On Capitalism, Marginalization, and Endless Competition
In 2008, my mother and I lived in a two-family house in Harrison, New York. The woman who owned the house, Mary, was an elderly, petite, grey Italian woman who left the house every Sunday morning wearing a black veil. The first Sunday I saw her, I watched her ease herself down the stairs, holding the black-painted iron railing down our cement steps. I felt sorry for her, for the solitude of her mourning. Whose funeral was she going to dressed like a widow? And why was she going alone?
A few Sundays later, my mother more or less bribed me to go to church. I found church to be tedious, an hour spent going through the motions. I was also on the precipice of rebellion, a few years from begging my parents to not make me receive my Confirmation, and a few months out from being my CCD teacher’s worst nightmare. (“He did what with water? You’re kidding.”)But I was too young to stay home alone, and my mother hadn’t yet let go of the religious worship embedded in her from my father’s conservative, Italian family. That Sunday, just a few pews away from us, I saw Mary again, dressed in her black dress and tights, with a simple, practical black heel, and her matching veil. It wasn’t a funeral, per se, that she was going to, but a continuous mourning of her Savior. A cycle of grief. The plight of a sufferer, one who might be saved.
One service, the priest flowed down the aisle, his hands lost in oversized white sleeves. He spoke of love, of marriage, commitment, the difficulties and joys that accompany a life with someone else. He was adamant, only if by repeating and enunciating the words, that romantic love was between a man and a woman. In watching men stare at other men’s wives during mass, and in seeing women thank the priest for his gospel with a particularly sexual earnestness, I became certain at a very young age that there was love and there was misery. Sometimes, the two overlapped and you stayed anyway, which was a large proponent in my delayed coming out. To be miserable was to be in love because love was between a man and a woman. Anything else was wrong, sinful, your economy-class ticket to Hell. Yet the alternative was like a sweet summer peach. We reach the metaphor of forbidden fruit.
Nearly two decades have passed since I’ve been to a Sunday mass, but I still find myself wandering into churches on road trips or vacations overseas, or even, perhaps hesitantly, when I need reprieve from the cacophony of New York. I find myself enamored of stained glass, the architecture, the dedication to faith and the necessity of struggle to build a place of worship. Embedded in every gospel, in almost every icon, is immense hardship: blood dripping from thorns, a cross upon a back, pain and anguish on the faces of the still living. Or else, saints, at peace, their hands together in prayer. They represent those who have overcome struggle, the anointed.
This essay is, though, is not about religion. Not entirely, anyway. It is true that as governments, economies, sovereignties, civilizations, and the like took form, religion—or worship as it stands—was formidably integrated in their structures. It is a fallacy to assume human beings suffer as a result of religion (or solely from religion, rather), but I believe we were given language via religion in order to explain, ease, and excuse that suffering. In that, as nations were built on bloodied soil with God as the granter of permission, the truth of the matter was lost, covered in that same black veil of cyclical suffering. Economies and governments were built with this religious notion in mind, even if attempts were made to separate church from state. We —“we” being white America—have used religion as a cause for oppression for centuries. Bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia, a prominent religious figure and advocate for slavery, was not alone in thinking that, “Never, in the history of the world, has there been such a rapid and effective missionary work as the Christian church has performed in this land in connection with slavery.” Slave owners and proponents are quoted similarly throughout the slave era, and similar arguments were made in the Jim Crow Era. In this, America as the Oppressor was able to rid themselves of the guilt and responsibility of oppression. For the Black population held in their captivity was not being oppressed, but rather helped, or civilized. These same oppressive ideals have been utilized to ostracize, abuse, kill, jail, or otherwise harm the LGBTQ+ community. In the Book of Corinthians, St. Paul wrote: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor [c]sodomites.” This quote has been heavily translated for oppressive and modern purposes. “Homosexuals” was originally “effeminates,” which directly links to pedophilia, not homosexuality. And “sodomites,” which eventually led to Sodomy Laws which were used to jail and murder LGBTQ+ individuals, is more closely linked to bestiality. In other words, as religion’s talons are sunk deeply into governance, and the translation of this text, contrived or not, works to delegitimize claims of oppression on the behalf of LGBTQ+ peoples. Simply, we cannot be oppressed if our actions are, in some way, unnatural. While some are still in the camp of wanting our heads on a John the Baptist-like platter, others have taken on a more charitable, albeit equally harmful approach of “converting us” to heterosexual or cis-gendered. Again, white, cis-heterosexual America aims to civilize the uncivilized. They are saved, and our suicide rates tick up exponentially.
