The Blackwood Research Group

For the last few months, I have been trying to pinpoint what exactly it is about Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black that makes me uncomfortable. For those of you who aren’t familiar, Orange Is the New Black is a show that debuted on Netflix over the summer. It portrays Piper, a white, upper middle class woman who is incarcerated for drug running for a drug ring almost ten years prior to when the show takes place. She enters Litchfield, a women’s correctional facility, learns how prison culture works, and eventually negotiates her relationship with Alex, her ex-girlfriend who convinced her to carry the drugs during their relationship. Before and during imprisonment, Piper is in a relationship with Larry, who does not quite understand the changes Piper undergoes while doing time. Orange Is the New Black also focuses on individual characters who are incarcerated, exploring their backgrounds along with issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality–the show’s inclusion of a transgender character played by a transgender person deserves an entire post on its own. The show has received critical acclaim, though several critiques point to the problematic treatment of class, race, and sexuality. Because class has been covered by other critiques, I think sexuality is a productive location to instigate a discussion. But first, some more contextualization for this post.

At the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting this year, I attended a panel on problems encountered in the field by researchers invested in feminist methodologies. Multiple panel members conducted their research with incarcerated women, and at the end of the panel, one remarked that her interlocutors occasionally engaged in serious relationships with other women, though they did not consider themselves to be lesbians or bisexual. The researchers briefly discussed these relationships as being more meaningful to their interlocutors than their relationships with men, but expressed slight confusion over their interlocutors’ commitments to a heterosexual identity. The women were clearly invested in their relationships with other women. Why weren’t they lesbians?

Orange Is the New Black (spoiler alert!) presents Piper in a similar frame. Piper discusses her sexuality, albeit briefly, at numerous points throughout the season and characterizes her self as bisexual. Her relationship with Alex was and is important to her, as is her relationship with Larry. However, the other characters refuse to accept her fluidity. Nicky, one of the inmates, sympathizes with Alex over Piper being a “straight girl.” Healy, one of the correctional officers, is willing to be somewhat supportive of her so long as she projects a heteronormative persona and maintains her relationship with Larry; however, as soon as she is accused of engaging in homoerotic activity with Alex, he immediately frames her as a lesbian and withdraws his support. Even Larry can’t conceptualize Piper. When he hears of her relationship with Alex in prison, he wonders: “So, what, is she gay now?” Piper can only be one or the other.

While the conversation at the AAA meeting is reminiscent of how sexuality is depicted on Orange Is the New Black and may speak to a broader discussion on sexuality, gender, and incarceration, I think Piper’s representation on Orange Is the New Black is indicative of pervasive biphobia in media portrayals. I appreciate Orange Is the New Black’s inclusion of queer characters, but the problematic erasure of aspects of their identities is concerning. The complicated fluidity so apparent in interlocutors discussed in the AAA session does not translate to television, or at least they do not in Orange Is the New Black. Wentworth, an Australian women’s prison drama, reframes the sexual tension between the female prison governor and a female inmate in terms of power dynamics irrelevant to sexual orientation; the female governor, who is engaged to a man, is not forcefully dichotomized. Why is this an issue in Orange Is the New Black? The show depicts the complicated intersectional aspects of identities in numerous ways. Why doesn’t this complexity extend to sexuality?

Orange Is the New Black presents a number of themes I find to be troubling, from class depictions to sexual assault to its overall treatment of incarceration. The show is not perfect, but it aptly demonstrates that these various flaws are worthwhile points of discussion. For all its issues, Orange Is the New Black has held its viewers’ attention. However, Jenji Kohan would do well to note critiques and take a hard look at how the show considers sexual fluidity in addition to the various social issues that arise throughout the series.

Global Genders

Dr. Evelyn Blackwood was interviewed on the topic of “Global Genders” on Public Radio International’s weekly program “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” which aired on Aug. 30, 2013.  You can listen to the program here .

Our very own Evelyn Blackwood shares her thoughts on love and family with the Feminist Wire

On Love and Family


Practicing and applied anthropology are rarely explored in depth in anthropology courses. Applied and practicing anthropology might receive honorable mentions, but the mention is often in reference to the troubled, colonial past of anthropology. Applied anthropology is frequently used as the scapegoat for the many problems inherent in colonial anthropology.

