Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations

Respectably Queer: Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations

by Jane Ward

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For three years the author did participant-observation at three nationally prominent queer organizations in Los Angeles-Christopher Street West, which produces L.A.'s queer pride festival; the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, a 37-year-old multi-site organization; and Bienestar, an HIV services organization for gay Latinos. Ward documents the evolution of these organizations, including class and race conflicts within them, but she especially focuses on the misuses of diversity culture.

Respectably Queer reveals how neoliberal ideas about difference are becoming embedded in the daily life of a progressive movement and producing frequent conflicts over the meaning of "diversity." The author shows how queer activists are learning from the corporate model to leverage their differences to compete with other non-profit groups, enhance their public reputation or moral standing, and establish their diversity-related expertise. Ward argues that this instrumentalization of diversity has increased the demand for predictable and easily measurable forms of difference, a trend at odds with queer resistance.

Ward traces the standoff between the respectable world of "diversity awareness" and the often vulgar, sexualized, and historically unprofessional world of queer pride festivals. She spotlights dissenting voices in a queer organization where diversity has become synonymous with tedious and superficial workplace training. And she shows how activists fight back when prevailing diversity discourses-the ones that "diverse" people are compelled to use in order to receive funding-simply don't fit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826516077
Publisher: Vanderbilt University Press
Publication date: 09/15/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 1,194,638
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jane Ward is Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at UC Riverside.

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Respectably Queer

Diversity Culture in LGBT Activist Organizations

By Jane Ward

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2008 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-9248-4


Introduction: The Co-optation of Diversity

Everybody wants diversity. Progressive activists know that diversity is the lifeblood of struggles for democracy and justice, and that making room for difference is the foundation of social change. Business leaders know that embracing race and gender diversity "makes sense"—it's good for a corporation's public image, it helps to expand consumer markets, and it ushers in a broader range of business practices that give companies a competitive edge. Politicians, media representatives, universities, and various state institutions know the value of diversity too; they know that respect for diversity has become a centerpiece of American culture and citizenship, and that those who do not respect diversity are the new villains in the morality tale of equality and difference in the United States. As Walter Benn Michaels explains it in his polemical book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, "If there's one thing Americans can agree on, it's the value of diversity."

Many writers have revealed the ways that mainstream approaches to diversity make strides toward racial and gender inclusion while doing little to challenge global capitalism or correct for longstanding socioeconomic inequalities. They have traced the rise of probusiness liberalism, or neoliberalism, in the 1990s, including the formation of media, corporate, and state interests in identity and diversity. These studies have shown that neoliberalism is characterized not only by the expansion of corporate control into all realms of economic, political, and social life, but also by the co-optation of social justice concepts—such as freedom, equality, and diversity—which are now invoked by corporate elites in an effort to protect their own financial interests. This book builds upon these crucial efforts to understand the evolving relationship between diversity, social justice, and political economic processes. Yet its focus is on the more micro side of neoliberal identity politics: how the meaning of diversity is constructed and contested in daily interaction, and put to both personal and institutional use. To undertake this project, I turn to a perhaps unlikely site: the struggle over the meaning and ownership of diversity among queer activists in Los Angeles. I take queer politics as my point of departure not only to show how neoliberal, or market-driven, ideas about difference are becoming embedded in the daily life of a progressive movement that has long been concerned with diversity, but also to illustrate what happens when mainstream and "respectable" diversity politics come into conflict with a movement rooted in efforts to defy respectability. How do queer proponents of diversity respond when diversity is anything but unusual, defiant, or "queer"?

Although celebrating diversity and making demands for racial, gender, and socioeconomic equality are now commonplace within lesbian and gay organizing, some queer activists are growing aware that these changes have done little to transform either the LGBT movement's white and middle-class culture or its more general investments in normalcy and assimilation. To understand these developments requires not only consideration of whether LGBT projects are diverse or oriented towards multi-issue politics, but also attention to the complex relationship between diversity practices and normativity, or "conventional forms of association, belonging, and identification." To make my case, I will show how lesbian and gay activists embrace racial, gender, socioeconomic, and sexual differences when they see them as predictable, profitable, rational, or respectable, and yet suppress these very same differences when they are unpredictable, unprofessional, messy, or defiant. Even progressive activists are compelled to revert to instrumental conceptualizations of difference, privileging those forms of difference that have the most currency in a neoliberal world and stifling differences that can't be easily represented, professionalized, or commodified.

Though the misuses of diversity are outlined here in detail, an equally important goal of this book is to illustrate some of the hopeful and unexpected effects of mainstream diversity politics. LGBT projects have witnessed a new wave of challenges to the co-optation of diversity, including the emergence of promising efforts to remake diversity into a more substantive form of resistance and to disavow the concept's mainstream roots. This study offers a window into how activists are interrogating the normative logics that have become embedded in the concept of diversity and its deployment as an institutional device. In each of the three organizations examined here, some activists dare to challenge the ways that their differences are being put to institutional use—challenges that I will argue are rooted in queer modes of critique. Their strategies reinforce the crucial importance of multi-issue activism; however, they also form a defiant and queer response to respectable diversity politics. They offer a new direction for thinking about, and moving beyond, the limitations of mainstream diversity politics. In sum, they offer a new way of imagining diversity itself.

