“Unintended Lessons from Kim Davis”

I was in an airport waiting to board a flight when my eye caught a visual of Kim Davis on CNN as she was released from jail. Arms aloft, posing “victorious,” flanked by her husband, she approached the microphones to recount her heroism. Mike Huckabbee’s presence only served to underscore the absurdity of this moment – here is a woman who blatantly denied her fellow residents of Kentucky their basic civil rights because, as she stated, God has imbued her with an entitlement to do so. Instead of emerging remorseful, contrite or even just slightly less righteous, she stepped out of jail and into the limelight as a “hero” of religious liberty and a protector of the sanctity of the institution of marriage.

To be sure, Kim Davis is not merely taking a position against queer folks gaining access to state-sanctioned marriage, she is manifesting a more deeply held version of homophobia and queer oppression rooted currently and historically in a deeply entrenched pattern of gender oppression, the religious supremacy of Christian hegemony, and political and social control endemic of White supremacy. These four systems of oppression are not new to each other. They have a long history of enforcing, guarding, and asserting each other’s dominance, and thus the actions of Kim Davis are merely the latest iteration of the nexus of these enduring systems in our society. And in the current racial climate, a discussion about the intersectionality of these four systems of oppression is not only critical to racial justice, queer justice, gender justice, or religious justice work, but more importantly, it speaks to the ever-present need for solidarity and coalition building in our nation’s larger movement for social justice. Thus the good news is that an analysis of Kim Davis’ actions can not only show us what the intersection of these oppressions looks like on the ground, it can also can give us insight on what an inter-liberatory movement can look like from the ground up.

So, as I watched the coverage of her initial refusal, incarceration, subsequent release, and meeting with the Pope, I felt an all-too-familiar ache regarding a lack of intersectional analysis resulting in a missed opportunity for deep and broad organizing. Obviously queer people have an investment in organizing around Davis’ actions, but those seeking religious freedom and in particular an end to Islamaphobia at the hands of Christian hegemony also had a stake in the fight here. In a country with local municipalities passing ordinances “outlawing sharia law”, it is noteworthy that she (and many Christian evangelicals like her) see her God and her religion as a viable reason to violate the law – the same law that they want other religions to have no influence over whatsoever. This hypocrisy is not new, it is rooted in 500 years of Christian hegemony driving elements of this nation’s de jure and de facto laws. And so, it is unfortunate that those who have been on the receiving end of state-sponsored religious oppression did not step up and speak out in greater numbers here.

Similarly, those seeking racial justice missed a chance to connect her actions to the privilege and supremacy that Whiteness affords with respect to the laws and “norms” of this society, and the ways that access to structural power is determined by racial categories ruthlessly policed by the White Imperial Gaze. In case you’re not clear on this, if Kim Davis was a woman of color, how do you think the “media” (read mainstream, corporate media) would have responded? How would Mike Huckabee have responded? Still unsure of the connection? If Kim Davis had been a woman of color, and her partner a man of color, they would not have fit the “American family” image so deeply dictated by Whiteness. Kim Davis is not just fighting for the preservation of “family values”, she is fighting for the preservation of White family values because what it means to be a real “American” family is currently inextricably linked to Whiteness. Surely, if she were a woman of color it would have gotten some media attention, but what I saw on that airport television would never have been reported as it was and she would not at all have been seen as the vanguard and great protector of the core values of this nation’s families because Whiteness does not cast People of Color as truly “American”. Ask any seventh-generation Chinese American how many times they have heard, “Wow, you speak great English! How long have you been in the U.S.?” and it will become clear that “American” equals White. Organizing around Kim Davis’ actions through a racial justice lens could have afforded those of us committed to RJ an opportunity for deeper and more effective coalition building and intersectional work. Instead, it was written off as a “gay issue” and our chance disappeared.

And finally, as Planned Parenthood faces intense scrutiny and is fighting for its life in order to help women and trans* folks fight for their physical and reproductive lives, it is surprising to me that gender justice advocates all over the country were not more vocally opposed to Kim Davis’ actions. The same mindset that she employs to justify her homophobia is the same mindset that seeks to control women’s bodies and deny access to basic civil rights for trans* folks. The maintenance of a gender binary cannot be understated in the roots of homophobia. Suzanne Pharr’s classic testament to homophobia as a weapon of sexism is as true today as it was when she wrote it 30 years ago. Sadly, mainstream feminists did not seize the chance to connect these issues and thereby engage more queer folks in the gender justice movement.

And so as I watched this coverage, I looked for my colleagues fighting for religious freedom, racial justice, and gender justice to call Kim Davis out, but the only activists I saw were those working for queer rights and I grieved, once again. Mainstream social justice movements of this country are still stuck in siloed (and in the end, fractured) politics whereby we are individually weakened by dominant power structures. We are so much stronger together, but we are not constructing an analysis and a mode of intersectional conversation in our daily lives that affords the kind of deep and broad movement necessary for real change in this society. Certainly there are groups who are, in fact, doing this work. Take for example the queer and trans* POC/N folks that took over the stage at this year’s Creating Change conference. While that was a beautiful moment, it was just that – a moment. Not for lack of trying on the part of the queer and trans* folks, to be sure, but for lack of change on the part of larger LBGT organizers (and perhaps the movement as a whole) driving that conference. Just as I have not seen enough connections forged in response to Kim Davis, I also see the queer community miss countless moments regarding racial justice. No one is immune from this critique.

In a political moment where Donald Trump is leading the Republican race (and his peers respond with increasingly aggressive and often outright hateful language trying to keep up with him) I am left to wonder if we who seek social justice will come together in time to deny power to his platform (or any like it). I’m not hating on Trump but I’m deeply concerned about the tenor of his message and even more troubled it has a place to land in this country. A united front can rebuff hateful politics. A range of isolated movements, however, cannot. Perhaps Kim Davis and the missed opportunity there can serve as a bit of a reminder that we must come together, in relationship and in solidarity, if we want this society to embrace a more just future.