Peter Buttigieg’s campaign is why we must teach LGBT history


On June 28, 1969, four plainclothes officers took to the streets of Greenwich Village in Lower Manhattan with the express purpose of raiding LGBT establishments for what, at the time, was deemed illegal activity. It was a common practice that occurred approximately once a month in the majority of LGBT establishments to, in part, remind its LGBT patrons of their precarious place in the city. On this particular night, they entered Stonewall Inn, a renowned gay nightlife hotspot and known asylum for homeless homosexual youth, drag queens, trans women, and sex workers.

In the early hours of the morning, police revealed themselves to the crowd, turned on the house lights, and demanded identification from patrons. Anyone found to be without identification or dressed in full drag was subject to arrest. Women were arrested if not wearing at least three items of “feminine clothing”. Employees and bartenders, likewise, faced arrest with impunity. It is hard to ignore the commonalities between the extent to which police were permitted to use broad discretion in LGBT spaces at the time and the license they had and have to criminalize, detain, and brutalize Black bodies without fear of reprieve.

Unlike previous nights, patrons refused to be taken away by the police. The days that followed were marked with rioting in the streets, led largely Black and Latinx trans women like Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera, in an uprising against police brutality that would put Stonewall Inn on the map as the birthplace of the gay rights movement. This is not to say that Stonewall was the first time that LGBT people clashed with police. Officers were encouraged to attack LGBT enclaves, particularly places frequented by queer people of color. Both Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera would later found STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) in 1970 to support homeless trans youth with food, a warm bed, protection from the police, and access to education.

The year following the Stonewall Uprising, we saw the first forms of what we know today as a “Pride Parade”. One of the earliest of which was organized in 1970 by Brenda Howard (“the mother of Pride”) was the Christopher Street Liberation Day — a full-blown gay rights protest in the heart of New York City. Similar demonstrations took place in Chicago and San Francisco that same year. These are the roots of public gay life in America. Drag queens, trans warriors, and rent boys, largely individuals of color, were the first line of defense against the rampant cis and heterosexism.

Now, just a few months shy of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, Mayor Peter Buttigieg, in what many are marking as a landmark breakthrough in the arc of LGBT rights, has become the first openly gay man to submit his candidacy for president. He’s “Pete”, the approachable mayor and nice guy. It is in “Mayor Pete” that we, members of the LGBT community, are meant to put our trust and with whom we are expected (perhaps, insisted) to identify. The outpouring of homophobic attacks on Buttigieg by the right has further cemented that demand — suggesting that to critique him is to side with homophobes over “one of our own”.

But the closer we look at the substance of his campaign the more we see that his identity as a gay man belies a less-than-progressive agenda, one that any conscious LGBT voter should recognize as a dangerous attack on our community wrapped up in a rainbow packaging. There’s a common phrase in the Black community we come from that may help people follow along with our argument. “Not all skin folk are kinfolk.” In this case, the translation is that being gay is not — and has never been — enough to ensure that someone is advancing the project of queer liberation.

At a town hall meeting with CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper, Mayor Buttigieg was asked to weigh in on Democratic frontrunner Senator Bernie Sanders and opponent Senator Kamala Harris’s statements regarding the disenfranchisement of incarcerated persons.

Cooper asked the Indiana mayor what he thought of Sanders’s support for granting voting rights to incarcerated individuals, regardless of their crimes, and whether Buttigieg could see himself being in favor of similar policies. Without hesitation, he responded, “No, I don’t think so,” drawing both applause and expressions of shock from the live audience.

A Black audience member surveys the room in disbelief upon hearing Buttigieg express disapproval of re-enfranchising incarcerated people.

If we accept these words at face value, it’s certainly true that being convicted of a crime comes with certain ramifications. But disenfranchisement, considered in many democratic countries a violation of one’s fundamental rights, is a tradition in the U.S. not simply because it was used as a punishment but also because it was a powerful tool to silence the political dissent of marginalized communities.

Asking who is criminalized and what behavior is criminalized reorients the conversation toward how law enforcement and the justice system target the most vulnerable in our communities, specifically Black, indigenous, disabled, poor, and LGBT people. Discriminatory police practices have ravaged Black communities since the Reconstruction Era (even earlier if you consider fugitive slave patrols). Following a long tradition of police brutality against marginalized communities, the 20th century was rife with police harassment: officers raided gay establishments, stormed the homes of gay couples, arrested trans women for “cross-dressing”, and entrapped gay men at cruising locations.

By design, the war on drugs has done irreparable damage to communities of color (and more specifically the Black community) while leaving its white counterparts unscathed, despite studies showing near identical patterns of drug use. In 2014, in the months succeeding the extrajudicial killing of Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri became a hotbed for dissent of the police-industrial complex and use-of-force law and the launchpad for the Movement for Black Lives. A 2015 Department of Justice investigation into the law enforcement practices of the Ferguson Police Department found that Black drivers are twice as likely to be stopped and searched than white, but are found in possession of contraband 26 percent less often than white drivers.