Despite its past, I believe that anthropology has incredible potential for creating change. I’m certainly not the first anthropologist to believe in anthropology’s potential to create such change. James Spradley was an early anthropologist who realized this potential for social change. Anthropologists like Paul Farmer and Merrill Singer have used anthropology to help people who experience a wide range of disparities. Some anthropologists have found a way to stay in academia while creating change; others have left academia to become full-time practicing anthropologists.

Numerous attempts have been made to repair the relationship between practicing and academic anthropology. In particular, anthropologists have been laboring to improve social engagement within academic anthropology for decades. Dell Hyme’s book, Reinventing Anthropology, written in 1972, is a prime example. In it, Hymes and other contributors try to imagine what a reinvented, more socially relevant anthropology might look like. New strains of academic anthropology have emerged more recently, such as ‘engaged anthropology,’ ‘public anthropology,’ and ‘activist anthropology,’ in response to allegations that academic anthropology is not a socially responsive discipline. Unfortunately, the discipline of anthropology is still a house divided, with practicing anthropology and academic anthropology rarely merging.

There are a wide range of disputes between academic and practicing anthropologists. Practicing anthropologists are often accused of being atheoretical, though we know that practitioners engage with a wide range of anthropological and interdisciplinary theories (Rylko-Bauer 2006; Nolan 2013). Academic anthropologists sometimes treat practicing anthropologists as if they are selling out by leaving academia. Practicing anthropologists have a tendency in return of accusing academic anthropologists of not being responsive to social needs.

Within academia, employment in practicing anthropology is viewed as second to employment in academia (Nolan 2013). Reality, however, tells a different story. We know that less than 50% of recent Ph.Ds in the humanities and social sciences will find tenure-track positions (Benton 2009). With the current recession and sequestration, universities won’t hire more academic anthropologists any time soon. In fact, now there are probably more anthropologists working outside of academia than inside academia (Nolan 2013). The emphasis on academic anthropology hasn’t changed much though, which means that the majority anthropology graduates are most likely ill-prepared for the demands of the non-academic world. By privileging only academic anthropology, we are doing a disservice to anthropology students and to our own discipline.

How are we going to engage students and prepare them for an economy in flux?

First, it’s important to know who we’re educating. We’re predominantly teaching students who belong to the millennial generation. Millennials are loosely defined as people who were born between 1980 and 2000. They make up a large minority of the U.S. population, accounting for about 78 million U.S. citizens. The Millennial generation is also on track to be the most educated generation in U.S. history, with over 30% of them attending college (Howe and Strauss 2000). Despite this high rate of education, Millennials are stereotyped as “apathetic, disinterested, tuned out, and selfish (Clinton 2013).”

A search on news sites tells a different story, one of social awareness and innovative activism. Millenials and their social media habits played an integral part in the Occupy Wall Street movements. A recent study of Millennials found that almost 80% of young adults support specific causes because doing so is an integral part of their identities (TWBA Worldwide 2012). It is precisely because of the Millennials’ “me” focus that they are so invested in a wide range of social causes (TWBA Worldwide 2012).

Not only are Millenials informed about social issues, they also believe that they can positively contribute to society by addressing those issues. A survey found that 96% of Millenials who responded agreed with the statement “I believe I can do something great” (Howe and Strauss 2000).  Millennial activism is present at Purdue as well. In 2012, many students responded to the racial bias incident on campus. The March at Purdue in March 2013 attracted over 300 Purdue students who came together to discuss minority issues and rally for change on campus. The Purdue Anti-Racism Coalition organized numerous protests on Purdue’s campus in response to racist attitudes and environments.

The outlook of the Millennial generation is being shaped by a unique set of global circumstances. Millenials’ employment prospects are dwindling in the worst U.S. recession since the Great Depression. Millennials are being bombarded by the poor job market, failing government, and the widening gap between the wealthy classes and the working classes, so it’s no wonder that Millennials have been stereotyped as “apathetic, disinterested, tuned out, and selfish (Clinton 2013).” The problems we face are huge and complex, and sometimes they can paralyze us.

