke glowingly about the good relations he had established with the guards and authorities and was defensive when asked if such work, which involved increased monitoring of the prisoners, was not further enabling the surveillance mechanisms of the prison industrial complex.
Prison art has waned somewhat in popularity, but it has been supplanted by a surge in interest in hip hop and spoken word. In Chicago, where I live, the arts/social justice calendar is filled with events highlighting the talents of (usually) black youth, whose refashioning of the genre is part of a larger conversation about the perceived misogynistic and homophobic lyrics of major artists. Much of this kind of work is worthwhile, given that the genre itself has been delegitimized and scrutinized by a wider culture that still sees black performers as threatening and violent figures.
But the current fetishization of hip hop amongst mostly white funders comes with the fetishization and commodification of black youth as authentic poets of their generation. There are few things as uncomfortable as sitting amongst white social justice activists nodding to themselves in a self-congratulatory fashion as a black teenager stands on a stage and speaks to the troubles of his or her neighborhood. What is ignored is the fact that the youth are being locked into a performativity that requires them to speak about their experiences but does not take them anywhere near the apparatus that could dismantle systemic oppression. You can speak out loud about the problems in the ’hood, but don’t you dare ever think you can become part of the structure that addresses them. In these conditions, hip hop has become the vernacular of authentic inequality.
Is there a place for social justice in art? In the current state of things, where artists are exploited by left neoliberals and where the politics of most arts/social justice projects are suspect, the answer would have to be: no. Those of us in the art world who also care about social justice need to begin to critically analyze the exploitative and reductive model of funding that we have enabled. We need to stop asking ourselves only: Are these projects going to change the world? Instead, we ought to ask: Are these projects fair and equitable and just in the way they treat artists as workers? Do they really advance an understanding of how we might dismantle fundamental forms of inequality? Perhaps more importantly: Do they need to? Works of art have historically been linked to social change by exposing cultural and political problems, whether in the novels of Dickens or Picasso’s Guernica. But such messages about the need for social change come about when the artist is left unburdened with the specific and onerous task of changing the world. A culture that so self-consciously and overtlys assign the role of social change to art is a culture that has exhausted its ability to effect truly radical and visionary social change. It is hypocritical to place the burden of change on artists who are expected to perform change for little or nothing, while we allow for the defunding of the apparatus that should keep them alive.
If the genres of “artivism” have waxed and waned, so have the actual structures of funding. The general cuts in funding of the arts across the board have resulted in new and supposedly more flexible mechanisms via which to gather and disburse money. In other words, not only is the work of art seen as a way to bring about social justice or change, the very nature of funding itself is being refashioned to look like a form of social justice. On the face of it, some of these funding strategies look more egalitarian, like the cheerily named “umbrella organizations.” Part II of this article will consider the realities of such supposedly more flexible and liberatory funding structures but, for now, it is worth remembering that a system that cannot see the exploitative nature of the arts and social justice framework is unlikely to be any less exploitative and neoliberal just because it claims to be a new and progressive form of funding.
I am aware of the reality of arts funding in the U.S. I know that without even the façade of these art/social justice funding projects, a lot of artists and creative workers like me will struggle to have their work funded. And let me be clear: I do not see “art” of any kind as a purer or nobler ideal divorced from funding or from community ties. But the solution is not to seek forms of funding which simply amplify the exploitation already inherent in the concept of art as social justice. Our time would be better spent in devising ways to wrest back the public debate about funding of the arts. Over the last few decades, we have ceded control of the debate to an intense and organized right wing that now methodically scrutinizes work for the smallest sign of moral degeneration. In the process of reviling the right as a set of conservatives, we have huffed about our own liberal/progressive impulses, and engendered arts projects that do little more than detail tokenistic and liberal solutions for the social problems that ail us.
We, on the left, may not have the billionaires of the right to fund our projects but no one who is part of the arts/social framework can any longer refuse to see that we have slowly built up an exploitative and reductive funding structure and a pedantic genre of art. The only way out is to end the pretence and ask ourselves: Does art serve no purpose if it cannot serve an explicit agenda like “social justice?” In recent years, we have seen public service announcements by celebrities touting the benefits of arts education in elementary schools because it supposedly helps make better mathematicians or physicists out of children. Perhaps the point ought to be that arts education makes for better artists. Perhaps we ought to stop being so apologetic about art and not keep trying to wrap its trembling shoulders with that raggedy shawl of self-righteousness, and instead advocate for public school funding that incorporates all aspects of education. Perhaps we ought to accept the fact that artists may produce work that is disinterested in social change, and put some of the burden back on the state to effect the kind of social change we want. Without buying too much into the neoliberal mantra of choice (often a code word for “choose this, or else”), we need to acknowledge that artists should have the power to choose when or if and how they will speak to social justice issues. Without that choice, they are only being exploited in the name of art or, worse, in the name of art disguised as social justice. The privatization of the arts now mostly requires artists to speak explicitly to social justice, and that robs artists of any autonomy over their creative processes.
Perhaps, horrors, that actually means that we lose the practice of bargain basement hunting for the arts. That we stop expecting writers and dancers to perform for free or almost nothing in the vain hope of “exposure” or “healing.” Perhaps, with the example of the privatized health care system having produced 50 million uninsured, we might now also realize that privatizing the arts leads to similarly devastating consequences for the state of art, and that we stand to lose vibrancy and imagination into the sinkhole formed by vapid social justice projects. In a country where we expect to get a rock bottom price on anything, including the work of writers and dancers, the arts and social justice complex has become the Wal Mart-like purveyor of the fiction of Change, that great and now utterly meaningless word that seems to mean “more of the same”. If we really want to see social justice come alive, let us once and for all stop creating more methods of exploiting the arts and stop putting the burden on the artist to carry out our politics of change.
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We need to refuse the narratives of abjection that are routinely forced upon us. They only render us immobile creatures, begging for help. We are all neoliberals now. We’re all selling our bodies, our lives, our stories to the media and to provide comfort to ourselves. Those stories have to be challenged and reworked or we lose sight of the larger story of economic exploitation, at our peril.
“You should know more about Islam.” I was at an anti-war event organized by my friend D., and was being admonished by a smug, white, almost-retired Marxist professor, the kind that’s all too common in the Rogers Park neighborhood, an area known for its vaunted progressive politics. He’d just been introduced to me, with my noticeably Muslim first name, and had promptly asked me to clarify some point about Islam. I’d told him I didn’t know, a response which drew the aforementioned words from him. I wanted to sear Mr. Marxist (henceforth to be known as Mr. M.) with angry barbs. D. and I both started to tell Mr. M that I’m an atheist, and I also wanted to turn the tables on him: How dare you, I wanted to say, assume anything about me, based on the colour of my skin and my name? And even if I were Muslim, why should I know more about Islam? You’re white, so you must be, oh, a Protestant? But I didn’t, mostly because he was quite old, approaching 80 perhaps, and I was afraid of giving him a heart attack. And, I'll admit, because I didn’t want to “make trouble” in what was partly a social setting.
The man looked at me, and then turned away dismissively. I had failed to capture his interest. He’d clearly hoped to impress me with his recognition of my Muslim name, and to then proceed to a conversation about how oppressed Muslims and immigrants (my accent gives away my foreign origins) are by white America (to prove his lefty credentials). But I had failed him miserably. I didn’t fit the mould. I was not abject enough for him.
In speaking about immigration rights, activists and supporters for the same often decry the “Right,” that hazy entity they see as the scourge of a progressive immigration reform agenda. The lefty-liberals who populate Rogers’s Park and my own adopted “homeland” of Uptown have kept the city a blue dot in a sea of red, but they’re also a smug lot. I moved here from Indiana, and I’m still constantly appreciative of living in a place where there is at least some form of progressive politics. But, over the years, I’ve grown tired of the smugness of the lefties and have even come to appreciate the forthrightness and sheer clarity of the “Right.”
That’s not to say that I support the minutemen, or that I care for the paranoid narratives about immigration promulgated by Rush Limbaugh and Jim Oberweiss. But at least I know what to expect from them. With the putative left, I’m constantly being blindsided by its sheer smugness and arrogance, as was evident with Mr. M. The left doesn’t know what to do with the immigrant bodies it encounters on a daily basis, outside of the prefabricated narratives of pathos and abjection it reads in “progressive” narratives about immigration. It’s a profound symptom of neoliberalism that the “left” is as problematic on immigration as the right. It seeks the comfort of legibility in immigration battles.
