SEPTEMBER 16, 2020
“QUEER PEOPLE ANYWHERE are responsible for queer people everywhere,” Adam Eli insists over the course of The New Queer Conscience, his manifesto on how his Jewish faith informs his social justice activism. It’s the type of slogan that encapsulates the allure of joining a movement, encouraging people to expand their horizons and inquire how and where they can make a difference. As the founder of Voices 4, a group that advocates for “global queer liberation,” Eli has cultivated a platform to promote a broad theory of political action. Last year, he went viral after he filmed himself being berated by a homophobic man in a New York City subway station and used the incident to raise awareness about how disenfranchised members of the queer community fall victim to hate crimes. With thousands of Instagram followers and serving as the editor-in-chief for Gucci’s queer magazine, he is an activist-influencer, leveraging his personal brand to protest against the mistreatment of LGBTQ people in Chechnya, Brunei, and the United States.
The New Queer Conscience mixes Eli’s personal coming to terms with being a cisgender gay Jewish man and prescriptions for how to be a queer activist, frequently dipping into his own experience advocating for social justice. The New Queer Conscience presents itself as a guidebook for any LGBTQ person in need of community, reiterating that everyone, regardless of upbringing or beliefs should be included in an all-encompassing, international project of queer liberation. Though certainly ambitious, the manifesto simplistically analogizes the Jewish diaspora with global queer kinship networks and doesn’t acknowledge that these lofty ideals of solidarity and inclusivity have been weaponized a myriad of times by corporations, state institutions, and right-wing nationalists to masquerade oppression. By favoring easy narratives over engaging with uncomfortable truths, it falls short on proposing a compelling new future.
Eli starts off by invoking the 2018 shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, in which a white nationalist murdered 11 Jewish worshippers. For the Voices 4 founder, the reaction to this tragedy illuminated the powerful potentiality of global solidarity — Jews from all over assisted with funeral costs and organized rallies and vigils. Eli contrasts this coalescing around the Pittsburgh shooting with the anti-queer purges in Chechnya and the murder of Black transgender women in the United States, arguing that the LGBTQ community doesn’t have a coordinated, international response to acts of oppression. He updates a quote from the Talmud — “All Jewish people are responsible for another” for his thesis: “It is my dream that queer people develop the same ideology — what I like to call a Global Queer Conscience.” Eli suggests that his religion provides a model for marginalized groups who want to unify and provide mutual support. He writes: “I cannot, and will not, speak for the community at large — no one person can. But I believe that this dream will become a reality if we come to this simple understanding: Queer people anywhere are responsible for queer people everywhere.”
Even if he denies being a spokesperson, his thesis relies on a reductive comparison between two facets of identity and disregards that neither a “global Jewish community” nor an international notion of queerness exists. Eli’s vision for an expansive coalition flattens multiple liberation struggles into one as a means of mass mobilization. But drawing up a web of oppression that links gay men in Chechnya to Black transgender women in the United States reflects a highly superficial understanding of what are in reality quite disparate issues, though connected by a through line of queer identity. Unless one is content with rallying around platitudes, supporting both groups requires advocating for vastly different agendas: helping gay men in Chechnya involves potentially impeding on a foreign country’s sovereignty, while stopping the perpetual murder of Black transgender women calls for anti-poverty policies, decriminalizing sex work, and destigmatizing transamory. For Eli, expressing solidarity may mean financially supporting the victims of hate crimes, but the framework he provides is so vague that it’s easy to project anything onto it. His failure to mention Zionism and Israel may be a strategic omission. By refusing to acknowledge contentious precedents for Jewish solidarity, he can uphold a paradigm that’s morally pure.
Eli’s insistence that analogously to Jews, queer people are a global diaspora comes off as poorly thought out. Despite all of Judaism’s internal divisions, as a religion, it still holds an array of texts that all members of the faith can learn and practice. While over generations, a queer subculture has been passed down and celebrated, LGBTQ individuals lack any code of rules because it’s an acronymized grouping of identities that’s a modern construct. Eli tries to fill this blaring void with a definition of queerness that’s so watered down it’s offensively inoffensive. According to him, queerness runs contrary to society’s “normal” conceptions of sexual orientation and gender — cisgender men and cisgender women experiencing mutual attraction. The activist enthuses, “If you deviate from any part of that norm, welcome and pull up a seat. In my book: you are queer!” Under the banner of “LGBTQIAA+”, Eli’s movement also makes room for people who are questioning their identities and straight cisgender allies who feel passionately about queer rights — “the most important of these symbols is the plus sign. The plus sign opens the door for everyone.” Although he says that since queerness is “evolving,” one day his definition could potentially be irrelevant, it’s already designed to mean anything to anyone.
Through promoting inclusivity and acting as a “standard of generosity and loyalty,” Eli believes that the queer community will “be a nation that shines like the brightest star in a constellation, spreading light to all those around it.” However, the nation is a problematic model for inclusivity because its existence depends on the exclusion of others, and throughout history LGBTQ people have often been on the receiving end of this harmful dynamic. In its borderlessness, too, Eli’s broad definition of queerness is also incompatible with a nation’s fundamental structure.
