T-shirt at Jerusalem Pride 2012. Neil Ward

Jul 1, 2023 | Queer Life, Trans Life

What Happens When We Gentrify Queerness

As if predicting what is happening today, author Sarah Schulman wrote the following in her 2012 novel Gentrification of the Mind: “The drag queens who started Stonewall are no better off today, but they made the world safe for gay Republicans. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but the people who make change are not the people who benefit from it.”

Schulman’s passage cleverly encapsulates the multilayer consequences of gentrification—of physical spaces, sure, but also of identities. When we talk about the gentrification of queerness, we’re not solely referring to the erasure and exclusion of Black, Brown, and poor queer people from historically gay neighborhoods, even by other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) community. We’re also talking about the increasing dominance of “allies” in spaces ostensibly dedicated to queerness. And we’re talking about how mainstream media prioritizes LGBTQIA people who are closer to white cis-heteronormativity. Evidence shows that none of this has gotten us any closer to improving the material conditions of our most marginalized community members.

The gentrification of queerness happens when our collective experiences are sanitized, commodified, and pushed into the realm of the status quo—at the expense of community members whose existence is far from it. This commodification often happens through visibility in popular media—but maybe it’s that hyper fixation with representation that has diverted us from our path towards collective liberation. 

The increasing attention given to queer people in film, TV, and entertainment could be an opportunity to rethink what’s possible when we place the collective before the individual. Maybe then we could count on more local leaders to filibuster away hateful legislation, come up with nuanced narrative media, develop more effective defenses to the coordinated attacks on our existence, and finally bring to a halt the epidemic of violence that has invaded the lives of all the transgender people we love and care for. 

“When the queer movement emerged in the late ’60s and early ’70s it had so much genuine radical potential,” says Greer X, a trans equity consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. “But so much of the movement has moved away from collectivity, or from seeking liberation for all, and towards an individualized experience of identity. I believe in a diversity of tactics when it comes to moving towards queer and trans liberation—but visibility for its own sake is a trap and presents the illusion of things getting better when in reality they are not.”

This increased visibility for queer and trans people in media, combined with the fact that 7.2% of American adults identify as non-heterosexual, and one in five Gen Zers identify under the LGBTQIA umbrella according to a 2022 Gallup poll, has created a facade of progress and acceptance. But as much as an increase in numbers could give the illusion of increased power, the reality of our larger community is dire. 

In the first five months of 2023, 491 anti-LGBTQIA bills were introduced, the majority of them explicitly targeting trans people. Attacks by organized white supremacist groups are increasingly targeting trans and queer people of color, even in “blue” states like New York. And according to a 2022 report by the Pew Research Center, 60% of Americans still believe gender is determined by sex assigned at birth—a 6% increase since 2017. Of course, it was only nine years ago when the Public Religion Research Institute found that more survey respondents believed they had seen a ghost than a trans person.

When our agenda for liberation is controlled by people who move through the world with privileges and experiences we might never know—that is, white cisgender heterosexual people—we have a problem: anyone who deviates from the status quo is either pushed out, attacked, or questioned. We’ve seen it in the past year as shameless expressions of anti-trans sentiment increased worldwide, microaggressions transformed into actual violent attacks and deaths, and transphobic rhetoric, due to its effectiveness, became the preferred tool of the oppressor.

Even one of the most prominent queer shows of the recent past, which was celebrated for its trans-inclusiveness, couldn’t avoid this struggle. Angelica Ross, a Black trans actress who starred in Ryan Murphy’s Pose, told ABC News in 2021 that the lack of Black trans representation in Hollywood is due to a lack of genuine effort. “As to be expected, a good percentage of the movement for diversity was performative and predictable,” said Ross. “Many of my trans colleagues who are creators saw this coming well before it started happening.” 

And while accurate representation of our multifaceted experiences is important, rarely, if ever, has a shiny and well-scripted Netflix show led to actual policy changes. Media representation was never the bottom line, nor the ultimate goal. When outward representation of queer and trans people’s identities and ideology are shaped by news of celebrities (see Kim Petras’s Grammy win) and transphobic billionaires (see The New York Times’s defense of J.K. Rowling’s rabid transphobia after contributors called out the paper’s own problematic coverage of trans and nonbinary people), it suggests something more sinister at play here. 

