This month, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities in the United States will be celebrating the 29th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. As activists in Korea are considering staging the first LGBT pride march in that country’s history, they will ask themselves whether there are lessons to be learned from the history of the LGBT movement in the United States. It seems to me that there are at least three lessons that can be culled from that history.
The first of these lessons — as the African American, Latino/a American, and Asian American movements for civil rights have clearly demonstrated — is that legislation and litigation alone are insufficient to bring about the transformation of society. Every victory in the legal arena (e.g., court rulings in Hawaii that could lead to that state’s recognition of same-sex marriage) can be annulled or eroded by a defeat (e.g., the ‘Defense of Marriage’ Act of 1996). Ultimately, the struggle is one for ‘hearts and minds,’ which can only be won by transforming consciousness; it is in that context that ‘coming out’ is most powerful by helping to demonstrate our full humanity.
The second lesson is that a movement cannot be based on the visibility of its leaders nor dependent on the goodwill of elected officials, as amply demonstrated when Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) betrayed the LGBT community by legitimizing Bill Clinton’s reversal on ‘gays in the military’ in 1993. And a movement dependent on a handful of prominent activists (or political organizations) is vulnerable to those who will speak on its behalf while acting primarily to promote themselves rather than the movement they claim to represent. Hence a movement must speak with many voices in order to be truly representative of a community of many faces.
The third lessons is that assimilationist strategies are not effective in bringing about broad-based social change. Those who represent normalizing tendencies in the LGBT movement have argued that ‘straight-acting/straight-appearing’ gay men and lesbians can gain acceptance by society as ‘normal’ white middle-class suburbanites who just happen to couple with members of the same sex. This approach necessarily excludes the transgendered and gender-variant. Those who represent a more sex-radical and gender-radical politics (often self-identified ‘queers’) point out that such a strategy fails to win anything more than conditional acceptance premised on conformity to the sex/gender binary, as well as other oppressive social structures.
The great strength of the LGBT/queer movement in the US has been its ability to reinvent itself periodically in response to changing circumstances; its weakness has been its vulnerability to co-optation by moneyed interests representing the most privileged elements of American society (and the LGBT community). My own conviction is that one of the central lessons of the LGBT movement in the US since Stonewall is that we must be prepared to live out the true meaning of the oft-mouthed invocations to embrace difference and celebrate diversity.
A review of the history of ‘the movement’ since Stonewall will reveal that ‘progress’ is neither inevitable nor linear, as the AIDS crisis has demonstrated. LGBT activists in Korea will do well to look to the United States with a very selective and critical eye to take what they find useful from the American experience and to leave what is not, recognizing as some already have that the movement in Korea will be a Korean movement which will operate best when it takes into account specifically Korean circumstances.
It is my hope that queer activists in Korea attempt to incorporate the egalitarianism and participatory culture and the boldly radical and frankly political orientation that are among the best features of the LGBT movement in the US, while retaining the strong sense of group cohesion and sensitivity to historical and cultural tradition (here I am referring to the Buddhist, Taoist, and shamanic elements of Korean culture rather than the Confucian precepts on hierarchy and gender conformity) that are among the most admirable features of Korean society.
Pauline Park, Ph.D. is coordinator of Iban/Queer Koreans of New York, member-at-large of Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), secretary of Queens Pride House (A Center for the LGBT Communities in the Borough of Queens), and a founding member of the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy (NYAGRA). This essay does not necessarily represent the views of any of the above organizations.
Lessons for the Homeland
A Korean Queer Activist Examines Stonewall
Pauline Park, Ph.D.
Lesbian & Gay New York
2 July 1998