In It Together: The LGBT and Progressive Movements

Terrance Heath

When I walked into the “What’s Next for the LGBT Community” at the Take Back the American Dream conference, I thought I already knew what I would write about it afterwards. In the past month, I’ve written two posts — one after President Obama announced his support for marriage equality for same-sex couples, and one after a survey showed increased support for marriage equality among African-Americans — about the LGBT movement’s success in building support for marriage equality (despite defeats at the state level). I expected to emerge from this panel to write third post in the same vein. I even had a title picked out “What progressives can learn from the LGBT movement.”

Instead, I came away with my point of view expanded to encompass the successes and challenged of the LGBT movement on a wide range of issues, and a better understanding of how the successes and challenges of the LGBT movement mirror those of the progressive movement.

The diverse panel included: Maya Rupert, Federal Policy Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights; Brad de Guzman,  Co-Director of Programs for the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance; Brad Jacklin, Public Policy and Government Affairs Program Manager for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; and Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. To a person, the panelists acknowledged and celebrated the success of the marriage equality movement, and voice concern for the potential limiting impact of that success on the work being done by LGBT activists and organizations on a number of issues the panelists saw as intrinsically linked to LGBT issues. 

Mara Kiesling summed up the two responses best, calling the president’s announcement and the shift in public opinion towards supporting marriage equality “miraculous,” while worrying that the cost of that success may have a negative impact on the movement “for decades to come.”

Those changes seem miraculous, considering that neither a sitting president nor a majority of Americans supporting marriage equality seemed remotely possible just ten years ago; not impossible, just unlikely to happen anytime soon. If you’d asked me then, I’d probably have said I didn’t expect to see either in my lifetime. Even when considered in the context of more than fifty years of the gay rights movement in America, it raises a question that E.J. Graff: How did we win so much so fast?

Fifty years ago, being gay put you beyond the social pale. You could be savagely beaten, kicked out of public spaces and private clubs, arrested, fired, expelled from your family, and scorned as a pariah. Today, lesbians and gay men are all but equal, with full marriage rights in view—supported by President Barack Obama in action and words. How did we win so much so fast?

It’s a natural question after any major social change, especially for those hoping to apply the lessons elsewhere. How did smoking go from ubiquitous to despised? Why did feminism and black civil rights get so far, while unions gasped? Which made the difference: the low-lying social movement or the high-altitude legal and legislative efforts, the messy masses or the charismatic leaders? Historians can spend decades combing through public and private records before settling on their answers.

It’s a natural question, as Graff says, because we look to the successes of other movements for lessons we can apply to our own activism. Linda Hirshman, writes at the Daily Beast, “As progressive movements of every stripe falter and grind to a halt—who’s occupying Occupy Wall Street these days?—it pays to pay attention to how the gay movement broke the spell of right-wing triumph and progressive tragedy.” Hirshman cites the importance of local action and ” the deep, disciplined structure” of the marriage equality movement as reasons for its success.

There are certainly lessons to learn and apply here. As I wrote last month, the president moved on marriage because the movement made him do it.

We did that.

Bob Borosage led his post with Martin Luther King’s famous quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” As I’ve written before, that bend doesn’t just happen. If the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, it’s because many of us have working hard to bend it in that direction. If the president is lending his hands to that work, even symbolically, I welcome him. There is no such thing as “too little, to late” in that work.

If the president had to take a public position, because public and political pressure forced his hand, it’s because our movement made him do it.

In the immediate sense, it was apparently the comments by Joe Biden (and to a secondary extent Education Secretary Arne Duncan) that forced the president’s hand, leading to his historic announcement in support of same-sex marriage. But in the deeper and more long-lasting sense, the movement made him do it. That’s exactly how politics on the left is supposed to work.

Franklin Roosevelt had the famous phrase: “Make me do it.” He was speaking to activists for the labor movement or some other faction fighting for a slice of the pie, and he was saying to them, don’t expect me to back you out of the kindness of my heart, even if in my heart I agree with you. This is politics, and you have to create the conditions that make it possible for me to support your cause. And that’s what the LGBT movement did.

How did the movement make him do it? That’s probably the most important lesson for the progressive movement to come out of marriage equality movement’s success. Progressive must realize that, as Richard Socarides wrote, “words are important, but we have to demand action from our friends.”

