Recent overtures from the Obama administration that indicate that the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy will soon be overturned has meant that the issue of gay men and lesbians openly serving in the military has become a topic of national conversation in a way it hasn't been since the early Clinton administration when the “Don't Ask Don't Tell” policy was adopted as an odious compromise to Clinton’s campaign promise.
The years since the policy was enacted in 1993 have seen a significant shift in American attitudes toward gays and lesbians in general and open service in the military in particular. Here I intentionally use the identity terms gay and lesbian, as opposed to political terms like queer or LGBT because those are precisely the terms on which these cultural debates have hinged, and are the terms on which the mainstream gay and lesbian movement have based their strategies and agenda. The gay marriage debate, in particular, has rested largely on an assertion that same-sex couples are “just like” heterosexual couples, with the exact same desires for companionship, family, children, tax breaks, and health insurance. The questioning of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” from the highest levels of administration extends this “just like” logic to a desire to serve one’s country.
When my friend Debra Sweet over at World Can't Wait turned me on to this guerilla bus shelter ad in San Francisco, I was powerfully reminded of not only of my own formative days of direct action activism - inspired by groups like Act Up, the Guerilla Girls, and the Women’s Action Coalition (WAC) - but also of the terms of the debate that have been sacrificed over recent decades. Key here is the slogan at the bottom of the poster, “Assimilation [does not equal] Liberation,” with the mainstream Human Rights Campaign’s equal sign logo significantly crossed out. The word liberation of course signals the history of the gay rights movement, which began alongside other key movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s with a call for gay liberation.
I’m not advocating a return to a rhetoric of liberation – the postmodern world no longer allows us to imagine such a simple before/after operation – but rather an attention to the terms of the debate and the desires that were left behind when such slogans were abandoned for more politically expedient – and winnable – goals. At the time of the 1993 debates on gays in the military, I remember reading a particularly cogent article by Michael Bronski in the Boston Phoenix. Though I now can’t find the exact article I was looking for, this quote from a 1994 speech gets at the ideas I remember Bronski eloquently articulating:
“One of the biggest changes over the past 25 years has been the cultural and political shift from arguing for ‘gay rights’ based on behavior to arguing for ‘gay rights’ based on identity. These two concepts are, of course, intertwined but quite distinct. After Stonewall we were fighting for the right to behave homosexually--to commit homosexual acts; the right to a sex life. Now the organizing tactics have shifted: we are now arguing for the right to identify as homosexuals…If we are fighting a battle that will grant us the right to identify as gay but not the right (and the protections) to act this way we have failed completely. If we are going to accept social policy that refuses to admit that our identity does not create a desire or propensity to engage in sexual activity, we have failed completely. If we think we can gain acceptance, or even toleration by hiding the fact that our sexual desires and actions are important, vital aspects of our lives we have failed completely.”
Of course the AIDS crisis, which in 1993 was still raging without the hope that protease inhibitors would give just a few years later, was a major reason behind the decision to subsume an oppositional sexual desire to an assimilative identity. At the same time, the categorizing tendencies of 1990s identity politics led to a proliferation of parallel movements and agendas that pursued their own interests, rather than a cross-issue solidarity that was inherent to the early gay liberation movement. As Bronski writes, “The words ‘Gay Power’ were a re-visioning of ‘Black Power.’ The phrase ‘Gay Liberation’ was a tribute to the already existing cultural power of ‘women's liberation.’ The energy that erupted on Christopher Street that night [of the Stonewall Riots] was prompted by the energy of rock and roll and the drug and street culture.”
The guerilla “Do Ask! Don’t Kill!” ad, then, to me signals a reemergence of both sexual desire and solidarity as potentially viable terms of 21st century activism. The ad questions what queer priorities might look like over and above a narrow focus on “just like” civil rights. Moreover, the ad posits queer concerns as inseparable from a movement to challenge the Obama administration’s continuation and escalation of war in Afghanistan. While the parallel of homos to homo sapiens could ultimately play out as an absorption of queer desires into a human rights framework, I am encouraged in the short term by this attempt to disentangle the expected (and justified) overturning of a discriminatory military policy from a truly progressive stance.