Toronto
3 min

This little faggot goes to market

Alexandra Chasin examines liberation through consumerism

I’ve always been suspicious that pure capitalism could be a vehicle for anything other than making money. It’s clearly demonstrated it can’t shelter the homeless or stop domestic violence. Still, could buying a rainbow-coloured bead necklace liberate lesbians, gay men and other sexual minorities? Could an Ikea ad featuring a same-sex couple effect social change? Deep in my inner socialist, I felt it couldn’t, but I had no proof.



When Alexandra Chasin’s book, Selling Out: The Gay And Lesbian Movement Goes To Market hit the bookshelves, I was sure she had come to my rhetorical rescue. Instead, Chasin’s critique of queer consumerism left me frustrated.



The best parts of the book are tightly focussed. Her micro-analyses of phenomena like Ellen’s 1997 coming out episode – she playfully reads dozens of shopping metaphors into Ellen’s televised embrace of lesbianism – and the Coors beer boycott are smart and provocative. Chasin goes after the racist overtones of a New York gay fundraising event based on the musical Miss Saigon, and the shallow activism of consumers who think they’ve done their duty by making purchases from companies which donate (small amounts of) money to (dubiously) gay-positive charities.



But Chasin’s ability to see the big picture fails, partly because she spends so much of her time quoting others (57 pages of footnotes in a tome of 256 pages), and partly because of her politically correct but creatively limited world view.



Advertising, boycotting, fundraising and niche marketing can, it seems, increase power and visibility for parts of the gay and lesbian community. But as those parts are primarily made up of gay white men with money, the strategy is fundamentally flawed by its lack of inclusiveness. Late in the book, Chasin’s critique of fundraising strategies for non-profit organizations demonstrates her perspective and her quandary: “Not all the money is in the hands of white men, as it is sometimes assumed, but it’s hard to raise large sums without them.”



True enough. When the activities of liberation are driven by cash, those with money call the shots. That means compromise not revolution, visibility not equality, the most powerful not the least powerful.



But does that mean compromised action isn’t worth some effort? Does that mean that, for example, monied national organizations (the US-based Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation is Chasin’s prime example; Canada’s Equality For Gays And Lesbians Everywhere fits a comparable demographic) should not exist because of their difficulties reaching beyond class and racial boundaries? Chasin obviously doesn’t have much time them.



But she has a hard time arguing herself out of the “money talks but we don’t like it” dilemma.



The solution she cursorily offers contradicts many of her other arguments. She acknowledge that the creation of the gay and lesbian movement, bound up by the idea of a tangible gay identity, required issues that were of equal interest to men and women, like same-sex relationship recognition and human rights protection. Issues specific to women and (to a lesser extent) specific to men, as well as those specific to ethnic and trans minorities, have been put in the back seat. Expensive broad-based activism has mostly benefited the privileged and, admittedly, that’s bad.



But Chasin’s solution is that we should move beyond our ideas of sexual identity and form “a multi-issue, multi-constituency coalition focussed on economic justice” which, it seems to me, would be even more unwieldy and more compromised than the large groups she dislikes. It’s a recipe for a rainbow coalition that fails to achieve any purpose other than it’s own ability to stick together in oppression.



I would argue that a prime method of getting around money woes has always been volunteerism, which favours home-and-heart issues over large abstract issues. This strategy favours smaller, localized causes which in themselves might draw on diverse groups, for example, police harassment as a rallying point for gay men and people of colour.



This does not solve the problem of all those white boys in the pages of Out magazine who seem to be the face of the queer world; they’re a product of capitalism itself. But it does provide a workable low-cash alternative for social change that Chasin’s economic justice coalition does not.



SELLING OUT:

THE GAY AND LESBIAN MOVEMENT GOES TO MARKET.

By Alexandra Chasin.

St Martin’s Press.

256 pages. $42.99.