Hence Mr. M’s desire to fix me as the Muslim woman with a tale to tell about Islam. Faced with a quandary as simple as a woman with a Muslim name who wasn’t Muslim and an atheist, he preferred to simply turn away. The legibility of the story that I, in his mind, ought to have presented – the abject Muslim woman who could be the authentic native informant on Islam – was now muddied and unclear.
It may seem like a stretch, to use a random brief conversation to extrapolate a larger text about the left’s failure to fully engage with the politics of immigration. But part of the problem with Chicago politics in particular and left politics in general is that its adherence to a sentimental and nostalgic view of the Other is deeply embedded in a politics of abjection and rescue. And this failure is manifested in the everyday encounters like the one I describe above, even as marches, rallies, and anti-war events portray a strongly analytic anti-establishment “left.” There are consequences to pay for this perception of what immigrants should be like. Immigration rights activists like myself find themselves having to define themselves within preconceived narratives while struggling to craft alternatives paradigms for a truly progressive reform agenda. As a result, we’re often forced to “tell our stories” in abject and humiliating ways that render us apolitical creatures, in need of rescue by our white allies.
Such narratives of abjection cast the immigrant in affective terms – as the kind of person with a story to share, or as a native informant who provides an authentic narrative of immigration. It blinds us to the fact that immigration today is about the quest for cheap labor, and that the immigrant is primarily a worker caught in that quest. In the context of queer immigration reform, as I’ll indicate below, such affective story-telling denies that queers are anything but bourgeois subjects whose lives are divorced from the murky realities of labor organizing.
For the remainder of this piece, I shall use the words left and right not in the sense of any fixed ideologies but as the hazy memories of what used to be an ideological divide. Neoliberalism’s gift is that the distinctions no longer matter.
I came out of graduate school with a degree in English, specializing in critical theory; I was the bastard child of queer theory and deconstruction. After moving to Chicago to work as an adjunct in University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) Department of English, I became weary of the intellectual paucity of queer theory. Busting binaries had seemed like a meaningful struggle in graduate school, but that does nothing to address economic inequality. I was tired of the futile, gerundive act of “queering” that theorists delighted in, of projects undertaken in the naïve belief that simply finding a queer subtext in any narrative could lead to some vaguely articulated radical change. I turned to forms of activism and organizing, only to be faced, eventually, by the political bankruptcy of a gay movement that was hurtling towards gay marriage as the only worthwhile cause to embrace.
I’ve been against marrying and marriage since the age of eight, and yet I don’t see marriage or married people as the central problem. If you’ll forgive the cliché, many of my dearest friends – and quite a few of my lovers – are married. But marriage ought to be a social and cultural issue. My problem with the gay marriage movement has been that it argues for the prioritizing of coupledom and “committed relationships” as a substitute for any substantial change. It’s one thing to argue that gays and lesbians ought to be able to marry because everybody else can. But it’s quite another to argue that gay marriage is the capstone of gay organizing, or that gays and lesbians ought to be able to get married in order to garner the benefits of their spouses, or that gays and lesbians in relationships deserve more than their uncoupled brethren. The arguments for gay marriage ignore the basic truth that not everyone has a job that gives them benefits, leave alone allowing them to share the same with partners. And people should not feel compelled to marry for benefits, especially in a time when the institution of marriage is less attractive than ever before. The idea that marriage should give you something as simple as health care directly contradicts the struggle for universal health care. Health care should go to everyone, regardless of marital status.
I eventually turned to organizing around queer immigration issues. This came about in part because the queer radical organizing scene in Chicago had imploded under the weight of gay marriage. I was, from 1999 to 2003, a member of the now-defunct group, Queer to the Left. I’d joined Q2L because of its strong critique of mainstream gay organizing which, even before gay marriage, was obsessed with cultivating an image of gays and lesbians as bourgeois subjects who deserved “a place at the table” for being normal and nice. In its heyday, Q2L critiqued the gentrification efforts of wealthy lesbians and gay men in Uptown, and it worked in solidarity with organizations like Community of Uptown Residents for Affordability to preserve low-cost and affordable housing.
But gay marriage soon took over national and local organizing in the gay community, and the group filled up with white gay men for whom this was a defining issue. Contrary to the group’s original anti-capitalist and anti-heteronormative principles, this new set of members began working on pro-marriage initiatives, all of which became too much for me to stomach. By then, I was also the only woman, the only brown person, and the only queer-read-as-lesbian, leading a friend to dryly comment, “If you leave the group, we’ll lose at least three of our major constituencies.” I left shortly before Q2L imploded, struggling to define itself as a left-queer group despite its new pro-gay-marriage plank.
Around the same time, I was feeling the pinch of exploitation at my “job,” one which mimicked the structural responsibilities of a tenure-track position but with more onerous responsibilities (adjuncts taught three classes per semester, faculty taught between two to none). Being an adjunct showed that academia had already become a neoliberal fantasy with its massive exploitation of cheap labor, a condition that closely replicates the kind of labor exploitation that haunts immigration. My life as a queer is inextricably interwoven with my life as an ex-adjunct and as an activist with a history in local organizing, with all its muddiness and frustrations.
I bring all this to bear upon my discussion of what a progressive and queer immigration reform agenda should look like in order to demonstrate that there is no pure “queer” agenda here and that the categories of “queer” and “immigrant” are intertwined in ways that the gay movement and those who claim to fight for a queer agenda refuse to recognize. I also want to demonstrate that the personal is not political but, rather, that only the political is political and that personal narratives form a distraction from issues of labor. I could tell you that I lived, loved, and lost and lived and loved again and detail my personal life as a queer who happens to work on immigration.
But that would be irrelevant to the larger struggle on immigration which remains, properly, not an affirmation of the status quo for the documented, but a mass mobilization of the millions of undocumented who are targeted and brutalized even as their labor is extracted and exploited. A progressive – and queer -- immigration reform agenda sees the exploitation of immigration labor as its paramount concern, and understands that the personal stories it elicits from immigrants cannot sustain a long-term reform package. These stories might provide comfort about what we know about immigrants. But they disable our understanding of the economic crisis of neoliberalism, of which the battle over immigration is a symptom. In the context of the gay movement, immigration is overcast by the new reality of what it means to be “LGBT” today – to be defined by a class category rather than any sense of politics.
In the United States, “Gay” has become a separate class identity. This is typical of a widespread feeling in the U.S., even among the most beleaguered workers, that they must distinguish themselves as professionals, separate from blue-collar workers. As an adjunct organizer at UIC (I was the Lecturer Representative), I once sent out an e-mail about unionization to which one person responded, “Are you trying to tell me that I’m the same as a truck driver?” (Answer: “Yes.”) This discomfort about being classified as workers is a problem that threatens unionizing more generally, in a social context where workers’ rights are seen as inimical to the “American Dream.” Such an attitude is aided in no small part by megacorporations like Wal-Mart that threaten workers with layoffs if they join unions.
The “gay movement” of today strongly relies on the fiction and fantasy that gays are uniformly of the same class background and that they all desire one kind of life (bourgeois, happily married, and mysteriously and universally endowed with health care benefits). Some of the force behind the thrust towards gay marriage is based on emotion and sentiment, and those operate on the assumption that gays everywhere are the same in terms of class identity. In this fantasy land where every gay person automatically gets rights and benefits upon marriage, there are no layoffs or accidents at the workplace. In effect, to be gay in America is to be a separate class identity.
But what of poorer gays and lesbians? Factions of the movement already have an answer to that. One local group writes triumphantly that poorer gays and lesbians would especially benefit from marriage rights because it would give them access to benefits. But that presupposes that there are any benefits to share in the first place, and that’s less likely in the lower wage workplace. And we ought to ask: how is promulgating marriage as a cure for economic insecurity any different from the Right demanding that women on welfare undergo marriage counseling and making it difficult for single mothers to get assistance? Why should marriage, of all things, be the savior of class-based economic woes?
