Jeffry Iovannone, PhD
Latest posts by Jeffry Iovannone, PhD (see all)
- Global Autocracy and LGBTQ Rights - January 1, 2018
- Danica Roem and the Weaponized Use of “Gender-Neutral” Language - December 3, 2017
- Reading Recommendations For LGBTQ History Month, 2017 - October 24, 2017
I am standing in line at the popular clothing store H&M waiting to purchase some items for an upcoming trip. In front of the registers, I notice a sign announcing that customers can make a donation to the GLBT Community Center in Orlando, Florida to help provide services to those impacted by the massacre at Pulse nightclub, which occurred on June 12th of this year, and represents America’s deadliest mass shooting. When I get to the register, the sales associate cashing me out does not ask if I would like to make a donation or provide me with any additional information about the campaign. I don’t really blame her. There is a sizeable line behind me, and I know from personal experience that working retail can be incredibly draining. I volunteer to make a donation, pay for my items, and leave the store.
As I go about the remainder of my day, I cannot not stop thinking about how H&M’s campaign represents just one example of the troubling way the massacre, and by extension, LGBTQ social justice issues, were framed in the media and popular discourse following the Pulse shooting. Much of this discourse centered on the differentiation of “love versus hate,” and employing “love” as a means of LGBTQ acceptance and social transformation. In this article, I will examine some examples of the “love is love” framework of LGBTQ social justice that emerged around the Pulse shooting, as well as the larger history of concepts such as “love” and “pride” within LGBTQ social justice work. I will also comment upon the lack of intersectional analysis surrounding the tragedy and call for the necessity of alternative approaches that go beyond a “love” or “pride” framework.
Love Is Love Is Love Is…?
The slogan “love is love” became attached to the Pulse massacre based on the speech Broadway actor and composer Lin-Manuel Miranda gave at the 2016 Tony Awards when he accepted the award for best score for the musical Hamilton. As part of his acceptance speech, Miranda read an emotional poem which contained the following lines: “And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love, cannot be killed or / swept aside… / Now fill the world with music, love, and pride.” Because Miranda was one of the first to respond to the tragedy in a such a powerful and public way, a shorthand version of the above lines–“love is love”–became not only the rallying cry of the LGBTQ community’s response to the shooting, but also the lens through which mass media and popular culture viewed the tragedy. YouTube also jumped on the bandwagon, promoting a #ProudToBe spotlight campaign as part of Pride Month 2016. The campaign, which described its mission as “coming together to celebrate identity,” encouraged content creators to make videos using the hashtag that celebrated their unique identities and promoted messages of love and acceptance over hate.
Miranda also began selling officially licensed “pride merch” via his website, in particular, a t-shirt emblazoned with his message of love whose proceeds are donated to benefit the Florida LGBTQ community. JLo/Jennifer Lopez asked Miranda to collaborate with her on a single “Love Make the World Go Round,” which sampled Miranda’s Tony acceptance speech. JLo, Miranda, and Epic Records are donating 100% of the proceeds of the song to the Hispanic Federation for the Somos Orlando Fund to benefit those affected by the Pulse shooting. In promotional appearances for the single, JLo and Miranda stated that they created the song because “the world needs to get the message of love being the answer.” In a similar vein, following the shooting, Beyoncé dedicated the song “Halo,” which closes each performance on her Formation World Tour, to those affected by the tragedy. “This next song is about love,” she stated, going on to dedicate the song to “all the family members that had family that lost their lives in Florida.”
While expressions of love, pride, and acceptance are not necessarily harmful, I think we as social justice advocates must question the extent to which these concepts in and of themselves can bring about profound and lasting change. The concept of what we now refer to as “pride” for gender and sexual minorities originated in the work of the pioneering sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld, a German physician, was an advocate for gender and sexual minorities and in 1897 founded the Humanitarian Scientific Committee in Berlin, which is regarded as the first gay and transgender rights organization. Hirschfeld believed that gender and sexual difference was a natural human variation and, as such, the scientific study of gender and sexuality would help to end stigma and discrimination. Because gender and sexual difference was “natural,” Hirschfeld argued that gays, lesbians, and persons whom today would be referred to as transgender should take pride in their identities as a way to alleviate the mental anguish of being “other.”
The concept of having pride in difference was later adopted by gay rights activists following the Stonewall Inn Riots of 1969, who staged the first Gay Pride marches in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago in June of 1970. The discourse of “love” as a rallying concept for gay rights entered the equation in the 1990s when the mainstream liberal activists who controlled the movement began to articulate marriage equality as the most salient gay rights issue. I recount this history to illustrate why a concept such as “pride” was a foremost activist strategy during historical moments when gay and trans identities were more heavily oppressed and stigmatized. “Love” as an activist discourse also illustrates the extent to which the concerns of justice movements are often shaped by those within the movement who hold the most power and privilege. However, from our current vantage point, we must question the extent to which “love” and “pride” should be the primary frameworks through which we enact LGBTQ social justice. We must also interrogate the ways in which these concepts are employed as covert forms of branding and capitalist enterprise.
“Love” as a social justice concept, in my opinion, is quite opaque. In “Love Make the World Go Round,” JLo tells us that, “love is a call to action.” Well, what sort of action? How, exactly, does one enact love in a social justice manner? If love is the answer, then how do we go about practicing it, translating it into concrete social and political work? And what exactly does “love is love” mean, for that matter? If it means that straight, queer, and trans people are, or should be, the same, then this robs us of the complexities of our experiences. We cannot “celebrate identity”–a notion which implies difference–and be the same simultaneously.
