Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Unfinished Work

Mustang Bobby at Bark Bark Woof Woof put up a marvelous takedown of New Republic assistant editor James Kirchick's recent commentary in the Washington Post about the state of the LGBT movement.

Just in time for spring wedding season, gay marriage activists are celebrating a triumphant few weeks. Last Tuesday, the Vermont legislature effectively legalized same-sex unions in that state. Days earlier, the Iowa Supreme Court had ruled that a statute barring gay marriage was unconstitutional. And here in the nation's capital, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.

But amid all the history being made, one gay rights organization did something really historic: It announced that it would shut its doors at the end of the year, because its mission was complete.

Formed in 1999 to lobby for the right of gay couples to adopt children in Connecticut, Love Makes a Family was the lead organization advocating for same-sex marriage in that state. It successfully lobbied lawmakers to pass a civil unions bill in 2005, but fell short of achieving its ultimate goal until last October, when the state supreme court ruled that the Connecticut constitution endows same-sex couples with the right to marry.

"Mission accomplished" is one of the most difficult things to say when your organization depends on working toward a cause, but Love Makes a Family did it. And other gay groups may soon need to follow suit. If the gay community truly wants to achieve equality, it will have to overcome a victim mindset that is slowly becoming obsolete.


Once the goals of an organization with a specific mission are achieved, as Love Makes a Family's were last October, it should relish its victory, cease operations and move on. This is the sign of communal maturity. The continued operation of a gay rights organization in the state that was the first to institute marriage equality and that has the most progressive gay rights laws in the country reflects a sense of eternal victimhood.


This is a realization that comes easier to younger gays like me (I'm 25) than to older ones. For people who grew up in a time when being open about one's homosexuality could result in being fired or thrown into prison, it's harder to move out of a mindset that sees the plight of gay people as one of perpetual struggle. This attitude is all the more pronounced in those who hold leadership positions in the gay rights movement, as their life's work depends upon the notion that we are always and everywhere oppressed.

It's in the culture of any institution to justify its existence. This is especially so with civil rights groups, which thrive on a sense of persecution, real or perceived.
In the first place, "the notion that we are always and everywhere oppressed" isn't just a notion. It's a fact, both in state, federal, and local laws and in large segments of the majority religious faith -- Christianity -- in this country. It's not just a notion when the state of Florida still bans adoption by gay couples for no other reason than they are gay. It's not just a notion when 46 states can still discriminate against same-sex couples getting married. It's not just a notion when members of Congress can still advocate amending the Constitution of the United States to specifically target a significant portion of the citizenry of the country based solely on an innate trait such as sexual orientation. And it sure wasn't a notion to Matthew Shepard or any of the other countless gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender and others who have faced brutality, cruelty, demonization, and terrorism, sometimes at the hands of their own family. It's all too clear that oppression, real or perceived, is out there.

It's not as if passing laws or achieving a victory means the battles are over. Melissa McEwan of Shakesville and I were discussing this via e-mail today, and she noted that "the National Organization for Women was founded in founded in 1966 as a general women's advocacy organization, but, by virtue of the politics of the time period, had a heavy focus on Roe -- which they've STILL got to defend today, almost 40 years after its passage. Is there any reason to expect that same-sex marriage will just be a 'done deal,' given what's happened in California?!" Absolutely not.

Mr. Kirchick is correct in saying that some civil rights groups -- or at least elements of them -- tend to perpetuate their own existence and could conceivably outlive their usefulness, but that may be more a problem within the group, not the cause itself. And at the risk of taking a page from Benjamin H. Grumbles, this young whippersnapper wouldn't be able to come out with an article like this if it hadn't been for old farts like me and the people who stood up at Stonewall in 1969, or going back further, who literally risked life and fortune to form the Mattachine Society and advocate for gay rights in 1950, two years before I was born. At the tender age of 25, he has benefited from the work -- not to mention the pain and suffering -- of a lot of men and women, gay and straight, who worked to give him a world where he can sit there are blithely say, gee, thanks, you made your point, now shut up and go away.

I started to add my own thoughts on the matter at BBWW, but the posting ran into comment limitations, so I'm posting them here instead.

I hate to draw comparisons with the GWoT here, but NTodd's comment at BBWW ("Oh, Mission Accomplished? Awesome! [hangs up tiara]") reminded me that the struggle against terrorism, loudly proclaimed complete in May '03, is still going on. A key milestone does not a victory make, any more than a crushing defeat signals the end of a particular movement or philosophy.