Like the rest of the Millenials, I’m looking for solutions. We are all too aware of the problems plaguing the U.S. and the world. It’s important that we understand how those problems came to be, but we also want to understand how to create effective solutions. We are invested in society and we want to contribute. An anthropology that embraces both its academic and practicing traditions has so much to offer Millenials in our quest to provide culturally sensitive solutions to society’s problems.

How are we going to repair the division between practicing anthropology and academic anthropology?

We need to engage with anthropologists, inside and outside of academia. We need to use anthropological methods to assess and repair the division between academic and practicing anthropology. We need to get the house of anthropology (Boellstorff 2007, Weston 1993) in order, and quickly, because we’ve got some “wicked problems” (Nolan 2013) on the horizon that are threatening the vitality of the LGBTQ movement.

It’s projected that between 50-70% of young gay men, now in their early twenties, will be infected with HIV by the time they hit 50 years old (CDC 2012). A new strain of antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea is spreading across the U.S., which threatens to disproportionately affect gay men, as almost all other sexually transmitted infections do (CDC 2012). Homelessness is disproportionately affecting LGBTQ youth, as about 40% of homeless youth are LGBTQ-identified, while only approximately 10% of the U.S. population is LGBTQ-identified (The Williams Institute 2012).  The future of the LGBTQ movement is dim if half of its gay male population is infected with HIV and 40% of its former youth, if they are lucky, are survivors of homelessness. With the recession and sequestration restricting social welfare funding, we need creative solutions for issues that threaten the lives of current and future LGBTQ Americans. We need inspired scholars who value interdisciplinary collaboration to design those solutions.

First we have to get over our hesitancy to acknowledge the contributions of practicing anthropology. We need to expand what we include as anthropology and discard outdated, purist definitions. We need to invite practicing anthropologists into classrooms and collaborate with them so that their contributions to the field will be recognized within academia.

We need to show students that anthropology can be socially responsive, and we need to stop worrying that they will leave the academy. Graduates are already leaving the academy, and it is up to us to ensure that they are prepared for non-academic sectors. If we want society to acknowledge the relevance of anthropology, we have to demonstrate that anthropology can be socially responsive and socially responsible. And there are ways to do this while still resisting and subverting the hegemonic forces of capitalism and patriarchy.

We need to acknowledge the contributions of practicing anthropology in the courses we teach. We need to create innovative frameworks for problem-solving by combining critiques of society with methodological texts. We need to stoke the flame of passion that exists naturally in students by educating with the intent to inspire them to create change in their communities.  Their individual efforts could, in effect, be crowd-sourced to create major social change.

We will not solve the problems facing LGBTQ Americans by ourselves. In fact, researchers in other disciplines and individuals in the non-academic sector are already at the table, collaborating to solve these problems. Luckily, many academic and applied anthropologists are already working to build a relationship between academic and practicing anthropology. We must further that work. It would be a travesty for our potential contributions to go unrealized because we can’t stop bickering about who gets to live in the house of anthropology. We need engaged students, a unified anthropology, and an interdisciplinary approach, but if we can get those things, there will be a seat at the table waiting for us. 

I’ve just finished reading Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century America by Lillian Faderman, and while I didn’t really expect to learn anything new about (cough cough) white lesbian culture, I was surprised to find out that Faderman seems to be an apologist for the racist behavior of the white lesbian feminists she writes about during the period of about 1960-1980.

Lest you think I’m being overly “sensitive,” let me give you a few examples:

To start, Faderman publishes this scholarly text in 1991, but she doesn’t mention Barbara Smith, The NBFO, (National Black Feminist Organization), The Combahee River Collective, or any of the other Black lesbian feminist activists or writers in her chapters on lesbian revolution or lesbian nation, key periods for Black feminist organizing that included several Black lesbians. She does mention Pat Parker briefly, but then goes right onto Third World feminists and “how they felt they all shared the experiences of racism in a white society and white women needed to deal with racism on their own.” This is probably the only thing that Faderman gets right in her discussions about race and lesbian feminists. Yes, Black and Third World lesbians and feminists did believe that white women needed to deal with their racism, but Faderman makes it seems as if Black and Third World women were at fault for the racism that kept them from feeling a part of the larger lesbian feminist movement. Faderman states:

“They [white lesbian feminists] really did want to broaden the base of their group by attracting lower-income and Third World women, but they sincerely did not know how, outside of welcomes and appearing receptive. As radical as they were, they suffered from the liberal’s basic ineptness in dealing with other classes and races.”

