Civic Duty in the Age of Space Probes
Civic Duty in the Age of Space Probes

Mariana Romo-Carmona examines the complexities of the
lesbian and gay population's desire for acceptance into the
mainstream.

     I sat in the court room surrounded by 60 prospective
jurors, hemmed in on both sides by people I did not wish to
know, with whom I probably had nothing in common, except
that we were just then hoping that our names would not be
called. The wooden lottery box was spun 23 times and my name
was not called. The archaic process moved on, the voice of
the bailiff requiring us to stand every time the judge
walked back in the room, her thick Bronx accent
notwithstanding. The heavy wooden panels, the high ceilings,
the pew-like seats we were forced to occupy like so many
sardines in church, everything calculated to imbue these
interactions with the formal flavor of the law and the last
century. To the right side of the court room, the jury box,
two rows of leather seats for the chosen, filled up with
people, and the questioning began. "Are you married?" "How
many children?" "Your profession?" "What newspapers and
magazines do you read?"
     Were these really innocuous questions? And then, the
really ironic ones: "Have you ever been the victim of a
crime?" "Has there ever been an incident that may have
caused you to form any pre-conceived ideas about the
judicial system, which may in turn prevent you from acting
in a fair and impartial manner as a juror?"
     I listened to some of the questions, sighed in relief
that I was not up there answering, and tried to decide which
activity to engage in, since I was sitting in the back row
and I could probably read or do some work for the rest of
the morning. I pulled out the Spanish translation of Women
and AIDS, and continued proofreading the pages, adding
accents and 's with my pink pen. Around me, the rest of the
prospective jurors formed allegiances, whispered loudly,
made pronouncements about their fellow jurors being
questioned in the box. They passed judgment on which people
would be dismissed by the judge, which ones the lawyers
would immediately "throw out" with a peremptory challenge.
A man with mid-morning halitosis attempted to make
conversation with me. I put a stop to it with
uncharacteristic surliness, and retreated inwardly from the
heterosexist mob that was clearly emerging from the
remaining jurors. Suddenly, my name was called.
     Someone had been excused because she said her son had
been killed by a police officer, and she could not be fair
and impartial. I stashed the translation in my knapsack and
went to sit in chair number seven.
     The judge who greeted me with a bland judicial smile
was a white man, with graying hair, a New England accent,
glasses, a kindly demeanor overflowing with fairness and
impartiality. His honor mispronounced my name three times.
In his fourth attempt, the bailiff passed him a card with my
name written on it. My throat was dry and I had lost the
will to correct his pronunciation or utter any protest.
     Why I should feel so cowed at that moment, when just
last week I had been among the thousands of people who
crossed the Brooklyn Bridge to protest Mayor Giuliani's
proposed budget cuts, climbing over the wall to the foot
bridge, risking arrest, chanting and yelling in not only
this but many other demonstrations -- I quizzed myself
inwardly while I tried to answer the questions in a clear
voice. Years of fighting to make myself understood in a
language not my own, of speaking on panels of academics
about grassroots politics, of raising feminist issues among
smug male colleagues, of talking about racism in an icy,
silent room, of identifying myself as a lesbian in order to
challenge homophobic presumptions -- all these years fell
away as I stepped outside myself to look over the mob of
safe homogeneity who sat watching, the attorneys scribbling
on long, yellow pads, the stenographer, the bailiff, the
people sitting next to me on the leather chairs, the judge.
     It wasn't fear. I had been afraid before and I had
spoken anyway. I stammered out my answers, filled with a
sense of deep irony as the words domestic partner, activist,
collective, political and civil rights organizations, left
my mouth and met blank stares in the air filling the huge
court room. "What organizations do you belong to?" asked the
judge. "The New York Lesbian and Gay People of Color
Steering Committee, the Latin American Lesbian Feminist
Network--" I said perversely enunciating the mouthful. "And
what newspapers and magazines do you read?" A vacuum seal
wrapped around my list of publications, as though they had
been spoken in an other-worldly language: Gay Community
News, The Washington Blade, BLK, Sojourner, COLORLife!, The
Village Voice...and The New York Times, I added for good
measure. The judge smiled broadly, as though approving the
last one.
     It took no more than three short minutes of
deliberation for the procession of the judge and the
attorneys to return. The bailiff walked straight over to me
and handed me the card with my name on it, indicating that I
was excused from this jury and could go back to the pool of
jurors to await selection. Collective approval of my
dismissal was almost audible. I walked out of the court room
wondering why I cared at all.

