When Proposition 8 took away same-sex marriage rights in California last November, it was the last straw. Almost overnight, there was a major explosion of protest and activism for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality. New activists breathed new wind into the sails of the movement.
Almost immediately, the new generation of activists has begun challenging the mainstream gay rights organizations over their strategy and approach. In particular, the stunning failure of the official “No on 8” groups to energize the LGBT base in the face of a right-wing, anti-gay initiative has called into question the entire leadership of the movement.
This has raised bigger questions: Should we focus on lobbying Democratic politicians, where most of the resources of the main LGBT organizations currently go, or should we take a more combative approach of mass demonstrations and direct action?
Lessons from California
The lead-up to the vote on Prop 8 itself was quite instructive. The “No on 8” campaign, rather than mobilizing supporters of LGBT rights, spent most of its time trying to reassure right-wingers that gay marriage wouldn’t affect them.
This timid opposition allowed conservatives to frame the debate, while demoralizing many supporters of LGBT rights who could have formed a powerful activist base, contributing to an unnecessary defeat.
We live in a time when polls show growing support for LGBT rights. 89% of Americans are in favor of employment equality, 69% support ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” (USA Today/Gallup Poll, 5/7-10/09), 53% favor adoption rights (Quinnipiac University Poll, 4/21-27/09), and an on-the-rise 45% support marriage equality (CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll, 5/14-17/09).
These fast-shifting attitudes and the string of states that legalized same-sex marriage in the months following the anti-Prop 8 demonstrations breathed new confidence into the LGBT community. Many feel now is not the time to wait; it is the time to strike.
Unfortunately, it seems most of the mainstream LGBT rights groups have learned nothing from past experience. With overwhelming majorities of activists in cities across the country anxious for a return to the streets and the ballot box in 2010 to overturn Prop 8, groups like Marriage Equality USA (MEUSA) and Equality California (EQCA) are still urging caution, claiming that public opinion will be more favorable if we wait until 2012. Their arguments rely heavily on polling data, demographics, and projected donations to try to mathematically predict an optimal time to act.
Yet these actuaries of the movement crucially ignore the transformative ability of a mass movement to change people’s minds. For them, issues like keeping up momentum and galvanizing new activity take a back seat to TV ads and big donations. Their top-down, bureaucratic mindset makes them believe movements can be turned on and off at will, like a water spigot.
The tempo and spirit of genuine grassroots struggle will never correspond to the compromising, cumbersome processes of the courts and political institutions, which are designed to protect the status quo.
We must reject the advice of the lobbyists and lawyers who seek to impose their strategies on our movement, and instead base ourselves on demands, tactics, and timing that can draw the largest numbers of new people into political struggle and exert the maximum pressure on the political establishment.
Waiting for Obama
It is now clearer than ever that we need to build an independent grassroots political movement to achieve progress, especially given the lack of meaningful action beyond Obama’s token nods toward LGBT equality.
Obama gave a speech at the White House on the anniversary of the Stonewall riots in which he reiterated many of his campaign promises, including the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
Yet at the same time, Obama made no mention of his own Justice Department’s legal brief supporting DOMA, and he continued to urge patience among LGBT rights supporters, saying that change must be “administered in a practical way, and a way that takes [place] over the long term.”
Reflecting the growing mood of impatience at the grassroots, the comments section of Equality California’s website is thick with angry arguments against the take-it-slow approach of the Obama Administration and the biggest LGBT organizations.
As one commenter put it: “Waiting for change is something only privilege allows… Equality is not something I presume will be afforded to me, granted to me by the benevolent majority or a Democrat.”
The fight for equal rights needs to be linked to a struggle to transform the economic and social conditions faced by many in the LGBT community, including fighting for single-payer healthcare for all, greater resources for LGBT youth, and guaranteed jobs and income for all.
It is clear that only under the threat of continuous mass action will Obama and the Democrats be pushed into actually fulfilling the key demands of the LGBT movement.
The civil rights movement in the ‘60s also had Democratic politicians and lobbying groups telling the oppressed to wait, not to rock the boat, that people weren’t “ready.”
Yet the movement’s greatest successes were not the result of trust in politicians. They were the product of taking to the streets with direct action, mass demonstrations, and solidarity with other movements of working people and the oppressed.
In the words of civil rights hero Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” (Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963)
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The Reality of LGBT Oppression