June is LGBT Pride month in the US and there has been a lot to celebrate. From marriage to the military, LGBT people have won acceptance, but that doesn’t mean we’ve banished, poverty, terror and shame. The unacceptable pervades our profit-mad society – and that’s nothing of which to be proud. So, what’s next for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) movement? I asked longtime activist and organizer Amber Hollibaugh.
A self-described “half-gypsy, white trash, former sex-worker, hooker and sex radical,” Hollibaugh is the author of the best-selling memoir, “My Dangerous Desires.” After forty years, her heart is still set, not on admittance to some sad status quo for LGBTQ people, but rather, on social transformation.
LGBTQ movements carry a special burden of oppression on account of being associated with sexuality, she says, but they also the hold a particular promise and power, not just for individual liberation, but also for society. The erotic, she says, renews our imagination and binds us to the future in profound ways:
“Everyone’s always told about politics you have to be practical, but I actually think that’s not true, you actually have to hold to a dream … and desire is part of that dream.”
With so much still to change, this is no time to privatize and hush. It’s time to talk ever louder and ever-more publicly about dreams and desire and wanting.
Hollibaugh co-directs Queers for Economic Justice, which is holding a summer celebration this week in New York to spread the news about their work. The movement hasn’t come where she thought it would. The work is very far from over.
Laura Flanders: Amber, you are described as working class, white trash, incest survivor, high femme, lesbian, sex radical. You work nowadays, largely in the shelter movement in the New York City area, but you’ve had leadership positions in LGBT organizations across the country. Let’s start with that characterization of you, that description. Does it fit? Does it resonate?
Amber Hollibaugh: The description does fit, with the addition of being mixed race, which I claim and state because I think that white people are not seen as people with racial histories and my father is a person of color. My father is a gypsy. He traveled in caravans and was branded by the Ku Klux Klan. You know I have a history about race in my family that has very much to do with the other things that you name about poverty, about class, about access – or lack of it. So that description is meaningful to me, even though I know that it’s limited, it’s why I do what I do. I don’t have the luxury nor do I want it to forget where I come from. That has informed who I am and it has informed my political vision and I think it’s important for people who come from those kinds of backgrounds that don’t have degrees – I went to high school. I’m the first person in my family who did. It’s important for those of us that are in the LGBTQ movement who come from those kinds of backgrounds, to step forward and say that the vision that we’ve got is very much embedded in the histories that we don’t forget about where we came from. This is not the history of the upper middle class white lesbian in a fancy university. This is a history of poverty, of racism, of fear and of hunger.
LF: Hunger. You left home at 18. You wrote about it in this fabulous book, “My Dangerous Desires.” You left partly because you were fleeing abuse, but you also left on a quest. Talk a bit about that moment and reflecting now, can you even remember what you thought you were going to find when you left, or where you thought you were going or what you thought the world you were going to be a part of would look like?
AH: When I left home, it was a very different moment in time. The beginnings of radical social movements were really taking off. The civil rights movement especially was exploding. The Freedom Summer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [was happening.] I tried to join and they suggested to me that I was too young and that I ought to leave the south and go someplace else … I became a part of the Civil Rights movement early on and that has really shaped a great deal of my thinking.
In that early period, there was an extraordinary moment of hope. To take on the question of race in America and believe that you could transform this country so that it would actually be a place that was welcoming for everyone that was here, including dealing with the history of slavery and the kind of oppression this country is based on, that’s an amazing moment to begin to find your own political ideals – and yet it was also a very uncomfortable movement because I was a lesbian and that wasn’t talked about. Most of the white people that I knew in that movement had come from more resources, more privilege. I worked as a sex worker; I worked as a stripper and then I worked in the Civil Rights movement.
LF: Meaning you did one thing at night and one thing during the day?
AH: That’s exactly right! Well, frankly, sex work and stripping is very good if you have radical politics. You can go to meetings all night long. (Laughs.) And the thing that was always interesting to me is that I lived in communes and nobody ever asked me how I got my money. They got their money from their folks and no one ever inquired how I had enough money to live and I didn’t inform them.
LF: Thinking of the world that you were part of in that moment and the change that was in the air, what do you think your vision was of the world you were building?
