As good as it gets?
In any protest movement there is a tendency that can be described as the tension between reform and revolution. This can be seen as those willing to work within — or adapting to — the system to attain reforms and those who feel that real change cannot be attained by working within the system itself. Of course, many of those on the side of revolution do not reject working within the system to achieve reforms — the question is whether reforms are sufficient as an end in themselves as opposed to simply a means towards a greater goal which cannot be achieved within the system.
We have seen this in the civil rights movement here and elsewhere. There are those who perceived the fight against segregation and structural racism from a reformist perspective. To use the Bermuda example, the focus was not on overthrowing the structure of society but curbing the most racist aspects of it. Essentially, to change our class system to be more representative of our racial demographics — instead of an upper class dominated by Whites and a working class dominated by Blacks, to one where at least the upper class was formed by both Black and White Bermudians in line with our overall racial demographics. And then you had the revolutionaries who argued that such thinking was fantasy, that what was needed was a wholesale restructuring of our society, one that fundamentally focused on inequality in all its senses — that what mattered was not the colour of the hand holding the whip but that there was someone holding a whip in the first place. It is a question of assimilation within power structures or liberation from the power structures in the first place and building a better world for all.
It will come as no surprise that, for the most part, those advocating reform drew primarily from what could be called the Black bourgeoisie. At the risk of being crude, they already had privilege and wanted freedom from what prejudices served as an obstacle to them realising their class interests further. Similarly, the base, although not necessarily the leadership, of the more revolutionary perspective was within the working class — those who had no buffer to oppression.
This tension of course manifests itself to this day, albeit with the de facto victory of the reformist faction. In practical terms, there has been little substantial effort to tackle the fundamental inequalities that remain in Bermuda as a legacy of slavery and segregation. This doesn’t mean that the more revolutionary perspective is dead and buried — the pressure it applies from below is still seen in lip service and minor concessions by the reformists who require the backing of the working class to maintain political power.
Is this as good as it gets in addressing racial inequality?
I feel there is a similar tension within the Western LGBTQ+ movement today. For various reasons of intersections of privilege and NGO-isation, the activist leadership of the LGBTQ+ is dominated by middle and upper-class actors. On one hand, this risks blurring things racially — it is not unusual to hear criticisms that LGBTQ+ issues are essentially issues solely of Whites or the rich.
To be clear, LGBTQ+ individuals are found throughout society, across race, sex and class. However, certain aspects of privilege moderate the degree to which such individuals are “free” to be their authentic self as opposed to needing to repress their true self in response to social pressures — inclusive of economic precarity and the threat of violence. Of these, the issue of class is key. With enough wealth, one can largely free oneself from the social prejudices concerning sexuality.
A risk here is that if social and economic pressures are largely prohibiting Black and/or working-class LGBTQ+ from representation within LGBTQ+ activism, then the activism is dominated by those less bound by these prejudices — and influenced then by their class interests. As a result, the goals and aspirations of said LGBTQ+ activism can find themselves limited to mere reformism, to assimilation rather than liberation. For example, for many LGBTQ+ activists’ equality is reduced solely to freedom to marry, to adopt children or get a well-paid job with the same protections and rights as a straight colleague — basically to assimilate to existing structures. While these are certainly worth fighting for, without addressing wider issues of economic and racial inequality, as well as heteronormativism itself, these goals primarily benefit only a certain class, leaving many LGBTQ+ marginalised.
To be clear, in a society as homophobic as Bermuda, even raising a rainbow flag or being an activist for the most meagre of reforms is still a radical act. The question is whether these meagre reforms are “as good as it gets” or should we work to go beyond assimilation and instead push for transcending society as it is and realise true liberation for all? Pride should certainly be a party, a celebration of not just one’s own sexuality — and is thus not limited to LGBTQ+ in this sense — and of community resilience and resistance. However, Pride must first and foremost be a protest and involve a radical critique of all forms of oppression in our society, inclusive of solidarity with other activist movements — feminism, antiracism, antimilitarism, anti-imperialism, environmentalism, etc.
Of course, many LGBTQ+ activists, especially in Bermuda, are aware of this and are already heavily involved in multidimensional activism. I salute them and hope my contribution is received constructively. This is not a criticism of them; rather, it is setting out my view that appeals to normativity are not enough. The true potential of Pride is in its capacity to provide a radical lens that can benefit all aspects of the struggle for a better world.
• Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University