The success of queer activism in recent decades has been limited because it has been motivated by desperation, pain, and anger. Furthermore, such activism has frequently been harmful to both straights and queers, claims writer and activist Ko Imani.
Imani describes a vision for the future of queer activism in Shirt of Flame: The Secret Gay Art of War (Goko Media, 2003). Imani’s book is a manifesto for a new breed of queer activism, one grounded in spirituality, committed to non-violent principles and personal integrity, and supported by community.
Imani praises queer activists who have been models of courage and who have refused to cower in silence and shame. Yet he argues that their legacy is mixed. A significant portion of the heterosexual population “bears attitudinal scars” as a result of aggressive forms of queer activism.
For example, Imani cites a 2002 BeliefNet survey on attitudes towards homosexuality. The survey asked people why they think fewer people are speaking out against homosexuality. Twenty-three percent said that the reason is that people have changed their views and do not want to speak out against homosexuality. However, 46 percent said that people feel threatened by gay rights groups or by expectations of political correctness.
If the results of this survey are valid, then activists have good reason to worry about the effectiveness of their methods. People still harbor antigay fears and beliefs, but they have become more reluctant to express themselves because they feel intimidated. Repressing antigay feelings won’t produce a truly more favorable climate for gays; instead, it only pushes homophobia beneath the surface where it’s even harder to deal with.
If tactics of intimidation aren’t an effective approach for activists, what’s the alternative? Imani says love is the answer. He’s not merely offering New Age platitudes, but a discipline that sees the transformation of individuals and society as inextricably linked.
Following M. Scott Peck, Imani defines love as the will to ex-tend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s holistic growth. Love is not merely a feeling, but the practice of care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, concern, and open and honest communication.
Imani’s vision is that truly effective queer activism must be based on love instead of fear. Following this vision to its conclusion, Imani opines that activists must do more than simply assume a victim role and blame others for our problems. We must be willing to look within ourselves to wage battle with our own demons.
Shirt of Flame is a highly unusual manifesto. There are principles for a new ethics, inspirational visions (the “Beloved Community”), and specific injunctions (forming small groups called “Sidhe.”) However, the author doesn’t outline a specific political agenda.
Imani doesn’t deny that it’s important for our legislative activists and lobbyists to pursue guarantees for our rights, but he feels there’s too much emphasis on the purely political. The rest of us must begin with laying the ground for long-term acceptance of queers, by turning our enemies into our friends. Our goal must be create a culture of love where depriving queers of our rights is simply unthinkable.
In an e-mail interview, I asked Imani why gays with an interest in activism should do inner work such as therapy, prayer and affirmations, or meditation? Why not just write letters to Congress, or build community coalitions?
Imani replied: “There is only one reason: you care about your own happiness. Your political activism is always motivated by either self-care or altruism or both, so it’s a logical progression that you focus attention, time, and effort on improving your own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being as well as on cultivating social equity and health.”
“Of course, there are many different kinds of work you can do to improve your holistic well-being, including therapy, meditation, yoga, weight-training, reading, retreats, and discussion groups. Once you acknowledge that each aspect of this personal work is as important to your overall well-being as your social/political work, you can organize your activities to cultivate wellness and avoid burn-out. In the end, your activism will be less stressful and more successful when it emerges as one vital activity of an integrated life.”
Shirt of Flame provides an important antidote to the ineffective and counterproductive tactics often used by queer activists today. This compelling vision of an integral GLBT spirituality and activism de-serves to find a wide audience among community leaders and change agents.
In the wake of the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts, some prominent gays are now loudly predicting an end to the gay movement. For example, Dale Carpenter recently wrote, “In perhaps 30 years, the need for an organized gay movement in this country will be gone.” While the vision of some pundits has run dry, Imani’s manifesto points to the deeper meaning and fuller context of gay liberation.
Imani’s message is a modern update on the eternal wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi, who famously said, “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.” Imani tells GLBT activists that our struggle for rights, justice, and equality is closely connected to our deepest spiritual principles. To create harmony outside, we must be willing to look inside.
Note: This article by Joe Perez is reprinted with permission from Rising Up.
(June 18, 2004)