LGBT struggle: Where do we go from here?

What did the march accomplish?
BY ALMOST any gauge, the National Equality March (NEM) on Washington October 11, 2009, was a colossal success. With barely any organized forces, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) political and movement establishment largely in opposition, and the gay press and blogosphere contemptuous and dismissive of the NEM early on, intrepid grassroots activists mobilized more than 200,000 people to demand full federal equality in all matters of civil law in all fifty states.

At a price tag of just over $150,000 for Port-o-Potties, insurance, and a few incidentals—it was a marvel of anti-corporate non-sponsorship—this was one mass LGBT march not brought to you by Citibank, Miller beer, or Absolut. The march was a vindication of the idea that mass protest is possible, necessary, and desirable if the left is to challenge both the right and the politics of don’t-rock-the-boat gradualism gripping the Democratic Party and its liberal defenders.

As a member of the march’s leadership and an author and public speaker who has been on tour for several months, I had a bird’s-eye view of how this march was organized, warts and all. We were a rag-tag bunch, some veterans, but mostly developing young activists who are more multiracial, anti-corporate, and suspicious of the Democratic Party than previous generations of organizers.

Tanner Efinger, a Los Angeles bartender who labored for months without pay to build the march, introduced one of the march’s initiators Cleve Jones at the rally, saying: “I am no one of note, I am not a seasoned speaker, I have no published pieces of work or even a college degree. I have no health insurance, I am in debt...We are, all of us, an unrepresented motley crew of underdogs.” It was an eloquent description of the carpet of humanity laid out before the Capitol on that gorgeous fall day.

The mobilizing efforts for the march—which were derided by an anonymous Obama adviser as the work of fringe “bloggers” who need to take off their “pajamas”—included not only aggressive online promotion, but good old-fashioned street heat on campuses and in communities, where speak-outs, teach-ins, rallies, and educational events drew anywhere from dozens to hundreds.

Twenty-seven-year-old Kip Williams from San Francisco’s One Struggle, One Fight was the sole paid organizer for the march, earning minimum wage to work tirelessly, dashing across the country and getting groups and individuals onboard.

The march’s student coordinator and socialist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor helped centralize a mammoth effort to organize students to hold days of action, phone bank and join the huge lead contingent of youth at the front of the march. Robin McGehee, a Fresno, Calif., mother who was kicked out from leading her local PTA after Prop 8’s passage in November, volunteered countless hours to orchestrate march logistics.

And Chloe Noble, who is marching cross-country to raise awareness of homeless LGBT youth, organized workshops with Chelsea Salem the day before the march, as did transgender activists and LGBT families who brought together hundreds of kids and same-sex couples at a milk-and-cookies event to make protest signs and schmooze among other families like their own.

Though UNITE HERE organizer and Harvey Milk protégé Cleve Jones was attacked for his audacity to build a march in less than four months, and for countering the incremental approach of the dominant LGBT groups—and red-baited for his collaboration with me—none of these attacks stuck.

Openly gay Rep. Barney Frank’s oft-expressed contempt for the march—”The only thing they’re going to be putting pressure on is the grass”—earned him the derision of student protesters, who chanted: “Barney Frank, fuck you!”

The legislative accomplishments of the march have garnered the most attention. President Obama felt pressure from the grassroots to alter his travel plans and give one of his trademark orations, broadcast nationally on the eve of the march at a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) dinner, calling for an end to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and other civil rights advances. While no sitting president has ever promised so much (nor explicitly included transgender people in a speech), Obama offered nothing concrete beyond soaring prose, which compelled sex columnist Dan Savage to quip, “Imagine all the wonderful things this guy is going to accomplish if he ever actually gets elected president.” Nonetheless, Obama’s verbal solidarity with the LGBT civil rights struggle—in stark contrast to many of his actions—stokes heightened expectations and organizing when his promises go unmet.

The passage of hate crimes legislation—amended to a military authorization bill—was greeted by many LGBT organizations as long overdue, coming eleven years after the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, and the thousands of gay and trans bashings since. Whereas leftists should be encouraged by the federal government’s effort to break with its ugly homophobic past, it must be noted that brutal attacks on LGBT people are fueled by official discrimination written into federal and state laws. The same government that creates a climate of anti-LGBT sentiment and holds 2.3 million people behind bars, not surprisingly poses harsher prison sentences as a solution to hate crimes. Tellingly, it costs the government little financially or politically to commit to this tough-on-crime act, which serves to bolster the prison-industrial complex.

