Their struggles are our struggles

November 14, 2013

The mainstream LGBTQ movement must do more to defend CeCe McDonald and Chelsea Manning, argues Keegan O’Brien, in an article written for the Rainbow Times.

CECE McDONALD and Pvt. Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Pvt. Bradley Manning, before recently coming out as transgender) are queer freedom fighters and political prisoners. The movements to free and defend them are two of the most significant queer struggles of our time, but have remained largely sidelined from the mainstream LGBTQ movement.

CeCe McDonald is a Black transgender woman from Minneapolis who faced life in prison for defending herself against a racist, transphobic hate crime. Activists built an international solidarity campaign to free her, and although they did not win her release from prison, they managed to get her sentence reduced to two years.

Chelsea Manning is a name most Americans are probably more familiar with, as her case has become international news in recent years. Manning leaked thousands of "classified" military documents to WikiLeaks and, as a result, helped expose hundreds of war crimes and violations of international law that the U.S. had committed.

While grassroots movements have emerged in recent years to free these brave women, shamefully, both have been largely ignored by mainstream LGBTQ organizations, oftentimes referred to as "Gay Inc." But why do they ignore these causes and what should we do about it?

CeCe McDonald
CeCe McDonald (Leslie Feinberg)

To answer that, we need to address why these cases should even concern the LGBTQ community.

LET'S START with CeCe McDonald. On the most basic level, this is a case regarding the rights of oppressed people, including queer folks, to defend themselves, by any means necessary, against hateful and bigoted violence. No one should be punished for defending themselves against a hate crime--it is that plain and simple. But it's more than just that.

CeCe McDonald's case is just one example of an all too frequent reality of discrimination and violence experienced by transwomen, disproportionally transwomen of color. According to a 2010 National Center for Transgender Equality Study, transwomen make up 40 percent of hate crimes victims every year. For many transwomen, simply walking out the door and stepping into the public world puts them at a tremendous risk of violence, harassment and sexual assault.

But the problems don't stop there. CeCe McDonald's case illustrates how racism and transphobia permeate every level of America's criminal injustice system. While George Zimmerman was set free and eventually found "not guilty" for racially profiling, stalking and then murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, CeCe McDonald was immediately arrested and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for defending herself against a racially motivated transphobic hate crime.

George Zimmerman was considered within his right to "stand his ground" and kill an unarmed Black teenager, but CeCe McDonald, who defended herself against a hate crime, was not.

The message is clear: in the eyes of the criminal injustice system, people of color, queer folks and trans people have no right to defend themselves against racist, homophobic or transphobic violence because our lives are of little value.

There is no excuse for the neglect by Gay Inc. that has been shown toward CeCe's case, and the important issues of racism, transphobia and discrimination inside the criminal justice system that it involves. These issues, and therefore CeCe's case, should be considered central to any LGBTQ organization, which seeks to address the multiplicity of problems that affect a broad and diverse LGBTQ community.

AT FIRST glance, Chelsea Manning's case seems less directly connected to LGBTQ politics. But that is only possible if we operate on a narrow framework of what defines "queer struggles."

Manning's case is about protecting the right of ordinary people to speak out against institutions of political power without fear of repression and retaliation. Transparency and accountability in government are necessary for the healthy functioning of any democratic society. We should be holding accountable politicians and military figures who were responsible for these injustices in the first place, not punishing those who exposed them.

If those in power can silence Manning, then that only gives them more power to marginalize us when we speak out for sexual and gender justice. Defending civil liberties and the right to dissent need to be cornerstones for every progressive movement, including those for sexual and gender minorities.

Manning's decision to leak these documents was rooted in a profound empathy she held for people both inside and out of American borders. This kind of international solidarity represents a politics that the LGBTQ movement should strive toward as well. We are not free in the U.S. until LGBTQ people are free and equal everywhere--that includes freedom for queers in the Middle East from the violence and destruction of American war and occupation, something Manning was aware of.

