Act-up vs. Mainstream; or, What's in a Name?
On including and transcending queer and marginalized identities and struggles.
His name was William Rufus de Vane King, but at the White House, they called him “Miss Nancy.” The newly elected vice president’s relationship to President James Buchanan was the stuff of innuendo back in 1852, when society couldn’t speak its name; to this day, most people don’t know that Seattle’s King County was dedicated to a queer man. In 1986, the County switched allegiances to Martin Luther King, Jr., but Miss Nancy’s spirit still haunts the halls of city government and abandoned queer space, where if you listen carefully, you can hear the muted thud of the bass from some long-gone club night; the phantom falsetto of karaoke singers past.
What’s in a name? Everything and nothing. It doesn’t change the chemical composition of the rose to call it something other than the entity we’ve collectively defined, but it does alter our experience with it. To call it a tulip or a weed changes the way we understand ourselves in relation to the thing; the value we imbue it with. Names help us navigate the world, yet from the larger perspective of collective consciousness, it’s all arbitrary.
This is the delicate balance of identification: It can ground us, providing a framework for finding like-minded others and elevating those seeking equality. But it can also keep us separate, and that’s the greatest source of our suffering.
Around the world and throughout history, spiritual traditions say the way to find yourself is to lose it: by shedding all of the constructs that construct your “I.” As Richard Rohr says, “The more attached we are to any persona whatsoever, bad or good, the more shadow self we will have.” Yet for many of us, society is not set up to facilitate this kind of enlightenment.
In the patriarchy, we must proclaim identities of queerness, femininity, gender-expansiveness, and relationship anarchy, or they will be ignored. Under capitalism, we must declare categories to obtain everything from medical care to clothing, housing, and what limited government assistance is available in America. You can hardly even register for a class or open a bank account without first checking a box for the binary. How can we transcend the self when we first have to claim it? How do we merge with collective consciousness when we’re constantly correcting people on our pronouns? And where is the line between Pride and ego?
The answers, I suspect, may lie within what philosopher Ken Wilber, whose ideas contributed to the Spiral Dynamics theory, describes as “transcend and include.” That means not only transcending the separate self and prior, perhaps less mature stages of our development, but including these past selves and stages as we evolve, which requires first identifying what healthy versions of those early-stage, less-integrated identities and entities look like. Whether in spiritual and psychological healing or political, social, and cultural evolution, you incorporate what you can from what came before to inform your forward motion.
After all, history has proven that change often comes through coalition-building. The letters of the LGBTQIA+ alphabet spell a stronger, if less pronounceable, word than any one alone, and the struggles of our BIPOC siblings mirror and intersect with our struggles—as long as each letter of each acronym, and their unique needs and goals, are clearly defined. But that isn’t how the story of the struggle for queer rights has played out.
Throughout American history, there have been two divergent factions in the LGBTQIA+ community: what a source once described to me as “the act-up style of queer” and the “mainstreamers.” The act-ups are the public activists, those who take to the streets and will not go quietly; those who literally formed ACT UP, the grassroots organization that demanded attention for the HIV/AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s through direct action, from hijacking the evening news to demonstrations on Wall Street and in the halls of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The mainstreamers are those who wanted to blend into the background; to become just like everybody else.
A sad irony of the battle for queer equality is that it was started by the act-ups, but settled for mainstream gains, accepting as victories measures that categorically excluded entire swaths of its own community and turning the LGBTQIA+ movement into the movement for gay, mostly white rights. Stonewall was a riot, not a corporate-sponsored parade, and leading the charge were the likes of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera: Black and Brown queers inhabiting amorphous identities spanning drag and gender-fluidity. The “P” stood for “pay it no mind,” but these leaders deserve their propers.
In the first half of the 20th century, from the Castro to Christopher Street, queer communities sprung up in the underresourced areas of America’s large cities: amongst, and intersecting with, BIPOC communities. As the battles for racial and gender equality gained momentum in the 1960s and fueled the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights, queer and transgender people of color (QTPOC), the drag community, and all outside the gender binary were at the forefront. But as the movement that started at Stonewall grew, it became increasingly factionalized.