Genuine reforms and the portent of more have come down since. The Reagan-era ban on travel to the United States of people who are HIV-positive was lifted after twenty-two years. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced a bill to repeal DOMA, and opinion polls, even those by FOX news, show only one-third of Americans today oppose legal unions between LGBT couples—even if many disagree on whether to call it marriage or civil unions. All of the networks, MSNBC, and CNN gave positive coverage to the march and stories about LGBT civil rights issues since have received greater national coverage than in the recent past. In addition, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Salt Lake City, Utah, anti-discrimination ordinances have passed overwhelmingly. The march clearly both expressed the desire for, and helped stoke the expansion of, LGBT civil rights.

The failure of the same-sex marriage forces on Election Day in Maine’s No on 1 campaign to retain marriage equality passed earlier in 2008 by the legislature highlights four central problems: 1) Civil rights activists are weakest outside of urban areas where the financial and institutional resources of the right can dominate rural politics; 2) President Obama and the Democrats have failed to deliver on their promise of “fierce advocacy” of LGBT civil rights; 3) LGBT rights must be enacted into law by the federal government; and 4) Civil rights should not be reduced to election fodder to be manipulated by well-financed bigots.

Despite the fact that the No on 1 campaign, Protect Maine Equality, raised $4 million and the anti-same-sex marriage forces raised only $2.5 million, the strategy of statewide ballot initiatives plays to activists’ weaknesses, especially in non-urban areas. In addition to the purposely confusing language used by the right in these initiatives—voting “yes” denied equality, voting “no” would have retained it—larger population centers create opportunities for activists to reach people in groups, as in Portland, Maine, where the vote was an overwhelming 73 percent against Question 1. At the University of Maine’s Orono campus, 81 percent of students voted against taking away equal marriage rights, also showing the generation gap that persists on this question.

Similarly, in Washington state, it was urban King County that voted overwhelmingly for the “everything but marriage” referendum, while the less-populated eastern part of the state voted against it.

Just three weeks after the march, conservatives were punching back. Right-wing bigots like Pat Robertson have attacked recently enacted federal hate crimes legislation, saying, “The noose has tightened around the necks of Christians to keep them from speaking out on certain moral issues.”

In the face of this hostility and legal challenges, the Democrats have been passive at best and hostile at worst. The White House and Congress have failed to deliver so far on promises to reverse decades of legal discrimination in federal and state laws. When Attorney General Eric Holder was asked about Maine’s Question 1, he said that he and President Obama “are of the view it is for states to make these decisions.” Holder later said to one blogger, “I don’t really know enough about the referendum over there to comment.” As Cleve Jones said on MSNBC of President Obama’s silence on Question 1, “This is a far cry from the fierce advocacy he promised us in his campaign.”

Even more outrageous, not only did the Democratic National Committee (DNC) refuse to help finance the No on 1 campaign, but it expressed crass indifference to LGBT rights when the DNC’s organization “Organizing for America” (formerly known as “Obama for America”) e-mailed Maine voters the day before the election about getting the gubernatorial contest in New Jersey (which lost)!

The failure of the Democrats to hold onto huge gains made in the 2008 election in New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races—and the flaccid response from Obama’s base in this off-year election—reveals that the inability of the Democrats in power to deliver on their promises is alienating progressives.

Maine’s reversal on marriage equality proves once again the bankruptcy of the state-by-state, issue-by-issue strategy upheld by many establishment LGBT forces. This approach concedes that civil rights must remain on the precarious turf of the states, in a country where one Constitution is supposed to guarantee equal protection under the law. Activists can no longer accept that LGBT civil rights can be attained outside the federal government. Even if Maine voters had rejected Question 1, most marriage rights like Social Security are only gained through the federal government and married LGBT people in Maine, as in the equal marriage states, would have remained second-class citizens under the law.

The right’s strategy of placing LGBT civil rights on state ballots for a vote places the battle for human equality on an unstable and hostile terrain. Why should anyone have to battle in each locality for equal treatment in a country where the Fourteenth Amendment—passed after the Civil War!—guarantees equal protection to all U.S. citizens? Why should LGBT people have to repeatedly reassert that we are equal human beings in every state and municipality forty-five years after the Civil Rights Act prohibited discrimination?

