The Trouble with Invoking Jim Crow to Fight for LGBT Issues

Pink Panther Movement's Response to the Arizona Anti-Gay Law

Pink Panthers Movement’s Response to the Arizona Anti-Gay Law

Arizona’s new bill allowing for discrimination based on sexual orientation is rightfully attracting a lot of pushback from LGBT activists. One of the go-to arguments is that the law revives Jim Crow, the practice of segregating African Americans from whites. While there does seem to be a natural logic here, I think the LGBT movement should take stock of the racist and settler colonial implications of this strategy.

My thoughts here are inspired by Scott Lauria Morgensen’s book Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Colonization (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). In the 20th century white American anthropologists constructed the “berdache.” The berdache, according to these scholars, was a figure of Native American culture, usually a male, who assumes the gender identity and is granted the social status of the opposite sex.

As Morgensen explains, the berdache was constructed and mobilized by American anthropologists to support claims for the acceptance of lesbian and gay peoples. Two of the most important founders of modern American anthropology, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead “portrayed sexual variation in primitive cultures as lessons to a modern settler society (excluding the Native peoples it occupies) to accept its (non-Native) gender and sexual diversity…  Anthropologists used berdache to deploy a modern theory of sexuality and gender in which subjects ‘express’ a natural sexuality and sex, which societies do not produce but simply recognize through affirmation or rejection. In the process, by making Native Americans a benchmark of affirmation in relation to which other cultures appear constricting, berdache implicitly educated its audiences to rethink gender and sexual norms in their own, implicitly non-Native, societies.” (60)

The trouble is, the “berdache” was used to advance the interests of largely non-Native lesbians and gays. The Spirit and the Flesh, probably the best known work to advance the construction of the berdache,  “appears to exist ‘inside’ Native culture – until its conclusion reveals that its goal all along was to address, evaluate, and progressively change the normatively white readership of white settler society.”

Using images like the above to argue against Arizona’s anti-gay law bill without at the same time articulating a clear anti-racist and anti-colonial critique reproduces the same politics. The fact is, there are plenty of restaurants and other public services that people of colour and Natives avoid, or where they are openly discriminated against. To suggest that the lesson has been learned, that there is not still discrimination at lunch counters, erases contemporary racism. We know too well that racism and settler colonialism is alive and well in America, and elsewhere.

Let’s take better care not to erase the realities of racism and settler colonialism today in order to achieve goals that do not explicitly link themselves to combatting these issues, too.