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.