The most horrific indirect impact of the lack of civil rights protections for LGBT people is the continued violence against members of the community. In early November, fifteen-year-old Jason Mattison was found raped, gagged and beaten to death in a closet in his family’s home in Baltimore. The popular Black teenager was a gregarious, openly gay young man who was killed by a family friend recently released from prison. A few days later a nineteen-year-old, Jorge Steven Lopéz Mercado, was found decapitated and burned in Puerto Rico by a man who allegedly murdered Jorge upon discovering the slight young man in a dress was not female.

In stark contrast to past bashings, however, protests and vigils erupted in at least twenty cities from New York to Abilene, Texas, to commemorate their lives and mourn their deaths. In Chicago and New York, politicians and religious leaders spoke out against these horrific crimes and local activists who had mobilized for the march helped publicize these cases, which broke through the usual silence of the national and local media that covered Jorge and Jason’s deaths and the marches and rallies.

Seize the moment
The need for a national movement to cohere the grassroots groups that formed before and in the wake of the march is palpable. March organizers are initiating a grassroots network called Equality Across America (EAA) to form a democratically run group with an elected leadership, strategy, and structure. It has been decades since a national effort was made to try and unite activist groups from around the nation into a collaborative network. Even during the heyday of AIDS activism twenty years ago, when ACT-UP and later Queer Nation and the Lesbian Avengers formed, there were common practices and initiatives, but no ongoing structure through which local groups could communicate and make decisions. The major national organizations such as HRC, which is a corporate-backed lobbying group, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which does research on LGBT issues, lobbies politicians, and organizes an annual education and networking conference, don’t operate as activist-based groups.

EAA aims to launch itself by organizing a few regional conferences in late winter and early spring where activists can come together to discuss lessons from previous struggles, debate ideas about how to win full federal equality, and brainstorm about days of action and common initiatives to take over the spring leading to a summer or fall national conference where decisions about the movement’s future can be decided democratically. It is an ambitious but necessary plan in order for a national movement to take shape and resist reverting to the default strategies of incremental demands and electoral activities that have led to the decline of past LGBT activism.

The newly forming network put itself on the map in early November through actions marking the anniversary of Prop 8’s passage and protests against Maine’s Question 1 results. It is developing a Web site and social networking means to project itself to the dozens of campus LGBT groups and seeks to work alongside any other activist groups that want to collaborate, such as Join the Impact, One Struggle One Fight, and the Courage Campaign.

As a group that is emerging from such an enormously successful first act, the National Equality March, EAA will face several challenges. One is the inexperience of most activists in pulling together such a unified formation that allows for both the autonomy of local groups and provides a perspective for chapters to rally around. Creating the space that encourages open and friendly debate and a structure where decisions can be made and adhered to will be key to growing a unified movement that doesn’t stifle differences.

Given the Obama administration’s verbal commitment to LGBT civil rights, yet vacillation between indifference and hostility on actual legislation, EAA would do best to remain independent of any attempts by politicians to woo the movement into the fold of the Democratic Party. The relationship between LGBT activists and the Democratic Party has historically been a dysfunctional one—the Democrats court gays’ and lesbians’ votes and money but offer few gains and a fair share of abuse in exchange. For those LGBT activists wooed by the Democrats, ditching the more militant strategy that won a hearing in the first place for a “don’t rock the boat” one is the price to play.

Already local activists who organized the march are being courted by politicians who seek to gain civil rights credentials from activists, as well as recruit them to be campaign workers to get them elected in 2010 or 2012. Yet the strength of this new movement, often referred to as Stonewall 2.0, has been its dynamism, militancy, and willingness to buck the establishment through protests and sit-ins. To remain vibrant and win full civil equality, EAA will need to reject endorsing candidates. Lobbying activities that HRC and others have pursued for decades, and require vast sums of money with little to show in return, are best conceived not as official, polite meet-and-greets in suits, but as mass actions that make demands on politicians in public, where they are more likely to be held accountable for the promises they make.

An all-inclusive Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) that includes protections for transgender people, unlike the previous version, was pushed off the congressional calendar yet again in early December 2009. In a country where it remains perfectly legal to fire someone in twenty-nine states due to sexual orientation and in thirty-eight states due to gender identity, ENDA is urgently needed—and supported by a solid majority of Americans in numerous polls. Given the decades of foot-dragging despite promises from Democrats, coordinated action will be crucial to finally securing workplace equality.

The current period presents the best opportunity in years for building a network that provides a model for militant, grass-roots activism and collaborative organizing among disparate groupings. EAA must harness the defiant sentiment, talent, and outlook of a new generation growing impatient with an Obama administration that has proven to be either incapable or uninterested in advancing full federal equality for LGBT people.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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