Once we recognize that law enforcement’s raison d’être is to criminalize the very existence of the already marginalized (often with the clear intent to balance their own budgets), any and all punishments levied against such communities should be regarded with discernment.

Buttigieg is not without awareness that there are political implications based on the racial makeup of the mass incarceration system. “Frankly, I think the motivations for preventing that kind of re-enfranchisement in some cases have to do with one side of the aisle noticing that they politically benefit from it,” he added. “And that’s got some racial layers to it.” According to the Drug Policy Alliance, one in thirteen Black people of voting age is prevented from voting due to disenfranchisement laws. That’s over 2.2 million people. The question for Buttigieg then is not why he does not know the stakes, but why he’s willing to sacrifice Black and Brown LGBT people for the sole sake of political (white) expediency.

Make no mistake, Buttigieg’s stance on disenfranchisement and incarceration will not only disproportionately harm communities of color, but its weight will be felt especially by those within the LGBT community as folks who identify on the LGBT spectrum are incarcerated at rates three times that of their heterosexual peers. In fact, over 40 percent of women in prison are sexual minorities. Trans folks also report higher rates of incarceration: 16 percent have been incarcerated, six times higher than 2.7 percent reported by U.S. population at large. That number jumps to 47 percent when you look at only Black trans folks.

Powerful words from the writer and trans activist Raquel Willis

Need we remind Buttigieg, and the white gay men who insist we must support him, that, until 2004, sodomy laws and laws against nature ensured that merely existing was reason enough to warrant arrest (although, as recently as 2014 sodomy laws were still in effect in at least 12 states). It’s equally important that this landmark case was also predicated on the criminalization of Black bodies — as the Lawrence vs. Texas case emerged from a sexual and racialized encounter between a Black man and two white men. Existing as a homosexual as recently as a decade ago was to be constantly criminalized. Sodomy and crimes against nature laws ensured that, if need be, your mere existence was cause for arrest. While many white gay men have largely shed that position in American society, they have left many of us behind to experience police brutality, sexual assault, and homelessness.

What then can be done? In moments like these we must reflect on our shared history and look to it for context and guidance. Risking personal safety, freedom, and privacy, Black and Brown LGBT organizers have spoken out against mass criminalization and mass incarceration. Often pulled into organizing involuntarily, these folks have put themselves on the line because they have no other choice. They have demanded that we are allowed to live lives of dignity, free to express dissent, liberated from the shackles of second-class citizenship, and entitled to live free of harassment and brutality.

It is for these exact reasons that international coalitions of activists from Black Lives Matter, the Transgender Student Education Resource, No Justice No Pride, and other organizations are calling for the removal of police presence from Pride parades altogether. It is why police have been blocked from participating in Pride parades in Toronto, Minneapolis, Madison, and elsewhere.

What we must ask of our representatives, most of all those who seek the highest seat in the land, is to have the political imagination to see a future without racist and homophobic policing, to consider a world without prisons, and what it would look like to restore a political voice to the voiceless and invite all historically disenfranchised communities to participate equitably in an accountable democratic process. We do not need more of the same, and we certainly do not need someone who would use their community capital to garner votes while denying many of us the right to cast ours.

Buttigieg is, for all intents and purposes, portrayed as a self-made man (despite decades of queer history that say otherwise). An “all American” Harvard graduate of upper-middle-class pedigree and former lieutenant who voluntarily served in Afghanistan, his bootstrapping, everyman normalcy is that stuff that a candidate running on a platform of liberal religious modernism and “democratic capitalism” is made of. His only Achilles heel, it seems, is his homosexuality. In the words of James Baldwin:

I think white gay people feel cheated because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society.

Sadly, rather than establish an authentic relationship to the LGBT community to inform his policy and strategy, it seems that instead, it is through the blatant disregard of the LGBT community, its history, and its longstanding tradition of resistance that he seeks to catapult his own political career. And that’s what makes his presidential bid so insidious. He plays both sides — the God, Country, and Family icon of normalcy, and the “gay and proud” mark of being the progressive choice — a supposed step in the right direction. But the fact is, he has only ascended the the platform he has because of the generations of labor of queer Black and Brown organizers, his access to whiteness, and his perceived masculinity. His willingness to advance his agenda as an individual is to the detriment of our collective liberation.

We must insist on more than a candidate who is nice and who reads well on paper through a white, heteronormative lens. We must demand more than white, upper-class, masculine representation in the White House (and likewise in our legislature). We cannot as a community stand behind someone who would step on so many of us for personal advancement. We must continue to demand more from our next leader, queer or otherwise.

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