The problem here is that, in the shadow of neoliberalism, identity – gender, ethnicity, race, or sexuality – has become separated from the pressing workplace issues that define us as workers. Under a neoliberal framework, your identity as part of a social and cultural group will be protected more readily than your rights as a worker. If your co-worker calls you a derogatory name that insults your heritage/sexuality/gender/race, he/she will be punished swiftly and perhaps face a termination of employment. If you get injured on the job, or fired without notice, the chances of any retribution for the same are difficult to impossible. This has far-reaching implications in terms of how we conceive of immigration rights, and the fact that we prefer to think of immigrants as persons with stories – not as workers. In the context of queer organizing over immigration, the movement has been hijacked by mainstream gay groups that define the agenda in very narrow terms, separating “queer” from “worker.”
What are the issues taken up, recently, by queer groups that claim to fight for immigration? They are: the HIV bar, which disallows people with HIV/AIDS from entering the country or gaining permanent residency (now lifted, in a fashion); bi-national couples; and asylum on the grounds of sexual orientation.1 The last is meant to benefit those persecuted in their home countries on account of their sexuality.
What are the issues for the immigrant rights community? At this time, one that leaves immigrants most vulnerable is that of “no-match letters.” According to recent legislation that’s gaining traction across the country, employers are bound to verify that all their employees have social security numbers that match their names. Those without a match are reported for deportation. The system is rife with problems, not the least of which is that even those with real social security numbers mistakenly get flagged. More importantly, it places the emphasis on catching “illegals” rather than on examining the systemic reasons why we have so many undocumented people willing to risk their livelihoods with fake social security cards. And then, of course, there are the raids on factories and workplaces across the country, which allow immigration officials to sweep in, arrest, and jail indefinitely/or deport thousands of low-wage workers. There is the brutalization of the undocumented and the fact that thousands are disappeared from low-income neighborhoods, never to be seen again by their communities.
Why do these two sets of issues seem so irreconcilable? Why does it seem like queer immigrants have nothing in common with immigrants? Why does the mainstream gay community, once able to forge alliances with labor, now pretend that work and exploitation are no longer part of a gay identity? To get to the answer, it’s necessary to understand how gay organizing has shifted over the past thirty years.
In his introduction to the volume, Media/Queered: Visibility and Its Discontents, Kevin Barnhurst writes incisively that “One outcome of gay and lesbian liberation has been the rise of the full-time homosexual, who works at the crossroads of queer and straight communities.” He also points to the rise of queer organizations in the wake of the AIDS crisis, when we had to seek and create our own health-care and advocacy services. In the long run, the creation of a cadre of LGBT professionals has benefited the community. But it has also meant that in order to be gay anywhere but especially in the workplace, we must repudiate or lose sight of other aspects of our lives, including, at times, our right to collective bargaining. In an essay titled “Professional Homosexuals,” in the same volume, Katherine Sender writes about an “engineer and cochair of a gay and lesbian employeer group in a high-tech company” which “had banned such groups for years out of fear they would function as trade unions.”
In this way, what looks like a progressive agenda – enabling people to live openly within their identities – is in fact a classic neoliberal bait-and-switch. You can have your identity, or you can have your rights as a worker. But it’s increasingly difficult to have both.
Theorists of neoliberalism, like David Harvey and Naomi Klein, have explained its chief characteristic of intense privatization in terms of the financial institutions and structures that govern our daily lives. However, in order to survive as it does, neoliberalism also evokes affect and emotion. In other words, to dull and distract from the pain of privatization, we need to feel good about ourselves as human beings and as creatures of identity, people with stories. This is especially evident in the current discourse on immigration reform.
Immigration is often portrayed as a crisis. But the real crisis is that engendered by the thirst for cheap labor, legislation like NAFTA, and that people are compelled to move from north to south and from east to west at the risk of their lives in order to find a subsistence living. The unrelenting flow of undocumented people between borders is a symptom of the crisis, not the crisis itself. The constant portrayal of immigration as a “crisis” allows for the dehumanization of immigrants.
In order to combat this dehumanization and to help the public make sense of undocumented labor, the left has seen no recourse but to use the rhetoric of “good” immigrants. This requires the use of affect and emotion packed into stories about worthy, hard-working immigrants who revitalize their neighborhoods and contribute to their local economies. In the United States, the concept of “family reunification” has long been the cornerstone of immigration reform attempts. The logic is that the plight of the undocumented would best be alleviated if their families were allowed to join them here. In the last round of immigration battles, several groups vehemently argued that the issues of H1-B workers were irreconcilable with those of immigrants torn from their families. This, again, placed immigration within the realm of affect and neatly erased the fact that immigrants with families are also workers, not just family members. “Family reunification” was the trump card of a large segment of the immigrant rights community – and it failed to get us anywhere.
With regard to immigrants in particular, the popular notion of “family” is one where a happy, cozy home, redolent with the scent of spices and home-cooked food, provides comfort and lasting values to generations of immigrants and their offspring. But what happens to those who can’t be defined by such families, by choice or otherwise? What happens to, for instance, queer immigrants who’re disowned by their families or have no desire to belong to communities where they can’t be openly gay? Or to those, queer or not, who face abuse in their families? Exclusion, homophobia, and abuse are not particular to immigrant families – so why do we assume that these are more idyllic and happier and safer than “American” families?
Moreover, the rhetoric of “family reunification” erases the labor issues that are integral to how families work within their adopted neighborhoods and cities. By rendering the family in affective terms, we’re allowed to forget that neoliberalism increasingly deploys entire families as labor. Take, for instance, the popular mythology of immigrant-run family stores that help to revitalize neighborhoods. In fact, these, like the low-paid immigrants who live in the surrounding area, help to prepare neighborhoods for gentrification. Eventually, the better-off immigrants might join the ranks of the gentrifiers, while the rest are pushed further into the outskirts of the city, bused in for construction work in “better” neighborhoods.
In such ways, the mainstream immigration rights community struggles with the question of how to make immigrants most legible to the “rest” of America (we haven’t reconciled ourselves to the fact that over 12 million immigrants are “us”). As things stand, labor is constantly divorced from the laborers themselves. Currently, in the wake of the unexpected failure of the 2006 negotiations, there are signs that labor-friendly groups like March 10 Movement are returning with an emphasis on immigration rights as worker’s rights. Such an emphasis is largely lost upon the queer community, which still takes on the immigration issues that can most widely evoke affect and, hence, are most likely to succeed.
What would it mean to craft a truly progressive queer immigration reform agenda, given the limitations that face us and given the fact that both the leftists among us and the mainstream press demand the more legible stories of pathos and abjection? Is it even possible to “tell a different story” and to persuade readers and fellow activists alike to engage in a more useful systemic analysis? Does and should “queer” matter? Given the mainstream and often pro-capitalist and anti-labor impulses of the gay movement, is it even useful to conceive of a queer immigration agenda?
In 2008, a group of us from CLIA (Chicago LGBTQ Immigrants Alliance) organized a one-day forum titled Immigration at the Margins: Day Laborers, Sex workers, Domestic Violence & HIV. As one of the key organizers, I’d been especially keen on the topic of sex trafficking. My previous research indicated that much of the hype around the subject came about as a result of the media’s fascination with the sexually salacious stories about beautiful young girls raped and trapped by greedy smugglers. I also knew that the stories about sex trafficking inevitably distracted from the issue of labor trafficking. Thousands of workers are smuggled across national and state lines every day, and housed in horrific conditions with little to no wages, but the media finds their stories not sexy enough.
But then we began hearing about day workers in California being compelled to perform sex work. Was there any truth to this, and would this somehow confirm the idea of sex trafficking as a widespread phenomenon? Jessica Acee, then of Latino Union, debunked the story as media hype but also astutely pointed out that, “In a sense, day laborers, doing sex work or not, are already selling their bodies, being exploited or being survivors.” Acee’s comments exemplified the primary purpose behind Immigration at the Margins and demonstrates a key point for us to keep in mind as we move forward in our discussions about immigration and immigrants: that there can be no neat divisions between the kinds of labor performed by immigrants, and we benefit from a renewed focus on labor and its connection to issues of gender and sexuality. Such a focus can only come about when we consider the queerly gendered contexts within which labor operates.