Religion posits that to overcome life’s difficulties or, otherwise, to not succumb to sin when faced with suffering, is admirable, praised, and placed upon a pedestal. The cis-heterosexual has either avoided the queer sin or has never considered it. Their plight becomes ushering others to their saintly ways via churchgoing, praying, conversion therapy, shaming, and the like. Why must they do this? Why can they not allow for queerness to exist unchallenged? They become anointed, closer to God, closer to reprieve from the suffering that is inherent in living. To assist or engage in the refusal to recognize queerness as valid is often to relieve their own proximity to destruction—whether it be guilt, internalized homophobia, or the imminent meeting of one’s maker. This is because suffering and survival are inseparable from resources. The same importance on resources over bodies and autonomy upheld slavery. White America received more resources at the expense of Black bodies, Black joy, Black safety and freedom. But to do this, to actually do this, they had to recognize themselves as righteous. Or else, holes were knocked so heavily into their story that the very Bible they quoted would burst into flames. Our country is built on capitalism, on the inherent, implicit, explicit, and continuous competition over resources. You must do this in order to receive that—a formula embedded in nearly every facet of our world. The same formula begs the notion that which is achievable is limited, scarce, something to compete for, even if that “thing” is equality, equity, or joy, reprieve from suffering. It is also built on the notion that that which is achievable is actually achievable if you fully capitalize on the American Dream. In other words, no one is more oppressed than they want to be.
As we consider society at large, religious groups can often become interchangeable with political conservatism, a nod to the intention sans execution in “separation of church and state.” Yet, it is utterly false to assume the upholding of capitalism is inherently conservative; liberalism is equally so linked.. As I write this, I consider myself a liberal and a writer, who, when she’s lucky, does so for money, and finds herself in direct competition with other writers—queer writers specifically—for more notoriety, bylines, airtime, followers, praise, and currency. I actively advocate for the representation, pay, and employment of queer people, and equally find myself resenting those or insecure about anyone in a seemingly better-off standing. This speaks to the notion that we’re all multifaceted individuals, but also, regardless of the fact that LGBTQ+ individuals are denied equity, safety, and security on a socioeconomic and political level every day, myself being part of that community, we are still in direct competition with one another. We’ve been forced to be. We are denied full freedom under the implicit and explicit guise that equity is the one oil drum we’re aware has a limited amount. In this, equity becomes a resource, and it is in the apparent scarcity and denial of that resource that our suffering has become so deeply laced into society, into capitalism, that we are nearly inseparable from it. Capitalism is built on oppression. CEOs make millions of dollars a year while their employees grapple with the dichotomy of wishing to spoil their children whilst not having the means to do so. It is not that the employee has not worked hard enough to get the corner office, but instead that the system has ensured there are only a certain number of corner offices, a number significantly smaller than the number of people who desire it. Employees will compete for the CEO’s spot as retirement approaches, yet only one will inherit the coveted position, leaving the rest to circle the oil drum for the next opportunity.
In every religious refusal of service to a queer couple, in every shooting at a gay nightclub, in every denial of a marraige license, and in every time the words “a child needs a mother and a father” is uttered, we have been made certain that equality is a corner office. In this, oppression nearly becomes the currency of the marginalized. If we are not oppressed, we cannot deem ourselves as such, because the folks in power withholding our freedom understand us as free—or free enough. Or they refuse to acknowledge the validity of our identities, finding reasons that we should not be granted this freedom. We must prove our oppression, often simultaneous to proving our humanity, in order to achieve equity. In other words, we ought to have enough currency in order to pay. And because our oppression is so often undermined or ignored, we are always short change, creating a cyclical system where our main focus is in proving and advocating for our equality, rather than achieving it. Because we share similar qualms, we easily come together in an effort to achieve the corner office for us all. However, because we live in a Hobbesian-capitalist society, competition sits down at every meal.
The necessity to prove this suffering in seeming perpetuity, makes it so that our identities, both inward and societially outward, are intertwined with the very oppression we are trying to overcome. In this, our trauma partly becomes another facet of our identity, in the same way childhood trauma cauterizes in your being, a nearly unshakeable force. We often know not who we are without it. And to be denied the validity of or right to our own suffering is to deny our very existence. In this, we have been implicitly taught that the validity of our queerness is reliant on the severity of our struggle in association with that queerness.