Seriously? So these women, who were savvy enough to start an entire movement, organize women from all over the country, come up with an agenda, publish treatises and manifestos, leave their husbands, and forge new lives for themselves on communes and in new communities, couldn’t take the time to sit with their shit and examine their own race and class privilege? Nah, I guess not.

This point is further driven home in a statement by radical lesbians when asked why they didn’t want to work with straight feminists:

“Quit begging our straight sisters to let us be their niggers [italics added] in the movement, and stop taking all the insults and shit work the pussy cats and their toms can heap on us. If we can step forward, we should do so with the intention of working for our own cause….”

So, I’m not surprised at all that white feminists used the oppression of Black people as their go to point to drive home their own positionality in the feminist movement, but I am surprised that Faderman made no mention of this as indicative of the types of racist shenanigans that kept Black and other lesbians of color from wanting to organize with them in the first place. She doesn’t mention this egregious use of the N-word at all. At all. Yeah, Black women really wanted to work with white women who had the nerve to use the N-word talk about their own oppression, even as they oppressed Black women. Okay.

While Faderman does acknowledge that Black and other lesbians of color did organize, she gives total credit to radical lesbians “who had helped to foster awareness in minority lesbians, who now began to see themselves as a group with lesbian and feminist political interests.” If we are to believe Faderman, Black and other lesbians of color had no idea what feminists or lesbians were before white women came along and educated them. Girl, bye.

She also mentions that Black women would not embrace the identity “lesbian feminist,” because lesbian feminist goals “were irrelevant to the major problems that minorities faced.” I guess she hasn’t read ANY of Audre Lorde’s work, who always referred to herself as a Black lesbian feminist, and who wrote several essays uncovering the race and class privilege that white women refused to acknowledge at this time. Faderman wasn’t reading the Combahee River Collective “Black Feminist Statement” either. Black lesbians WERE suspicious of lesbian separatist politics. They knew that it was impossible to separate themselves completely from their communities, and that any politics that would not address the interlocking oppressions of race, class, sexuality, and gender could not adequately improve the conditions of Black women in the United States. Black lesbians did not hate Black men and most certainly would not abandon Black communities for a politics that barely acknowledged their existence as humans, much less saw them as equals.

Faderman does eventually admit that there were racist policies in place at clubs and bars in San Francisco in the 1980s, but makes light of the situation by reminding us that there was interracial picketing of the clubs and bars. So? Y’all should have shut those mofos down!

I realize that perhaps Faderman couldn’t write an entire history of every lesbian group in the U.S. But I think this book would have been better if it were entitled “A White Lesbian History of the U.S. with notes about Black and Third World lesbians too.” It just seems that information that was readily available about Black lesbians who were working and organizing at the time just didn’t make it into this history. Or quite possibly it is because that very work challenged white lesbian and feminist racism, and Faderman just didn’t want to deal with it. How else can she account for excluding Audre Lorde, Beverly and Barbara Smith, Jewelle Gomez, and others?

So, while this post is neither an academic nor methodological examination of Faderman’s text, it is a response to something I felt when I picked the book up the first time: that Black lesbian scholars have got to get on the ball in regards to writing our own histories. There have been several articles that have discussed a few notable Black lesbian texts, even a monograph or two about Black gays and lesbians in the Harlem Renaissance period, and even some of the blues women. I also know Kimberly Springer has written a wonderful history of Black feminist organizing. However, there is no contemporary history of Black lesbians in the United States, merely a chapter or two in this or that anthology. My own work is on Black lesbian literary and popular culture, and others are engaged in this work as well. But there is so much more that needs to be done. Work that doesn’t trivialize our experiences as Black women, or our desire to be a part of Black communities. Work that sees us as people, not as props, or tools in the service of “diversity.” Work that situates our struggles alongside those of Black gay men and transpersons, not behind them. Work that understands that Black lesbians are an important part of U.S. history, and that our histories deserve to be told too.