AH: Well, in a different moment, in the 60s and 70s, I did believe we were going to succeed – that we were going to create a revolution, that America was going to be a completely transformed nation state and that there would be an amazingly different set of beliefs; that this country would reflect. And I thought that that was the fulfillment of the American democratic dream and I believed in it passionately. I was a commie and I fought about Marxism and class and race and it informed everything I did. I studied; I worked very hard to try and figure out what I thought and I believed that we were going to succeed and that revolutions would happen globally and we would be a part of that and we would have then not capitalism. We would have values based on human lives, not profit. We would actually transform the kinds of ways people built love and built community. I believed that those things would happen and it was a very shocking thing to me, out of the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, to realize that that dream – while I still believed in it – was not going to happen in the way that I had hoped.
LF: It’s your birthday.
AH: It is my birthday!
LF: Happy birthday! How do you think we are doing?
AH: I think we are in a very different place than we were 35 years ago … I feel really – actually – quite terrified about the world as it now exists. The kind of sucking the world dry for a dollar seems to me to be even worse (though it was hard for me to imagine 30 years ago that it could get worse) and the idea that bling and profit over human beings is really more and more a credible idea; people don’t even examine it with any kind of question: I find that really terrifying.
While I think there have been amazing and unforeseen changes in the United States in the last 35 to 40 years and in the world, it’s not what I had hoped each of those avenues would be. The Civil Rights movement has not led to a society that is free of racism. The Women’s Liberation Movement has not led ultimately, I think, to women’s freedom – though it has fundamentally shifted the way that gender is understood and the kind of possibility that the LGBTQ writes, the kind of idea of queer liberation is now a very contested terrain.
LF: Well, let’s talk about perhaps the least predicted of those movements which was the LGBTQ movement. A lot of people would look around today and say, you have powerful LGBT organizations; you have the end of don’t ask, don’t tell in the military; you have gay marriage in New York and many other states. The New Yorker has two women getting married on the cover. Isn’t there a lot of which to be proud?
AH: There is. Being respectful of extraordinary work that has happened in the last thirty-five years is not the same thing as it reflecting my values. I’m not sorry that we can now enter the military and I’m not sorry that we can marry, but frankly I come from a moment in time, a radical vision in time that never made marriage or the military my criteria of success. I didn’t want us to have wars; I didn’t want us to have armies and I did not want to register my relationship with the state. So, are those victories? They are. Were they discriminatory? Yes, they were. Were they my idea of what it was we were trying to build as a liberation movement for queer people? NO, it wasn’t at all.
Do we now fight for the kind of passionate belief that I have about sexuality, about the importance of the erotic, of people actually getting to fulfill desire and not be punished because they have it? No, we’re nowhere near close to that. We’re dealing with an AIDS epidemic that continues out of control globally and in this country, NO, THIS IS NOT the movement that I am fighting to create. Has it succeeded in places that are very significant? Yes it has – and it would be foolish to say that those things don’t matter.
Is it different to come out now than it was to come out thirty-five years ago? Sometimes. But if you come out now and you come from poverty and you come from racism, you come from the terror of communities that are immigrant communities or communities where you’re already a moving target because of who you are, this is not a place where it’s any easier to be LGBT even if there’s a community center in every single borough.
LF: Talk about the work that you do now.
AH: The work that I do now is as the co-director of Queers for Economic Justice (QEJ) with Brandon Lacy Campos as my co-director and that work is really based on the idea that issues of the economy are profoundly affected by how you live out sexual orientation and gender identity. That we’re impacted by all the intersections of our identities and how those then are reflected on what our choices are. If you’re a person with resources who is LGBT, you may have some problems with that – but, frankly, you’ll probably have an apartment. If you’re poor, if you’re transgender, if you’re a person of color, if you’re HIV positive and you’re homeless, the ability to act on desire, the ability to be safely somewhere to make love with anybody that you want to make love with is unlikely and QEJ works on the important issue that the economy is not removed from the way you live out your private life.
If you struggle with issues of documentation, issues of your health care, issues of whether or not you’ll be punished for being open about who you are, those things affect how you can be employed or not employed, how you can get an apartment or not get an apartment, how it is that you feel free or not free and QEJ works a lot on places like shelter systems where in a traditional LGBT analysis, you would never know that there are queer people who are homeless, you would never know that there are low-income people that are LGBTQ and that we’re actually a majority of who shares that identity not a minority.
LF: Why is it important to defend a person’s right to be sexual, to have their sexual life, to have privacy? A lot of people would say, “If you have a place in the shelter, great. It’s not up to me to make sure you can make love to someone.”