Clearly, until today, the President had been making a political calculation—one that had outlived its usefulness. In some ways, it’s amazing that he was able to maintain a not-yes-but-not-no position for as long as he did. While it was a useful electoral strategy, changes in public opinion and in the culture have created a new reality. Obama’s political advisers badly underestimated the extent to which the marriage issue would remain at the forefront of the national discussion—and the determination of those of us who work to keep it there. 

So while this is an important moment in civil-rights history, it is also an important moment in political history—in which the lesson, for the gay community and, perhaps, for anyone advocating for change, is that words are important, but we have to insist on action from our friends.

For a long time, Democrats have taken the gay vote for granted. Political consultants tell Democrats that gay and lesbian voters have nowhere else to go, and thus, in effect, can be counted on, so long as politicians pay lip service to the issue. But that is old thinking, out of touch with the new reality of the gay-rights movement. While I know that most gays and lesbians would have supported President Obama, both with their votes and with their financial contributions, no matter what he did on the issue of marriage equality, we were also not going to take “no” for an answer on the most important civil-rights issue of our day. That meant holding the President’s feet to the fire—first on the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and then on marriage equality.

Last year, Governor Andrew Cuomo, of New York, decided to take on the issue of marriage equality as the first real test of his governorship. When people saw the leadership he demonstrated—in which victory wasn’t assured, and which depended on persuading people who were not already persuaded—they saw what was possible when politicians were willing to take a chance. From that moment on, you knew that Obama’s evolutionary days were numbered.

Yet, there is a potential price for that success. It may come at the expense of other concerns of equal or even greater concerns to LGBT Americans and communities across the country. Indeed panelists spent much of the discussion highlighting those concerns.

Some are being addressed by legislative efforts. Keisling mentioned the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, Jacklin pointed out that LGBT organizations have been very successful in developing public policy at the federal level, to be implemented by government agencies, on issues like hospital visitation and  HUD’s equal access rule.

Maya Rupert spoke about the new threat against advances made at the state and local level. The biggest challenge is at the local level, where cities like Nashville, TN, have extended local non-discrimination ordinances to include gay, lesbian and transgender workers. Rupert said state legislatures, like the Tennessee legislature, are “getting creative” by crafting and passing laws like that effectively nullify local non-discrimination ordinances without explicitly addressing discrimination against LGBT workers. Rupert cited Tennessee’s “Equal Access to Intrastate Commerce Act,” which prohibits local non-discrimination ordinances that go further than state or federal law.

Ben de Guzman underscored the work being done on immigration, by gay activists like Jose Antonio Vargas and the young DREAMers who have dared to “come out” as undocumented. Guzman cited both — along with LGBT and civil rights organizations banding together to protest New York City’s “stop and frisk” — practice  examples of the need for “two-tiered” communication across and between communities, and the importance of LGBT activists “making the connection” between issues like immigration and LGBT equality. 

While panelists agreed that the progress made on marriage equality is both “miraculous” and important, they all shared concerns that success “super-zoomed” marriage, as Keisling put it, to the top of the LBGT movement agenda. This, Keisling, has the effect of “sucking all of the oxygen” away from other issues, like those above.  

“We’ve trained our community to engage in checkbook activism,” Keisling added. The impact on fundraising, Keisling and other panelists agreed, has been that lions share of donor money has gone to organizations working on marriage and state organizations fighting anti-marriage equality ballot initiatives, resulting in a movement focus on the concerns of “mostly white, middle class queers,” to the detriment of work on other issues. Brad Jacklin further emphasized the impact on fundraising, suggesting that it’s not merely a “major donor” problem. The “$35 dollar donors,” Jacklin said, were often more likely to ask why his organization was doing work issues like poverty or prison reform than the “$100,000 donors.”

At that point, a member of the audience stood up and asked a question that focused the discussion and, for me, underscored the challenge that both the LGBT and progressive movements are struggling with.

“Why,” someone asked, “is it so hard to make the case to donors?”

