Last year, images of Ellen DeGeneres laughing with former US president George W Bush at a football game went viral. In response to the backlash she received for being friends with Bush, who not only stood against LGBTQ rights but is responsible for countless war crimes, she stated, “I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different. And I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different.” Ellen’s words downplay how Bush’s actions have destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives, ultimately revealing that her allegiance with Bush through whiteness and as members of the wealthy elite far outweighs any remorse she might feel about his homophobic record. Interested in preserving and being included in the status quo, the white upper-middle-class queer community betray the radical roots of the liberation movement.
This June will mark 51 years since the historic 1969 Stonewall uprisings where retaliation against police raids at a Greenwich Village gay bar sparked six days of spontaneous riots, leading to the birth of radical queer liberationist groups like the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Stonewall sparked a political awakening that spread across the globe and inspired the first Mardi Gras protest in Sydney nearly a decade later. It left a revolutionary legacy, due to instrumental roles of trans women of colour such as Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson and their radical politics. Importantly, they were united in solidarity with feminist, black, and workers’ struggles. Groups like the GLF built a mass movement against not only homophobia, but imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, and the patriarchy, aiming for revolutionary changes to society. Parallel to these struggles were assimilationist strategies that sought acceptability to the values and institutions of white bourgeois society, leading to the depoliticisation of movements needed for true liberation.
It’s unfortunate that the LGBTQ movement has lost much of its radical fire. Rainbow capitalism has since emerged as a way to open up new markets through the targeted inclusion of queer communities. Alan Sears wrote that “the commodification of public lesbian and gay life has distorted our communities. The nature of market relations is that access to goods or services is based not on need or desire, but on the ability to pay. A community structured around commodified public spaces is economically exclusive.” Rainbow capitalism ignores the reality that queer people are directly and disproportionately impacted by police violence, homelessness, incarceration, and economic inequality. Everything once transgressive to bourgeois morality is drained of its subversive content; difference becomes a rehearsed and marketable essence under capitalism.
A tendency has emerged in Western liberal politics to conflate queerness with progressiveness, placing value on what is perceived as one’s intrinsic identity rather than anti-normative political activity. This has given rise to a rainbow bourgeoisie who are poised to benefit from the modern popularisation and celebration of queer pride, cloaking their nefarious exploitation of workers and destructive imperialist mindsets beneath a veneer of glittery ‘progressiveness’.
Ellen shot into the public eye in 1997 after coming out as gay on her sitcom show Ellen. She has courted controversy for taking advantage of her standing as a ‘queer icon’ to defend a Republican president who spent eight long, blood-stained years at the helm of the world’s most destructive settler-colonial state, but she also has a long track record of exploiting and abusing her workers. Recently in response to COVID-19, nearly all of Ellen’s crew members were slammed with a 60% reduction in pay. Furthermore, Ellen has compared self-isolating in her multi-million dollar Montecito mansion to being in prison. She joked, “This is like being in jail. Mostly because I’ve been wearing the same clothes for 10 days and everyone in here is gay.” This tone-deaf statement betrays her complete lack of compassion for incarcerated people who are far more vulnerable to COVID-19, not only because they eat and sleep in communal settings but because they lack access to adequate healthcare. Her calculated indifference to the systemic policing of the queer community further exposes how her performance of progressiveness lacks any substance.
Recent US Democratic party candidate Pete Buttigieg built a campaign around being a political ‘outsider’ with a humble Midwestern upbringing, aspiring to be the first openly gay president of the United States. While queerness has been theorised as a challenge to the norm, Buttigieg is the paragon of white normalcy. A thoroughly establishment figure, he has said “I think of myself as progressive. But I also believe in capitalism.” As a mayor, he oversaw the doubling of the eviction rate in South Bend and the bulldozing of empty homes in working-class neighbourhoods to gentrify the city. It appears there is nothing in Buttigieg’s record that would make him progressive apart from his identity as a gay man, for which he has been applauded for offering LGBTQ ‘representation’ in a role which is imperialist and capitalist at its core. As a veteran, he appeals to the US ruling elite, having served a tour of duty in Afghanistan where he helped identify targets for assassination squads, a far cry from the GLF’s solidarity with Third-World struggles. Buttigieg has built a political career that assimilates itself to traditional values and the American spirit: war, destruction, and white supremacy.
The prevailing tolerance of the rainbow bourgeoisie, despite their destructive influence, is a symptom of positivity culture’s normative, bourgeois underpinnings. In his 1965 essay Repressive Tolerance, philosopher Herbert Marcuse argued that the liberal idea of universal tolerance across the political spectrum as if life were simply a debate hall “mainly serves the protection and preservation of a repressive society [and] neutralises opposition.” Present-day positivity culture, as touted by such figures as Ellen, is universal tolerance incarnate. In defending her friendship with Bush, Ellen also said: “When I say ‘be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way you do, I mean be kind to everyone.” When tolerance is applied to both “movements of aggression as well as to movements of peace,” in Marcuse’ terms, the status quo is preserved. Positivity culture is premised on the assumption that we have made considerable advances which make us safe from the acts of violence our predecessors fought against. For some, this may be true. But it is not for those who continue to be positioned by prevailing systems in proximity to death: queer people of colour, working-class, disabled, transgender, and incarcerated queer people.
This attitude of being kind to everyone that Ellen asks of us is possible only in a world where there is no violence. The culture of universal tolerance misleads us toward embracing all manifestations of LGBTQ culture and representation – even where they are harmful – in the name of equality. In reality, such tolerance is weaponised by white, wealthy people to protect their standing and obscure the effects of systemic violence in communities. They point fingers at those who are unapologetically vocal in their solidarity with the downtrodden, claiming that what is needed is more ‘positivity’ – a knee-jerk reaction to their sense of discomfort when confronted with existing violence.
We have inherited the battles of our predecessors, and we must be ready to assume the mantle. In the spirit of the post-Stonewall movements which demanded active solidarity with black liberation, workers’ rights, feminist justice, and more, it’s time we brought back the radical agenda. The existence of rainbow capitalism and a rainbow bourgeoisie is a symptom of neoliberal ideas which cannibalise and anaesthetise dissent. In a world free of violence, the bourgeoisie class and classes altogether will be eradicated. Instead of settling for being accepted as ‘normal’ within a repressive system, we should be dismantling the system that makes ‘normal’ possible altogether. In 2009, queer theorist José Muñoz wrote of the term ‘queer’ as “a rejection of a here and now and an insistence on potentiality or concrete possibility for another world.” When we think of ‘queer’ as a political practice rather than just an identity signifier, our struggle becomes enmeshed in the collective striving toward a new horizon of being, in complete refusal of the values of the bourgeoisie.