A strategy to win LGBT rights

March 16, 2011

Keegan O’Brien looks at the state of the movement for LGBT equality.

AFTER THE repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the message coming from the mainstream lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights movement--known to many activists as "Gay Inc."--is straightforward: Don't expect anything else.

Openly gay Democratic Rep. Barney Frank made his message to the LGBT community clear: "Next year, there's no chance of anything happening...There is zero chance of anything happening with Republicans in control of the House." Unfortunately, the largest LGBT political organization in the country, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), shares the same perspective. After the midterm elections, the HRC explained that those fighting for civil rights must scale back their expectations and refocus their efforts on smaller campaigns.

And these are the people and organizations that LGBT people are expected to look to for political leadership? Their words of advice are as pathetic as they are insulting. The idea that we need to tone down our message is an embarrassment to the longstanding rich tradition of unapologetic radical grassroots activism inside the LGBT community.

But this isn't anything new. For close to 30 years, Gay Inc. has pursued a failed top-down strategy for achieving equality. Nicely worded rhetoric in their fundraising letters aside, ordinary people play a completely passive role in their "movement." The most anyone needs to do is sign a petition, give some money--or maybe, if you're lucky enough, dress up so you at least look important enough to go lobby your local congressperson.

Gay Inc.'s post-2010 midterm election perspectives are problematic on two levels. Firstly, they misread the Republican comeback as a demonstration of a rightward shift in social consciousness and, thus, a general rejection of progressive politics. This in turn shapes their expectations of what is possible. But reality is more complex.

Secondly, their strategy is based on a top-down reading of history and the process by which social change occurs.

The GOP was successful in gaining significant electoral power in the last election because the Obama administration and the Democratic Party were unwilling to deliver on virtually any of their major promises. Instead of change, millions of working-class people who voted for the Democrats in 2008 experienced more of the same, if not worse. Bailouts for Wall Street and an escalation of wars abroad, alongside increasing unemployment, foreclosures and austerity, have become the new reality in the age of Obama.

THE DEMOCRATS have no one to blame but themselves for their loss. Their failure to deliver on their promises even while they had a super-majority in both houses of Congress resulted in widespread demoralization and a general lack of confidence inside their political base. Approaching the elections from this perspective provides insight into why 29 million voters who supported Obama in 2008 did not come out to vote for his party this time around.

By contrast, Republicans have been able to energize their political base by invoking the politics of fear and scapegoating, and by posing themselves as the populist, anti-big-government alternative. The hardest elements of this have been an emboldened re-emergence in the politics of anti-immigrant and anti-Arab and Muslim racism.

A demoralized liberal base, combined with a general sense of alienation from mainstream politics among the American populace, meant that most people simply didn't vote, giving the GOP's conservative base a leading edge.

The reality is that the Republicans remain the most distrusted political party, with the Democrats a close second. Behind their populist rhetoric, their agenda of anti-government spending and racist bigotry continue to remain highly unpopular to the majority of Americans.

Most importantly, the overwhelming majority of people in this country continue to support basic civil rights for LGBT people. Polls show that over 80 percent of the population support federal protection for LGBT people in employment and housing. And more recently, 56 percent of people now say they support marriage equality for same-sex couples. Yet LGBT people continue to remain second-class citizens, denied equal protection and opportunity under the law.

Embedded in the "be realistic" message coming from established LGBT organizations is an upside-down understanding of history and social progress. The dominant narratives of history that we are taught are that social progress occurs through the benevolence of powerful leaders or on its own accord through inevitable cultural progress.

Unfortunately, many organizations and activists embrace these perspectives, leading them to take an inside-the-Beltway, no-rocking-the-boat strategy that emphasizes incrementalism and "realism" over unapologetic grassroots struggle and protest.

The problem? This is never how oppressed people have won change. The most significant gains have been achieved through uncompromising mass struggle. The famous abolitionist Fredrick Douglass described this dynamic well: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress...Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will."

IT IS worth looking at how the Black civil rights movement was a vindication of this social dynamic. Despite popular rhetoric, presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were extremely tepid in working to pass civil rights legislation. Instead, they continuously told Martin Luther King Jr., the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and other leading civil rights activists and organization to be patient, tone down their message and focus only on what was realistic. Sound familiar?

King penned his historically invaluable response to this message in his Letter From a Birmingham, in which he argued, "For years now, I have heard the word 'Wait.'...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.'"

Though King and other civil rights activists held meetings with leading politicians, even the president himself, these interactions were not the driving force of social change. Instead, it was the uncompromising and relentless activism and militancy of thousands, Black and white, in directly confronting the system of Jim Crow en masse.

Whether it was the explosion of sit-ins against segregation throughout the South beginning in 1960, the Freedom Rides that occurred that began the next year or the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Blacks and their allies engaged themselves in an unapologetic ongoing struggle against racial apartheid. By 1964, the Civil Rights Act was signed into law and, one year later, the Voting Rights Act was passed. After centuries, codified racial apartheid and inequality had been torn down.

Even a brief examination of the civil rights movement's most significant political features provides a wealth of critical insight into the lessons for oppressed communities fighting for social justice today. I'm going to focus on three. First, the civil rights movement did not begin in 1960. The movement had its origins many years before--before even the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring segregation unconstitutional. And its development was not linear, moving from success to success. Rather, it was more dynamic; experiencing both ups and downs.

We should understand that a long-term struggle with many ups and downs will also unfold in the current movement for LGBT equality, albeit in its own unique form.

Second, in numbers, there is power. When we overcome the forces in our lives that are constantly dividing and alienating us from one another, we come to recognize that another world is possible.

But--and this leads to the third point--that world can only come into being through our own actions. Unapologetic, grassroots social movements have always been the social motor force of progress for oppressed people. Radical historian and LGBT ally Howard Zinn put it clearly, "[T]the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in--in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating--those are the things that determine what happens."

Our civil rights are not legislative playthings to be bartered away, or passed when deemed politically appropriate by politicians who live in a world disconnected from regular people. Why have Barney Frank or Barack Obama never said that they need "more time" to legislate multitrillion-dollar bailouts for Wall Street or yearly military spending bills that regularly exceed $700 billion? Why does our government regularly prioritize wars abroad and government spending here at home to benefit Corporate America, but continue to deny LGBT people their basic human rights?

It is real human lives that we are talking about and fighting for. The right to marriage, the right to adopt, the right to protection and equal opportunity in employment and housing, the right to be protected from violence and harassment in our schools and communities, the right to equal and adequate medical treatment and social services, the right to full equality under the law in all 50 states.

This is what we want and deserve, not in two years or 20, but now. But our fight can't end there, because genuine social and economic justice reaches far beyond legal equality. We may not win this year or the next, but the only way we ever will is if we keep fighting for absolutely everything, right here, right now-no matter who's sitting in office.

It's time we make politicians start running around to meet our needs, not the other way around. As the chant says, "L-G-B-T: We demand equality!"

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