The LGBT rights movement has had both a cyclical history and an expanding sphere of interest. Between Stonewall and the '80s it was all about the novelty of being gay, the demand for recognition that being gay shouldn't require imprisonment or therapy, and that respect as human beings should be universal. HIV knocked all that out of the argument as the Right used the disease as a cudgel against "immorality" and "sin" and the LGBT rights organisations became more concerned with (literal) survival than equality. I remember, for example, more protests against Burroughs Wellcome or Glaxo than against public policy from those days. Reagan and Thatcher certainly didn't help matters any, and popular support from other quarters kept them in power for most of that decade. Once the epidemic became manageable through the new drug regimens, and diagnosis was no longer an automatic death sentence, the movement relaxed a bit - just in time for the 1993 Hawai'i court decision which struck down that state's marriage law and fueled the SSM movement. The whole "defense of marriage" shtick is a product of backlash from opponents allowed traction at a time when the LGBT lobby grew complacent.

Likewise, the sphere has expanded from its roots. 1960s gay activism was about middle-class white men. The modern movement includes lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals and others with gender identity concerns, LGBT people of colour - virtually the entire range of non-hetero sexual identities and non-hetero non-missionary sexual practices (I'm thinking particularly of the SM community, but there are certainly others). As our understanding of gender identity and healthy variances in sexuality has grown the movement has expanded to include them. Those battles are certainly not over.

I'm glad that Love Makes A Family feels that its goals are achieved, and that its task is done. But the end for one civil rights organisation is not the end of a civil rights struggle. GLAAD, Lambda Legal, CT Civil Rights Defense Coalition, Queers Without Borders and a host of other organisations remain active in that state. Love Makes A Family may be no more, but that has as much to do with the luxury of other groups' continuing work as it does with the fulfillment of LMAF's advocacy.

The unfortunate part of all this is that active resistance to LGBT equality is fast becoming both a religious and regional phenomenon. The chief opponents are religious extremists (Christian and Muslim groups chiefly though there are more) and reactionary Conservatives - though those two groups are frequently indistinguishable. In the US there is good reason to claim that acceptance at least has been achieved outside two dividing lines: the Mason Dixon Line and the Continental Divide. North and West of those markers tolerance at least has been largely achieved, California's Prop 8 notwithstanding; South and East of that LGBT issues still face an uphill battle.

There's also the fact that the LGBT community, by its very definition, encompasses segments of other groups that have faced their own issues in society. Being Caucasian and gay is very different from being Latina and lesbian, or from being Southeast Asian and transgendered. The community has had to deal, in more than a few cases, not only with the external prejudices and resistance of the mainstream hetero Conservatism but with the prejudices within its ranks.

Mr. Kirchick's comments about his age say more about the naivete of the twentysomething than the liberation of the new generation. He certainly hasn't had to worry overmuch about being assaulted and then arrested on the street at midday; he hasn't been concerned about being knifed on his way home from a night out, then dismissed by the authorities as (as Kevin Spacey put it so succinctly in L.A. Confidential) "just another... homo-cide"; his being out at work wasn't the immediate and irretrievable end to his career; and the whole host of indignities foisted on his elders haven't really impacted his world all that much. But those indignities are less than a generation removed from the current debate, and have waxed and waned considerably over the last few decades as new voices of intolerance and narrow-mindedness have continued to surface and as Conservatism and Xtianity have continued to use the LGBT community as both punching bag and poster child for all that they consider wrong in society. LGBT people have been blamed by these groups for everything from youth delinquency rates, to the prevalence of divorce in society, to the attacks of 11 September 2001 and the disastrous hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 - and there is a measurable proportion of the population willing to accept those charges as valid. The National Organization for Marriage's otherwise laughable recent efforts are a clear indication that those sentiments persist. Claiming victory under those circumstances is premature at best.

His viewpoint - that the younger generations are more accepting, which will make the battles easier - also conveniently forgets two other things. First, the nation's leaders are of at least the age of most of those who survived the tumult of the HIV pandemic and the earlier SSM debates, and they will be part of the group shaping public policy for some time. Growing support for LGBT issues from their younger constituents will not change their rhetoric any more than the 19th Amendment automatically made women's voices in government unique and powerful. Also, the same youthful voices were heard in the 1960s denouncing war, greed and inequality: many of the generation we now know fondly as "flower children" became some of the most intolerant, greedy, militant people in our society, supporting the policies of those they had denounced so loudly in their youth. Assuming that the latest generation's perspective will remain constant on any issue is remarkably shortsighted.

I would view the LGBT movement's history, not in comparison with NOW (whose history has encompassed a relatively fixed set of ideals and goals under regular assault) but with NAACP (whose goals have evolved as the movement has made progress on the basic issues). The right to vote may never have been an issue for all, but safety of life and limb, freedom to associate and organise, and rights to employment, housing and equal medical care have all been under attack at some time or other and remain not entirely certain today.

If Mr. Kirchick thinks the battle is won, and that LGBT rights are essentially achieved and oppression has ended, I suggest he take a long stroll hand in hand with his SO down the streets of Odessa, TX, Bakersfield, CA, Pensacola, FL, Valdosta, GA, or any of a hundred other small Conservative towns and see just how far he gets.

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