LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth
|What Is the History of Queer Nation?
The activist group Queer Nation evolved as the gay and lesbian movement confronted the scourge of AIDS, the rise of the religious right, and changing notions of identity. Though short-lived, Queer Nation made a lasting impact on the movement and the language it uses to describe itself.
Queer Nation was born in New York City in the spring of 1990. The idea for the group is said to have hatched at an ACT UP meeting, and Queer Nation made its first public appearance at an April demonstration against antigay violence. But the new face of queer activism burst onto the national radar with an inflammatory broadsheet distributed at the city's Gay Pride parade that June.
The four-page broadsheet"published anonymously by queers"proclaimed "Queers Read This" on the front and "I Hate Straights" on the back. "Until I can enjoy the same freedom of movement and sexuality as straights, their privilege must stop and it must be given over to me and my queer sisters and brothers," the diatribe read. "Straight people will not do this voluntarily and so they must be forced into it...Terrorized into it...Rights are not given, they are taken, by force if necessary...Straight people are your enemy."
"Queers Read This" was photocopied, passed from hand to hand, faxed, and mailed across the country. A Queer Nation chapter soon formed in San Francisco, followed by groups in other major cities. With a considerable overlap in membership, Queer Nation adopted ACT UP's sense of urgency and its theatrical spirit. Like ACT UP, Queer Nation was a leaderless network of autonomous chapters, in turn made up of ad hoc working groups. By the summer of 1991, there were chapters in some 40 cities, including conservative locales such as Des Moines and Salt Lake City. "Our strength lies in our numbers, our diversity, and in our public and proud contempt for the closet," read the group's mission statement.
With its slogan, "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!," Queer Nation came to be seen as the shock troops of the movement. Popular actions included the Suburban Homosexual Outreach Project (same-sex kiss-ins at shopping malls) and Queer Nights Out (invasions of straight bars and other venues). Queer Nation protested everything from gay bashing and the 1991 Gulf War to the censorship of queer art and negative portrayals of lesbian and bisexual women in the film Basic Instinct, while promoting queer-positive sex education and defending abortion clinics alongside pro-choice activists. Its Urban Redecoration Committees ensured that the group's brightly colored stickers and postersfeaturing declarations of queer pride and sometimes sexually explicit images adorned telephone poles, subway cars, and activists' leather jackets from coast to coast.
The uncompromising message of "Queers Read This!" and Queer Nation's in-your-face tactics re-ignited an old debate within the LGBT community over the merits of radicalism versus reformism. "Being queer means leading a different sort of life," the broadsheet declared. "It's not about the mainstream, profit margins, patriotism, patriarchy or being assimilated." In an article in the Winter 1991 issue of the now-defunct national magazine Out/Look, Alan Berube and Jeffrey Escoffier wrote that the group's "new culture is slick, quick, anarchic, transgressive, ironic...If they manage not to blow up in contradiction or get bogged down in the process, they may lead the way to new forms of activism for the 1990s."
Queer Nation did blow up, but still managed to influence the course of LGBT activism. The group's very name embodied its contradictory goals of achieving diversity while solidifying a distinct identity that sometimes bordered on separatism. Members frequently debated who belonged under the "queer" umbrella. Queer Nation generally embraced bisexuals and transgendered people, and took pains to emphasize inclusion of people of color and all classes; there was more controversy, however, about whether the term could encompass radical heterosexuals. As much as a sexual orientation, "queer" came to denote sex-positivity, pride in being an outsider, righteous anger, and a determination to fight back. But some felt that Queer Nation really only welcomed the young and hip, and that its members were a new generation of clones. The group was also accused of emphasizing style over substancewhat Escoffier called a "politics of symbolic gestures"and failing to engage in the difficult work of long-term organizing.
By 1993, Queer Nation was largely moribund. Just as the in-your-face activism of the Gay Liberation Front in the early 1970s was followed by an "insider" strategy in the 1980s, the radical activism of ACT UP, Queer Nation, and the Lesbian Avengers gave way to more mainstream activism focused on inclusion in the military and same-sex marriage. But Queer Nation nevertheless made a lasting impact on the movement. The once-shocking term "queer" has become de rigueur, and gay and lesbian groups now include bisexual and transgender people as a matter of course. In the words of former National Gay and Lesbian Task Force director Torie Osborn, "Queer Nation forced us to deal with issues relating to gender, violence, and visibility that pushed our movement forward."
Liz Highleyman can be reached at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No.8 July 1, 2005