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The first line of Urvashi Vaid’s new book Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics (Magnus Books) is enough to make even the most moderate queen cringe: “A dizzying array of events seem to suggest that the ultimate victory of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement is not only inevitable, but irresistible.”
What? A celebration of losable gains from community organizer Vaid, who in 1996 wrote, “Gay and Lesbian people possess some of the trappings of full equality but are denied all of its benefits.” What happened to the righteous anger, moxie and leftist, feminist politics? Where is the former executive director who gave teeth to the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force, or the often, sole woman of color at the Ford Foundation, also having to queer the preverbal table?
By page two, with the reader experiencing activist let down, Vaid comes in close, rattles off more wins, and then…BAM, she whispers, “despite the personal pride I feel…I find myself more cautious than euphoric.”
THE CROWD GOES WILD! In the flip of a page, Vaid pulls off the publishing equivalent of gotcha! Lulling us into a self satisfied stupor, she serves up a slice of sad state LGBT activism on a silver reflective platter, exposing it, and our acceptance, in all its slippery glory. With pie in our face, Vaid uses the so-called wins we have been feasting on as proof of how hungry we are:
…Perhaps it is our cooptation that has made queer progress possible and so irresistible to the non-gay establishment. We have invested heavily in making sure that the heterosexist world sees us as no threat to its norms and traditions.
Over the book’s nine chapters—updated speeches delivered since 1999—a four part argument emerges: current LGBT activism is stuck on being accepted; we must critically look at the leadership of mainstream LGBT organizations and hold them accountable in terms of diversity and performance; eliminating racism and misogyny must be the backbone of our queer movement to ensure equality for all; and across spectrums queers need to organized better among ourselves and work better together beyond LGBT issues.
The four parts are best articulated in “Assume the Position: Class and the LGBT Movement,” a speech she delivered in 2011 at Vassar, her alma mater. She sketches how the LGBT movement is out of touch, silent on the needs of many LGBT people, and avoids race, suggesting this can be addressed through making the movement accountable to those most in need of support, and root our work in major social justice reform. Here she presents possibly the most radical aspect of the book:
Diverse queer groups now working in the arena of social service delivery, criminal law, homelessness, immigrant rights and racial justice should all come together in a new powerful federated network that works through one institution, as a new freedom focuses human rights and social justice organization, committed fully to civil, political, economic, social and cultural right and the political power to win these objectives.
Whiplash back to page one. Is that pie in my eye again? Yes and no. Not out to dupe for effect this time, Vaid is responding to activist Arvind Narrain, question that Vaid poses in the book’s introduction “ Is the imagination of queer politics merely about access to rights for queer citizens or also about questioning structures which limit the very potential of human freedom?” In Irresistible Revolutions, Vaid is saying the imagination of queer politics must be about questioning structures, which limit freedom, including our own.
She elaborates on the idea of a radical queer networked response in the last chapter, “Beyond the Wedding Ring: LGBT Politics in the Age of Obama”:
The next wave of LGBT liberation will need to create new and powerful networks that are not limited by organizational forms, but that link people who share values of sexuality and social justice to each and allow us to engage in coordinated local and global action.
Much of the book, for all its helpful articulations, reads as a rehearsing of what has been said before (literally, these are speeches). While this can make it a difficult read in one sitting, it serves the enduring purpose of being an archive of this almost untranslatable moment within LGBT politics: much seems to be progressing, yet so many of us are actively dissatisfied. If the mainstream LGBT crowd wins the day, this book will not only be proof that there was a queer resistance, it will provide a record of our successes and our failings.
Irresistible Revolutions is a challenge to the present state of LGBT activism, and a rebel yell for the future. Readers who have a craving for plainspoken progressive politics will surely devour this book.
Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics
By Urvashi Vaid
Paperback, 9781936833290, 238 pp.