* A previous version of this blog was posted by the author on


How would an ethnographer’s personal identification be changed in the process of fieldwork?

12 years ago, I pursued my Master’s degree in Anthropology, for which I wrote a thesis about Hong Kong’s lesbians, focusing on the identity and body of masculine lesbians who identified themselves as “tomboy.” My academic interest on female masculinity, I cannot deny, is caused by my personal identification. 12 years ago, I was living in the cage of lesbian feminism—regarding any gendered labels, such as butch/femme, tomboy/tomboy’s girl, as restrictive. Although I am masculine and people usually read me as a tomboy, I refused this label. During my 12-year-ago fieldwork, I insisted that I was not a tomboy but a woman if my informants, many of who are my personal friends, took me as a tomboy in the conversation. After all, my fieldwork experience did not change my personal identification. I am masculine; I am a lesbian; but I am not your “tomboy.”

Right now, I am pursuing my Doctoral degree in Anthropology, for which I am writing a dissertation about women’s same-sex relationship among Indonesian migrant women in Hong Kong. Still, one of my focuses is about the masculine women, who identified themselves as “tomboi” (an Indonesian word for tomboy). Did I change my personal identification in this new fieldwork experience? Yes. I did.

Since my informants did not know me before, some of them mistook me as a man based on my masculine appearance. Some of my closer informants would help me to explain, “No, she’s not a man. A tomboi, still a woman.” They positioned me as a tomboi—a biological woman with masculine attributes. At the beginning, I did not correct them when they said I am a tomboi.  I did not want to draw a boundary because I was very eager to become a part of them. My “tomboi” identity did help me to establish closer relationships with them. We shared a common identity “tomboi.”

Surprisingly, after my 2-year fieldwork, I felt I had accepted “tomboi” as one of my personal identification. Especially after going to their “tomboi fashion contest” a couple times, I began to appreciate the way they made sense of gender. As one my informants said, “It’s just usual. There are tombois and girls, so we have tombois’ fashion contest and girls’ fashion contest.” Contestants could join both divisions if they were confident to do both. In their real-life relationships, some of them also changed from girl to tomboi, or from tomboi to girl, when they thought a particular gender would help them to fit into that new relationship. The two genders, tomboi and girl, were not as restrictive as I imagined. I began to appreciate these gender categories—not absolutely restrictive but allow rooms for individuals to imagine and make changes.

I am glad but I am also surprised to recognize that how my recent field work experience had changed my fundamental way of seeing this kind of label, as well as my personal identification. When I am trying to tease out how my informants were influenced by particular discourses that were circulated around them, I just realized how I was shaped by their discourse of tomboi and girl. I am part of the world I studied.

Call me a tomboi. I won’t reject it this time.

Like many people across the expansive political spectrum of our current moment in America, I watched President Barack Obama’s second inauguration speech with a careful ear for the messages behind the words. So when he briefly referenced the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which have been the focus of my research for the past two years, my ears definitely perked up. What does this mean? Is this some kind of victory? Should we be celebrating the reference to this particular moment in U.S. LGBT/Queer History? In this blog post, I’ll answer some of those questions from the perspective of my research thus far, and probably pose a few new questions, too.

Let’s start with the context of this reference to Stonewall. Increasingly, there is evidence to suggest that contemporary political rhetoric is a highly nuanced way of speaking that is often honed through the use of focus group methods such as “dialing”. In these trials, speeches by major politicians are laboriously crafted to include soundbites-in-waiting; short phrases that are tested for their appeal to various demographics. Such rhetoric, then, is no longer simply an exercise in predicting the response of an imagined public, but rather has become a technical art rooted in the idea that, from a distance, a speaker can reach out to several groups at once. Even if an ostensibly left-of-center politician accepts that she is only really speaking to those who generally support her, references to topics like gun control must still be carefully couched in language that will resonate effectively with liberal gun owners, suburban parents, and P-12 teachers who may or may not be unionized. Such specific language is known as “crafted talk” and, as political writer Steven Hill candidly summarizes, it is slightly creepy.