"THE" MOVEMENT AND "THE" COMMUNITY

     In 1994, with the advent of the 25th anniversary of the
Stonewall riots, it is perhaps useful to assess the lesbian
and gay population's desire for acceptance into the
mainstream. All the commemorative events planned for this
year, the celebrations and the conferences, the marches, the
protests, and especially the Gay Games, have the result of
situating lesbian and gay collective experience in
relationship to the spontaneous riots and civil disobedience
of 1969. The underlying message is that we, as lesbian, gay,
bisexual, two spirit, and transgender people, have achieved
some degree of liberation in these 25 years and that cannot
be argued. What is a constant argument for lesbian and gay
activists, is that our population is made up of many
communities, and there is no one agenda for social change
that will encompass all of our demands.
     The work of "the" movement, then, becomes confused with
the activities of "the" community and we are left with an
amalgam of initiatives for celebrations and commemorative
events, in such a broad national network, that we can be
sure that 1994 will be remembered as "the gay year."
     Whether or not you live in a major city in the U.S., if
you are on any one of thousands of gay-friendly mailing
lists -- either because you subscribe to a publication or
because you attended a poetry reading at your local lesbian
and gay center (or cafe, bookstore, health center) -- you
are probably receiving announcements in the mail about the
upcoming June events. There are probably many brochures as
well, offering you gay long distance, freedom rings, Keith
Haring tee-shirts, legal advice on living wills, domestic
partnerships, and adoption, and lesbian feminist jewelry
beautifully crafted in silver or 14k gold. There are even
requests for donations by AIDS service providers that may
give you the impression that treatment options are available
to everyone, that celebrities are your friends -- and all
that remains is for you to write a check along with your
yearly subscription to National Geographic.
     But even in the mainstream effort of setting up Gay
Games '94 to operate in a city like New York there are
deeply rooted civil rights issues that surface as the new
glossy gay weeklies announce the schedule. There is a New
York that is not prepared or willing to let the Games happen
in June without consequence. This New York is composed of
advertisers who are loathe to touch the pages of gay
magazines, of restaurant owners and venue managers who will
rescind contracts with gay and lesbian athletes, of talk
radio hosts who support the vituperations of homophobic
listeners. It is also composed of an administration that --
upon taking over the City on January 1 -- expelled homeless
people from the subways and plastered the walls with posters
exhorting New Yorkers to refuse to give money to
"panhandlers." The new Giuliani administration also closed
the constituency offices which, albeit with bureaucratic
parsimony, at least provided Latino, African American,
Asian-American, lesbian and gay New Yorkers, as well as the
City Commission of the Status of Women, with access to the
Mayor's office. This same mayor is also considering the
dissolution of the Human Rights Commission and the Division
of AIDS Services, and almost with a flourish, has issued
authority to truancy officers for gestapo-like sweeps of
young people "caught" loitering on city streets during
school hours. Clearly, the first people who are being picked
up and questioned are young Latinos and African Americans,
and lesbian and gay youth attempting to evade the
increasingly hostile environments of city high schools.