The case of sex trafficking, and the media obsession, is a case in point. As Acee pointed out, the stories both sexualize and demonize the immigrant, based on gender. Within this set of narratives, the victims are beautiful, long-haired, woeful women caught in networks of rape and torture. Over and over, the discourse on sex trafficking pretends that there is no labor involved. It does not acknowledge that women and possibly even men trade sex voluntarily, or that immigrants might also be sex workers, or that sex work is itself a form of labor. Sex, partly for salacious and pornographic reasons, becomes a way to imagine the sexualized immigrant woman or the dominant and brutal immigrant male (even though traffickers may in fact be significantly American). Sex, in this context, offers comfort about our views of immigrant women as abjected Others in need of rescue.
And such stories ignore the realities of sex trade for those who can not be classified or recognized as immigrants or queers. What do we do with the stories of young women and men, often queer, often not, who trade sex acts for protection from law enforcement officers? Who trade sex for not being turned in, and whose sexual identity cannot be counted because they don’t care to be counted, or because their lives don’t allow them the luxury of being out and proud? The gay community, in constant search of validating and respectable narratives, can’t even see those who live multiple lives as low-wage workers, undocumented people, and sex workers.
And yet, these stories do count and can contribute to a larger systemic reappraisal of what counts as a progressive immigration reform agenda. It’s important to remember that Acee, who is herself not queer-identified and represented a non-queer organization, brought to the table a stunning analysis of how gender, sexuality, and labor work in the framework of a neoliberal drive towards cheap labor. The point here is simply that a queer immigration reform agenda which centralizes labor has less to do with locating actual queers and narratives and more to do with the particular analytic and activist lens that’s possible within a queer framework. To only emphasize our relationships, our families, and our love, such as they are, in uncomplicated terms that are both heteronormative and homonormative is to deny the potency of a queer analysis and to buy into a simplistic narrative about lesbians and gays being “just like us.”
Personal stories can help to make systemic conditions more easily understood. But is there a way to use them without buying into pathos and abjection? As we move forward to what most progressives are dearly hoping will be a full-scale change in administration, we might start to ask ourselves about the costs and downfalls of telling stories. What tropes and emotions govern them? If they came from angry immigrants who spoke up forcefully and not as abject humans, would we be inclined to listen? Can we assume that our leftist politics insulates us from the need to examine our own ideologies and othering practices? Can we work with stories that provide no comfort about the goodness of our land and the fairness of the American Dream?
We need to refuse the narratives of abjection that are routinely forced upon us. They only render us immobile creatures, begging for help. We are all neoliberals now. We’re all selling our bodies, our lives, our stories to the media and to provide comfort to ourselves. Those stories have to be challenged and reworked or we lose sight of the larger story of economic exploitation, at our peril. And, unlike my response to Mr. M., we have to be prepared to make trouble in doing so.
1More recently, all of this has been overshadowed by DREAM Activists fighting under the slogan of "Undocumented and Unafraid," which directly plays on the comparison between "coming out" as gay and "coming out of the shadows" as undocumented. This is a problematic and troubling strategy which simultaneously exploits the neoliberal tendency to subsume all political battles into the realm of the purely personal and mines the gay community's sympathy and support for legislation that, in essence, solidifies the militarisation of everyday life. I will be writing more on the "Undocumented and Unafraid" movement in the comings months. Watch this website for more.
The popular and populist history of gays in the United States goes something like this: In the beginning, gay people were horribly oppressed. Then came change in the 1970s, where gays like the men in the Village People were able to live openly and had a lot of sex. Then, in the 1980s, many gay people died of AIDS, and that taught them that gay sex is bad. The gays that were left began to realise the importance of stable, monogamous relationships and began to agitate for marriage. Soon, in the very near future, with the help of supportive, married straight people--and the help of President Obama--gays will gain marriage rights in all 50 states, and they will then be as good as everyone else.
This is, of course, a reductionist version of gay history, but it’s also the version of gay (not queer) history that plays out in today’s mainstream media representations of the fight for gay marriage, an issue that is now seen as the alpha and the omega of gay rights in the United States. On May 26, 2009, the California Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 8 would stand, thus upholding a ban on gay marriages; it also ruled that the 18,000 or so marriages that had already taken place would not be invalidated. The decision released a wave of anger in the mainstream pro-gay marriage community. A month later, the Obama administration’s response to the Smelt suit seeking to invalidate the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) brought forth yet another set of petulant tirades and much dramatic rhetoric about “betrayal” by Obama.
An outsider might think that both Proposition 8 and the DOMA case are symptomatic of a widespread wave of unrest among gays and lesbians across the land, who will now take to the streets if need be in their relentless quest for gay marriage. The outsider might also think that this is what every queer in the United States wants: the right to marry. But, in fact, both instances have exposed the fact that the fight for marriage is a drain on the political, economic, and emotional resources of a community that never really wanted gay marriage to begin with. Rather than see the Prop 8 and DOMA debacles as symptoms of a renewed need to fight for gay marriage, I suggest that this is the time to dump gay marriage and return to the real issues that concern us, as queers who are faced with the multiple forms and challenges of inequality in a neoliberal world.
Gay marriage, as framed in the United States, is the ultimate neoliberal fantasy, in that it allows for a politics of the personal to masquerade as a necessity for policy change. In the process, it serves to distract us from the very real issues facing millions of U.S. citizens and residents. For instance, a primary argument for gay marriage has been that it would allow gays and lesbians to acquire health care and other benefits via their spouses. But this claim ignores the fact that the United States is the only Western nation that does not provide health care to its citizens, and that approximately 50 million Americans are without health care. The ability to marry would not help the millions of gays and lesbians without health care in the first place.
As law professor Nancy Polikoff points out in her comprehensive book, Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage: Valuing All Families under the Law, the United States is unique in the way that it draws such sharp distinctions between the married and the unmarried. Countries like the Netherlands and Canada do treat gay and straight relationships equally in that they permit marriage, but what’s often ignored by U.S. gay marriage activists is the fact that these countries also treat married and unmarried people in equal ways. In other words, in Canada, you can be unmarried and still have health care and, in various instances, you can name a person who is not your romantic partner as the beneficiary of your estate. In the United States, however, your marital status is, increasingly, what determines your legal status as well as your legitimacy as a subject of the state.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the treatment accorded to single mothers on welfare. Following the egregiously named “Welfare Reform” package of 1996, poor women in particular have been subject to the kind of state intervention in their lives that would be held as unconstitutional if exerted on any other segment of society. With the collusion of the Religious Right, single mothers are required to undergo marriage counselling in an effort to get them to marry the fathers of their children. The stigma against unmarried people swirls around in U.S. culture at large, with an overwhelming array of messages in the media about single people as desperate, lonely souls who need to find their lifemates if they are ever to be considered as human beings. It is no coincidence that such a widespread delegitimisation of single people comes at a time when fewer people in the United States are getting married—currently, less than 50% of U.S. citizens are married. Divorce rates are higher than ever among those who do get married, sparking great anxiety on the part of the Right.
While the gay and lesbian community is widely seen as a liberal/progressive one, its rhetoric around marriage often mirrors the discourse of the Right on the need for marriage as a stabilising force. Gay marriage activists have taken to deploying the strategies of the Right in asserting that marriage is necessary to cure a host of ills, for instance even going so far as to claim that not having marriage increases the social stigma faced by the children of gay couples. But surely we live in an age where the children of unmarried straight people are not considered “bastards,” and are not disallowed from inheriting property or from receiving parental and state support because their parents were not married. In such claims to moral standards, gay marriage advocacy hearkens back to the conservatism of the 1950s and earlier eras. It’s this conservatism that allows for a blinkered distraction from the other, and more pressing, issues that face queers who are not, after all, immune from the ravages of the world. Or, as Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore puts it, “The spectacle around gay marriage draws attention away from critical issues--like ending U.S. wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, stopping massive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids across the country, and challenging the never-ending assault on anyone living outside of conventional norms.” In this way, gay marriage, in framing, reinforces the kind of social conservatism that’s essential to maintaining the myth of the United States as the ultimate arbiter of the value of the subjects over which it claims to hold dominion: whether they be Iraqis, Afghanis, or those whose sexual lives do not fall into the patterns the “normal,” monogamous, two-parent household.