I came out as queer in my early twenties. It was, as coming out goes, nondescript. My father said something along the lines of, “That’s it?” And my mother swiftly told my grandmother, who, in between ordering another glass of wine, wanted to know how it was “sleeping with women now.” I was loved and accepted. It is clear that is not the case for so many of my queer siblings, both in the United States and abroad. And while I am incredibly privileged, as a white, queer, middle-class woman who was accepted by her family, I still can’t be out in certain places. I’ve still been spit on on the street. I’ve been called a “dumb dyke” on the subway. Certainly, with the passing of gay marriage and living in New York, that privilege increases, since my working rights are protected. I also have adopting rights, though that certainly doesn’t mean it would be easy for me to adopt a child as a queer woman or couple. I could also still be attacked on the street in many places throughout the world, or even in New York. Though I am often assumed to be straight (an irritant all its own), with my risk of being harassed or assaulted for my sexuality significantly diminished. I find myself, even as I write this, clinging to those facts, those bits of oppression. Inversely, I acknowledge my privilege, even within my marginalized community. But clinging to what has caused me to suffer—or what might in the future—is present. While this insistence on suffering is certainly linked to capitalistic tendencies to achieve equality, it also extends beyond that. We garner pride from our oppression. LGBTQ+ Pride and all of its celebrations have a painful origin story, one that includes death, abuse, neglect, and other harms. But through this oppression, as though a lotus in a swamp, we remain proud, happy, joyous even, as a tribute to our fallen queer family, and as a reflection of the progress made, and the progress still necessary.
When I first started to frequent queer spaces, the stories of those I spent time with frequently included being ostracized from their families, or having to hide their identities around the holidays, which sometimes included years spent bringing a “friend” on a family vacation or to Christmas dinner. Certain folks shared anecdotes about being outted at work, and then being sexually or otherwise harassed about their sexuality or gender. Other stories were laced with dry humor, a safety mechanism to keep from crying about being physically assaulted for being queer, or about growing up in an Evangelical church that worked to deny your very existence. I watched friends of mine, and myself, who came from different, more accepting circumstances, nod our heads vigorously at stories of workplace discrimination, racking our brains for the one time someone misgendered us at work. Or else, a low groan that resembled solidarity when discussing family dynamics. Knowing head nods were exchanged between the storytellers holding the most trauma, signifying, somehow, a club within a club that only some of us were a part of. Yet the fact remains: the more privileged of us don’t wish to have these horror stories, not really. But somewhere deep inside us, we worry we’re not queer enough to sit at the table. So many of us worry about our right to be proud if our oppression is more abstract, distant, or socially inherent, rather than a factor of our day-to-day lives or upbringings.
Our oppression is a forced impediment to equity, yet we are in constant need to prove that oppression in order to achieve the same equity we are denied, to be denied the facts of our own plight is to force a certainty of it within us. We become inseparable from it, and thus, to protect or prove our oppression becomes protecting or proving ourselves.
Because our suffering not only exists within but was bred from capitalism, an economic system built on hierarchy and competition, that same suffering becomes a source of profit, further solidifying said suffering in the fabric of society. If those in power can mask activism with capital, then they might be forgiven. In film, the queer community, nonbinary and transgender individuals in particular, have been ridiculed, examined, or forced into the punch line of jokes in films like Glen and Glenda (1953), which begins with a mad scientist-esque laboratory creation of the transgender protagonist, in turn depiciting them as a monster-like antagonist. Or there’s the famous Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), in which cis-gender Tim Curry plays “a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania.” Even more recently, in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994),the transgender character is villianized and the subject of Ventura’s disgust. And in Stonewall (2015), to the horror of many movie-goers, a white, cis character is shown throwing the first brick at the Stonewall Riots, when in actuality it was Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman. Yet, as these films have faced criticism, they were also formative for so many transgender people, and queer people as well. These depictions worked to uphold and enforce transphobia and internalized transphobia, while forcing our community to be grateful for any representation received, since we were so often shuttered behind closed doors.