Eli grounds his aspirations with his own isolated adolescence, claiming that if he had only known that he was connected to a vast network of welcoming strangers, he wouldn’t have suffered so much: “I wish someone had told me that being queer means you are never alone.” He presents 10 prescriptions for how all queer people can practice a sense of shared responsibility and act like “players […] on the same team.” Early in the book, he implores readers to “approach all queer people with the principles of identification and kindness,” making the case for what he terms “radical empathy”:
When I meet a new queer person, I actively try to remember that we are on the same team. While this person has a different story than mine, it is likely that there is some overlap in our experiences. I tell myself that even if they don’t want to be my friend, I should look for ways to be kind or helpful, because I know how tough it is to be queer sometimes.
A bit later, Eli argues that “[n]ewly out people are the future of our movement, peoplehood, and culture” and so it’s crucial to instill in them an “eagerness to build a bright queer future.” But he fails to distinguish between being part of a minority group and joining a political community. Someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity shouldn’t make them an automatic comrade because it’s merely one part of their selfhood, and while it’s admirable to promote kindness, this unquestioning acceptance ignores that there have been countless instances where identity politics has been used as a cover for cruelty. Ideally, entrance into a movement should be predicated on sharing specific policy goals and values. If Eli wants his “bright queer future” to actually accomplish anything of substance, he can’t assume that everyone who is queer will be on board.
Eli’s manifesto does have a few moments that ask for communal self-reflection. He notes that while the Stonewall Riots were primarily driven by queer and trans people of color, the Gay Liberation movement was hijacked by cisgender (white) men in the 1970s and 1980s. In order to truly move forward, Eli argues that the community needs to help its most marginalized members break down racist hierarchies. A fair point, but he hammers in the same solutions: inclusivity, volunteering for causes, and empathy. These ideas have become buzzwords for institutions that oppress minorities but hide behind a veneer of progressivism. The Human Rights Campaign has repeatedly praised the weapons manufacturer Raytheon for their workplace inclusivity, and every year, corporations launder their image by sponsoring floats at Pride. In similar fashion, Eli never specifies whether saying the right things necessarily results in actions that produce tangible change.
Throughout The New Queer Conscience, Eli draws loose parallels between his religious upbringing and sexual orientation. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household, he didn’t have any queer camaraderie and felt alone. When he comes out to his mom and tells her that he “hated being gay,” she tells him that he was acting like a “Jewish person who had only experienced anti-Semitism deciding they hated being Jewish before eating a matzo ball” and guarantees that once he finds a queer community and a boyfriend, he will love himself. Eli believes that to tap into a sense of self-love, LGBTQ people should teach themselves about their ancestry and claim historical figures as one of their own — Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington Carver, Florence Nightingale. Due to “queer erasure,” Eli argues, it can be difficult to learn about historical figures who may have experienced same-sex attraction. He contrasts this absence to the ubiquity of Jewish icons, recalling how every so often, his grandmother would talk about the “astonishing amount” of Jewish Nobel Prize winners and praise Jews for having “brilliant minds.” Eli yearns for LGBTQ people to mirror this self-aggrandizement. Regardless of intentions, however, he is applying the model minority myth to the LGBTQ community while disregarding how problematic this dynamic has been for Jewish people. By glorifying Jews for having distinctly “brilliant minds,” he is feeding into a fetishistic stereotype of exceptionalism. Moreover, projecting contemporary concepts of gender and sexuality onto dead icons is futile because it’s impossible to know how they identified. But Eli views this practice as crucial to conjuring a “spirit of queer resilience” that’s been passed through generations.
Not all “queer resilience” is the same, of course. Later on, Eli shares an anecdote illustrating that due to different degrees of privilege “the playing field is not equal.” When he accompanies his cousin Madison, a transgender woman, to her hormone therapy appointment, he gets into a tiff with her because he’s overly giddy. She tells him that since he’s cisgender, he would never understand her anxiety about going to see a doctor so she can express her gender identity. Though at first Eli believes that he can fully sympathize because they are both queer, he comes around when he sees how intense her experience at the doctor’s office truly is. At the end of their day together, he recites the perfect mea culpa, “You are right. I don’t get it. I am sorry for acting inappropriately. How can I best be of service? I am here for you.”
Eli might be asking the right questions, but it’s unclear whether he is actually listening to the answers. Toward the end of The New Queer Conscience, Eli calls for using our “limited time and resources” to “lift each other up,” citing his own experience leading the advocacy group Gays Against Guns and finding out about a queer pro-gun group who advocate that “Armed Gays Don’t Get Bashed” as an example of the significance of unity. Although he was initially upset, he eventually came to terms with it:
I very quickly learned that they were trying to do the same exact thing we were — make the world a safer place for queer people. We just had really (really) different ways of getting there. I’ll never agree with their policies or partner with their group. I also won’t spend too much time attacking or trying to discredit them.
