by M Adams
Now that the issue of marriage equality has been effectively, even if not completely, won, it is time to pivot attention towards the greatest issue facing the queer community today: the police killings of unarmed Black people.
Police disproportionately harass, abuse and brutalize queer people for the failure to meet expectations of gender performance or presentation. Men who are perceived as gay as- even if they are not- are disproportionately targeted for not being masculine enough, while butch lesbians are disproportionately targeted for being insufficiently feminine. The abuse is even more severe for transgender people who transgress those gender lines all together.
In these instances, queer people are punished by state officials because their gender presentation or performance runs counter to the expectations for their body, i.e., not masculine or feminine enough.
The failure to conform to normative gender expectations is used to dehumanize the queer community, justifying acts of violence against people who behave or present in a “counter-masculine” or “counter-feminine” manner. The desire to compel people to conform to normative gender expectations is so strong that electric shock, psychological shock, physical and sexual violence have, and continue to be, used as therapy to repair such “malfunctioning” bodies.
Violence against queer people has been personified in the tragic stories of Matthew Shepard, a gay man tortured to death in Wyoming, and Brandon Teena, a transgender man raped and murdered after police revealed he was biologically assigned female at birth, whose story is the basis for the movie Boys Don't Cry. But the violence is just as real when levied against transgered people murdered by police, denied medical care by paramedics or dehumanized by politicians. It is clear that safety from violence based on physical expression is a fundamentally queer issue. Which is precisely why the ongoing killing of unarmed Black people by the police is fundamentally a queer issue.
... queer people are punished by state officials because their gender presentation or performance runs counter to the expectations for their body, i.e., not masculine or feminine enough... In... killings of unarmed Blacks... hyper-masculinity, behaving or presenting in an overly masculine manner, is used to... justify acts of violence...
In virtually every instance of police, or vigilante, killings of unarmed Blacks, the violence has been justified by portraying the victim as physically threatening.
For example, in Sanford, FL, 28 year old vigilante George Zimmerman, operating under the auspices of the police neighborhood watch program, found 17 year old, 158 pound Trayvon Martin’s walk from the store suspicious and threatening enough that he called police and then confronted Trayvon before shooting the unarmed youth to death. In Ferguson, MO, the man who shot at Mike Brown 12 times described the 6-foot-5 inch 18 year old as a “demon” who was like “Hulk Hogan” and “Wolverine.” Officer Darren Wilson, however, was 28 years old and stood 6-foot-4 inches tall, just one inch shorter than Mike Brown.
In these and countless other instances, the unarmed victims walking on foot were ascribed hyper-masculine characteristics, elevating teenagers into lethal threats, even when compared to similarly sized white male adults who were fully armed and in their cars. This projected hyper-masculinity, behaving or presenting in an overly masculine manner, is used to dehumanize Black people, thereby justifying acts of violence against their bodies.
Hyper-masculinity and counter-masculinity are opposite ends of the exact same spectrum of expressions: presentation or performance expectations based on characteristics, roles, mannerisms or behavior attributed to sex assignments made at birth. Definitions and meanings are then attributed to every identifiable point along the range of the spectrum- i.e., women who are not feminine, birth assigned males who live as feminine women, men who are hyper-masculine, etc.- with each point serving as a self-contained affinity group, protective of it’s own borders and doomed to fight it’s own battles in isolation.
The more complex reality, however, is that whether one is brutalized for presenting as counter-masculine (not masculine enough), hyper-masculine (a scary brute), or anywhere else along the spectrum, the underlying implication for the LGBTQ community is constant: body safety and the right live free of gender performance or presentation violence is a central queer issue.
The LGBT struggle for the right to free gender expression is doomed to failure if it fights to validate gender presentations in drag on the one hand, but remains silent on the question of hoodies or sagging pants as manners of gender presentation on the other. The analysis must cover the entire spectrum and the fight must extend to the Black community.
The murders of Tony Robinson, Tarika Wilson, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin are all the result of historical, cultural and systemic violence against Black bodies by police, that devalue and dehumanize Black people in order to advance a broader agenda of exploitation and oppression.
Queer folks are also devalued, dehumanized and experience interpersonal, cultural, and systemic violence. There is no need to equate race oppression to queer oppression. Rather, queer folk can adopt a human rights framework which asserts that anyone- Black, queer, undocumented, etc.- anyone has the right to walk down the street, stand outside, carry candy, sit at home with our children or engage in any number of activities free from violence.
Queer folks have class, racial and other identities, which exist alongside and intersecting with the queer identity. The recent protests against police violence are firmly rooted in the Black experience, and many of those leading the struggle hold multiple identities. They are young. And Black. And queer. They are fighting to live their lives in full, including the Black part and the queer part, inseparably.
The LGBT struggle for the right to free gender expression is doomed to failure if it fights to validate gender presentations in drag on the one hand, but remains silent on the question of hoodies or sagging pants as manners of gender presentation on the other.
If we fight for our queer rights because we are human, we must too fight for the rights of the Black community, because we are human too. It is, therefore, the obligation of queer folks who fight for freedom because our lives are threatened by oppression, to be outraged and diametrically opposed to the murder of Black people by the state.
For good or bad, we enter a time when the issue is so pressing that we must choose a side, because history demonstrates that in a time of moral challenge, there is no such thing as neutrality. We as Queer folks, must be on the side of human rights and freedom for all, and therefore be unwavering and unapologetic in both our opposition to state violence against Black bodies and our commitment to Black liberation.
is co-director of Freedom, Inc.
in Madison, WI