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Threat of Anti-Gay Amendment in Illinois Debated at Recent Forum

At a recent forum sponsored by Equal Marriage NOW!, GLN's Blake Wilkinson and Andy Thayer were on the panel with Equality Illinois's Rick Garcia and Rev. Dan Rodriguez Schlorff of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry. Unfortunately the Free Press account of the event gave short shrift to the street activist point of view in the debate, as represented by Wilkinson and Thayer. Below is a letter they wrote to the editor in reply to the Free Press article:


As much as we respect Gary Barlow's reporting about any number of subjects over the years, we really think he missed the point of our remarks at the recent Equal Marriage NOW! (EMN) forum on the subject of the threat of an anti-gay constitutional amendment in Illinois.

Taken in isolation from the rest of the country, and looking only at the present time, the prospect of such an amendment is fairly remote. The various bills for amendments are successfully bottled up in committees by Democrats and a few Republican moderates who have made the political calculation that, for the time being, their political futures are best served by not handing the most ardently conservative Republicans an issue. This is a marriage of convenience between these politicians and some LGBT leaders, a marriage which could be unceremoniously annulled if public opinion shifts.

History never stands still. While there are some factors moving in our favor, there are others which would counsel against LGBT people in Illinois being complacent. First and foremost is the fact that within the next few years, Illinois could become virtually surrounded by states with anti-gay constitutional amendments, lending political momentum to such an effort here. Eighteen states have now gone this route, and there are several more "slam dunk" states waiting in the wings.

Secondly, the 2006 Illinois gubernatorial race is shaping up to be very nasty. Blagojevich, loathed by many within his own party, is showing weakness downstate and in swing districts, his margin of victory in the last election. Should the other side go for the anti-gay marriage jugular, don't look for him to stick his neck out for the LGBT community. As with John Kerry, Blagojevich will most likely counter with a muddled response, leaving no one vocally sticking up for our community. The yahoo chorus, which is the main activist base of the Illinois Republican Party in many areas, will demand a red meat-eating candidate as their gubernatorial nominee. Combine this with constitutional amendment momentum from other states, and the Democrats might decide to abandon us to secure their careers.

However hopeful the current Illinois polls look for us on the marriage issue, this could rapidly change against us, as those familiar with the history of the "gays in the military" debate of the early 1990s well remember.

In the summer of 1992, a clear majority of Americans favored equal employment rights for Lesbians and Gays in the military. When Democratic Senator Sam Nunn began an anti-gay firestorm over President-elect Clinton's proposal to drop the ban on gays in the military, the Republicans -- then minorities in both houses of Congress -- took up the anti-gay mantra and banged it ceaselessly like a cheap drum, while the President-elect and other nominally "pro-gay" forces sat back in embarrassed silence. The result: in the space of a few months, the polls flipped by dozens of points to produce an overwhelming majority of Americans saying they didn't want Lesbians and Gays in the military, leading to Clinton caving and signing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." While over the years the polls have gradually ebbed back into our favor, the damage was done“ the anti-gay policy was codified into law, making it much more difficult to overturn and leading to a far higher rate of anti-gay purges than under the first President Bush.

The crux of the debate at the EMN forum was whether or not we should sit back and let our lobbyists in Springfield and elsewhere fight our battles for us (combined with occasional letters and phone calls from our side), or whether an "in the streets" activist mode was required.

Our contention was that on the federal level, the idea of lobbying Tom Delay, Bill Frist, et al was a non-starter, and many so-called "progressive" Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Barbara Boxer continue to distance themselves from our issues. Anti-gay forces now have a lock on two of the three main branches of government, and the Supreme Court could also become a "no go" area for us in the next few years. Republican politicians, regardless of their personal opinions, will likely play to the religious right's stranglehold over the activist base of their party. This situation is mimicked in many of the states.

On both the federal and local levels, lobbying, especially in the current context, fails to address the central factor needed to secure our rights. To prevent anti-gay constitutional amendments and make our current anti-discrimination laws effective, let alone get new ones, we need to change the political climate in this country. For that we need a movement in the streets.

It would behoove those interested in LGBT equality to examine other historic civil rights struggles. In the 1960s, the images of hundreds and thousands of African Americans standing up in person for their rights fostered a much more assertive mood amongst all African Americans. This not only helped pass the landmark legislation of that era, but unlike the earlier Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KA decision, a movement in the streets forced much more sweeping implementation of that legislation. Even many hardcore racists were forced to grudgingly admit to the courage of the civil rights marchers, which was a first step towards tolerance, let alone acceptance.

To secure the legal gains the LGBT community has made so far, and to push towards total legal equality, we need such a movement today. As one of us said at the forum, to pin our hopes on lobbying and bottling up anti-gay legislation in committees is a "finger in the dike" approach. It might successfully prevent a constitutional amendment here in Illinois for the time being, but could be overwhelmed if the situation changes. Conversations between lobbyists and politicians do little to address the everyday hatred and discrimination that LGBT people face, such as how open anti-LGBT bigotry is perceived as a legitimate "religious" viewpoint in many circles today. This is not unlike how open, "religiously based" racism was given the pass just a few generations ago.

For that to change, we need to change the overall context within which these debates take place. Open LGBT bigotry must become as illegitimate as other forms of open bigotry are. History shows that only a movement in the streets can do this. That is why we are promoting events like the annual Matthew Shepard March on October 8th, and the 2008 LGBT March on Washington, called by veteran Lesbian activist Robin Tyler, as the most effective ways to secure our rights.

Andy Thayer

Gay Liberation Network (GLN)

Blake Wilkinson



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