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April 20, 2014 7:11 PM Identity politics and its discontents: when social justice movements abandon the politics of redistribution

By Kathleen Geier

Richard Kim has written a incisive and provocative piece in the current issue of The Nation about the current state of the LGBT rights movement. He says, “If the recent shape of mainstream gay activism is any indication, then I’m all for winding it down.” Why? This is why:

In 2012, the Human Rights Campaign honored Goldman Sachs with an award at its annual dinner, while naming Lloyd Blankfein as its national corporate spokesman for same-sex marriage. In an obscene form of pink-washing in which every banker, sweatshop overlord and oil baron gets a gay star, HRC’s most recent report on “corporate equality” proudly concludes that a record 304 of the nation’s largest businesses—including Chevron, Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Comcast, Google, Monsanto, Nike, Raytheon, Boeing, Target and General Electric—have a perfect rating on LGBT issues.

Even the less corporate wing of the movement is doing LGBT people few favors, he says:

Meanwhile, those gay activists not wholly in thrall to the corporate elite are running boycott campaigns against the remaining businesses (Chick-Fil-A, Barilla) too stupid to figure out that gay is gold. Their latest target is Brendan Eich, who for two short weeks was the CEO of Mozilla. Six years ago, Eich gave $1,000 to support California’s Proposition 8, which 7 million Californians voted for and which garnered almost 6,500 contributions equal to or greater in value than Eich’s. Mozilla, it should be noted, has an anti-gay-discrimination policy, which Eich did not intend to change, and there is no evidence that he contributed to anti-gay causes beyond this one donation. I have no interest in defending his “right” to be a CEO, but the idea that his forced resignation constitutes some kind of victory for gays sets a depressingly low bar.

I find Kim’s critique of the gay rights fascinating, for a couple of reasons. Kim mentions Tony Kushner’s socialist vision of gay liberation, a tradition within the gay rights movement that over the past couple of decades has fallen by the wayside in favor of a more conservative, individualistic approach. As a result, the economic inequality and economic discrimination suffered by the LGBT community fell to the bottom of the mainstream gay rights movement’s political agenda. But it is a very real issue.

Back in the early 2000s, groundbreaking work by the economist M.V. Lee Badgett busted the myth that gays and lesbians are more affluent than other Americans. Badgett found that gay men earn significantly less than straight men with the same observable characteristics (education, race, occupation, etc.), and that wage disparities between lesbians and their straight female counterparts were statistically insignificant. Subsequent research confirmed her findings about gay men, but found that lesbians tend to earn more than straight women (albeit still less than straight men).

The Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, with which Badgett is affiliated, studies the economic status of LGBT individuals and their families. Some of their recent findings include the following:

— Lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) Americans are more likely to be poor than other Americans.

— One-third of lesbian couples are poor.

— Single LGBT adults with children are three times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to live in households earning near the poverty threshold. Married or partnered LGBT people living in two-adult households with children are twice as likely as their straight counterparts to earn incomes near the poverty threshold.

— The median household income of same-sex couples with children is 13.6 percent less than that of comparable different-sex couples.

— A report released this month finds that an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would reduce the poverty rate by 25 percent in female same-sex couples and 30 percent in male same-sex couples (as opposed to 24 percent in different-sex couples). Yes, the minimum wage is an LGBT issue!

These findings show that elevated rates of poverty and economic inequality persist in the LGBT community, most likely because discrimination persists. The high rates of poverty experienced by LGBT individuals and families, and particularly by lesbian-headed families, are especially disconcerting. That the mainstream gay rights movement has downplayed economic issues in favor of symbolic campaigns like the one against Brendan Eich — or worse, in favor of showering awards on corporate predators like Goldman Sachs — is a sad statement about its priorities. Do its leaders care more about rubbing shoulders with the one percent than about improving the material conditions under which the majority of LGBT people live?

One reason which Richard Kim’s piece interested me so much is that the issues he identifies are hardly unique to the LGBT movement. The critical theorist Nancy Fraser makes an analytic distinction between two types of social justice: recognition and redistribution. Recognition includes things like legal rights, social inclusion, and cultural representation; redistribution is the economic stuff. Both types of justice are important, and they’re not necessarily as distinct in practice as they may appear to be theoretically. Marriage rights for LGBT people, for instance, confer economic benefits as well as symbolic equality.

That said, in the past couple of decades, we’ve made considerably more progress — though still far from enough progress — on the “recognition” front than on the “redistribution” front. We have had an African-American president, a few high-profile female and African-American CEOs and cabinet officials, same-sex marriage in 17 states. Yet at the same time, economic inequality has soared, and the fortunes of many ordinary Americans have fallen. The feminist revolution has stalled on a number of fronts. African-Americans still suffer from extraordinarily high rates of poverty and unemployment, and the degree of racial segregation in our schools remains shocking. As noted above, gay and lesbian Americans experience from significantly higher levels of poverty and economic inequality, compared to straight Americans.

Many members of historically oppressed groups are tired of the tokenism, the elitism, and the infuriating lack of progress on economic issues. Some voices on the left are speaking out against the more mainstream, establishment-oriented groups and leaders. You have Richard Kim and Tony Kushner critiquing the gay rights movement, people like Susan Faludi and bell hooks taking on the corporate feminism of the Sheryl Sandberg types, and Adolph Reed (who is African-American) arguing that “diversity” politics are “little more than neoliberalism’s version of the left.”

One thing is clear: growing economic inequality is not being adequately addressed by the mainstream gay rights organizations, mainstream feminism groups, and liberal groups that emphasize superficial “diversity” but no structural changes. These groups need a radical re-visioning, so that economic justice becomes a central priority. If these movements attend to the urgent economic concerns of millions of Americans, they can become vital again. If they don’t, they will dwindle in numbers and power, until they become largely politically irrelevant. Sadly, they will have earned that irrelevance.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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