“The problem with liberals today,” said an 80-year-old, liberal real-estate developer friend whose gruff cadences sometimes remind me of Trump, “is they need to learn when to shut the fuck up and win some elections.” His remark betrayed his age and all manner of privilege, but it also framed in stark terms one of the central tensions created by what we might call “visibility politics”—the notion that increasing familiarity with marginalized groups is key to expanding respect for their rights. The tension is this: Exposure to those previously considered “other” is helpful in reducing prejudice against them—except when it’s not. Being able to see, really see, people for who they are can help humanize them, spur empathy for their plight, and galvanize support for action on their behalf; but it can also create the very perception of difference—and threat—that breeds prejudice in the first place.
As we mark Pride month with celebrations of the Stonewall uprising—the event that launched the modern LGBTQ movement with newly emboldened assertions of queer visibility—we’d do well to reconsider the role and value of visibility politics in the 21st century. How critical is visibility to the strategic advances of vulnerable minorities? How critical is being seen to our sense of emotional well-being, and can the strategic and emotional imperatives of movement politics conflict with one another?
For gay, bi, and transgender people, coming out has historically proven essential to showing the world simply that we existed, and that we were suffering without the protections of specific policies and practices necessary for full equality. Being visible was also a key to finding one another in the pre-internet age, and hence to creating a sense of political, social, and sexual community that became the lifeblood of queer identity and activism.
So we learned, as a movement, to tell the stories and show the faces and lift the voices of country kids rejected by bewildered parents for coming out, young men devastated by AIDS, lesbian moms fighting for custody of their children, and transgender students just trying to survive the school day. We learned to hate “don’t ask, don’t tell” with special venom because it was a law that explicitly punished coming out, making visibility cause for discharge and targeting the very tool we needed to defend ourselves. And we eventually embraced marriage equality as both an end in itself and a critical tool to advance understanding and equal treatment: Marriage, after all, derives its very meaning through its public recognition—an act of bearing witness—of a couple’s love and commitment. What better way to affirm the value of same-sex love than by insisting that it, too, be publicly recognized?
Many others, both before and after the rise of the LGBTQ movement, also embraced versions of visibility politics: racial minorities, women, immigrants, workers, those who were disabled, sick, incarcerated—all drew attention to their need for expanded rights and protections by insisting on being seen and heard by those around them.
Yet the dark underbelly of visibility politics is that it was precisely because some groups were seen as different that they were mistreated. The mark of difference can cause abuse as much as it can elicit empathy, attention, and action. The most inescapable example of this quandary in American life is race. “The problem of the twentieth century,” wrote W. E. B. Du Bois, “is the problem of the color line.” Of course the racial divide has proven to be more than the problem of a single century. In our own time, we saw a black American twice elected to the White House, even as the unavoidable mark of race has made Harvard professors and black children alike vulnerable to being targeted and even killed for being visibly different.
At bottom it is the same force—visibility—that’s responsible for both the problem and its potential solution. Just as television played a key role in galvanizing opposition to segregation at mid-century (white Americans were horrified by vivid images beamed into their living rooms of police dogs and fire hoses attacking peaceful black protestors), it has been the visibility born of the latest technology—cell phones and body cameras—that has helped white America to better grasp what black America has always known: that black and brown people are uniquely vulnerable to threats because of the general visibility of their difference, and the inability or unwillingness of the rest of us to change our responses to that difference. Sometimes, as most minority members eventually learn, it would just be easier to “pass.”
The political equivalent to “passing” is slipping policy advances quietly into enactment. Just as members of minority groups are less likely to encounter mistreatment if they can pass as belonging to a dominant group (even racial minorities, sometimes thought to be unable to pass, have historically availed themselves of the advantages of lighter skin color), sometimes policies favorable to minorities are more likely to advance if they can be enacted or enforced without much public visibility. No one should have to pass to enjoy full acceptance and equal treatment; and likewise, laws and policies would ideally be subjected to the glow of public debate. In both cases, democracy advances with daylight—except when what it really needs is the cover of night.
This was what my older friend meant when he said liberals should sometimes stay mum about the full range of their political aspirations and focus on electing people who are most likely to help advance them. This, after all, is how conservatives chalk up wins: They conceal their intention to discriminate, or hand the 1 percent a windfall, or push some other narrow, sectarian agenda under the guise of religious freedoms, concerns for national security, or a “pro-growth” economic agenda. As we speak, the GOP is trying to ram through Congress a draconian bill drafted in unprecedented secret that would deprive healthcare to millions of Americans and shower the rich with giant tax cuts. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is quietly eliminating a range of mechanisms that government agencies have historically used to put teeth into civil rights protections.
Indeed, conservatives seem to have an edge in understanding when it’s most advantageous to stay out of the political limelight. This is partly because their movement does not consist of a coalition of minorities, who need, and deserve, to be seen to make their case for action. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wiping away a tear when I heard Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in explaining her lawsuit against North Carolina over its discriminatory bathroom policies, directly address the transgender community: “No matter how isolated or scared you may feel today,” she said, “the Department of Justice and the entire Obama administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you.”
Progressives, of course, do sometimes operate under the radar. Before the arduous legislative and court battles that won repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the establishment of marriage equality, the Obama administration made life tangibly better for millions of LGBTQ Americans with changes at the administrative level that avoided the media spotlight, from limited employee partner benefits to government contractor anti-discrimination protections to certain strategies to advance transgender equality. Likewise, advocacy groups often keep polling and other research under lock and key so as to avoid sharing their battle plan with the enemy.
Yet this quiet road to policy advances can seem, to liberals, at odds with the imperatives of visibility politics. There is a wholly understandable wish among those who have been historically marginalized to feel seen and heard by those in power—indeed, to transform society such that power works in new and fairer ways. But perhaps the left has invested too much in the need to be seen and heard in the political process itself. When opinion research revealed, for instance, that ads featuring same-sex couples were not the best way to persuade fence-sitters to back marriage equality (focus groups suggested that showing straight supporters worked better to ease people into supporting it), some activists took umbrage at the idea that strategists would hide the faces of the very people whose rights they sought to advance. The goal, however, was not to feed the emotional needs of LGBTQ people, but to grow the national coalition needed to secure their rights. And it worked.
The strategic imperatives of visibility (or invisibility) politics should, ideally, be separable from the moral imperative of feeling seen and heard by your community. This may be a tall order, but it may also mean the difference between a feel-good politics with limited impact and a pragmatic politics that secures more far-reaching rights.