The mainstreamers campaigned on the broadly palatable platform that gays and lesbians were just like straight people: wanting the same things, working the same jobs, with fundamentally the same desires, goals, and needs. But Johnson, head piled with flowers and lace, strutting in swishy skirts and high heels, breathy-voiced and batting long lashes, was just so obvious. How could they argue that she wanted the same nuclear family and two-car garage as any other respectable American? The gender-expansive community was constantly being accused of making the movement “look bad,” so they attempted to sideline the likes of Johnson and Rivera, along with everyone who made too much noise.
But they would not go quietly. The act-up style requires activism, and Johnson and Rivera were on the front lines of the protests, rallies, and riots that demanded attention to drive change. Johnson was a founding member of the revolutionary group the Gay Liberation Front and, with Rivera, co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organization to help homeless gay youth, drag queens, and trans women. At the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in New York City, Rivera jumped onstage and literally grabbed the mic, saying: “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!” She was booed offstage, attempted suicide several times, and battled addiction throughout her life, though she never stopped fighting.
Meanwhile, under the guise of increasing safety, mainstreamers across America—in other words, primarily white gays and lesbians—allied with the very police officers who had harassed, threatened, and arrested queer people throughout history, and especially at Stonewall; this happened in Seattle in 1981, when gay bar owners formed a coalition with police and fire departments. The alliance between mainstreamers and police further threatened already vulnerable populations—BIPOC, under-resourced people, and sex workers—both within the LGBTQIA+ community and without, many of whom were already being displaced as white queers moved into the growing gayborhoods.
When the LGBTQIA+ population was ravaged by its first pandemic, the HIV/AIDS crisis, the responses of federal and local political and social leaders (not to mention queer folks’ family and local community members) ranged from indifference to malignant neglect and the downright diabolical. This further impacted at-risk queers as people died by the scores, and political and legal battles were won and lost. ACT UP was forged in this crucible, driving change by acting up and building coalitions of queers with common interests, but the obstacles were large and numerous.
As intersecting civil-rights struggles continued to crest and crash through the ensuing decades, the mainstreamers increasingly allied themselves with moderate political and social actors and acquiesced to corporate overtures, especially as younger generations came of age who were less steeped in the activist lineage. By the 2000s, what emerged in the public consciousness was a broadly palatable image of white queerness. Corporate marketers and developers exploited this to build the persistent “myth of gay affluence”—despite the fact that more LGBTQIA+ people still face poverty and food insecurity than their cis-het peers.
As for Johnson, her body was found floating in the Hudson River in 1992. She had never been known to self-harm and bore a head wound, yet her death was ruled a suicide.
It could be argued that a movement needs both the mainstreamers and the act-up style, but real change never happens without revolution. The mainstreamers say you have to work within the system, and this can certainly be the way some legislation gets passed. But the approach automatically excludes those who can’t even get in the door, and half-measures avail them of nothing. Legislation that leaves the “Q” and the “IA+” off of “LGBT” and grants rights based on binaries only underscores our differences; meanwhile, communities, spaces, and celebrations skewed toward a homophile binary don’t feel much better than being ignored.
The most successful grassroots movements in the queer history of America were those that built coalitions of the most underrepresented: The decades-long boycott campaign against Coors Brewing Company allied groups as diverse as queer-rights groups, the Black Panthers, the United Farm Workers, and the Teamsters to fight the brewery’s discriminatory hiring and workplace practices—not to mention the conservative legacy of the family behind the company, which has backed some of the nation’s most malignant right-wing organizations, from the Heritage Foundation and Save the Children to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
As Sarah Schulman documents in her new book, “Let the Record Show,” ACT UP was one of American history’s most successful grassroots organizations by fusing the people and the tactics of the feminist and racial-equality movements. Following in the footsteps of the sit-ins championed by King County’s other namesake, MLK, their tactics involved “creating the world we wanted to live in”—inserting themselves into the spaces where they weren’t welcomed, forcing their way into the halls of power and bellying the table.
Today, we must work together to advance the rights of all people in the Progress Pride-colored rainbow. Any chance at disrupting the patriarchy will require full cooperation, recognizing the goals and challenges of the most marginalized while uniting around commonalities. That extends not only to the queer community, but to include all who have been pushed to the margins of American society: BIPOC, the neurodiverse and differently abled, sex workers and the housing insecure, to name a few.
But for now, it is Pride month, so let us be proud while also keeping our egos in check. Let us proclaim our true roots from the rooftops, shout it in the streets, and hold it in our hearts. Let the legacies of Marsha P. Johnson and Miss Nancy be known, and let our shared struggle be named—so that we can include and transcend.