Consuming Icons: A Report from the Field

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barked at my friend Bess, as he wrapped on the titanium of his
prosthetic leg. Eric Alva, former U.S. Marine and a keynote
speaker at the Midwestern, Bisexual, Lesbian, Gay, Transgender
Ally College Conference, focused his speech on the need to formally
repeal the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” used by the
U.S. military to exclude people who identify as LGBT (Lesbian
Gay Bisexual or Transgendered). Alva emphasized that our
“national security” is compromised at every point when we fail
to hire and retain highly skilled people in the military services,
simply because they happen to be LGBT. In order to stress what
he perceived as the ridiculousness of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he
remarked that felons, even felons, can serve in the military.
What was most disturbing about this spectacle, was the
gratuitous support Alva received from the audience. Hearty
cheers and standing ovations from the crowd punctuated
his speech every time he used a buzzword like “freedom,”
or “equality, or “rights,” or “enemy.” Desperate to bring
some sort of counter-narrative to that of gay-nationalism, a
group of friends and I stacked ourselves at the microphones
during the question and answer session, hoping to
problematize the seeming logic that queers should be fighting
for their right to play the role of colonizer.
Me first: “Why should I, as a queer woman of color, or
any person who has endured abuses by the state, support
the project of advocating for the right to take on the role of
oppressor, by joining the military and participating in
state-sponsored violence?” After a few exchanges between
Alva and I, to clarify the question, Alva retreats to quoting
Dr. Martin Luther King (insert vigorous audience applause
here), and insists that even he knows Iraq is “messed up,”
but he didn’t send the troops there. My question, according
to Alva, would be better posed to a policy maker.
Cue Bess: “But you, Mr. Alva, participated! You are
accountable to me because you participated in the military
and in the war in Iraq.” Now while I maintained a certain
level of respectability, Bess cuts straight to point, demanding
some explanation of Alva, to which he responds with
an expected incredulity. The audience, by this point, turns
vitriolic, screaming at Bess to “Shut the fuck up!” and to
“Sit down!” When Stephanie and I stand to clap for her,
very few people join us, but the jeers crescendo.
The hostility continued as both Eric and Stephanie questioned
Alva’s discourse, noting that discussions of race,
class, and gender would undermine the coherence of advocating
for “equal” employment in the military. After the dust
settled, we were approached by self-proclaimed “lefties,”
“socialists,” and “anti-war activists.” They congratulated us
for “doing something in there,” or assured us they understood
our message, but “felt uncomfortable with the fact
that you guys attacked a handicapped person.” Since when
is a person with a disability not granted the same respect or
courtesy of engagement as the rest of the population?
Two days later, Angela Davis, interestingly, delivered a
keynote speech in which she problematized the liberal, bourgeois
ideals of “mainstream” LGBT politics, such as gay marriage
and military service. She specifically addressed the contradictions
inherent in Alva’s discourse. This time—in sharp
stark contrast to their response to questions, which raised
similar issues two evenings before—the audience seemed
mesmerized, clapping at every opportunity.
Observing all this, I fear that too many of the conference
goers were more occupied with consuming Angela Davis,
as a celebrity and icon of “good” left politics, than engaging
her message. This was not unlike, two nights previous,
when the audience was so busy consuming Eric Alva, as an
icon of nationalism, that they refused to engage with critiques
of the military or the war on terror.
What I witnessed that night was a deep belief in the
hegemony of the state and a disavowal of the lived experience
of state violence, despite the fact that hundreds of
thousands of people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine died
in the last decade alone, at the hands of U.S. militarism. It
seems folks at the conference still want to eat their freedom
fries, only now, with a side of pan-seared radicalism.

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