When impatience is a virtue

October 21, 2009

The new LGBT movement for equality is setting an example that can help provide a vision and strategy for other struggles for change.

THE 200,000-strong National Equality March in Washington, D.C., was a powerful statement of the demands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people for equality--and their refusal to be put off by pleas for patience and moderation.

But it was also something else: an inspiring glimpse of what future struggles against injustice can be.

David Mixner, a veteran activist and one of the initiators of the march, afterward celebrated the "new generation of leadership" that came to the fore. "You can indeed teach an old dog new tricks!" Mixner said of the influence young organizers had on him. "Their vision of full equality now is a powerful one. Those of us who have seen so many years of empty promises from our allies can only be renewed with their passion and commitment."

Daniel Chandler, writing in the Nation, said he thought the most inspiring part of the weekend wasn't the march itself, but "the energy, the impatience, the vision and the leadership bubbling up in the strategy and activist events surrounding the march that opened my eyes to the potential significance of the changes under way within the LGBT community."

More than 200,000 people raised their voices for LGBT equality
More than 200,000 people raised their voices for LGBT equality (Kit Lyons)

Anyone who took hope last November from the wipeout of the Republican right and the victory of the first African American president--and who has been frustrated since by an Obama administration that concedes to the right at every step--ought to have seen in the march a vindication of their expectations of a new era and encouragement to get to work organizing.

Anyone doesn't include Barney Frank, though.

The veteran Democratic congressman and first openly gay member of the House didn't even bother to hide his contempt for protesters. Attending the march was a "waste of time at best," Frank told a reporter a few days before. "The only thing they're going to be putting pressure on is the grass."

Frank's fellow Democrats in the White House were equally mocking. According to NBC News' John Harwood, administration officials viewed demonstrators--and, in fact, anyone who criticizes Obama from the left--as an "Internet left fringe" that "needs to take off their pajamas, get dressed and realize that governing a closely divided country is complicated and difficult."

Even after the march's size surpassed all expectations, including those of organizers, the same peevish attitude prevailed. When asked by e-mail if he would communicate to Barney Frank that he had pissed off a generation of activists, Frank's legislative assistant, Diego Miguel Sanchez, replied: "I think that generation of activists better make some calls to DC, because we have not been asked for any more co-sponsors or support from legislators, and THAT is the work we need done to move laws...People should be pissed that we have no laws, not that someone didn't want to play at their party."

IN ADDITION to its condescension, Sanchez's message is notable for the way it reflects the narrowness of official Washington. The chief way to evaluate progress on a political issue isn't the fact that more than 200,000 people got themselves to Washington to make their voices heard--or that even larger numbers of people's ideas are being reshaped by demonstrations like this one--but the number of co-sponsors on a piece of legislation.

To Democrats like Sanchez who claim to be doing the "real work" in the halls of Congress--and to mainstream liberal organizations, like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), that operate inside the Washington bubble and have adopted the same world view--everything is seen through the lens of the glacially paced legislative process, with all its insider deals and inevitable concessions to "political realism."

The same people who insisted until 2006 that we had to wait until the Democrats took back Congress, and until 2008 that we had to wait until there was a Democrat in the White House, are still calling for patience. The question is: What are we waiting for?

The clearest possible example of why the insiders' game is a dead end came the night before the march, at an HRC-sponsored dinner that featured Barack Obama speaking to a crowd of several hundred.

Obama won a standing ovation for his finely phrased restatements of his campaign promises to scrap the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, and pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. But he made no commitment to actually pressing forward on these goals.

Columnist Dan Savage's sarcastic comment--"Imagine all the wonderful things this guy is going to accomplish if he ever actually gets elected president"--was dead on. Obama's speech could have been lifted from a campaign appearance a year ago--that's how much "progress" has been made by the HRC's strategy of aligning itself with the leaders of the Democratic Party, and urging moderation until they act.

By contrast, the National Equality March would have been unimaginable a year ago. It's the product of a new stage of the LGBT movement, sparked by the storm of protest in reaction to the victory of the Proposition 8 gay marriage ban in California.

Those protests spread from the biggest California cities to the state as a whole, and across the country. New organizations formed overnight, drawing in young people with little or no experience in activist politics, but with priceless enthusiasm for organizing. These forces were the backbone for a national mobilization that set its sights even higher than same-sex marriage rights--full equality for LGBT people in all matters governed by civil law, in all 50 states.

THERE'S AN important lesson here that can be seen in all the great struggles for social justice of the past: When the fight for change--whether the abolition of slavery, or the building of unions, or the defeat of Jim Crow--ran up against established reform or labor organizations that demanded moderation and obstructed further action, the movement itself had to throw up new leaders and formations to take the struggle forward.

Thus, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s overcame the conservatism of groups like the NAACP with its own organizations, like Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

Cleve Jones, one of the main leaders of the National Equality March, was right to talk about the "need to look back to 1963, when the great heroes of the historic civil rights movement were having exactly the same conversation that we are having today."

Jones was talking specifically about the importance of a national strategy that looks to the federal government enacting legislation that applies to all 50 states, rather than a state-by-state strategy. But the point applies more broadly.

At every stage of the struggle, the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow South was faced with calls to slow down and be moderate. "For years now," King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, "I have heard the word 'Wait!' It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never.' We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that 'justice too long delayed is justice denied.'"

King and other movement leaders certainly looked to Northern Democrats like John F. Kennedy to enact civil rights legislation. But they recognized that the strength of the movement--its ability to force politicians to act--lay in organizing and protest at the grassroots, even when that meant enduring not only the brutality of the Southern political power structure, but the hostility of their "allies" in Washington.

It wasn't an easy struggle, nor was it won overnight. But the actions of the many thousands of people, committed to seeing an end to Jim Crow segregation and equal rights for African Americans, changed history.

The new LGBT movement for civil rights is marching in these footsteps today. Its example can help provide a vision and strategy for the other movements for change--against America's wars and occupations, to rebuild the labor movement, to challenge a free-market system that produces poverty and inequality--that desperately need to be built today.

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