AH: I think that the power of a political vision is deeply engaged with the possibility of how you can live out the liberation that you seek and part of that vision is very much about desire, about the erotic. I didn’t come out and pay a really painful price often, to be LGBT, to not claim my sexuality at the same time. It’s not all right with me to not talk about it so I don’t make anybody nervous. I’m a high femme lesbian who loves butch women. That erotic identity has an enormous amount to do with how I live my life, who I live my life with and what it is we can or can’t do.
LF: But you said, the power of our political organizations and our ability to attain our political goals is related to the possibility of erotic realization. Explain that.
AH: Yes! Absolutely. Absolutely. No political movement can avoid the reality of desire in its midst. Every office building is full of the illicit affairs, the unwanted pregnancies, the crises that happen in human lives. For a political movement to not understand that sexuality is a profound component of both how people are oppressed and how people dream, is not to recognize the reality of political power and where it’s centered. If I’m fighting for the possibility of having a kind of desire and possibility, that right now is not too likely, it gives me a different kind of engagement with the future, than if I say, “sex doesn’t matter; it’s private.” Well, sex may be private in the way that you make love, but it’s not private in the context of the world we live in. We’re targeted as LGBTQ people because we make people nervous around sex and we practice desire or have the possibility of practicing desire in magical and very, very profound ways. We shouldn’t be giving up the possibility of articulating the claim of our body and the claim of our desire as something distinctive and erotically profound.
LF: Is it as simple as we need to talk about love more? I mean whether you’re talking about civil rights or LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, any of this. It’s often been the undeniable force of someone loving someone that forced a change.
AH: That’s right, or wanting someone. I mean love sometimes is exactly what happens, or sometimes it’s desire that you don’t know how to face, but you’re actually living within at the same time – all those affairs people have had. So, I think to not talk about sex, to not talk about love, to not talk about the possibility of exploding our lives in that way…. I think desire gives us – imagination – as well as actually often we pay a terrible price for it. Women are punished around their sexuality and perceived to be immoral if they practice a certain kind of promiscuous sexuality. It’s a very different thing still if you’re a guy, if you’re a woman and you’re straight.
LF: Something about this makes me think about how often it happens when I ask somebody about their visions for the future, why they do the work that they do, that they tear up, that they cry. Is there something we’re not expressing about why we do social change work?
AH: I think social change work is some of the most extraordinary dreaming that any of us have the possibility of doing. In some ways, the challenge of staying political is to stay a dreamer at the same time. Everyone’s told always about politics, you have to be practical, but I actually think that’s not true, you actually have to hold to a dream and then understand what you can execute and what you can move forward, but you never give up the dream and desire is part of that dream. To actually be possessed or possess someone in a way that is unimaginable when you’re a young person struggling about your body and whether anybody would ever want you, that’s a huge world and that doesn’t shift because you’re fifty; it doesn’t shift because you’re 80. It’s a vision of the possibility of claiming the right to dream and imagine an impossible place that you were never allowed to go, but you want the world to have as a possibility in the future.
It’s not a small thing, it’s a big thing and when people give up sex and give up love or they only have love in the context of tradition then I think we’re missing the opportunity of saying to each other building community, building desire in community gives all of us the possibility of learning how to be who we always were terrified we’d find out we were, and then not be ashamed of it and to not have our desire and our love embedded in shame is a profound thing and it’s part of what drives the movement. It has driven marriage, it has driven Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, it’s driven ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act), but it also drives a different movement that I think what we want claims a bigger terrain – a more dangerous terrain. A place where we’re saying to people, imagine what it was you were never told to say. Imagine what it was that your parents were terrified that you’d do. Imagine the possibility of actually exploding in desire, not containing desire. What would a world look like if we built it so it had that kind of magic as a possibility of how you understood yourself?
LF: And are there applications of that to the equally urgent demands or the needs that we have right now to overhaul our attitudes to class, our economy, everything you talked about, squeezing the last cent for every dollar?
AH: Yes, there is no way to imagine a world that is that kind of compelling if you also don’t imagine a world where profit determines the values of whether or not you can afford to live; you can afford to eat; you can afford to take the subway; you can afford to actually have children. If you can’t do anything but fight, so every single solitary thing, every single solitary day, then the privilege of dreaming becomes something that only a few people have.
LF: Talk about your work at QEJ and what you’re involved in now, what you’ve seen and why you care so much about the organization.