This “crafted talk”…is designed to “simulate responsiveness” – to hoodwink voters, and free the candidates to pursue their own partisan agendas. In other words, politicians are busy with their own agendas that have little to do with what the majority of voters want, and use the “crafted talk” and “simulated responsiveness” to sell their agendas like a used car salesman trying to foist a lemon onto customers. (Source)

Ok. So this is probably the worst case scenario, right? Surely there are times when a politician is trying to be honest and inclusive. Perhaps. But ultimately, I don’t think the reference to Stonewall was truly one of them, even if we can read it as a positive sign-of-the-times.

Just over four years ago, I was sitting among students, friends and colleagues in the Black Cultural Center of Purdue University’s West Lafayette campus listening to President Obama’s first inauguration speech. And I remember being slightly in awe of this same man, as he acknowledged atheists and agnostics from behind what is arguably the most important pulpit on our planet. When he referred to the United States as a “nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” I felt a sense of acceptance and inclusion that made me forget, even if just temporarily, the deeply-rooted Christian rhetoric that pushed in on that sentence from all sides. And while I still cringe at the idea of someone who is Wiccan or Jain or Baha’i hearing that list and not finding themselves among it, I know that I felt validated. This was in spite of the fact that it was not more than a few moments before his reference to non-theists that he had explicitly used Biblical language and regardless of the reality that he went on to mention “God” four more times before leaving the microphone. But in that moment, in hearing “nonbelievers,” I heard him say, “I know you’re out there. And I respect you.” Nevertheless, as I listened this year, at a time when you might have expected me to be telling the same story about the warm fuzzies I got from his mention of the Stonewall Riots and his ostensible support for marriage equality, I found myself underwhelmed.

To be sure, neither I nor President Obama are the people we were in January of 2009. Four years of continued economic struggle, the disappointment of the 2010 elections, and the tension with which we both, surely, watched the polls this past November have refined our positions, nuanced our arguments and, in some cases, changed our minds entirely. But do not take me to be so naïve as to be suggesting that I’m merely bummed because he didn’t do all the things he said he would. I understand enough of the circus of American politics to believe two things at least: that no contemporary candidate will ever truly live up to her campaign promises and that most incumbents are more liberal personally than their track record suggests. But the elephant-in-the-corner of both cases is the fact that the whole American political spectrum has been shifted dramatically to the right. So how is it, I wonder, that evoking Stonewall would seem like an effective way to look directly into the eyes of gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans and say, as LZ Granderson has suggested, “I see you”?

As a young academic in American Studies, my primary research focus has been on the narrative of the Stonewall Riots; specifically, the ways in which the story of Stonewall has both informed and reflected LGBT/Queer identity for the last 44 years. At the time, raids on bars frequented by “homosexuals” were common and brutal injustices inflicted by police (especially on those whose clothing did not conform to gender norms of the day) were heinous reminders of a state and society that rejected people like me. As such, the political salience of not only resisting a police raid on a bar, but of forcing city, state, and federal officials back into the building and then trying to set it on fire can neither be mistaken for anything less than violent protest nor polished to suggest some reverence for the system against which those rioters raged. Stonewall was not planned. It was not part of a larger campaign for gay rights. It was a livid, impromptu, dangerous and deeply personal response to many years of violent state oppression. Moreover, the week of riots that followed the initial raid were aimed at reclaiming the protestors’ identity from the newspapers that smeared them and the dirty businesses that exploited them. (Let’s not forget that the Stonewall Inn was owned and operated by members of the New York Mafia who regularly paid off their local NYPD precinct—not to prevent raids, but to plan them in advance and at times that would allow the bar to reopen mere hours later.) And while the narrative of the riots is most often told from the perspective of middle-aged gay white men who did not identify as trans* or gender-variant, numerous firsthand accounts mention a racially diverse cadre of drag queens fighting alongside gay men, lesbians, straight hippies and homeless youth, many of whom engaged in street warfare, tagging buildings with “Gay Power” slogans and ripping parking meters from the ground to be used as battering rams against the cops. Indeed, as historian Gary Leupp writes over at,

This was no Seneca Falls (a peaceful two-day women’s rights convention in New York in 1848) or Selma, Alabama (where non-violent actions in 1965 contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act). It was violent resistance. That Obama should feel a need to validate it in such a high profile forum is significant. (Source)

“But wait,” you say, “surely President Obama wasn’t suggesting that details of these three events were synonymous!” And you’re right. And that’s the point. As Leupp suggests, the inclusion of Stonewall here is significant, whether or not most folks know the history behind the reference. It is also important to note, as does Leupp, that the President’s reference to Stonewall should not be read as a condoning of anti-state violence. So, what’s left?