The unrelenting attacks on trans people and the ceaseless attempts to criminalize our existence are not coincidental. “It’s hard to talk about the commodification of queerness, or the dominance of rich cishet white people in spaces like pride, without engaging with the larger problem of rainbow capitalism,” laments Syan Rose, artist and author of the illustrated novel Our Work is Everywhere. “People feel entitled to appropriate radical queer culture because corporations do it.” 

In the age of America’s new fascism, celebrity culture serves to passively subdue the masses while entertaining us and making us believe that a win for one is a win for all. But a critical eye will note that this approach centers only the most privileged members of a community and wrongly shapes its public narrative. This approach is part of a well-funded coordinated campaign that’s been brewing in right-wing circles for years.

a diverse group of queer people gathered outside with rainbow flags

White, rich, and famous lesbian, gay, and trans people like Ellen DeGeneres, Pete Buttigieg, Tim Cook, and of course, Caitlyn Jenner, are perfect examples of this distraction tactic. Whether consensually or not, these familiar faces have become political pundits who conservatives are eager to hold up as exemplary members of the LGBTQIA community. The “right kind” of gays, if you may. They uphold dominant cultural standards of heteronormativity, compulsory monogamy, and political centrism—and as such, have become benchmarks for what socially acceptable queerness “should” look like.

When this disingenuous and self-serving takeover of queerness is so prevalent, it is imperative that we prioritize those whose lives are at risk before we prioritize people in our community who move through the world with abundant privileges and safety. When the comfort of white cis people takes precedence over the lives of those who are still marginalized by their mere existence, participating in queerness without the will to risk heteronormative privilege is not solidarity—it’s betrayal.

“Particularly Black trans women have articulated that yes, it’s great that we have an array of famous trans people,” says Greer X. “But without meaningful changes in the material conditions of Black trans people, many of them are still very vulnerable to violence, and that hypervisibility and the spectacle that comes with trans folks being in popular media can result in retaliatory violence for trans folks that are in very precarious situations.”

The case for prioritization might feel like an attack on people who enjoy or have benefited from heightened visibility, and who participate in the more heteronormative and digestible side of queerness. But conversations about different queer experiences and what needs to be done to keep us all alive can happen simultaneously. Unfortunately, many of us come from a scarcity mindset which leads us to think that the small amount of support that visibility has brought us is as good as it gets. This mindset is then exacerbated by a capitalist takeover of our movements, celebrations, and labor. But the reality is that the systems that have been put in place for us to survive, don’t allow for more.

“For many years I was tormenting myself thinking that I was selling myself to the capitalist establishment for doing things like a SoulCycle commercial,” says Cecilia Gentili, a trans activist, actor, author, and founder of Trans Equity Consulting. “But I came to have a lot of forgiveness and understanding for myself by acknowledging that was a normal response to people hating me consistently and being brought up by scarcity and our current society.”

Arguing for prioritization of the most at-risk is not about gatekeeping or exclusion. It’s about making sure everyone in our community has the safety to rejoice in the expansiveness of what it means to be queer—even if, for some, that means mirroring elements of dominant society.  Ultimately, any diversion from the path of compulsive heterosexuality is a step toward the destruction of the heteronormative establishment. And centering the experiences and needs of those pushed to the edges of our community allows us to lean into our shared humanity, our empathy, and our compassion—which will be essential if we hope to build something better than the oppressive, restrictive society we all suffer under today.

When an individual’s identity takes center stage in a larger movement, the personal ceases to be political, and instead becomes another means of consumption for the masses. When the “ally” or the cis white person is prioritized in spaces where trans and queer people of color are meant to be protected, we risk having our shared culture and history be eradicated. Of course the trans and queer experience is not a monolith, but when the most privileged members of our community are the only ones who get to have a safe, celebrated experience of self, we find ourselves beholden to the same bland commodification that we’ve seen in the gentrification of our neighborhoods.

At a time when large, fundamental parts of our society continue to delegitimize transness, attempt to erase our history, and try to legislate away the gay, we have to push harder to codify into law the changes we’ve been asking for. We need cis white community members to stop hiding behind their queerness to excuse self-serving behavior. Real allyship is less about waving a rainbow flag once a year during Pride month and more about listening to trans people when they tell you what they need. Then follow through and follow up—in sustainable words and action.

This story was originally published by Yes! Magazine.