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Separate and unequal. (last word).

Recently I went to three activities that made me marvel at the intersections of age, class, and race embedded in the broad phrase gay community. First, I saw a triple-bill all-ages show by queer-friendly girl punks Le Tigre and Thalia Zedek, emceed by dyke poet Eileen Myles. The crowd was largely young, with a sizable minority of late-30- to 40-something lesbians. Like most punk audiences, it was fairly white, and though the dress code of the rock scene hides class, it was not the Prada set.

Next I attended a daylong seminar on race in America and how it affects the coalitions working for social justice. The seminar grew out of Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres's new book, The Miner's Canary, which argues that race should be understood as a political and not a biological category. Those who attended were a mix that defines the America you see in New York City every day--a variety of ages, sexual orientations, races, and classes. The day's highlight was a performance by Blackout, a poetry and hip-hop collective, which seemed, at least for an hour, to unify a room of white-haired law school deans, dreadlocked activists, middle-aged trade unionists, dykes with crew cuts, and people of all colors.

Later that same week I went to an extraordinary birthday party for a friend. It gathered his formidable political network--everyone from the president (Clinton, that is) to several senators, congresspeople, and GLBT activists. The evening was a lot of fun, but the crowd's vast privilege, and my own within it, made me take a critical look at myself.

There we were, a crowd of comfortable, wealthy middle-aged and old mostly white people, enjoying the access that money buys, enjoying great food, having an experience that felt like utopia but had more in common with surrealism in the ways it ignored the presence of homophobia, racism, and economic inequality in the room with us. I feel the same uneasiness whenever I participate in a GLBT fund-raiser for a national organization--who is not in the room says as much as who is. And the people present in most of the rooms I am in is a homogenous group indeed.

Mostly we live in parallel universes--gay men, lesbians, African-Americans, Latinos. We may find ourselves in the same rooms on occasion, but we do not mix culturally or very deeply. Our lives are barely more integrated than they were in the 1950s.

The class divisions in the gay community are equally automatic because middle- and upper-middle-class people are the ones who compose the majority of GLBT organizations--and are the majority of its leaders. Poor GLBT people have few national advocates, little cultural visibility, and no political cache. Yet AIDS activists constantly remind us that more than 50% of people living with AIDS get their primary health care from Medicaid, a poverty program. And the statistics on income distribution in GLBT communities suggest that there is a vast segment of our own who are part of the America still struggling to achieve a decent quality of life.

What's more, intergenerationality remains an awkward word and an even more elusive reality in GLBT communities: Age divides us as deeply as race and class. Ironically, age segregates us at the very instant that our movement is more of an "all-ages show" than ever--people of every generation are in our communities, organizing, building institutions, and living open lives.

These encounters reminded me of the urgency of conscious organizing to disrupt the momentum that leaves us separated by these deep divisions. I remain optimistic in my belief in multiracial spaces, in cross-generational interaction, in GLBT people supporting those who press for greater equity and fairness in our society. But creating inclusive communities is an aspiration our movement has long expressed--and its realization will require from many more of us a willingness to challenge our own separatism, to leave our parallel universes behind.
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Author:Vaid, Urvashi
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Oct 29, 2002
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