Now, an undoubtedly positive sign, we have more recently been given a different stage, often holding the reins, at least in part, where we are able to depict and tell our own stories on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, FX, and the like. However, this representation begs the question: Are we getting air time because of the importance of our representation in a world where we exist? Or are we getting air time because our identities are trending, hot media topics? This line of questioning seems pessimistic and cynical, and is not to negate any joy garnered from this representation, but when so many of our allowed stories are either the taboo lesbian relationship (a femme woman cheats on or leaves her husband for a more masculine-presenting women) or the inundation of suffering as a result of our identities (stories laced with assault, discrimination, being kicked out of one’s house) we become even more inalienable from our trauma. Additionally, we further become symbols of the “other,” an outskirt group, one that is reserved for categories all our own, making it so that LGBTQ+ is either a welcome mat or a warning sign. Even more so, our suffering is fetishized, glamorized, and romanticized under the guise of entertainment. Our oppression, if not eradicated, is commodified, and because we are in a capitalist mindset, that commodification, being seen as mainstream, is somehow beneficial to us. Further, our representation is often criticized by our oppressors as “inappropriate” for children, or not something meant for mainstream media, causing us to need to defend depictions not always worthy of defense, simply because we exist in them.
Unfortunately, because the world has been built with our oppression in mind, many generations, laws, and social rhetoric will have to change and pass in order for us to be separated enough from our trauma and oppression to live independently from it—if that happens at all. And because this world has been framed with us as an “othered” group, our representation often works as a blinder to real change. In other words, while shows and films continue to come out that properly depict us, we are still not fully protected in all workplaces, we could be denied healthcare, either as individuals or families, we could be denied parental and adoption rights, transgender people are at risk in bathrooms, sports, and doctor’s offices, and we can be denied service based on religious reasons. While the work to be done doesn’t diminish the work completed, we are often taught, implicitly and explicitly, to be satisfied with where we are now, considering. Otherwise, as we are othered into groups, our struggles are often painted as homogenous—if they’re painted at all—and so we oscillate between yearning to prove ourselves as individuals, even within our experience of struggle, or clinging to what identity has been forced upon us. Either way, we often inch closer and closer toward equity, just to be smacked on the wrist.
We’ve grown so used to proving ourselves oppressed in order to gain equity in this country, a generational affliction, that our ties to our trauma are part of the fabric of our character. Yet we find pride in our ability to exist, thrive and find joy, partnership, and purpose despite the odds. This pride and discourse about trauma transcend the walls of our community. Every time someone in power tells the nation and the world that our sexualities or genders are a choice or a fallacy, we are forced, again, to prove and remind that we were, in fact, born this way. (An interesting thing to have to prove, considering the obstacles one would “choose” to face existing in our world.) Every time a trans woman is killed, we enlist a series of advocacies—from taking to the streets, to calling representatives, to having hard and uncomfortable conversations with our families, friends, and coworkers. When a young queer is kicked out of their childhood home, we open our doors. When a safe space, be it a coffee shop, a bar, or a community center, is in danger of closing, we volunteer our time and donate our money to its remaining open. When HIV/AIDS took our queer family and the government did nothing, our now-elders held die-ins, protests, and rallies. This is the plight of the still living.
From the inception of the United States and beyond, queer people have often been forced to suffer in silence, behind closed doors, a very much “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, similar to the one implemented by the Bush administration for our military personnel. Yet we are certainly not the only group in the United States facing oppression. From Indigenous communities, to Latinx folks, the Black community, neurodivergent individuals, disabled people, Asian Americans, and unfortunately, countless others, America has been built on systems of oppression. The issues surrounding Black safety and equity have always been glaring, even if largely dismissed or ignored. The death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and several other Black individuals at the hands of police, in conjecture with the social media age and an international pandemic that kept everyone home, the BLM movement was propelled onto the main stage. It is shameful, at best, that it took this long for such intense, prolonged, and continuous conversation and action surrounding equity to occur. But as they have occurred and continue to, we’ve seen an increase in white folks attempting to undermine their own positions of power and privilege, or arguing that Black folks’ claims of state-oppression are just results of them “not trying hard enough.” These ideas attempt to remove guilt and/or responsibility from those in power. Candace Owens became a coveted Black spokesperson for mostly white conservatives. Scenarios of Black success circulated social media, implicitly in place to counter-argue against discourse surrounding Black economic inequity. The term “Black on Black crime” had a resurgence. Mask mandates became a “violation of human rights,” and Tucker Carlson cited vaccine passports and requirements as the “medical Jim Crow.” Quickly, the Devil’s Advocate became a racist.
In these arguments lies a necessity for the oppressed to prove their plight, to denounce the rhetoric being put forth to undermine their marginalization. It is a distractional game of cat and mouse.