As a result of its growing conservatism, the gay marriage movement is gaining support from mainstream media and a range of politicians, including prominent Republicans. This is not an indication of the liberalisation of the United States (inasmuch as we can consider liberalism desirable, which it is not), but its increasing conservatism. At the same time, the vast resources invested in gay marriage also mean a depletion of resources that could go to issues that affect queers on other levels of the state’s interaction and imprisonment of their bodies. At a recent queer anarchist conference, I met with activists Liam Michaud-O’Grady and Ashley Fortier, from the Montreal-based Prisoner Correspondence Project. Their group helps to establishing links between queer prisoners and queers on the outside, with a long-term mentality. I also met with Michael Upton, a graduate researcher at the University of Manchester, whose multi-nation work analyzes and critiques the intellectual property rights issues that surround the global AIDS pharmaceutical industry.
Both projects reminded me that queer activism, while still flourishing and sustained, is muted or silenced in the cacophony around gay marriage. Yet, in the 1970s, prisoner solidarity was a key part of the gay movement. In the 1980s, the wholesale critique of BigPharma was integral to the mandate of queer activist groups like ACT UP. A Chicago attorney who specialises in working with gay groups in countries where embattled queers need the support of international activists to resist the harassment they face told me of his conversations with funders who said, bluntly, that they were only interested in funding gay marriage initiatives. In Connecticut, the gay marriage group Love Makes a Family decided to disband when gay marriage became legal in that state. But surely there is more to gay rights than marriage, and surely a group that could, presumably, corral the kind of economic and social capital that LMF had access to could continue to think of directing its energy to the issues of, say, queers in prison. Instead, it chose to disband. As Nancy Polikoff wrote in a Bilerico post: “The folding of this Connecticut group confirms my fears that marriage is the end point for many people and that achieving justice for the same-sex couples who don’t marry and for all the gay men and lesbians, and their children, who are not partnered is not on the agenda.”
Contrary to what the gay mainstream and the press have decided, gay marriage is not the movement. Marriage should never have been our goal to begin with, since, at best, the goal of marriage is a symbolic and sentimental one. Over the last number of decades, gays and lesbians have in fact forged interesting and productive social networks outside of marriage. But with the recent publicity, few in the United States now remember when domestic partnerships were actually seen as a sexy, desirable and viable alternative for those who didn’t want to marry. In Massachusetts, and now in Connecticut, for example, several employers have begun to disavow domestic partnerships for all with the simple logic that now that everyone can get married, everyone should, if they want health care and other benefits. Such decisions have raised nary a whisper of protest among the gay marriage group. Today, if any major organization is asked: if civil unions or domestic partnerships could be crafted so that they provided exactly the same benefits as marriage, would you accept them? The answer is usually a resounding no. The goal of marriage has become an end unto itself.
The point, to borrow from Polikoff, should be to make marriage less necessary, not to allow it to become an integral part of access to rights as basic as health care and custody of children. The intense personalisation of gay marriage as an emotional cause (i.e. as something that should matter because of the grief it causes your gay neighbour), is just another way to rationalise and increase the relentless privatisation of everyday life, another way to absolve the state of its responsibility to its subjects. Increasingly, I hear from straight friends that they are being compelled to marry because they are afraid that their unemployed/underemployed partners might be left vulnerable without their health care. All of this is depleting energy from the fight for universal health care. The United States is the only Western nation that does not provide health care. That, and not the fact that we don’t have gay marriage, should be something that shames us all.
As we quibble about marriage, it’s easy to forget that a rise in poverty and the lack of health care means that large segments of society are already denied their rights to decent education, housing, and a sense of security about their well-being.
As for the argument that some proponents make about marriage being the only way to have your love recognized—really? If your love can’t abide not being recognized by the state, perhaps it’s time to consider that you might have bigger problems than simply getting a piece of paper to validate your relationship.
As for the famous line about the 1000+ benefits that can only come through marriage--what about those who are excluded from these benefits simply because they’re not married? And here’s the basic question: why should marriage guarantee any benefits that aren’t available to those who don’t want to marry? Why build up the power of the state to coerce people into marital relationships that they don’t want, just so that they can get the basics like healthcare?
Marriage has, for too long now, been held up as the only solution to a host of problems, including the lack of health care. The fight for gay marriage, in granting that institution so much importance, is slowly eroding the possibility that the rest of the population might get rights and benefits without marrying each other. The fight over gay marriage has emerged as a progressive cause that all progressive straights should join when, in fact, it’s a deeply conservative movement that strips our movement of any imagination. Instead of asking for one way to grant rights and benefits, we ought to be advocating for a multiplicity of options.
Let’s dump marriage now.
By the time you read this, a vastly over-inflated moment of queer hype will have sputtered and gasped to its inevitable end. The events following Larry Kramer's March speech now constitute a tempest in a teacup. But they did draw out some strong emotions, not all of them articulated in the kind of grandstanding we witnessed in the photographs of self-proclaimed AIDS activists in ACT UP t-shirts.
On March 13, 2007, the 20th anniversary of ACT UP, Larry Kramer stood up at the LGBT Center in New York and delivered a speech. As is his wont, Kramer launched a number of screeds at various targets, resulting in a jumbled mess of contradictions that gave birth to equally contradictory bits of “street activism” in the following weeks. Among his points: a denunciation of the Pentagon’s “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” (DADT) policy, a call for hate-crimes legislation, and a plea that US same-sexers be allowed to sponsor their non-citizen partners for citizenship.
Two days later, a reported 250 people, including Kramer, marched on the Manhattan Armed Forces Recruiting Station, protesting the remarks of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Pace, who had declared that homosexual acts were immoral. Protesters carried posters announcing themselves as “fabulous,” along with flags denouncing DADT. Matt Foreman, executive director of NGLTF, was arrested for obstructing traffic.
On March 29, 500 people marched in Times Square as part of a supposedly rejuvenated ACT UP Army/Queer Justice League (at the time of this writing, the name is still disputed), calling for a single-payer health care system and drug price controls; 27 people were arrested.
Larry Kramer stands at the center of all this brouhaha, feted as the spark that re-ignited queer street activism. In an interview with Rex Wockner, he deplored the moribund (to him) state of gay activism, “Please don't wait for others to do anything! There once were ACT UP chapters in dozens of American cities. People just got together and did stuff. All across America. Do it again, for all our sakes! Just call a Tupperware party and say to your friends, ‘OK, what can we do this week?’”
I'm sympathetic to Kramer's frustration at the paucity of street activism. Americans today occupy a political landscape dominated by the virtual mobilization of groups like MoveOn.org and online petitions have taken the place of street pro-tests. Some of this is powerfully conducive to mobilizing dissent quickly and effectively. But in terms of actively resisting state power and intervention-- whether in matters of war or the defunding of public schools-- nothing quite matches the heady and potent symbolism of an angry and strident street protest.
It's worth remembering that Kramer's anger helped mobilize ACT UP to disseminate a wider social critique of the rapacity of Big Pharma, its opaque system of drug trials, and the lack of access to new treatments. ACT UP, more than any other organization, radically transformed the way people related to their doctors, when the medical establishment either refused to treat AIDS patients or denied their right to know about, among other things, the effects of medications and treatments. The group created an unprecedented political cadre of patients and supporters who made governments far more accountable to sick people.
But what do Kramer and his ACT UP Army/Queer Justice League call for, exactly? Let’s consider the fact that the Kramer-led band was fighting for an end to DADT and against a war that it fervently describes as “immoral.” When you have queers simultaneously fighting against a war and for the right to fight in it, the end of the world seems nigh.
Next is the call for the expansion to federal hate-crimes legislation to include sexual orientation and gender identity. To use Kramer's own words out of context: this is progress?
Hate-crimes legislation only perpetuates the idea that justice should be determined by the identity of both victim and aggressor. These laws also punish thought and belief, in ways that should frighten queers in particular. They increase the scope and brutality of the prison-industrial complex to include those whose sentences are lengthened because their crimes are deemed worse if they can be proven to have thought or believed badly of their victims. In specific cases, as in the 2004 Ohio murder of Daniel Fetty, the ideology of “hate crimes” can allow prosecutors to ask for longer sentences or the death penalty, even where no specific hate-crime law exists.