At the very least, he should spend more time thinking about why this group exists. Similarly to radical queer movements of the past, like the Stonewall Riots and ACT UP, this group possesses an implicit distrust in the state’s ability to protect them and so have decided to take matters into their own hands. Eli’s non-confrontational approach to activism runs against this more aggressive ethos. He’s a reformist who believes that changing gun laws will result in safety for queer people, an outlook that entrusts the system to eventually work for everyone.
In this and other moments, Eli demonstrates an aversion to inner-group conflict, asserting that while members of a marginalized group can argue and disagree, they should remind themselves that “at the end of the day” they have “the same goals in mind.” He references the Holocaust to demonstrate the dangers of infighting, citing how in death camps, the Nazis selected some Jewish prisoners to be kapos who got better treatment if they “brutally enforced the Nazis’ rules.” This serves as a warning on how a “key tool of oppression is turning marginalized groups against one another or against themselves.” Elsewhere, he says that through finding “intersecting interests” with disenfranchised minorities, LGBTQ people will feel compelled to fight for them:
Showing up for other marginalized groups by going to protests, donating money, and sharing resources is not a selfless act or charity. It is the key to our continued survival. A world that is less racist, less Islamophobic, and less ableist will be less queerphobic and vice versa. Hatred and intolerance are nothing but the fear of people who are different from you. By combating one type of hatred, you combat all types of hatred.
Though broad liberation coalitions may lead to mass mobilization, solidarity should be based on a mutual vision for the future, not the illusion of shared antagonists. This notion that “all types of hatred” are seamlessly connected is a rosy myth. For instance, queerphobia and Islamophobia have already proven to be quite different, fueled by distinct rather than interlocking animosities. Right-wing nationalists have embraced LGBTQ equality because it allows them to propagandize Western society as a morally advanced social structure and gain support from queer reactionaries who fear that conservative Muslim immigrants will take away their recently earned rights. There are many paths to assimilation, and some members of a minority group may end up oppressing others even as they feel they are working to liberate themselves. For Eli, however, a history of being marginalized can only lead to unwavering acceptance and tolerance of others — in other words, perfect victims always become perfect heroes. Eli explains that after President Donald Trump signed an anti-Muslim travel ban, he felt personally compelled to join an airport protest because his Russian great-grandparents were asylum seekers and he wanted to fulfill a lesson from Hebrew school about “Never Again” repeating the mistakes of the Holocaust and watching oppression unfold silently. Afterward, he learns that he also helped the global LGBTQ community, since some asylum seekers are queer and from countries that ban homosexuality. Yet, Eli neglects to engage with the fact that, a few months prior to instituting those travel restrictions, Trump gleefully displayed a rainbow flag given to him by his queer supporters at a campaign rally.
In one of the closing paragraphs of the book, Eli claims that there are queer activists across the world fighting for the “same cause” of liberation and encourages his readers to seek them out. He argues that because LGBTQ people today have the “liberties and tools no generation of queers has ever had before,” they have the “opportunity to unite and create a New Queer Conscience.” It’s irresponsible to not touch upon how this enthusiastic rhetoric of international queer rights has already been appropriated. During the last two decades, Israel has advertised itself as a cosmopolitan oasis of queer culture in a region of barbarism, accruing admiration for being progressive and welcoming. However, the Israeli government upholding LGBTQ rights shouldn’t grant them impunity over their mistreatment of Palestinians. This phenomenon, labeled “pinkwashing,” reflects how queerness can be a measure of modernization and secularization. Eli never clarifies why his “Global Queer Conscience” would be any different from this instrumentalization. Instead Eli lays on the guilt, suggesting that if you question your place within a larger narrative, you’re playing into a bogeyman of oppression. To actualize an egalitarian future, we should resist stories that blissfully scratch the surface. It’s imperative to grapple with how certain ideals can be co-opted or may be misguided from the start.
Reading The New Queer Conscience, I kept returning to how uncomfortable I felt watching I Am Cait five years ago. The reality TV show followed Caitlyn Jenner in the weeks after she came out as a transgender woman, struggling in her new role as an LGBTQ spokesperson. Throughout the show, Jenner’s transgender friends tried to explain to her that her stubborn support of the Republican Party is anathema to their rights. In one episode, on a white wine–soaked bus ride through California, Jenner got into an argument with her new companions regarding social programs. While Jenner recycled conservative clichés about how welfare prohibits productivity and personal accountability, her friends insist that those services are essential for marginalized communities, including many transgender people not lucky enough to be insulated by the star’s monumental wealth. Jenner’s gender journey is only one facet of her being — she’s also white, megarich, and an American icon. She wants to gut the welfare state, her left-leaning friends want to uphold it. That divide has implications that reach far beyond the narrow scope of LGBTQ identity politics. The New Queer Conscience may tell you to stay on the bus with Jenner and continue hammering away at a fraught notion of solidarity because you’re on the “same team.” But there’s nothing wrong with pulling over and finding your own way home.
Daniel Spielberger is a writer based in Los Angeles who has been published in Interview Magazine, Vice, Business Insider, Playboy, and other outlets. He is currently an MFA candidate at CalArts’s Creative Writing Program.