The Headless Movement

March for Women's LivesI’ve said it before, and I suppose I’m saying it again; I don’t think there’s a progressive movement. I mean, of course, there’s a progressive movement, in that there are causes on the liberal and radical left that push specific interests. But the idea that a broad left wing will show up to march through the Mall in Washington, D.C. on a single issue, with no major fracture points on display, or that we’re beholden to a single figure who is speaks for even a majority of us, is dead on the vine.

All along the left’s areas of concern—civil rights, primary and secondary education curricula, reproductive rights, immigration reform, environmental protection, and so on—we see a myriad of organizations, each with their own histories, executives, priorities, and constraints. Such decentralization of issues and talking points has led to differences in strategies, to the point where legitimate discussion includes whether we achieve our goals through assimilation or liberation, a flawed frame that has helped to pit agencies and groups against each other.

This leaves people committed to progressive politics at a loss. We need to have, in our discussion arsenal, intact logic to use against ultra-conservative attacks, talking points for explaining our ideas to centrists, and even responses to other leftists who question the very validity of our specific approaches. Take any topic—same-sex marriage, for example—and these points come into relief.

To the Tea Party: Your extreme moralism is hypocritical when taken in context with your “small government” messages. Marriage is a human right, not a privilege.

To the centrist: Pressure from the right is collapsing our civil rights and privacy and taking away gender markers from marriage licenses is a more fair system that needs to be put in place.

To the radical left: While there are many other civil rights issues needed for LGBT people, marriage is an area that will benefit all kinds of people in our communities and end unfair custody, property, and financial practices currently used against us.

Looking across state legislatures this year, we see that many different strategies were taken on any given issue. Maryland’s transgender civil rights bill fell apart after Equality Maryland agreed the delegates could remove public accommodations protections from the bill, only to lose support from a vocal contingent of trans activists. But in Utah, advocates have now passed two parts of a three-bill strategy, in which protections for public accommodations have their own bill. Massachusetts, meanwhile, which most regard as a much more “liberal” state than Utah, struggles to get a comprehensive bill to a vote. It’s died in committee in recent years.

We don’t have a leader for any of these movements, and maybe we don’t need one, because there’s an argument to be made that the left benefits from the internal debate. Maybe it keeps us honest, as a friend of mine from Nebraska puts it.

I worry, however, that it opens up a space, a space especially attractive to news media, for any kind of spokesperson to come in as a leader, whether they’re an effective or qualified leader. I’ve written before about the limitations of Dan Savage’s take on anti-bullying and queer youth. I cringe as I watch everyone from David Letterman to well intentioned but reductivist reporters from The New York Times ask every insensitive, intrusive question to Chaz Bono as if he can represent all of transdom in one answer after another.

And just when I thought we couldn’t get any more fragmented than we already are, I hear fellow transsexuals say things like “I’m tired of being lumped in with all of the transgenders and crossdressers and genderqueers.”

Which parties in society are served by this division? The people who would assault us for using the wrong rest room? “Oh, you’re a post-operative transsexual, I’m sorry. Pee away. I thought you were just a genderqueer person.” Is there something helpful in understanding gender construction beyond the male-female binary? And is there something limiting in collapsing transsexual and transgender as categories of identity? Sure, to both counts. But what do we lose when we shut down a critique of Dan Savage, or when we refuse to talk about statements Mr. Bono and other trans men have made to the media about the biological basis for gender? What about when we refuse to “be lumped in” with others who we could be in coalition with?

Maybe, if we have a movement with no head, we could at least find some way to work together instead of pulling ourselves apart at the seams.

Photo credit: rfreebern on Flickr.
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2 Comments on “The Headless Movement”

  1. jesse
    May 15, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    I get what you’re saying, and I also think that one of the good things about the left is that there is room for debate and that it’s acknowledged nothing is simple. I think things become really easy when movements only attract one type of person. But I think for sure we should stop drinking the haterade and respect differences.

    • evmaroon
      May 15, 2011 at 9:56 am #

      Jesse: Absolutely, I think debate is healthy, and when I look at the anti-intellectualism and lock-step march of the far right, I can see they’re worse off for it. That said, if we pull ourselves down to our least common denominator (e.g., not wanting transsexuals and gender queer people to be brought together in the discussion for trans civil rights), I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice.

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