And then there's immigration. Kramer's concern here has to do with what groups like Immigration Equality (IE) and Out 4 Immigration (O4I) refer to as “bi-national” couples-- people apparently tragically torn apart because one partner is not a citizen and cannot be sponsored by the other for immigration benefits, as straight married couples can. As Kramer puts it, “Do you have friends in love with partners forbidden from entering America? To be separated by force from the one you love is one of the saddest things I can think of.”
Actually, I can think of much sadder things-- like uncoupled immigrants being forced to return to the alien landscapes of countries they left long ago, wrenched from the kinship networks they have formed in the US. Or being forced to go underground because they'd rather do that than run the risk of entering into any relationship. I could go on, but even such counterpoints wouldn't get at the heart of the immigration issue: neoliberalism’s naked need for (and constant exploitation of) cheap, readily available labor.
Both IE and O4I support UAFA, the Uniting American Families Act, which purports to “fulfill the promise of family unification in the US.” But as those working on immigration know too well, the biggest impediment to progressive reform is the fact that so much of immigration law is family-based. The focus on family blinds us to the realities of the massive global exploitation of labor and the severe economic disparities created by the US which cause millions of undocumented laborers to enter the borders in the first place. The rest, embodied in narratives about love torn asunder, is mere affect.
I understand this hunger for street activism, and I give credit to ACT UP NY for raising the issue of health care. I want more public anger against injustice, and I would like to demolish systemic privilege and economic inequality. But none of that is challenged by the recent fracas and calls for action issued by Kramer and his ilk. Ironically, they call for exactly the kind of institutions (marriage/coupledom, hate-crimes legislation, DADT) that keep privileges in place, wrapped in the insurgency of a rainbow flag marched across Times Square.
All of which only proves a sad fact about queer organizing today: queers are only moved to act up in public to prevent their divestment from economic privilege. Meanwhile, the economic inequality that is at the root of the tremendous injustices of a broken health care system, a flourishing prison-industrial complex, and the brutality of a US-led series of wars for oil is left unchecked.
Do queers today have an expansive notion of social justice, outside of the merely “fabulous” and strident drama that rings so hollow today? What kind of social justice movement, as opposed to a queer justice movement, can come out of this? Is a militant set of actions necessarily a radical one?
At the University of Illinois at Chicago on Feb. 13, Muslim lesbian Irshad Manji delivered the ideas for which she’s well known and criticized: Muslims are mindless drones who perpetuate Islam’s most repressive aspects, like homophobia and sexism; the way out of this “asylum logic” is to revive “ijtihad,” a “lost” tradition of Islamic critical thinking and resistance; and reviving this tradition is best done through her Web site (Muslim-refusenik.com). Her speech was replete with binaries, including “the West” against “Islam,” good Muslims (like Manji) against bad Muslims (fundamentalists who can’t stand her). I was reminded of what Manji had described as a “kerfuffle” between the UIC Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns (OGLBTC, a sponsor of the event) and UIC’s Muslim Student Association (MSA). The MSA had supposedly attempted to shut down the event. Curious, I interviewed Dr. Patrick Finnessy, the director of OGLBTC, and Mohammed Hussain, the student president of the MSA.
Finnessy had tried to get in touch with the MSA over previous months to see if it would co-sponsor the event. Eventually, the MSA wrote a letter to the chancellor a few days before Feb. 13, stating its objection to the university inviting Manji. Meanwhile, Hussain, hearing of possible protests, sent out a mass e-mail asking MSA members to respect Manji’s right to freedom of speech and not disrupt the event.
Rumors about the MSA’s objections subtly reaffirmed Manji’s assertions: that Muslims who oppose her emerge from a primordial swamp, oozing the bigotry and hatred that Islam has taught them. A different picture emerged when Hussain told me what students’ objections had been: Manji was no scholar of Islam; her presence offered no possibility of dialogue; progressive Muslims disagreed with her; and she was wrong to think that lesbianism was incompatible with Islam. Why did it take the MSA so long to decide what to do? Hussain said the lack of any unified Muslim voice of opposition to Manji, and the ensuing internal debates and discussions, made it difficult to decide until the last minute.
Both Finnessy and Hussain demonstrated exemplary leadership, and their organizations are now collaborating on bringing in speakers for the fall. It might seem that Manji’s presence on campus brought them together in an unprecedented way; that’s certainly the impression she sought to convey. That assumption only perpetuates the notion that Manji’s presence inevitably brings together opposing forces into dialogue where there had been none. It makes the MSA’s internal debate and dialogue invisible. Regardless of whether they objected to her on progressive grounds or not, the fact is they acted upon their right to dissent from her, and adopted official University channels to do so.
For more perspective on a progressive Muslim critique of Manji, I interviewed two academics: Saadia Toor, at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York; and Daniel Drennan, at the American University of Beirut, who also runs the Web site Inquisitor.com. Both are troubled by Manji’s depiction of a universal Islam. As Toor put it, there are few commonalities between the billion adherents of Islam. She refutes Manji’s notion that there has been no dissent against fundamentalist Islam. Toor was 8 in 1978 when the Pakistani dictator Muhammad Zia Ul-Haq came to power; her formative years were influenced by women in progressive feminist groups like the Women’s Action Forum, among Ul-Haq’s loudest critics. Toor finds that Manji’s binaries make it difficult for progressive Muslims to articulate nuanced critiques of Islamophobia. Or, as Drennan wrote in an e-mail, they “[ frame ] the question in such a way tactically to put the ‘other side’ always on the defensive, such that we never get to any true discussion.”
Manji’s critics take issue with what they see as her extreme pro-Israel stance and her approval of U.S.-led invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq. While she professes pain at such criticisms, Manji continues to write New York Timesop-eds like “How I learned to Love the Wall.” Here, she acknowledges that Israel’s barrier might be painful for Palestinians, but notes approvingly that the Israeli army is kind enough to let people slip (dangerously and uncomfortably) through holes and gaps.
Such leaps in logic cause her critics to highlight Manji’s blindness to historical realities. But Manji is, in fact, not blind to history. She fully understands that history is made by those in power. She consistently opposes those who don’t defer to power. In The Trouble with Islam Today, she writes about a three-hour visit to the Jimmy Carter Center in Atlanta. Shocked to find no African Americans there, she goes to the Martin Luther King memorial. It’s filled with African Americans.
She demands to know why these “privileged victims” aren’t at the Carter Center to honor a man “who made civil rights the cornerstone of his domestic agenda” (failing to note that African Americans had something to do with said agenda) . A terse response—“Why should we waste our time at the shrine of a white man?”—leads her to conclude that African Americans are at the MLK memorial to “strut [their] ‘free-at-last’ swag.” She doesn’t, of course, ask the white people at the Carter Center why they aren’t at the MLK memorial.
Back at UIC, I watched Manji as she continually exhorted people to visit her Web site. I realized that, in effect, she’s selling something akin to a 12-step program: Just click for freedom from repressive Islam. She spoke of a young UK jihadi who has seen the error of his ways through her—and who will be featured in an upcoming 60 Minutes episode. Such individualized stories, cast in the media drama of the West vs. Islam, deny the forms of collective dissent that occur within groups like the MSA where competing opinions are aired. And despite her purported concern with gender, Manji makes no mention of groups like RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women in Afghanistan, Rawa.org/index.php), whose resistance to the Taliban included setting up underground schools for girls.
Manji’s identities—lesbian, feminist, Islamic—allow some liberals and queers to echo an otherwise politically incorrect disdain for Islam while assured that she’s one of them. And without needing to understand the complicated histories of resistance and dissent that occur outside of her media box. Struggles like those of RAWA occur silently at the dangerous crossfire between Western-led dominance and fundamentalist Islam. In 2003, Manji’s message about Islam vs. the West was more attractive to some. Today, she finds herself slipping towards the wrong side of history and tries to have it both ways. In The Trouble with Islam Today, she praises Bush and entitles a chapter “Thank God for the West,” but at UIC joked about evangelicals in the White House. Few seemed impressed, and one non-Muslim queer student described her as “bland.” On her Web site, Manji still offers the sexy spectacle of commodified dissent. The question is: Who’s watching?