Gay Inc.'s failure to recognize this and its continued support for U.S. militarism at home and abroad hampers our ability to build truly international solidarity between movements for sexual and gender justice.

Manning's treatment as a prisoner at the hands of the military justice system and the corporate media, first as a gay man, and then as a transwoman, has been deplorable and obscene. Manning has been subjected to physical and physiological torture, solitary confinement, and ongoing homophobic and transphobic violence and harassment while being locked inside military prison.

Since coming out as trans, Manning has continually been ridiculed and denigrated by the corporate media. The unwillingness of media outlets like Fox News and CNN to respect Manning's chosen gender identity and use proper pronouns contributes to fostering an overall transphobic culture where the very existence and legitimacy of trans people's identities are not taken seriously or respected.

In a society already plagued with high levels of anti-trans hate crimes and trans suicides, this only makes matters much worse.

While the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and the Gay and Lesbian Advocates Against Defamation (GLAAD) have released public statements condemning the media's mis-gendering of Manning and the overall transphobic response, this is not nearly enough in comparison to the resources they have and what is actually needed to win Chelsea's freedom. We should be demanding and expecting much more from organizations that fundraise millions of dollars from the LGBTQ community and claim to represent us.

WHY DO mainstream LGBTQ organizations continue to remain silent in the face of these injustices? Answering this question requires taking a critical look at Gay Inc.'s politics.

Mainstream LGBT organizations like the Human Rights Campaign have pursued a narrow marriage-centered agenda that views social progress and change coming from politicians, judges and lobbyists inside the halls of power for over two decades. As a result, they long ago abandoned any commitment to building grassroots protest movements that could challenge the political power structure and pressure them from below.

Protests, civil disobedience and speak-outs have been replaced by expensive black-tie fundraisers, professional lobbyists and corporate sponsors. Instead of holding politicians accountable to our goals as a movement and demanding more of them, particularly the Democratic Party, Gay Inc. has continued to employ a "don't rock the boat" strategy, whose goal is to assimilate into the neoliberal status quo, not dismantle and transform it.

Unsurprisingly, this has meant that most mainstream LGBTQ organizations have completely abandoned any real efforts at addressing the range of political issues that affect LGBTQ people, such as racism, labor rights, economic justice, the criminal justice system, transphobia, queer youth issues and more. While marriage equality is an important civil rights issue, and deserves to be defended and fought for, social justice and equality for LGBTQ people also includes many other struggles, something Gay Inc. seems to have forgotten a long time ago.

Like the fight for same-sex marriage equality, CeCe McDonald and Chelsea Manning deserve to be important causes championed by the LGBTQ movement. It is shameful that they are not.

Chelsea Manning and CeCe McDonald are examples of ordinary people's capacity to challenge oppression and to stand up for justice in the face of extraordinary odds, and in the process inspire the world. From the Gay Liberation Front to the AIDS activism of ACT-UP, these brave trans women's willingness to challenge the power structure and remain firm in their convictions for justice, stands in the best traditions of our community's history.

Gay Inc.'s decision to stand on the sidelines of these important campaigns only contributes to further marginalizing them. At best, Gay Inc.'s silence lends legitimacy to the idea that their struggles are unimportant, and at worst it reinforces the argument that these women, not the system, have done something wrong. This is unacceptable.

Gay Inc. holds onto millions of our community's dollars and has access to a mainstream audience radicals dream of; it is our responsibility to pressure them in whatever ways we can to focus on these issues and continue to build these women's campaigns. CeCe and Manning are queer freedom fighters who deserve the support of their own community. Their neglect at the hands of Gay Inc. is a betrayal to the values and principles that we as a movement should stand for.

We owe it to everything Chelsea Manning and CeCe McDonald have sacrificed, to LGBTQ people everywhere who continue to face oppression, discrimination, and violence, to our right to dissent and fight back against institutions of power and systems of injustice without fear of retaliation, and the future of our movement and the principles it will stand for, to stand by their side and demand their immediate release.

First published at the Rainbow Times.

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