As I listened to the panelists’ answers, it occurred to me that the difficulty in “making the case” to donors lies in answering the question that lies just beneath the surface of their concerns: “What does this have to do with me?” It’s a question that cuts across the lines race, class, gender, orientation that cut across both the LGBT and progressive movements, giving rise to so many other questions: “What does ‘stop and frisk’ have to do with me?”; “What does the DREAM Act have to do with me?”; “What does the ‘war on women’ have to do with me?”; “What does prison reform have to do with me?”

Answering those questions requires doing the delicate work of addressing privilege within our movements.

No one likes to be reminded of their privilege — whether it’s white privilege, heterosexual privilege, male privilege, or class privilege — because acknowledging that privilege commutes responsibility for that privilege, and the day-by-day, moment-to-moment decision to perpetuate that privilege or know — while knowing the consequences it imposes on others.

Whether we asked for our privilege or not — acknowledging it, if we don’t want to be responsible for perpetuating it and the injustice it perpetuates, means changing how we are in the world, day-by-day and moment-to-moment.

That is difficult and never-ending work, to be honest. It’s easier not to acknowledge it. It’s even easier to pretend it doesn’t exist. In fact, the first essential rule of perpetuating privilege is to pretend it doesn’t exist. That becomes difficult when the voices of those who can confirm the existence of that privilege, because they (a) do not possess it and (b) live with the consequence of its existence every day, become unavoidable.

And, the truth is that even though almost all of us enjoy one or more of the privileges above (especially if you consider class or economic privilege on a global scale), we also live with the consequences of not having one or more of the privileges above. The lack of one privilege can mask the existence of the other. (i.e. “What do mean I’m privileged? I’m barely making ends meet, just got laid off, and don’t have health insurance because my spouse and I aren’t married and he/she can’t carry me on hers, etc.”) That privilege doesn’t go away, but it becomes something taken for granted, as natural as breathing out and breathing in, so that we don’t take it as privilege anymore.

Perhaps a simpler answer acknowledges what de Guzman referred to as the “intersectionality” of diverse issues and experiences. Jacklin summed it up as “understanding that we’re in this together.”

Jacklin’s response echoed the “large-heartedness” President Obama defined in his speech to Congress on health care reform.

That large-heartedness—that concern and regard for the plight of others—is not a partisan feeling. It’s not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character—our ability to stand in other people’s shoes; a recognition that we are all in this together, and when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand; a belief that in this country, hard work and responsibility should be rewarded by some measure of security and fair play; and an acknowledgment that sometimes government has to step in to help deliver on that promise.

The challenge facing the LGBT movement and the progressive movement are the same challenge facing the country as a whole; to “expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together,” as President Obama said in his Tucson speech. It hasn’t changed much since Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from the Birmingham jail to remind us, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Fortunately, progressives have a long history of understanding all of the above.

Think about where we are now and how far from the birth of this country, when its promises were reserved for a narrow portion of its population. Yet, its principles provided the basis for ever progressive movement that had as its goal the extension of those promises to the full spectrum of the population.

And yes, they were progressive movements. By the very nature of their work, they could hardly be otherwise.

… From the abolitionists movement, to the labor movement, to the suffragists movement, to the civil rights movement, to the feminist movement, to the LGBT movement; every progressive movement that has advocated for change “as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are.”

They were and are driven by individuals lending their strength and their hearts to bending the arc of the universe towards justice, because they are comprised of people for whom the status quo is the opposite of justice and people for whom injustice — even though visited upon others, and even though it afforded them some privileges — is intolerable.

And in each case they were opposed by people for whom the status quo and its injustices were and had to be the natural order. People who were (and yes, I love to pick on this quote) standing athwart history yelling “Stop!”

They were yelling “Stop!” as every progressive movement above marched forward, pushing the envelope of change and expanding the the qualifications for full citizenship in this country and full membership in the human family. They were yelling “Stop!” as every one of those movements marched passed them towards freedom, enfranchisement, and equality.

They are still yelling. And we are passing them by, on our way to the same destinations. We may not all  have reached all of them yet, but we’re closer than we were, and some of them are already in sight.

Perhaps that was what was most encouraging about the LGBT panel at the end. I came expecting a sort of victory celebration, and was instead reminded that our strength is in the shared history that not only makes it possible for us to have honest discussions about the challenges we face and the differences among us, but also means that doing so ultimately makes us stronger.

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