BARBARA SMITH: WHERE’S THE REVOLUTION?, THE NATION, 1993
Kim Crenshaw: June 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, widely regarded as the convulsive beginning of the gay rights movement. Now the celebration of this historic event will bring to a head divergent and sometimes controversial questions, questions about how, when and where the movement grapples with its own intersectional history and how it deals with current intersectional politics. Some of the issues this year will range from whether leading figures of the movement's origin such as Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera will be lifted up to whether the current celebration of same-sex marriage reflects an agenda that has been authorized by the many or by the few.
We were fortunate enough to sit down with Lady Sill just as she was transitioning to her new job as the executive director of Kaleidoscope Trust. We were in London a few weeks ago. We look forward to highlighting her work in the future and on hearing about how her hangout with Billy Porter and the cast of Pose as co grand marshals of Wold Pride work, Lady Sill. And just as we were finishing up our last podcast on apologies, the New York City Police Department issued one for their actions that led to the Stonewall Uprising 50 years ago.
Two weeks ago, Commissioner James O'Neil issued a short, maybe not so sweet statement calling the actions of the police discriminatory and oppressive. He made assurances that something like this would never happen in 2019. Now this comes after decades of the NYPD resisting demands for an apology. In fact, just two years ago, O'Neil himself declined apologizing for the raid, saying that, well, the past was the past. Now some see this as a step in the right direction, and I have to acknowledge that, unlike some of the bystander apologies discussed In the last episode, Joe Biden's non-apology, for example, this one at least acknowledged past wrongdoing on the part of the police. But critics of the apology aren't so impressed. They say it says nothing about harm being done today, right now against LBTQ-plus people by the NYPD. The Reclaim Pride Coalition, for example, stated, "The NYPD's vice squad is still in business, busting sex workers and others while its own members run their own brothels." They pointed out that the NYPD arrested a trans woman in the Bronx and held her in custody, in handcuffs for 24 hours. Her crime, walking to work while trans.
Now apologies aren't nothing, but they aren't quite the it's-all-good-now blanket for contemporary harassment. I'll say that again. Apologies aren't nothing, but they aren't an it's-all-good blanket disclaimer for contemporary harassment. Some see the apology as a further softening of the violent history between the police and queer people. Now for some, this is a welcome rapprochement, while for others it's just another step in the de-politicizing and corporatizing of the movement. The incorporation of uniformed officers in ... The incorporation of uniformed officers in the parade has been a particular point of contention. It leads some critics like Reclaim Pride to organize the Queer Liberation March.
Now that's an alternative march to retain more of the radical elements of Pride, especially its resistance to unjust domination. We'll hear a little bit more from them in a minute. Now that's something that Barbara Smith knows all about. On June 19th she penned an op-ed entitled "Why I Left the Mainstream Queer Rights Movement." In her iconic and no-nonsense way, she explains why she, one of the key figures in the history of queer freedom, has become isolated from the current gay rights movement.
Now to any reader of black feminism, lesbian writing or intellectual history of intersectionality ideas, Barbara Smith needs no introduction. But to the newbies, I'm going to tell you just a little bit about Barbara Smith, lesbian, feminist author, activist, independent scholar and co-founder of the Combahee River Collective. Barbara Smith has been in the driver's seat of the literary and political vehicles carrying black feminism into the public square for a half century. The titles she has edited and the projects she's co-founded tell it all. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave, Black Women's Studies, Home Girls, A Black Feminist Anthology, This Bridge Called My Back, I am Your Sister, Black Women Organizing Across Sexuality, Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press, The Combahee River Collective, Conditioned Spies, The Black Women's Issue.
Now these were like stops on the underground railroad for us black feminists who were all coming of age in the late '70s and the early '80s. Let me tell you, by the time I was in grad school in the mid '80s, Conditioned Spies, now that was like Prince's The Black Album. You'd heard about it. You wanted to get it, but it virtually sold out almost immediately when it was published. So my little study group at the University of Wisconsin had one copy of it. And this is a shout out to you, Judy and Ryan, we'd steal it from each other every chance we'd get. We were so thirsty for the work that would amplify what we were seeing, what we were experiencing and what we were trying to think and write about. And Barbara Smith led the way in quenching that thirst nurturing an entire generation of black feminists.
That's why, in addition to the Stonewall Award for Service to the Lesbian and Gay Community in 1994 and her nomination to the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, the African American Policy Forum awarded Barbara the Harriette Tubman Lifetime Achievement Award. We call her the OG of black feminism. Barbara, welcome to the podcast.