AH: QEJ is a really magical organization. I know I’ve used that word a number of times, but I think it’s very difficult in a moment where there’s no movement – there are political organizations, but there’s no movement really, there’s no kind of broad activism (although Occupy certainly has some of that engaged in it) and it’s very difficult to find an organization where you engage with the hard issues. You really take on issues like economic justice. You take on the issues like HIV status. You take on the question of shelter work and homelessness and you say come here, come think with us, come help build a very different alignment of priorities in an LGBTQ imagination. Come and say that economic justice is interwoven and not removable from a queer identity and that it shapes it often in ways that you would never ever want to have determined for you.
If you do that work (which is what I do day in and day out), you see the number of people that walk in our office every single day who we have to give a MetroCard to get back to a shelter because they don’t have enough money to take a ride both ways, who have no food, who have no clothes. We did things like a butch clothing drive because in women’s shelters the kind of clothes that women are given to go to job interviews are all girl clothes: little heels, little skirt. If you’re gender nonconforming, you’re a lesbian, you’re not going to put those clothes on to go to a job interview.
So we do very practical things like a clothing drive, but we also do work like a writers’ group for people in shelter systems that are queer because people in those systems often don’t get the chance to be artists. They don’t get the chance to imagine their own words having value, so we try to engage with many of those issues and then we started a new initiative called Queer Survival Economies to try and make the recession that we’re now in visible as a queer issue. You would never know that any queer person is affected by the recession as you now read The New York Times or anything like that. You’ll never find any statistics, you’ll never find any data; you’ll never find any reference to foreclosures and LGBT families. You’ll never see anything about the impact on the queer world of this kind of economic atmosphere and yet we’re profoundly devastated by it and we have no voice or visibility.
So Queer Survival Economies is to try and say if you want to have a real conversation about the economy then let’s have that real conversation, including the queer conversation about what it means to survive. If we can’t survive in our queer identities without being profoundly punished, then the price of the recession is that we’re killed on the streets; we’re not sheltering our children; we have no health insurance – that is what the price is in this kind of economy out of control and that’s a queer issue and it’s a primary issue if you live with almost no work, if you live in a place where there’s no labor movement that recognizes you as an LGBT person or defends you at your work site, that doesn’t talk about workplace harassment. I mean those are our issues, those are not less LGBT then marriage or then Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
LF: Is there a price we pay for the profile of the LGBT organizations and LGBT people being super middle class and upper class?
AH: There’s a profound price to the incorrect assumption that LGBTQ movements are white, male and wealthy. That is not a good thing to be dealing with if you’re in the midst of a conversation where the recession profoundly impacts you at the same time because people say well, “Really? What’s your issue? I mean you all have money. You all have access.” If the question of queer rights and queer liberation is about access at whose table, then the idea that you come from wealth and that you have skin color privilege also means that there’s a certain kind of demographic ignorance that means that the rest of the LGBTQ world doesn’t get seen. It somehow is bad taste to bring up poverty; it’s bad taste to bring up people who don’t know how to dress well – it’s not gay.
LF: One example that we have is a candidate for mayor of New York. An out lesbian, Christine Quinn, who has so far refused to take to a vote on a bill about family leave and paid sick days and long opposed raising the minimum wage in the city. How do you make sense of that and where do you stand on that situation?
AH: Well, Christine Quinn is a complication, I think, for many parts of the LGBTQ world. On the one hand she has enormous power and visibility and she’s an open lesbian and it has a certain kind of weight and we have certain kind of access to her because she is an openly queer person. And the choices she makes are often less about sexual identity than they are about class and political choice. If you want to be backed by corporations so that you’re elected mayor, then it’s going to be very problematic for you to support a living wage campaign that would shift the minimum wage to something else. Family Leave – all of those kinds of issues position you to get certain kinds of resources and to have certain kinds of resources withdrawn from you. She wants corporate backing – if she wants corporate backing, she knows what the rules are for getting that corporate backing and she’s playing by those rules. If you are an LGBT organization that feels that economic justice and things like unions and minimum wages and family care are your base line, she may be your ally, but she may also not return your call.
LF: There’s a benefit coming up. Can anybody come? Can people support it if they can’t come?
AH: There’s a QEJ party coming up on June 27th. If they call QEJ’s office or if they go online at our website, they can find out about it.
LF: Amber Hollibaugh, thanks so much.
AH: You’re so welcome.