The most impressive thing about the 1993 March on Washington was the turnout. My friends and I had no trouble believing estimates circulating that afternoon that a million people marched for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender rights. I flaunted my rainbow bracelet, a stylish symbol indicating that I had waited patiently in line to be counted, something the march organizers relentlessly exhorted us to do. The network television coverage that evening was a disappointment, though: They estimated the crowd at about 400,000 people. I was indignant, because the estimate was off by half. I had been there and I had the bracelet to prove it. Maybe I didn’t count after all; and if I didn’t count, then how many other people didn’t count?
As it turns out, I probably did count, but not because of the bracelet. According to Alexandra Chasin’s book, Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market, the survey I filled out that day probably had a greater impact on the gay and lesbian movement than my presence on the mall. The survey was a marketing tool; questions had to do with income level, home ownership, and brand name products. I completed it with trepidation: Queer visibility in any forum was the goal, even if I had to acquiesce in capitalist consumerism.
According to Chasin, however, that kind of information–and plenty of misinformation–fueled the emergence of a gay niche market. In fact, the gay and lesbian movement became “a community whose very visibility was, in the 1990s, a function of its status as a niche market.” This troubling scenario–of a contemporary political movement in thrall to the logic of capitalism–is a central concern of Chasin’s book.
Chasin, who is a co-chair of the Board of Directors of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, analyzes the gains of the movement in the last 20 years from what she calls a “socialist, antiracist, feminist perspective.” She expresses grave doubts about the efficacy of identity politics as a strategy for social justice. Acknowledging the contributions of identity-based organizing, Chasin nonetheless expresses a wish for “a post-identity politics.” She argues that identity-based activism has been particularly susceptible to the encroachment of the marketplace. “Over the course of the 20th century political rights have been increasingly recast as economic liberties,” she writes. “This means that social movements focused on winning rights are increasingly drawn into market-based tactics and objectives. In this way, the market promotes assimilation . . . encouraging identity difference only to the extent that it serves as a basis for niche marketing.”
One example of a market-based tactic is the boycott. Boycotts endorse the idea of consumer sovereignty–which renders government obsolete, since consumers supposedly control business practices–and manifest the market’s tendency to reward only those with the resources to participate. “There are serious limits on what can be ‘voted’ for or against this way, as well as limits on who can vote this way,” Chasin says. More generally, she suggests, treating dollars as votes undermines democracy. Her argument could even be extended to the campaign finance reform debate: Treating dollars as speech also undermines democracy.
Chasin is not alone in lamenting the way that private consumption has displaced political activism. In 1992’s Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era, Adolph Reed writes about the commodification of black power in the early 1970s. “Individuals who consumed black power paraphernalia typically may have understood themselves to be endorsing or asserting a pro-black attitude through their choices,” he writes. “However, the symbols expressing that attitude–refracted as they were through marketing’s least common denominator–were so amorphous as to accommodate any sort of substantive belief or practice.”
Chasin sees contemporary gay and lesbian paraphernalia as more insidious than amorphous, however. Products like rainbow flags promise that “full inclusion in the national community of Americans is available through personal consumption,” while advertisements depicting gay men and lesbians–in gay and mainstream presses–often equate Americanness with whiteness, and reproduce traditional ideas about gender.
With her focus on the “dominant strains” of the gay and lesbian movement, Chasin deliberately leaves out identities marginalized within it, including bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirited, queer, and questioning people. That decision is meant to reflect the overly narrow parameters of the movement. “People with those identities ought to be fully incorporated into any movement that truly concerns itself with sexual liberation,” she admits. But restricting her discussion to terms dictated by the market blunts Chasin’s critique. The book fails to provide a sense of the diversity and promise of a movement she says is a “manifold, growing, self-contradictory entity, an entity so fundamentally plural that calling it a movement at all risks minimizing the internal differences within it.”
Overall, Chasin’s book is an informative exposé of the economic fetishism that informs gay and lesbian politics. She provides a detailed account of the gay people who count by virtue of their visibility in the capitalist marketplace, and she outlines the pitfalls of identity politics. While it’s easy to be very sympathetic to Chasin’s concerns, her two proposals–a renewed commitment to coalition politics and the inclusion of demands for equal access as well as equal rights–seem woefully inadequate.
Chasin’s proposals fail to address the political dysfunction associated with the extension of conservative market-think to every aspect of our lives. When coalitions act, does the corporate press or do our elected representatives pay any attention? Is coalition politics enough of an answer when a “liberal” news organization like National Public Radio runs a story featuring Genovese merchants as innocent victims of the (coalition-based) G7 protests? The merchants lost money because fascist security measures quarantined the city for five days.
Our local press and politicians are equally compromised. I marched to the Capitol on May 3 with a statewide coalition of 2,000 people to protest cuts in education funding. Our audience was a building full of empty offices. My chagrin at the Raleigh News and Observer‘s minimal coverage of the event turned into outrage a week later with their front page, above-the-fold, full color photo and feature story on a 200 person anti-lottery protest. I sent a letter they chose not to publish.
These days, I take solace in private, feeble protests. I round up my Working Assets long distance bill. I turn off NPR just before Marketplace, a program aimed at people who need to hear about the stock market every day, but who apparently do not have access to the dozens of corporate news organizations that provide that information on an hourly basis.
My point is simple, if perhaps overly cynical: If certain bodies count even less than they used to, then how will coalition building make much of a difference? Chasin sees the gay and lesbian movement’s unwitting collaboration with capitalism over the last 20 years as one of its shortcomings; I see an enthusiastic embrace of the most egregious aspects of capitalism by those on the left and right to be a defining feature of the era. In addition to Chasin’s proposals, we are in desperate need of strategies to combat the corporate colonization of politics and the press.