And while each group’s oppression is independent from another’s, there remains an inseparable relationship between marginalized groups, one inherent in intersectionality. And the arguments used to solidify oppression, as well as the laws that come with them (voting rights restrictions, housing laws, workplace discrimination laws, policing laws), have been recycled, adapted, and used time and time again. It is what makes the oppression of these groups so easy for the oppressor: without these arguments, they’d need to consider us peers, or perhaps in some cases, human. We see, again, ideas grounded in religion that work to prove LGBTQ+ identities as invalid, sinful, or unnatural. It is much easier to advocate for a group’s discrimination if what is holding them back from equality is a “choice.” In the same way, by furthering the idea that one can simply rise out of a lower socioeconomic class by “trying hard enough,” the institution works to legitimize that they wish us to be oppressed as conspiracy. And by legitimizing that notion, they remove themselves from responsibility, further placing the responsibility on marginalized communities to struggle in perpetuity and to simultaneously need to prove that struggle, just to be met with the same refusal. In this, marginalized communities have known oppression and trauma for centuries, creating an intergenerational struggle, a gene all its own. Thus, our marginalization is embedded in our identities, in our beings. And to constantly be told we are not struggling, or that our struggle is insignificant, when struggle moves through our veins alongside blood, is outrageous. And by giving us equity in small increments, we remain on the precipice of true equality.
With the rise in air time for many of these movements, along with increased interaction and sharing on social media and many marginal-centered television shows and movies, the conversation on equity has expanded to include responsibility of the privileged. Privilege and how it relates to responsibility is not new in equity discourse, but its notion is sitting in many minds it had not previously inhabited. Yet, along with this expanded rhetoric of responsibility, we are met with the refusal of that responsibility. Suddenly, to be oppressed is to be relieved of responsibility, which, frankly, can only be the viewpoint of someone not truly oppressed. For anyone who has faced oppression, especially state-mandated oppression, such as the removal of human rights, the limitation of resources, harm to bodies, etcetera, understands that their plight—on top of their already-present plights—is to attempt to prove to the very state that oppresses them, and the citizens that inhabit that state, to grant them equity. In other words, oppression does anything but remove one’s responsibility. Further, it is even more so the responsibility of the oppressor to alleviate the suffering of the oppressed, as their proximity to resources, safety, and power are tenfold. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that, between the Black Lives Matter Movement, the LGBTQ+ Rights Movement, and others, those in places of privilege (i.e. those white, cisgender, and heterosexual) are positioned to assist in the demolishing of the systems and institutions that uphold the oppression of those groups. And that is certainly how some of those privileged folks are behaving. Inversely, others are searching for ways in which they have been oppressed themselves, in attempts to alleviate themselves from responsibility and guilt. This further solidifies oppression as currency, a means to either receive equity or as escapism of responsibility.
It comes down to power. The same systems in play that catalyze us to compete for the proof of our oppression are the ones that limit voting rights and access, take away trans healthcare, and ignore police brutality. In theory, the more oppressed a group is, the less likely they are to seize power. In actuality, we are growing in number every day, in a majority-rules democracy. The idea of power in numbers is what fed the idea of intersectionality: the coming together of different marginalized peoples in order to work together to achieve equity. We’ve been so focused on attempting to disprove our own places of power and privilege through our own trauma and oppression, that we further that own oppression via refusing to act as a whole for the eradication of that oppression. In other words, if some white women were not so focused on their own plight as women, they would be able to work alongside other women, racialized and not, in order to create equity and change the systems at play. It is not untrue that women in general have faced oppression, marginalization, and trauma as a result, but the explicit mention of one’s own oppression (especially on the behalf of someone with greater proximity to socioeconomic and political power), in the face of someone disenfranchised, is an onslaught against true equity. Capitalism demands this of us.
There is a near-ritualistic quality to oppression, here, one that exists in a continuous loop, with a necessity for proof riding coat tails. We have been othered for so long that we oscillate between wishing to overcome that otheredness and being unable to sever it from our character. This is yet another fault in the system, in the continuous competition over resources. Ingrained in so many of us is a notion that equity is some form of give and take. However, so adamant is the system against freedom, it is a wonder our elders positioned us where we are today. It is the hope, though, that we might cease to need to announce ourselves, to prove anything. This possibility lies in the dismantling of capitalism, or else, in the severe and unapologetic rewiring of it. Perhaps somewhere in our lineages, queer children will be born to a world that demands nothing in exchange for their survival, for their joy. It will be their birthright.