First of all, the obvious alliteration and engaging rhythm highlight the rhetorical utility of this phrase; these three events in history simply sound nice together. But more importantly, they each reach out from over the podium individually. Like “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers,” the extra conjunctions, “and Selma, and Stonewall,” shine a spotlight on particular demographics making up the president’s intended audience. One can easily imagine speech writers and consultants whispering to one another, “Stonewall?” “Oh, it’s a gay pride thing. From the 60’s. The gays will catch the reference.” Indeed, many of us did. And gleefully.

Just like that, the subtle mention of Stonewall became a metonym for an imagined “LGBT America.” And while NPR quickly pulled together a guide for those who didn’t quite get it and the Huffington Post reported on the angry video response from the American Family Association, LGBT/Queer journalists jumped on the story, too. LZ Granderson, writing on, took mainstream media to task for suggesting that there were no memorable lines in the speech. And Irene Monroe, writing for the Huffington Post, considered how President Obama’s linking of Selma and Stonewall might have furthered divides in the Black community. Noting both our country’s problematic tendency to talk about the fight against oppression by only referencing the struggles of Black communities, as well as the sense in which some Black folks were offended at the comparison of the two movements, she ponders the progressive possibilities of such a reference.

Though there is merit to the argument that simplistically viewing all experiences of oppression as similar ignores the salient differences between oppressed groups, it is also true that ignoring how the experiences of oppressed groups are indeed similar — and how, by employing that understanding, they can work together — has limited the possibilities for full and equal rights for all Americans. (Source)

According to Monroe, the President’s Stonewall mention points to an opportunity for solidarity that is accompanied by a challenge to foreground and understand difference. While I agree with her analysis, my concerns differ slightly.

For many white, educated, middle-income, cisgender gay men, such as myself, there seems to be a desire simply to be mentioned in such speeches. In my view, this corresponds to another desire–one which is very effectively lobbied for by national groups allegedly representing LGBT people–to be recognized by the State. To be granted full citizenship, which was as often couched in the demand for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as it is today in the continued fight for marriage equality, seems to be the chief concern of most national LGBT lobbying efforts. But such issues are not the key concerns of all LGBT people. And while smaller organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition or the National Center for Transgender Equality (among many others!) are working to broaden the political conversation around LGBT efforts, our contemporary reality remains a place in which mainstream perceptions of LGBT people in the United States have come to reflect the interests of a socially-privileged, economically-empowered and politically-connected elite.

As such, for the President of the United States of America, during an inauguration speech, to mention the Stonewall Riots as a metonymic reference to the lives and struggles of “LGBT Americans” is clearly a victory. The question is, whose victory is it? Whose story is represented by Stonewall? Whose concerns are assuaged by marriage equality or by the repeal of a ban on military service after a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq? And whose voices are represented by the multi-million dollar lobbying machines that make such references possible?

Not mine. For me, a victory is this fleeting moment of significance that is bound so tightly to context and intersection that it cannot move forward on its own. And I believe Stonewall was a victory, but one I cannot claim. And it does inform me and I do believe I can learn from it; but to see it hoisted as a banner congratulating the efficacy of a queer movement that is so deeply mired in complex iterations of racism, sexism, ableism  and classism is pure farce.

Victory is not a queer idea. In my view, queerness, if it must be analyzed at all as queer theory and not simply queer survival, is deeply skeptical of boundaries between people, of dominant hierarchies that constrict creative spirit and of the probable falseness of most rhetorical positionings. A political win is fleeting. What comes next is forever.

%d bloggers like this: