Today, we have an exciting and timely blog post from Timothy Stewart-Winter, Associate Professor of History at Rutgers University-Newark and author of Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics, now out in paperback from Penn Press. Tracing the gay movement's trajectory since the 1950s from the closet to the corridors of power, Queer Clout is the first book to weave together activism and electoral politics, shifting the story from the coastal gay meccas to the nation's great inland metropolis of Chicago. Queer Clout sheds new light on the politics of race, religion, and the AIDS crisis, and it shows how big-city politics paved the way for the gay movement's unprecedented successes under the nation's first African American president. In this post, Stewart-Winter uses this analysis as a jumping-off point to examine how these themes are woven into the emergent progressive political projects and alliances of the Trump era.
One of the themes of my book Queer Clout that has most resonated with readers is its focus on the role of coalitions and allies in the political empowerment of gay people. The book argues broadly that the political history of late twentieth-century America was deeply shaped by the migration of LGBTQ people to America’s big cities. More specifically, it argues, as one set of readers put it, that “queer activism in Chicago was always coalitional, involving work across races, genders, and sexual identities,” and suggests “the rise of queer political power was a collaborative venture.” Gay and lesbian people first acquired influence in American cities in the 1970s and 1980s, I argued, not only because they were concentrated there, but also because of the particular liberal electoral coalitions that developed in those cities in an era of black empowerment, liberal electoral coalitions, and white flight. Chicago’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington helped broker the encounter between gay citizens and municipal government, both because of the principles he stood for and also because he stood to gain an advantage electorally by doing so.
I think readers were struck by this argument partly because many of us have long associated homophobia with African Americans: indeed, pundits have often depicted antigay politics in a kind of blackface. Like many stereotypes, this one has underlying realities—especially the centrality of the black church in African American politics—as well as distortions (notably, African Americans have long favored antidiscrimination laws covering sexual orientation in significantly higher proportions than whites). The narrative has also been a political tool employed by the Christian right since the 1980s.
For years, the right wing drew an invidious distinction between the movements for black and gay equality, rhetorically signaling the legitimacy of the former and employing it as a cudgel against the latter. The coincidence between the election of the first black president and Proposition 8, which undid the legalization of gay marriage in California, cemented the narrative. Obama did a great deal to change this perception, especially in his second term, when he portrayed advances for gay equality as a key element of his civil rights legacy.
But as support for gay equality has risen, Donald Trump has perfected a newer formulation—an equally invidious distinction between the respective claims of LGBTQ people, now cast as characteristically American, and of Muslims, who he has labeled menacing foreigners who should not be permitted to enter the U.S. In his July 2016 speech at the Republican Party convention in Cleveland, for example, Trump exploited the horrific mass shooting weeks earlier at a gay nightclub in Orlando by what he called “an Islamic terrorist.” He declared, “As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” Even some LGBTQ publications joined right-wing media in praising Trump for mentioning queer people “in a positive way.”
Yet Trump’s viciously reactionary presidency has made 2017 a banner year for expressions of LGBTQ-Muslim political solidarity. LGBTQ Muslims are increasingly visible. After Trump rolled out the Muslim ban in January, hundreds of students and teachers rallied to oppose it at my campus, Rutgers University-Newark, where many undergraduates are Muslim. I saw former students holding signs saying “LGBTQ 4 Muslim” and “The Gays Say Nay.” Days later, I joined friends and several thousand others at a similar rally outside the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Lambda Legal has signed an amicus brief highlighting similarities between Trump’s Muslim ban and the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.
Similarly, legal advocates for the rights of American Muslims denounced Trump’s transgender service ban on the day he announced it—noting in their statement that his second nominee for Army Secretary, Mark Green, was both anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim. My point here is not to romanticize American Muslim communities or minimize homophobia and transphobia. Among LGBTQ Muslims in America—as in every other population—the experience of family rejection can take on painful, culturally specific forms. And yes, LGBTQ people face harsh persecution in many Muslim countries.
Yet, as with confronting right-wing efforts to pry apart the causes of black and gay freedom, we can fight back with facts. A decade ago, similar majorities of American Muslims and white evangelical Protestants in a Pew survey rejected the statement “society should accept homosexuality.” Since then, Muslims have changed their minds faster—and a majority now agree with it. They also overwhelmingly believe, along with every religious group except white evangelicals, that small business owners should not be allowed to refuse goods or services to gay people on religious grounds—a question the Supreme Court will take up this fall.
In this era of rising Islamophobia, I hope that scholars of LGBTQ political history will examine convergences and tensions between Muslim and queer political histories. After all, gay people were once officially banned at the U.S. border—and it was not so long ago.