Mira Sorvino’s breasts, barely encased in a camisole top, are distracting enough that I don’t register her words. She’s on the Tavis Smiley Show promoting her HBO mini-series Human Trafficking (HT). Her appearance coincides with a resurgence of public interest in sex trafficking, a phenomenon I’d described two years ago (“How Trafficking Became Sexy,” Clamor September/October 2004). I’d argued that trafficking was sensationalized and sexualized in stories about evil Russians luring innocent girls into worldwide prostitution rings. Watching Sorvino, it’s clear to me that trafficking has resurfaced in the public imagination but this time the threat is closer to home. Sorvino tells Smiley how afraid she is for her own daughter after having made the film. Later she tells the New York Times (NYT), “I would hope that people would be very, very careful with their daughters after seeing this.”
It’s tempting to overlook Sorvino’s exaggerated rhetoric as a desperate ploy for public attention — her last significant role involved fighting giant roaches in Mimic. This time, she plays an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officer who takes on an international sex trafficking ring. Clips of HT show Sorvino as both law-enforcer and maternal figure, fighting evil traffickers to save a girl.
But Sorvino’s paranoia, feigned or otherwise, is symptomatic of a significant shift in how we are asked to think about trafficking and whom it affects. Trafficking has gone from being represented as a crisis that affects mostly female immigrants (‘sexy” trafficking) to one that affects young American children. My initial article argued that these hypersexual narratives erased the fact that the phenomenon depends on the use of cheap or free migrant labour, not coerced sex work. In 2005, Debbie Nathan made a similar point in The Nation and exposed the bizarre collusion between anti-porn feminists and Christian conservatives. This alliance ensured that the Trafficking Victims Protection Act categorizes all trafficked persons as involuntary “victims” of ‘sex slavery” even if they voluntarily entered prostitution.
In February, Counterpunch’s Alexander Cockburn took aim at “Nicholas Kristoff’s Brothel Problem” and the NYT columnist’s obsession with rescuing girls in India. Cockburn pointed out that Kristoff’s self-aggrandizing tales obscure the wide-ranging costs of US-engendered neoliberal economic policies, which force larger numbers of people into prostitution. More recently, also on Counterpunch, Nathan wrote about ABC’s Primetime show on trafficking and revealed that new laws permit inflation in the numbers of domestic trafficking victims by misleadingly classifying as ‘sex slaves” even minors who run away from home and engage in prostitution to survive. This induces a new public hysteria that “our” children (read: white American) are being trafficked under our noses.
So trafficking is back, it’s sexier than ever, and we are left to understand why, despite the abundance of material to the contrary, the phenomenon is still cast in the overly sexualized and hysterical paranoia about particular bodies. But this time, its “victims” are no longer foreign workers but our own children. And mothers are being called upon to protect their children. This recent incarnation of a trafficking crisis is cast as a struggle to preserve the innocence (read: virginity) of the girl-child.
The shift from ‘sexy trafficking” to “innocent victim trafficking” is a reminder that women’s bodies are endlessly mobilized to turn issues of labour and immigration into deeply personalized narratives about family and nation. A recent Oprah Winfrey show on the topic focused on child sex trafficking. Winfrey relied on the power of the imagination to conjure nightmarish scenes about the plight of children. In a series of short segments, celebrities and celebrity journalists like Ricky Martin and Christiane Amanpour lent their reputations and perpetuated falsehoods and hyperbole about the supposed danger to children worldwide and in the US.
In a segment about Mexican girls trafficked into the US, the reporter Michele Gillen is led into what looks like a set of The Blair Witch Project, a dark woody area where they supposedly serviced their clients. With no evidence that there were ever any girls there, her guide talks about imagining that they must have cried out for help. Gillen even repeats the widely debunked Peter Landesman story about young girls dressed up in white communion dresses, without revealing her disputed source.
In another segment, Amanpour tells Oprah that she spoke to a couple of women in the audience that day who said, “even 20-odd years ago, in their own towns, there were stories of girls disappeared and ending up in the sex trafficking business. So this is going on.” Amanpour’s willingness to extract fact from speculation is part of the show’s reliance on half-baked stories and rumours fuelled by dubious sources. She also speaks with Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission (IJM). Neither she nor Winfrey reveal that IJM is a Christian organization. Practically re-enacting Nathan’s point about the collusion between Christian conservatives and some feminists, Amanpour asks earnestly: “What can individual Americans do to help?”
Given the demographic focus of the Oprah show, those “individual Americans” are clearly women and mothers. It’s no surprise that Oprah focused on child sex trafficking rather than on adult women. This allowed her to avoid the issue of chosen sex work. But as we trace the shift in the emphasis in trafficking, it becomes clear that there’s more to it than persuading American women to identify as the mothers of trafficked children.
If looked at closely, the story about sex trafficking and children is also a story about the failure of the family to protect children. This is apparent in the account of Kim Meston, a former Tibetan refugee from India allegedly trafficked into the United States by a Christian minister at the age of 16. Meston has posted her story on the website of Trafficking Victims Outreach and Services, a Cambridge-based organization where she works as the co-director. A slightly different version appears on the website of the Massachusetts Office for Victim Assistance. She also appeared on the Oprah show on child trafficking.
Her tale, while ostensibly about how girls are trafficked into this country, in fact contradicts the stereotypes that Winfrey propagates. (Meston did not respond to my requests for an interview). She writes about growing up happy and carefree in a Tibetan camp in Southern India until the minister convinced her parents that he could give her a much better education and life in the States, assuring them that he would treat her as his own daughter. Meston arrived in a small rural town outside Westchester, Massachusetts and attended school, but had to work as a domestic servant and was forced into sex by the minister. Eventually, Meston married. She was persuaded by townspeople to report the minister when he brought two of her cousins into the country.
There seems little doubt that Meston did go through a traumatic experience. But one aspect of the case bears scrutiny. Meston was not trafficked into the country by a nefarious trafficking ring. She was simply transferred from one family unit to another, even if under false pretexts. Looked at closely, Meston’s story reveals the vulnerability of the family unit to neo-liberal economic pressures and the hypocrisy of and potential danger posed by US faith-based representatives and initiatives in the developing world.
Tibetan families like Meston’s are under double economic duress as refugees in an impoverished country. It’s impossible to discern exactly why her family would allow her to be taken so far away. But the harsh reality in a country like India is that it’s simply not economically feasible for millions of impoverished families to keep hungry children around — it makes more sense to send them away to places where they might be fed and make money as well. By a rough and probably conservative estimate, there are as many as 5 million child domestic workers in India. In that context, it’s not unlikely that Meston’s arrival in the US may well have been part of an implicit economic pact — her labour (intended as sexual or not) exchanged for either a fee or the guarantee of income from her work. It may well also be that her family genuinely thought she would be treated like a daughter, but that should not distract us from the fact that they felt an economic need to send her away.
These details provide a clearer lens through which we can understand how the tropes of innocence, victimhood, and shattered families function in the latest version of trafficking hysteria. Meston speaks publicly as both victim and heroic survivor of sex trafficking but neither she nor Oprah Winfrey, who profits hugely from the suffering of others, can afford to provide a more complex portrait of trafficking.
Such a portrait would involve examining the complicated and tangled relationship between faith-based organizations and neo-liberalism. Governments everywhere increasingly rely on these for social services that states should provide. The carte blanche afforded to people like the minister allows them to openly procure and bring in foreign adolescents for their own use. Meston’s story reveals the kinds of labor, sexual and commercial, that may be extracted from family members under economic stress. It reveals that the lines sometimes blur, contradicting our easy divisions between innocent victims and sexual agents, sex work and domestic labor.
What does this tell us about mothers and daughters and sex trafficking as a threat to the virginity and safety of innocent girls? The fiction of the inviolate bond between mother and daughter and the fixation on violated virgin girls are pretexts for making other economic relations invisible. While only somewhat less problematic than the Oprah show, Frontline’s recent show about trafficking in the former Soviet Union did indicate the economic realities behind the numbers of people who move between borders in search of work. Trafficking exists but it does not require kidnapping or coercion, and it’s not always about sex — the aftermath of a post-cold-war economy ensures that there are more than enough people, men and women, willing to take a chance to earn income however they can. Many of the Frontline women are from Moldova, where 80% of the population lives under the poverty line. One, desperately needing money, tries to return to Turkey to find sex work even after having been snared by authorities.