Barbara Smith: Thank you so much, Kim. I'm so happy to be with you. Kim Crenshaw: So this year is a big anniversary for queer rights, he movement, and it looks like all stops are being pulled out, so here in New York, the NYPD, as I mentioned, has apologized. The New York Times has published a series reflecting life after Stonewall. And your contribution to that theory, "Why I Left the Mainstream Queer Rights Movement" pulled no punches about some of the continuing problems of the movement. And for that, it's so much of the piece that you wrote and then of course the piece that you wrote in 1993 in The Nation, "Where's the Revolution?" Actually gives a trajectory that in many ways informs some part of even the contemporary critique of the movement. Walk us back to that trajectory- what do you remember about the first March?
Barbara Smith: Well it was exhilarating. Everything in those days was exhilarating, because we were making it up from scratch. We were making it up as we were going along. One of the members of the Combahee River Collective, Demita Frazier said something I've never forgotten and have quoted many, many times. She said, "This is not a mixed cake. We are making this from scratch." And what she was talking about was building Black feminism and the feminism of women of color and a space for out, queer people of color to be. There were no givens. So as I said, it was exhilarating during those years. It was certainly exhilarating to go the national march, and I may get the exact title incorrect, but the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979, because there had never been anything like that before.
One of the things about that period is that there was not the incredible divide or the incredible chasm between establishment gay rights and liberation movements plural. There was not that level of chasm, because we were absolutely stigmatized and that included white, gay men, if you see what I'm saying. I don’t mean that we all had the same politics or that we, as women of color, were universally respected and seen as equals in the movement. We were not. But at a time when we were absolutely anathema and viewed as anathema to not even polite society, but just society. But as I said, at a time when we were so ostracized, so marginalized, so scapegoated, there was not, as I said, that chasm. There was this feeling of we're all in this together. This was pre the AIDS epidemic, '79. So the difference between the ‘79 march and the ‘87 march were worlds apart.
Kim Crenshaw: Now as you pointed out, when '87 march came around, you were one of the speakers. So the group was now not 100,000, it was like a million-plus people. You were one of eight speakers. Do you remember what your message was at that march?
Barbara Smith: I think, I haven't looked at that speech for quite some time. I actually had to shorten my speech, because there were more than eight speakers. We were considered the eight major speakers that were given somewhat more time. But because of how things had unfolded, like at most events like that, by the time it got to me, I was in the very difficult position of having to cut my speech on the biggest stage I've ever been on. That was my biggest audience to date, and I'm up there trying to cut my speech as it happened.
But the full speech was published in Gay Community News, which was Boston's fabulous newspaper for our community. And so the complete speech is there, and so I will go home and read that after the fact. And if I'm wrong about what I talked about, I will let you know. But I suspect that I focused a lot on issues of racism and probably also economic oppression, probably also talked about some of the international issues that were happening at the time. I'm just kind of supposing, because there was a lot going on in Central and Latin America at that time with the US government doing its usual kinds of negative interventions. So who knows? I'll let you know if I talked about fashion trends. I'll get back to you on that.
Kim Crenshaw: That would be shocking. Well it's so interesting that you mentioned that they listed in the 1993 march a quote from your earlier speech, because the 1993 march seemed to in some ways be a turning point, or at least the recognition that things on the ground had shifted, because that one was much more about the military. It seemed to be at some distance from where the earlier two marches had come. At some point then as we moved to 1999, you said you got to the last straw.
Barbara Smith: Right, indeed.
Kim Crenshaw: Do you recall some of the moments when you decided, okay, you know what? I'm done with this. Barbara Smith: Yes At a certain point I said, "No, this is not for me. I need to put my energy elsewhere." And that's really because of the kind of politics and theoretical understanding that you have brought to the world around intersectionality, that I've always done work that would be defined as intersectional. And at a certain point it was very clear that that's not what the flourishing and growing LGBTQIA movement was about. We had not just been involved in one vector of addressing and challenging oppression. We had been in the movement to end the war in Vietnam. We had been involved in Black liberation. We were involved in solidarity with Cuba, all kinds of things that really affected and influenced how did we understand freedom, how did we understand organizing, what did we think was liberation. There was a split between people who wanted that multi-issued intersectional understanding of what gay liberation looked like and people who only wanted to focus on so-called gay issues. And this was organizational. There was a gay liberation front that started right out of Stonewall, and then there was a gay activist alliance which decided that it only wished to focus on gay issues and not on carnage in Vietnam. So those splits have always existed.
Kim Crenshaw: And so that's when you were done. You didn't go to the 1999 march.
