Queers Against Equality
In the eyes of Against Equality (AE), the mainstream gay agenda has shifted. No longer pursuing larger social issues, groups like Human Rights campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force instead concern themselves with members of the LGBT community that are least impacted by discrimination.
AE’s work is an effort to create a political and intellectual environment that meets three simple demands: “…People’s worth (should) not be determined by their marital status, that the military should not be seen as an arbiter of justice or social mobility, and that prisons be emptied of those whose fragile but potent existence calls capitalism itself into question.”
Their name and message has not been well received by many in the LGBT-activist community, though Yasmin Nair, one of AE’s members, said their message is often misinterpreted. ”When it comes to workplace discrimination, for instance, it’s not so much your identity that should matter, it’s your place as a worker that should matter.”
Photo of Nair via yasminnair.net
“It’s not a head to head tussle,” clarified Nair about AE’s relationship with groups like the HRC. “They have their own message, we have our own.” But AE’s push against gay marriage has created some problems. In one instance, a faculty colleague wanted the group to come and speak, but students wouldn’t let it happen. “It’s about people being threatened by our message, and not wanting to have a discussion about equality and what it actually means.” Both co-founder Ryan Conrad and Nair said they have received death threats from gays in support of marriage, after public appearances.
Against Equality’s issues with the broader LGBT movement stem from mainstream’s shift in concerns. According to Nair, LGBT organizing in the 80′s was focused on issues that helped more members of society – things like universal healthcare. But in the 90′s, groups like HRC “abandoned” social equality in favor of marriage equality. The new gay agenda, as Nair interpreted it, was “Married people are the ones who should get the benefit of something as essential as health care.”
“Once they passed (same-sex) marriage, many companies can look at their employees and say, ‘Since you can get married, we no longer have to recognize domestic partnerships,’ if that is how you got benefits,” said Nair, when pressed on the issue. She said state-sanctioned same-sex marriage could and would force those not necessarily seeking the title of “married” into making an unwanted commitment. “It’s not that anyone who gets married is evil, or people shouldn’t get married – our argument is the state has no business tying such essential benefits to marriage,” said Nair.
But marriage equality is not the only LGBT issue Against Equality is concerned with. Hate Crime legislation, a legal concept that was first developed in the 60′s to help stem the tide of violence against minorities, is also a point of contention. The AE collective disagrees with expanding hate crime legislation because they believe it expands the prison industrial complex and is often used against minorities as a tool to increase sentences.
In recent years, groups such as the HRC and the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force have worked to expand hate crime legislation, including the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed by Congress and signed into law by the president in 2009.
HRC, in contrast to AE’s message, maintains that fighting for the Matthew Shepard Act and state-based hate crime legislations assists in stemming discrimination: “All crimes are horrific. Something unique about hate crimes is that they send out a message to a specific community that it isn’t safe or accepted,” said Sara Warbelow of the Human Rights Campaign. “It is always better to deal with crime at a local level, and at the federal level as a last resort.”
In 2008, the Virginia Anti-Violence Project reported that approximately half of all LGBT Virginians have faced violence or harassment based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. “The sad reality is that LGBT Virginians also have limited access to competent resources and many feel that law enforcement officials are not sympathetic to their pleas,” said Kevin Clay of Equality Virginia, the organization which established VAVP in 2007.
But Nair and AE believe hate crime legislation does not necessarily decrease the number of violent, LGBT or race focused crimes, and has instead become a tool used by the police and the legal system to persecute minority communities; the same communities it was designed to protect. Additionally, AE believes minority groups are disproportionately charged with committing hate crimes, though national FBI numbers show race being the the largest reason for hate crimes – with 61% of a 4,943 race based crimes being committed being committed against racial minorities.
The FBI admits reporting hate crimes is done voluntarily by agencies, and it’s a known flaw in their reporting. Additionally, AE believes communities of color, who are less trustful of police, will either not report hate crimes committed against them, or police will under-report their complaints.
Nair points out the that the US prison system is disproportionately filled with people of color, and also said that AE believes the legal system uses the threat of hate crime charges against communities of color. ”That alone brings about more confessions or more plea bargaining,” said Nair.
AE’s concern, numbers aside, is still rooted in an alternative system to incarceration. “Rather than asking why there is an increase in violence, they just put everyone jail,” said Nair. “We don’t need longer sentences, we need community measures that allow people to engage differently.”
Several members of AE have experience working on, and/or with the prison industrial complex. Nair, in addition to her work with AE, is the Policy Director for Gender JUST, a Chicago based queer and radical activist organization.
One of Gender JUST’s projects is working with queer and trans youth of color in gaining access to use Chicago’s gay community center, Center on Halsted (COH). Gender JUST reported that youth are frequently targeted by COH’s security force, harassed, and incarcerated by the police in the area. According to Nair, these arrests arise “at the behest of residents and business owners who don’t want queer youth of colour ‘hanging around.’”
Ryan Conrad, another member of the AE collective, has some of the most direct experience within the prison system. He spent 3 days in jail and another 6 years in a legal battle with Miami-Dade county, as a result of an arrest during the anti-FTAA protests in 2003. Over that period, Conrad had been volunteering with a queer and trans drop-in for young people in central Maine and worked professionally for three years with young people at a mental health advocacy program. Conrad noticed that a disproportionate number of queer and trans young people was getting sucked into the prison system.
Additional writings by AE via Yasminnair.net
These experiences led the collective to produce the anthology “Prisons Will Not Protect You,” the third and final installation of the “Against Equality” trilogy. The other books in the series, “Queer Critiques of Gay Marriage,” and “Don’t Ask to Fight Their Wars,” discuss the hopes of a “queer and radical world.” The prevalence and abuses of the prison industrial complex are also critiqued in the multi-essay volume.
The books are published by AE and distributed through its website and AK Press. The collective is funded by book sales, and all participants are volunteers.
Jon Henry comes from the small town of Washington, Virginia. Xe finished xes degree at the University of Richmond and was named GayRVA.com's Out.Spoken. Richmonder of the Year for 2011. When not in class, xe is either in the studio or rabble rousing with other queer activists. Follow xem on Twitter.
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