Opinion: Queer activism must reject liberal co-option and retain its materialist roots

Institutions like ASU claim to support transgender and queer people but their histories and policies tell a different story

In June of 2021, I found a graphic t-shirt depicting Marsha P. Johnson, the now-celebrated gay rights movement leader, in a suburban Target. The image shows Johnson holding a protest sign that reads “power to the people.” The shirt sells for $15 plus tax. 

We are undoubtedly living in an unprecedented period of increased queer visibility and representation. Out gay and transgender people occupy political office, star in primetime TV and make chart-topping music. 

In this environment, as our media and public spaces slowly welcome queer imagery, it becomes alarmingly easy to adopt a positive and complacent attitude toward the present queer condition. Surely, a culture which actively celebrates queer iconography must also be a culture where LGBTQ+ individuals are thriving and free.

The reality queer people face in the United States, including at ASU, does not match this illusion.

In 2013, Monica Jones, a Black transgender woman and ASU student, was arrested for “walking while trans” by Phoenix police on suspicions of “manifesting prostitution.” Her arrest was prompted by Project ROSE, a collaborative effort between Phoenix PD and the ASU School of Social Work to combat prostitution using coercive diversion programs.

This event alone represents the enduring presence of transphobia, misogynoir and anti-sex worker sentiments pervading our systems and culture today — the exact bigotries Marsha P. Johnson and her community fought against. 

In fact, recent years saw a serious increase in violence against transgender people in particular. According to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 35 transgender and gender non-conforming people have been killed so far in 2021, and at least 44 were killed in 2020 — the most deadly year on record. The majority of victims were Black and Latinx women. 

This reality is especially grim in the state of Arizona. According to a 2019 report, Arizona ranked 5th in the nation for highest frequency of anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes, and the city of Phoenix ranked 3rd in the nation for highest rate of anti-LGBTQ+ incidents.

The paradox in these conditions is obvious. If, as popular wisdom tells us, the key to creating a safe world for queer people is to foster acceptance and education, then why are queer people at large still facing extreme violence and discrimination?

The Past and Present of Queer Struggle

ASU, like many universities, prides itself on a commitment to inclusion of its LGBTQ+ community members. Its websites and handbooks include guidelines on proper pronoun etiquette, anti-bullying measures and inclusive housing practices. It offers classes on queer theory and seminars led by queer professors.

This approach to LGBTQ+ inclusion aligns with a general trend in recent decades: as queer people become more visible, many academic institutions have jumped to declare advocacy for queer identities in these spaces. However, this advocacy typically starts and ends at the nexuses of politeness, performance and respectability.

For many queer people, liberal advocacy is easily recognizable as a facade. While liberal institutions explicitly affirm our identities, they hardly ever support our needs, demands and desires. Liberal institutions support queer identities, queer imagery and queer theory, but not queer people.

Take Marsha P. Johnson’s life work as an example. Increasingly a symbol of civil rights activism in liberal circles (and the Target Pride merch aisle, apparently), Johnson’s contribution to queer politics is often oversimplified to her participation in the Stonewall riots and her unique trans identity.

In reality, Johnson and her accomplices, including New York queer icons such as Sylvia Rivera, were self-described revolutionaries. Johnson organized political action with the Gay Liberation Front, or GLF, and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, in New York City.

These groups — STAR in particular — organized in response to the material injustices so many queer people faced: food insecurity, housing insecurity and police violence. Rooted in the informal practice of mutual aid, they worked to shelter homeless queer youth and protect gender non-conforming people, especially sex workers, from targeted police harassment and the threat of incarceration.

Decades later, despite liberal acceptance and inclusion messaging, these are still the central struggles queer communities face. 

Today in the United States, about one in five transgender people experience homelessness and one in 10 have been evicted because of their gender identity. According to University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, the poverty rate for straight cisgender individuals is 15.7%, in comparison to 21.6% of the general LGBTQ+ community and 29.4% of the transgender community — nearly a third of transgender people.

According to a 2015 survey, 27% of transgender people in Arizona specifically have reported “being fired, being denied a promotion or not being hired for a job because of their gender identity or expression.” 

Fourteen percent of transgender Arizonans reported experiencing homelessness in 2015, and according to azcentral, potentially half of homeless youth in Arizona are LGBTQ+.

How might the famously unapologetic Marsha P. Johnson react to learning, though her image became widely canonized, her queer community still intensely experiences the same material injustices she dedicated her life to fighting?

Contemporary Queer Activism

On its transgender resource webpage, among a series of documents on name-change protocol and “fostering trans inclusive learning environments,” ASU lists Trans Queer Pueblo as a Phoenix-area resource.