Barbara Smith: No, I did not. I haven't been to one since 1993.
Kim Crenshaw: So '93 was it as far as the mainstream movement. So this gives us a sort of historical trajectory of, as you pointed out, there were always these tensions. But at some point the side that says, "We're only going to focus on gay issues," actually is on the ascendancy and then becomes the center of the mainstream movement. And it's important for us to think about this, as this is the celebration of Stonewall, so Stonewall is a multiracial, gender-diverse insurgency. That's what's being celebrated, against the police. Now we're in a moment where the broader set of issues that might have been seeded by that movement have more or less been marginalized. The police are actually being brought in as partners in ways that were probably unimaginable 50 years ago.
Barbara Smith: Yes.
Kim Crenshaw: And people like you don't even go anymore. So what is it that allowed this ascendancy to happen? What is it that allows this exclusivity, or dare I say elitism to continue to now be at the center of setting the agenda?
Barbara Smith: I think the answers are complex. However, one of the hallmarks of homophobia and transphobia and of LGBTQIA oppression is a lack of acceptance. I think because of this push for acceptance, I'm thinking about it in comparison to what Black people were fighting for during the civil rights era. We weren't necessarily fighting for acceptance. We were fighting for rights, basic rights, the right to go to schools, signally the right to vote, the right to employment. It's kind of like I don't care if you like us or not. I don't care if you like me or not. I don't like you, so we're even on that. But I would like to be able to, for example, get a mortgage.
Kim Crenshaw: Feed my kids.
Barbara Smith: Yes. And the thing is that it's not that there was none of that or none of those impulses and none of those goals within the LGBTQIA movement. There definitely were. But that thing of acceptance I think was a stronger kind of motivator than it was with Black people, because we had no expectations around ever being accepted or acceptable, at least those of us who were functioning in a reality-based way. And I hope that no one who's listening things that what I'm saying is that it's not possible for people of color, including people who are Black, of African heritage and people who are of European heritage to have genuine and sincere relationships. That's not what I'm saying at all. That's absolutely possible, history bears it out. I'm not talking about that whatsoever. I'm talking about what was the trajectory of the political movement as far as its goals were concerned.
So as I said, this push for acceptance quickly and easily turned into a push for assimilation. We're just like you. We have 2.5 children, a picket fence, and we do whatever people do on weekends. We have a lawnmower, and you know. You know what I'm saying? It's just like, but the thing is, see, that had validity, because they painted people who were queer as being somehow from some other species or just ... We were vilified. And then there's also the fact that if you only have one thing that is a problem for you in a society where everything else is a privilege and a plus, then that's really all you need or want. With white, cisgendered males who demographically have the possibility of having more class privilege, and they already have white skin privilege, if the only thing that's messing up their world is the fact that they are ostracized and discriminated against because they're gay, then there's only one thing that needs to be fixed. And of course for us as women of color, that's never been the case, so there are a lot of reasons.
Kim Crenshaw: Absolutely, and when I thought about this in the context of anti-discrimination law, I thought about it in terms of like a pyramid. And if you have only one thing to complain about or one thing that pushes you sort of down in the basement, then all you really want is a little escape hatch, right? So that you can crawl through the basement to get to the upper floor, and for the most part, anti-discrimination law is sort of about that. It's like if but for your sexuality, you'd be heterosexual, then we'll acknowledge that. You get one pass or one way to climb up. But you can't fit all this stuff together, right? You just got to be one thing or another, and it seems as though some, in a number of ways, that logic took precedence over the formation and the ideology that you identified as one of the other possibilities that had been opened up by Stonewall. And just to encourage readers to read your New York Times op-ed, you point out that a quarter of the LGBTQIA community experience food insecurity. 24% of lesbians and bisexual women live in poverty. Black men who have sex with men, among the highest rates of HIV. And transgender women, of color in particular, experience, as you say, appalling levels of violence.
Now here's something I hear, and I wonder whether you hear it as well. It feels like a contradiction. So what typically gets said, and you've written about this, is, well, those aren't our issues. Those aren't gay issues, even those these are people who are claim to be part of the queer community, the issues that they face aren't their issues. So that gets said, but then here's the other thing that's really interesting. I've been in conversations lately where the argument has been made that, because marriage equality was successful, all of the other movements can learn something from it. So racial justice advocates, advocates for women, the idea is that now we can be tutored by the leaders of the marriage quality movement because they did it and it was successful, so we can learn a lesson from them.