At a fundamental level, the arguments presented in this book hinge on the meaning of queerness. By most accounts, efforts to reclaim the term "queer"—and its longstanding association with gender and sexual abnormality —gained momentum in the 1980s among activists who embraced gender fluidity and aligned themselves with a broad array of sexual transgressions (e.g., nonmonogamy, kink, BDSM, role-play, etc.).5 The terms "lesbian" and "gay," in contrast, were (and still are) fast becoming associated with assimilation and normalcy, or efforts to convince the mainstream public that lesbians and gay men are "just like everyone else." Today, queer identification is commonplace on college campuses and in progressive activist environments, even as significant numbers of lesbians, gay men, and heterosexual allies remain offended by the use of the term. Some are offended if queer is used at all, given its enduring stigma; others are critical if it's used "incorrectly" to refer to historical figures or less-than-radical people or political projects. In other words, the meaning of queerness is hardly a resolved matter.

It seems most accurate to say that queer has multiple meanings and political and cultural modes of operation. Within queer studies, and from my own standpoint, queer is most usefully understood as "a political metaphor without a fixed referent"—a metaphor that describes various modes of challenge to the institutional and state forces that normalize and commodify differences. This is the definition of queerness I will return to throughout this book. From this perspective, queer is abnormal, defiant, and generally unmarketable to straight consumers, and these characteristics are precisely the reason that queerness remains invaluable as a mode of resistance. Yet many people view queer in precisely the opposite terms. From the vantage point of television networks, queer is the winning ingredient of successful television shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which makes same-sex sexuality familiar, palatable, and interesting to straight audiences. On Queer Eye, queer refers to a glossy and marketable form of connoisseurship, one in which homosexuality is linked to other "excesses," such as the consumption of high fashion and gourmet foods. Fine tastes are, it seems, also queer.

In this book, I often use the terms "queer" and "LGBT" interchangeably as I describe nonprofit lesbian and gay organizations in Los Angeles that some would insist are too mainstream for queerness. Yet as I will show, these organizations are sites of glossy and marketable queerness, as well as the defiant and unmarketable variety. As such, they exemplify precisely the tensions embedded in queer politics itself. That said, ultimately I do wish to preserve the distinctiveness of "queer" as a mode of intersectional critique, and I offer a precise definition of queer intersectional critique in the final chapter of the book.

Celebrate Diversity!

In 1995, longtime lesbian activist Urvashi Vaid published the controversial book Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of the Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement. The book posed what some would argue is a still relevant question: How is it that antigay violence, blatant homophobia, and living in the closet remain commonplace after more than fifty years of lesbian and gay activism? Drawing on her experiences as past director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Vaid pointed to the political compromises made by lesbian and gay elites in order to achieve "virtual" equality while the majority of lesbians and gay men continued to suffer homophobic discrimination. The problem, she argued, was one of political strategy: "We consciously chose legal reform, political access, visibility, and legitimation over the long-term goals of cultural acceptance, social transformation, understanding, and liberation." These tactical choices were not the choices of all queer activists, Vaid explained. Instead, they reflected the movement's largely top-down approach, or the failure of wealthy white gay men and lesbians in national organizations to mobilize a diverse, multi-issue grassroots movement. Perhaps had the movement's leadership been more diverse and inclusive, we would have chosen different strategies altogether—strategies that would have brought us closer to liberation.

Vaid has not been the only critic of the single-issue, or gay-only, approach of the lesbian and gay movement, nor the only one to draw attention to the identity-related tactics of the movement's predominantly white, upper-class leadership. In fact, in light of well-documented race, class, and gender inequities in lesbian and gay politics, the movement's strategic focus on "diversity" has been the subject of recent debate. Many LGBT movement symbols—rainbow flags, "Celebrate Diversity!" T-shirts, "We Are Family" bumper stickers—symbolize queer pride for people "in the know," but they also invoke the value of difference and inclusion more broadly. By some accounts, it has been this pervasive focus on diversity that represents the hypocrisy of lesbian and gay politics, given the sharp contrast between queer diversity rhetoric and the predominantly white and middle-class leadership of the movement.

Yet other accounts emphasize that the lesbian and gay movement has fared better than other identity movements with regard to diversity and inclusion. A study by sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong indicates that early gay liberation efforts were particularly successful at building a gay movement that could balance unity and diversity without paralysis. According to Armstrong, "Other movements understood politics as endorsing the creation of communities of similarity. In contrast, the gay movement focused on freedom of individual expression, making it hypocritical to exclude any form of gay political expression.... 'Difference' was defined, paradoxically, as a point of similarity."