Trans Queer Pueblo is an “LGBT migrant POC organization creating cycles of mutual support to build leadership to create a safer Phoenix,” said organizer Dagoberto Bailon. 

According to Bailon, more than 400 transgender migrants currently participate in Trans Queer Pueblo’s work in some capacity. Bailon said data regarding undocumented and migrant LGBTQ+ people is hard to come by, due to the nature of systemic discrimination and invisiblizing of migrant communities.

In many ways, Trans Queer Pueblo carries on Marsha P. Johnson’s work and legacy today. Much of their organizing centers immigration justice, including frequent demands to defund the police and abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. These government bodies have a violent history of targeted harassment toward transgender people of color. 

Latinx transgender people in particular face discrimination from the police and from border enforcement. In 2015, 59% of Latinx transgender and gender non-conforming people said they would "feel somewhat or very uncomfortable" asking the police for help. In jails, prisons, and detention centers, 18% had been physically assaulted and 27% had been sexually assaulted by staff or other inmates.

According to a report by the Prison Policy Initiative, one in six transgender people have been incarcerated and 47%, or nearly half, of Black transgender people have spent time behind bars. In 2019, gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals were 2.25 times more like to be arrested than straight individuals, with lesbian and bisexual women in particular being arrested at four times the rate of straight women.

Bailon said violence and criminalization are the most pressing issues queer and transgender people face today. “The criminalization of trans people, and the mistreatment inside either jails or detention centers, is incredible,” he said. “I think (they) really paint the picture of how broken our systems are.”

Despite choosing to redirect transgender students to Trans Queer Pueblo’s migrant and queer-led resources, ASU’s policies remain diametrically opposed to the organization’s political demands.

ASU is not a sanctuary campus. In 2019, after students protested the presence of Customs and Border Patrol agents at a campus career fair, ASU promised the University would “not preclude their participation” in employment opportunity events in a quote from azcentral.

In September, 2020, in a letter on racial justice, President Michael Crow promised to “further supplement the ASU police force with enhanced services.” This announcement came after Undergraduate Student Government Tempe passed a resolution to defund the ASU police department.

“I think that (Michael Crow’s) statement about the police really puts a lot of trans and queer people in danger,” said Bailon. “We’ve seen that both Tempe police and Phoenix police are not the nicest.”

However, to Bailon, police harassment is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ASU’s relationship to the queer community. “There have been so many instances where we have seen ASU abuse the community, or not take care of the community,” he said.

Defending Queer Futures

The cognitive dissonance present in ASU’s LGBTQ+ advocacy may seem offensive to some, but it’s also exploitative. The University benefits from outsourcing labor to regional queer support groups while simultaneously taking credit for fostering an “inclusive atmosphere.” 

These contradictions remind us liberal politics are fundamentally about symbolism and aesthetic, rather than material change.

In predictable patterns of liberal co-option, those with power in the status quo hijack the imagery and language of radical movements with a counterrevolutionary agenda. In this liberal utopia of acceptance and inclusion, you are allowed to “love who you love” and “be your truest self” only as long as your existence doesn’t challenge material hierarchies, such as cis-heteropatriachy, white supremacy and capitalism.

“I think that the role of the University is to continue to feed moderate people into the city and into these jobs, so that the status quo continues,” said Bailon. “Whoever is in charge will always hold a sort of middle ground.”

It is undeniable that queer politics have often been anesthetized by an upper eschelon of white, wealthy queers who embraced liberal co-option. Too often, the least marginalized of us encourage a political agenda that prioritizes assimilation into cisgender heterosexual society, rather than liberation from the oppressive status quo.

For me, being queer is not just an identity to be validated or accepted, but a way of existing that seeks to undermine the power structures that have pathologized, marginalized and killed people like me. I understand queer people were never meant to exist in safety and comfort under these oppressive systems, and that they must be dismantled in order for queer people — and all people — to be liberated.

To that end, it is essential that queer politics reject liberal co-option and instead organize around the needs, demands and desires of the most marginalized of us. 

This is not to suggest abandoning spaces like ASU altogether. As Bailon said, “If we’re not there, someone else is going to be there. You cannot create change if you’re not present.”

Rather, it is to consistently remind that material change is still necessary, and to resist liberal complacency. If we don’t, then we risk creating a culture that considers itself free of explicit homophobia and transphobia while still maintaining the very systems which oppress us. 


Reach the columnist at ammoulto@asu.edu and follow @lexmoul on Twitter. 

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