And I always thought that was interesting, because within that movement itself, they're not really that capable of incorporating issues of race and in some of the other movements that are currently in need of rebooting. So within this space, these populations aren't well served. But outside the space, we're supposed to think that there is, I guess, knowledge that can be shaped around the experience around marriage equality. What should we make of that? Is this parallelism the lesson that we can learn from, or should we be concerned about the fact that the mainstream gay rights movement hasn't figured out how to do race and class and other issues very well?
Barbara Smith: Well we should definitely be concerned. Any movement that doesn't do those things well and doesn't have that kind of inclusive perspective is not genuinely a movement for profound change. I am frankly shaking my head about this concept of other movements should look at the marriage equality successes as a model. A model for what? I mean, I believe that people of all sexual orientations and gender identities should have the right to marry, I think that it is a basic human right. This idea, though, that we should model other kinds of liberation struggles, how would you, what would you learn from the fight for marriage equality if you're involved in the fight for 15, for a $15 minimum wage? I can't. What would you get from the successful fight for marriage equality around the ongoing egregious exploitation of women and violence against women? What would you get from that? Because that point that I was making, I can always argue with myself, the point I was making about how maybe people could deal with the concept of marriage, because they had kids and relatives and cousins and whomever who were gay, and they were all right with them, and they wanted them to have nice lives too. But women are embedded in all of these networks and families, and yet violence against women crosses every single class and race identity. So how would we use the successful fight for marriage equality to eradicate violence against women? I'm waiting. What's the answer. To that. Maybe you know, Kim.
Kim Crenshaw: We can't let you go without talking about Combahee. But before we talk about the differences in the trajectory, the vision that's reflected in Combahee and the neoliberalization of some mainstream dynamics, like in the parade, the corporate sponsorship, and as we've been talking about, there's the police presence. I read somewhere that after one city had disinvited the police, the New York Pride invited the police. We want you here.
Barbara Smith: And what does that tell you about the people who are making the decisions?
Kim Crenshaw: Exactly, exactly.
Barbara Smith: Have they ever heard of Eric Garner? Good grief.
Kim Crenshaw: This is the question. This is the question. So again, one could say on the other side, well, you're naïve to think that a movement can exist without resources. A celebration of this magnitude can't actually happen without having to incorporate sort of a corporate space to it. What should we think about that, like we need the money in order to make something like Pride happen year after year?
Barbara Smith: I don't know if you hear me sucking my teeth, because I am. Reclaim Pride is having a queer liberation march on next Sunday, June the 30th in New York City. And I'm delighted that this is the case. They're trying to get back to our roots, and I think it will be a really dynamic march. They're not trying to entertain people. It's not going to be the biggest party, extravaganza that anyone has ever seen. It's going to be about issues. It's going to be about community. It's going to be about solidarity, and that's what's happening. And I would suggest that people find out about Reclaim Pride, easy enough to do on Facebook, Twitter, online, and find out about an alternative. They have a wonderful statement about how they're ... a statement of principles about why they decided to do this. And they grappled with Heritage of Pride to try to get them to be more open to a different perspective about this celebration and what this commemoration should look like. They were not successful, so they created their own, and I think that's terrific.
About the money, that you have to have a certain level of money in order to be effective, one of the questions that people have asked me throughout the years about Combahee is, "Where did you get your funding from?" And I just start laughing hysterically. It's like, really, are you kidding? We had no funding, but of course it was the '70s and going into the early 1980s. But this idea that you cannot be politically effective unless you have lots and lots of bank, lots and lots of money, I don't think it's true. I think we live in an age of celebrity. We live in an age of glamor. It's a different kind of world, but is that liberation? I don't really think that that's liberation. But if what you think is important is how you look and how you look on a lavish level, not on a level of being presentable, if your whole thing is, I want to have the most expensive outfit, I have to drive this kind of car. I have to eat in this kind of a restaurant and live in this kind of a place. Then your priorities get shaped by that. And if what you're concerned about is I just want to be able to be safe and pay my bills and to make sure that the children at the border who don't have changes of clothes, who don't have soap, who don't have toothbrushes, that's more important to me than whether I have the last word in consumer objects.
Kim Crenshaw: Well on the note that you mention about Reclaim Pride, how they tried to negotiate and tried to broaden and refocus. And when they weren't able to, they created their own space. That seems to be, I think, a powerful modality of articulating what the dominant frame does not allow you to. And in some ways that's exactly what seems to have happened in your decision collectively to create Combahee. So first of all, tell us. I think a lot of people don't know where the name came from.
Barbara Smith: Well the Combahee River, which I have recently discovered is actually pronounced “Cumbee” not three syllables but only two. I say, "We pronounce it as Northeast