Whether a movement characterized by single-issue politics and top-down decision making, or a model of unity built upon diversity, what these analyses have in common is their focus on the tactical choices of queer activists and the particular character of lesbian and gay movement strategies. They consider how queer activists have built, or failed to build, a multicultural and multi-issue movement. They ask important questions about the unique evolution of queer politics and whether the queer movement has lived up to its revolutionary potential: What kinds of queer projects have succeeded at organizing across difference? Where have queer projects failed to be inclusive and why? How might the queer movement serve as a model for other movements?

This book engages some of these same questions, but takes a different approach by focusing on the larger cultural context in which queer politics—indeed, all identity politics—are now practiced. To this end, my analysis is aimed at the complex relationship between queer politics and what I call "diversity culture," or the broader culture's growing interest in intersecting forms of difference. Considerable attention has been given to what is distinctive about the queer movement's engagement with diversity. In contrast, I show that in the context of diversity culture, queer diversity strategies look remarkably nondistinctive, subject to the inevitable strengths and weaknesses of mainstream multi-identity projects, and, dare I say, unqueer. I suggest that the question to be asked is not whether queer activists are engaged in multi-issue politics, but why and how multi-issue politics have become so commonplace in lesbian and gay organizing, and with what effects.

To be very clear, my intention is not to diminish the crucial importance of multi-issue approaches to social justice. Instead, my goal is to sharpen our tools for evaluating when and how multi-issue justice has been achieved, and to do this by showing that even multi-identity projects can be used to preserve the culture and interests of dominant groups. To make my argument, I tell the story of three multicultural queer organizations in Los Angeles, each of which has been transformed by the diversity-awareness and multi-issue agendas of its members. These activists do call attention to race, class, and gender diversity to promote inclusion and power-sharing among their ranks, as well as to address the intersections of homophobia, racism, poverty, and sexism in their programmatic work. Yet across racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines, they are also learning from the corporate model to "leverage" their diversity to gain a competitive advantage, or to receive personal and institutional rewards for being publicly vocal and articulate about racial, economic, and gender differences and inequalities. Queer activists use diversity rhetoric to compete with nonprofit groups to garner corporate funding and mainstream legitimacy, enhance their public reputation or moral standing, establish their diversity-related competence or expertise, and accrue "liberal capital." I argue that this instrumentalization of diversity has increased the demand for utilitarian and easily measurable forms of difference—creating the most room for those who embody predictable and fundable kinds of diversity, adversity, or transgression.

The good news is that these instrumental approaches to diversity have led to the proliferation of important queer multi-issue projects (e.g., homeless shelters for queer youth of color, child care at queer pride events, employment services for transgendered people, etc.). Yet, in striking contrast, they have also helped to reinforce the continued centrality of normative, upper-middle-class values, logics, and culture in the queer movement. This process is exemplified by the rise of a new breed of liberal elites: people with professional diversity skills, multicultural connections, a mastery of diversity-speak, and their "finger on the pulse" of diverse communities. Throughout my discussion, I have tried to keep all of these outcomes in focus, so as to reveal the complexity of evaluating what constitutes "successful" multi-identity politics.

Broadly speaking, I add here to a growing critique of neoliberal diversity politics, and I situate this critique in the context of a movement known precisely for its emphasis on difference and nonnormativity. While a detailed discussion of neoliberal economic policy is beyond the scope of this study, I view neoliberalism as the backdrop upon which movement goals (such as equality and diversity) are placed in seemingly harmonious relation to market goals (such as increasing competition and skill). Anthropologist David Harvey defines neoliberalism as a political economic theory "that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade." As a theory about human well-being and liberation, neoliberalism refers not only to economic policies and institutions that have expanded elite financial interests within the last thirty years, but also to the political and moral principles that have helped to justify these transformations. These principles include equality, democracy, and inclusion, which are reframed as the very corporate ethics that enable Americans to leverage human differences (including race, gender, culture, sexuality, etc.) in the service of capital.

Commitment to diversity is now at the heart of what historian Lisa Duggan has called "neoliberal 'equality' politics," or the rise of a New Left focused on cultural expression, identity-based rights, and mainstream inclusion, yet simultaneously supportive of global capitalism and its aspirations. Duggan uses national LGBT projects, such as the professionally produced and corporate sponsored March on Washington, as an example to illustrate the easy relationship between corporate diversity culture and identity politics. In both realms (the corporate and the queer), the glossy presentation of diversity is often a matter of good public relations or a tool leveraged by the powerful to accomplish various ideological and institutional goals.


Excerpted from Respectably Queer by Jane Ward. Copyright © 2008 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
1 Introduction: The Co-optation of Diversity, 1,
2 The Mainstreaming of Intersectionality: Doing Identity Politics in a Diversity Culture, 27,
3 Getting Skilled in Queer Diversity: Christopher Street West, 50,
4 Celebrating Queer Diversity: The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, 76,
5 Funding Queer Diversity: Bienestar, 104,
6 Defying "Diversity as Usual" Queering Intersectionality, 132,
Notes, 151,
Bibliography, 165,
Index, 175,

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