Human rights agencies like IJM and Amnesty International (AI) play their part in perpetuating myths about trafficking. These popular organizations garner public support and funding because their causes look so worthwhile. But a closer look reveals that they don’t critique the systemic conditions that lead to phenomena like trafficking in the first place, making them at least partially culpable. I spoke with IJM’s Paula Livingston since her organization claims to have helped rescue hundreds of young sex trafficking victims across the globe.
When I asked Livingston why IJM did not engage directly with the systemic conditions of poverty in different countries rather than resorting to arescue,” her response was that they chose to leave that work to local NGOs and governments. But when pressed, IJM did not have a list of these NGOs handy, and failed to provide it despite my requests. So, while its website claims that it “empower(s) local authorities to stop … abuses” (with no rationale about its right to do so), IJM provides no real facts about its work. It emerges instead as a Kristoff-like heroic entity, providing its supporters with an attractive vision of American heroes rescuing desperate brown people.
IJM’s missions of rescue as a Christian organization allow it to ignore the economic machinery that surrounds the people it claims to help, except when advancing the US government’s policies. Gary Haugen’s response to Amanpour’s question about what Americans might do was that “we” needed to let other countries know of the consequences in their relations with the US. Haugen was referring to economic sanctions. But sanctions only allow the US to exercise economic, cultural and moral dominance. And nations can justifiably resist. In 2005, Brazil decided to forego $40 million from the United States Agency for International Development so that Brazilian AIDS organizations could continue distributing condoms to prostitutes. This came after the US demanded that “foreign recipients of AIDS assistance must explicitly condemn prostitution” or lose funding, according to the NYT.
Similarly, AI condemns the effects of war; its work on human rights abuses often centres on war-torn places. But it has so far refused to condemn war itself, surely the main cause of many human rights infractions. At the same time, AI, through celebrity spokespersons like Sorvino who seek public attention, creates and exploits tenuous links between issues like domestic violence against women and ‘sex trafficking.”
Hysterical narratives about sex trafficking raise our sense of personal vulnerability and ignore neo-liberalism’s effects of crushing local and foreign economies in the name of free trade and consumer choice. People -- women, men, and occasionally their children -- are compelled to move through borders to look for work. That work might well involve some amount of sex work — it’s hard to discern the exact amount. But such migrations are incidental to the search for work, not brought on by demonic sex trafficking rings. It’s easier for sex workers to claim being kidnapped and forced into sex rather than admit to looking for sex work — the former might result in deportation but the latter might land them in jail. Such are the results of sexist and moralistic trafficking laws that induce judgments about “innocent” victims versus those who supposedly ‘deserve” their suffering by seeking sex work. And sometimes, yes, “our” children are kidnapped and abused — often by family members or people we know, not by sex traffickers preying upon innocent victims. Examined closely, the new hysteria about sex trafficking exposes difficult truths about family, sex, and work. None of these is more precious or purer than the others and the distinctions between them frequently collapse.
In the “70s and “80s, stories about incest and satanic abuse of children fired our imagination. Today, sex trafficking stories are symptomatic of our uneasy relationship with a new global economy. But we avoid making the connections between an abstract set of economic relations and their effects on our lives. Instead, a return to the pure American home becomes the panacea for all our woes. There’s nothing like the spectre of shattered domesticity to ensure that women and children are fixed in their roles as either creatures in need of rescue or perennial caretakers. Ultimately, sex trafficking is the latest urban legend that polices women’s lives and keeps them almost hysterically attached to their children — ‘very, very careful with their daughters.”
“Queer Film and Media Pedagogy: A Roundtable with Michael Bronski, Terri Ginsberg, Roy Grundmann, Kara Keeling, Liora Moriel, Yasmin Nair, and Kirsten Moana Thompson.”
GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12(1): 117-134 (2006); DOI:10.1215/10642684-12-1-117
This article requires a subscription to GLQ.
None of this is to assert that Bibi’s story is less valid, or that she is any less brave for coming out against her rapists. The case of Mukhtaran Bibi proves that gender is still at the heart of the central issues facing the 21st century – poverty, war, social inequality. Yet, the rush to denounce this rape as a symptom of the oppression of Muslim women has meant that the media ignores the issue of Muslim men except in equally reductive and pathologising terms. Over and over again, history is forgotten in favor of narratives about “cultural difference.” Even the most progressive readings of the Abu Ghraib photographs fall back on the supposition that the images were especially degrading to Muslim men who, because of religious beliefs, are mortified by even the appearance of homosexuality. But the average straight American man is no more likely to be comfortable with the perception of gayness; “gay panic” is still used as a defence in US court cases involving homosexuality.
What might we do with Bibi’s story? It’s hard not to feel horror and revulsion at the details of her case. But it’s imperative, especially in a post 9/11 world, to remember that such stories are filtered through the logic of “culture and civilization.” Ultimately, it’s important to be much less comfortable about “our” culture, and to remember our own ongoing histories of domination.
Suddenly, trafficking is in the news. And it’s sexy. NBC’s Law and Order: Special Victims Unit has dramatised the issue twice this last year. In one episode, a predatory Russian trafficker entices a barely pubescent American girl with e-mails so alluring that she runs away to join him. Once in Russia, she begins a tangled relationship with her captor and her body is sold as she falls into a drug-induced stupor. She is, of course, eventually rescued by NYPD’s finest but not before viewers get glimpses at the explicit web photos used to advertise her services. Another episode is about children imported from Africa as part of an elaborate trafficking enterprise. Things go awry when one young boy dies from what looks like a ritual hanging. The detectives find that an art professor who killed the boy, fearing that his wife might discover his paedophilia, rented the child for sex.
Most of us think about trafficking in these terms, as a phenomenon that locks women and children into sinister sexual relations with unscrupulous foreign men; we also think of it as something that happens outside our national boundaries. The trafficking of human beings as unpaid labour is in fact widespread within the United States. According to the Department of Justice, approximately 700,000 persons are trafficked worldwide and about 50,000 them are trafficked into the United States (see map). According to a 2003 Department of Health and Human Sciences survey, 54% of those trafficked into the U.S. are male, 46% female and only 4% are minors. Some may enter the country on work visas but soon find themselves at the mercy of traffickers who take away their passports and legal documents, leaving them in a strange country and unable to speak to anyone outside workplaces which include farms and sweatshops.
Actual numbers are admittedly hard to pin down because trafficking’s success depends upon its tightly-knit networks and its ability to deliver labourers who will not reveal themselves for fear of retribution from their captors. Depending on the sources, the numbers are either higher or lower than those above. Regardless of where you look, it’s clear that human trafficking is a serious problem. In terms of gender and the question of forced sex, the facts are also hard to determine. Most males enter the country as agricultural workers and most women become domestic workers, but their actual work might include sexual slavery as well. Domestic work might include conditions of sexual slavery and so might agricultural labour. It’s impossible to determine at what points the lines might blur between the kinds of “work” that the trafficked are brought in to do, regardless of gender. The only thing that’s clear is that trafficking includes but is not limited to sexual servitude. Given the difficulty in determining the exact nature of this indentured labour, how did trafficking become a media story primarily about prostitution forced upon women and girls?
Trafficking became sexy in part because the most vocal anti-trafficking activists are also often those who protest against prostitution per se, arguing vehemently against the concept of sex work: the exchange of sexual labour within consensual relationships. Among these, Donna Hughes, a Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Rhode Island, has written against the distribution of condoms to prostitutes on the grounds that it would legitimise prostitution. And then there were Nicholas Kristoff’s highly publicised efforts, chronicled in his New York Times op-ed articles in the early part of this year, to “buy the freedom” of two teenage Cambodian prostitutes and return them to their families. Kristoff’s sanctimonious pieces reminded me of Americans who take candy to starving kids in places like India, believing that a few nuggets of crystallised corn syrup might alleviate systemic conditions of poverty and hunger.
“Dead Images, Live Transmissions: Greg Louganis and the Construction of AIDS on Television.”
Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture, volume 22.1 (Winter 2000)
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“The Limits of the Third: The Hijra of India and the Conditions of Castration.”
Mediations, vol. 20 (Fall 1996)
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