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Combating Racism in LGBT Communities

June 29, 2010

Harald Fassanelli’s defensive biting was not the only controversial incident at last week’s Christopher Street Day in Berlin. Notable gender theorist and philosopher, Judith Butler, also attended — she was to be honored with the event’s Civil Courage Prize. Butler instead rejected the award, citing her opposition to racism in Berlin’s LGBT community:

We all have noticed that gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans and queer people can be instrumentalized by those who want to wage wars, i.e. cultural wars against migrants by means of forced islamophobia and military wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. In these times and by these means, we are recruited for nationalism and militarism. Currently, many European governments claim that our gay, lesbian, queer rights must be protected and we are made to believe that the new hatred of immigrants is necessary to protect us. Therefore we must say no to such a deal. To be able to say no under these circumstances is what I call courage. But who says no? And who experiences this racism? Who are the queers who really fight against such politics?

Butler’s point is an important one, and it speaks to a recurring issue in LGBT and feminist communities — how can a movement advocate for the rights of certain people (like women, or queer people) and ignore discrimination against other, intersecting identities? Racism is a queer and feminist issue because it directly affects the every day lives of women and gay people. So for organizations to further marginalize members of the LGBT community by ignoring other facets of their identities during Pride celebrations does nothing to help the movement. Instead, it further isolates people by privileging one type of queer identity over another.

This trouble tends to come when movements attempt to preserve a narrow focus. In April, Emily wrote about the problems that arise when feminists offer a limited definition of their cause. Similar problems exist in the LGBT community. AlterNet explains that, in this particular situation, Butler was objecting to “anti-immigrant media campaigns that repeatedly represent migrants as ‘archaic’, ‘patriarchal’, ‘homophobic’, violent, and unassimilable while at the same time prominent (white) gay organizations in Berlin encourage a heightened police presence in gay neighborhoods where there are more people of color.” LGBT organizations that discriminate against or ignore the needs of migrants and people of color may not realize that they are further marginalizing queer people in those communities. However, that oversight is incredibly problematic, and Butler was right to use her platform to highlight it.

Of course, not all LGBT movement organizations ignore the intersections of heterosexism and racism. Here are some groups based in Germany that Butler specifically applauded during her refusal speech:

Those organizations offer hope that, eventually, individual communities won’t feel the need to create separate movements. They suggest that a global social justice movement, one that advocates for the rights of all marginalized people, is now, slowly but surely, developing.

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