SOME OF US CANNOT "MAINSTREAM"

     One of the problems with working towards mainstream
acceptance is that unconscious buying into other attendant
mainstream values that eventually work against us. Whether
it's jury duty, PTA's, joining the chamber of commerce or
going into  electoral politics, we are going to have to face
the impulse to mainstream ourselves into acceptable citizens
in order to be able to function. For some in the lesbian and
gay population, this is possible. For many others, no. As I
look at my own impulse to be approved of as I sat in the
jury box, even while I knew I had no time to serve on a
jury, and a great many political and moral reasons not to
serve, I think about the countless lesbian and gay people
who do serve without revealing themselves. I think about the
cases that go to trial in probate court, for example, where
what is at issue is the custody of children by lesbian
mothers. Or the disposition of a contested will by the
family of a gay man who wanted his surviving lover to remain
in their apartment after his death. Or, in a criminal case,
the beating of a lesbian or gay man by police. Who is the
jury in these cases? Does the court, in a country where
there is no federal protection from discrimination on the
basis of sexual orientation, discriminate in its own
proceedings?
     The case for moving into the mainstream is a strong
one. It is the case made by all movements of disenfranchised
people seeking civil rights and representation. But perhaps
because the movement for lesbian and gay civil rights is one
of the last at society's fringes, the need for an agenda for
radical social change becomes so acute. On the one hand, the
diversity of people who are activists in the lesbian and gay
communities insures a vibrant and constantly changing
movement. On the other hand, this very political diversity
causes some of the same ills that affect the left in this
country -- people keep on living and building institutions
within the social system of this country, and they don't
necessarily want every foundation shaken around their lives.
For some people, running for office or drafting a will
strong enough to protect their domestic partnership is
enough; for others, being able to do military service as out
gay people will suffice. But for a young Latina lesbian I
know, whose child was taken by the Bureau of Child Welfare,
even the existence of lesbian and gay attorneys may not be
enough. In her neighborhood there are many young women like
her, and for them, legal representation will not guarantee
them an education, food, a job, an apartment.
     For many years, being involved as an activist in the
Latina lesbian community, I have had to argue that the
mainstream lesbian and gay movement has to go a very long
way before I can feel that it represents me. Conversely, in
my involvement with Latin American and Caribbean feminists,
and international networks of feminists of color (many of
whom are lesbians), I have had to argue that even though I
agree that the U.S.-based lesbian and gay movement is a
white, middle class movement that has a limited horizon in
world politics, a lesbian and gay perspective is crucial in
all liberation movements. The struggle against
discrimination against lesbian and gay people, against
heterosexism and homophobia in all movements for change, is
not less important and cannot be secondary. Still, there
have been times when, confronted with the racism and
classism of an assimilationist trend -- what I've been
referring to as that desire for mainstream acceptance --
among lesbian and gay activists, I have retreated.
     I do retreat and question whether sexual orientation
really matters, or whether it will matter once certain aims
are achieved. I go back to my community, to the grassroots
groups, to the street activists, to the young people of
color who are just coming out and to the old leftists
marxists socialist queers who never learned how to be quiet.
Of course it matters. Because even after the hoopla of this
year is gone, the anti-gay backlash will be there. And even
if my young friend from the Barrio is fortunate enough to
get a good social worker who can help her get her baby back,
a job and an education, the truth is this girl is a lesbian,
and her drug-dealing girlfriend is also a lesbian, and
that's the threat that is going to be hanging over her right
to raise her child.
     If the end of my argument sounds like an admonition, it
is probably because I need one, we need one. We are nearing
the end of this century and we still function in an
antiquated society. We attempt to move forward into our
future as though we were walking through an ocean, slowly,
encumbered with archaic notions of what it means to be
citizens of our communities. Twenty-five years after a bunch
of Black and Latino queens got mad enough at the cops in New
York City for busting into the Stonewall bar and violating
the civil rights they should have had, to fight back, to
yell and riot and throw rocks and garbage cans, we still
have no rights. For this, we need the anger that class
awareness brings into relief. Mainstream acceptance won't
give us that, it can only offer complacency.