Today, in our current moment, “love” and “pride” are more so inspirational slogans than they are useful social justice directives. We cannot simply be loving, kind, or compassionate to one another because oppression occurs on more than an interpersonal level. What is needed is a combination of personal, institutional, and social change. This may be part of the reason why the YouTube spotlight video announcing the #ProudToBe campaign received more dislikes than likes. While it is difficult to tell exactly what people’s objections were, partly because the comment function on the video is disabled, my assumption is that while some of the dislikes came from homophobic and transphobic viewers, others came from individuals both within and outside of the LGBTQ community who desired a more nuanced response to such a horrific tragedy that went beyond simply “coming together to celebrate identity” as a solution. Social justice requires a degree of nuance and complexity that cannot be reduced to a “feel good” slogan, song, or campaign.
Furthermore, we must be critical of the ways that “love” and “pride” as inspirational and aspirational ideals are used to bolster the brands of individuals and companies. While Miranda and JLo as individuals and H&M as a business are donating the profits they receive to assist those impacted by the tragedy, we cannot deny the fact that appearing outwardly LGBTQ friendly enhances one’s brand or professional image even if one does not directly receive monetary gain. This speaks to larger issues surrounding the ways in which social movements like feminism and LGBTQ rights have themselves become co-opted as brands, as professional images. The LGBTQ community and organizations that serve the community needed assistance and support long before the Orlando shooting. Yet, individuals and companies typically wait until a highly public event like a violent tragedy occurs before outwardly advertising their support. While this support is needed and appreciated, it is also a double-edged sword: those in need receive resources, while those providing the resources publically bolster their images, reputations, and, by extension, their profit margins.
Intersectional Approaches to Tragedy, Or Lack Thereof
Shortly after the Orlando shooting the writer, artist, and activist Vivek Shraya tweeted the following statement: “‘Love is love’ is deeply upsetting. Trans/queer people don’t face violence simply because of who we love.” Shraya’s tweet speaks directly to the fact that centering an LGBTQ social justice response around the slogan “love is love” specifically marginalizes trans people who are oppressed primarily because of their gender identity and expression, not because of who they love or are attracted to. “Love is love” also fails to speak to the extent queer cisgender people are oppressed for adopting gender expressions that do not conform to heterosexual and patriarchal norms (i.e., men should be traditionally masculine; women should be traditionally feminine). Significantly, the massacre occurred on “Latinx Night” at Pulse, signifying the club itself acknowledged that some of its patrons identified outside of the gender binary.
Furthermore, in the mass media, issues of LGBTQ and racial (more specifically, #BlackLivesMatter) justice are more often than not discussed as separate issues that share no connection, common cause, or bearing upon one another. Every time I watch news coverage about Orlando or #BlackLivesMatter, I am reminded of my favorite speech by Audre Lorde entitled “There is No Hierarchy of Oppressions,” in which she presciently observed that: “the increasing attacks upon lesbians and gay men are only a precursor to the increasing attacks upon all black people, for wherever oppression manifests itself in this country, black people are potential victims… any attack against black people is a lesbian and gay issue, because I and thousands of other black women are part of the lesbian community. Any attack against lesbians and gays is a black issue because thousands of lesbians and gay men are black. There is no hierarchy of oppression.” Though Lorde wrote this speech in 1983, her words very much describe our current reality.
The lack of intersectional approaches to social justice and tragedy in the mass media and in some activist spaces function to divide groups who should be natural allies because of the common, yet distinct, oppressions we face. Therefore, it is my opinion that members of the LGBTQ community, namely those of us who identify as white, should more vocally and publicly support the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the capacity of allies, co-conspirators, partners, or whatever term best suits our personal commitment to justice. Such acts of solidarity and support are especially significant in light of the recent wave of police shootings and the mass media’s subsequent attempts to inaccurately brand #BlackLivesMatter as pro-violence and anti-law enforcement. The reality is that, in the words of the feminist scholar Sara Ahmed, “when you name a problem, you become a problem.” In other words, it is much easier and more palatable for the media to portray black activists, and by extension the black community, as problems as opposed to offering a critique of historical and systemic racism. I call upon those of us who experience oppression in any shape or form to stand up and be problems together. As a more holistic picture of oppression and privilege emerges within the public imagination, it becomes increasingly difficult to simply place blame on the opinions and actions of one group over another.
In formulating my response to the Orlando massacre and its subsequent representation in the media, I have tried to step back and see the big picture, to bear witness to tragedy as opposed to directly jumping into the molten core of the struggle. There is something to be said about inspirational words when many are confused and hurting. There is also something to be said about thoughtful contemplation and skillful action in response to injustice. As social justice advocates, we do not have to endorse the dominant discourse, whether that discourse comes from the majority or from our own communities. Rather, we should be free to invent, to experiment, to imagine our own strategies and solutions, to not merely celebrate, but to transform in the service of justice. Justice is ideally a multiple and creative process. As Audre Lorde said, “Revolution is not a one-time event.” Rather, revolution is a process we must imagine, enact, and reimagine over and over to adapt to the shifting reality of oppression in all its forms and manifestations. For if we are not free to first imagine a better reality, then how can we effectively and courageously act to manifest that reality into being?