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The LGBT Civil Rights Crisis & What We Need to Do About It

By Andy Thayer

The religious right is moving from strength to strength. Increasingly, all three branches of the federal government are ranged against us, and the situation in many statehouses is not much better. In some it is worse.

Not since the days of segregation has a whole community faced constitutional amendments branding them as non-citizens -- 19 passed and counting. "Abstinence only" and other "faith-based" boondoggles are lavished with tax dollars, while scientifically proven health programs associated with Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans people get de-funded, staffs are slashed, and the health of thousands needlessly threatened. A few years ago one would have thought that fantasies like "Intelligent Design" and other measures designed to marginalize the non-Christians were outlandish relics of another century, but increasingly, we have to fight these battles all over again.

Even before the latest assaults on our rights, LGBT people were not citizens in this country. Citizens, by definition, have equal legal rights with others. Not just with respect to the right to marry, but in employment, housing and public accommodations, and increasingly, adoptions, access to medical care and anything else the religious right can dream up, we are not citizens. Congress, the Presidency, and increasingly, the Supreme Court, are all in the hands of sworn foes of our community, while most of the elected "opposition" prefers not to be openly associated with, let alone taking leadership on our issues. This will not change until there is a public opinion groundswell of opposition to the religious right and in favor of our rights.

A targeted lobbying visit here, a clever use of the law to stall a constitutional amendment there, might work to improve the immediate tactical situation we face, but will not change the overall course of the struggle for our rights. We need a radical reshaping of the terms of the debate. No legislative victories we might win will be secure until there is a wholesale shift in public opinion. Changing public opinion is the key for civil rights defense, and advance, of our community.

But how do we change public opinion? Certainly letters to the editor, coming out to those around us, not remaining silent when we hear an anti-gay remark -- all of these have their place. But how do we change opinion on a massive scale?

The Role of Mass Marches in Social Change

In 1963 the African American community faced a situation more dire than the LGBT community faces today. In a country where most of their community couldn't even vote, the idea of lobbying politicians was even more quixotic than one of us thinking we could persuade Bill Frist or Tom Delay to do the right thing by gay people. But in spite of the apparent powerlessness of African Americans in the electoral arena, the strategy of Dr. King and others was about to produce a wholesale change in public opinion and in turn, sweeping legislative victories.

The preceding years had seen increasing numbers of African Americans and their allies marching in the streets of America's cities, and the dignified images of a people standing up for their rights -- in person -- began to produce a sea change in public opinion. A liberating feeling of self-worth flooded through the African American community as thousands no longer consented to "take it" from the racists. In turn, even many staunch racists were forced to grudgingly respect the courage of the marchers who bravely stood up in public to racist abuse, and grudging respect is the first step towards tolerance and acceptance. Public opinion began to change.

The key to this change was the vision of thousands of African Americans taking the struggle for freedom directly into their own hands. The internet and writing a check to our favorite LGBT group, as important as these are, are no substitute for this large scale, in-person advocacy of one's own legal equality and dignity.

The LGBT struggle has itself seen instances where this sort of in-person advocacy in the streets has led to a radical reshaping of the public debate about our community. Most famously, the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 produced a flood of self-worth in our community. Whereas previously, most LGBT leaders (not to mention regular community members) behaved like we were a defective group of people to be pitied and given "help" by straight homophobic "experts," three days and nights of protest in Greenwich Village spurred a radical reshaping of our community's self image, the first step towards becoming a force that could produce later legislative victories.

Fast forward closer to the present. Nineteen ninety-eight was the height of the "Republican Revolution." Newt Gingrich and his "Contract With America" were riding high in the saddle, and despite signing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act, every appeasement to bigotry by the Clinton administration just whetted the religious right's appetite for more. But then, a Wyoming college student was strung up on a fence and left to die in what clearly was a hate crime. Matthew Shepard was by no means the first, nor the last, LGBT person murdered in a hate crime, and certainly there are nasty racial and gender dynamics to the fact that hate murders of others have not drawn the same level of attention. Nonetheless, Shepard's murder spurred an outpouring of LGBT people and our allies into the streets of America.

For years groups like the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs had valiantly tried to draw public attention to the epidemic of violence against our community, but had been unsuccessful. Now, in a matter of days, the wave of Matthew Shepard vigils and protests put the issue of anti-gay hate crimes on the national political agenda. Bigoted politicians who had been crowing about their successes just weeks earlier were suddenly pushed back on their heels.

The Shepard marches and vigils transformed our community in ways that even many in our own community still do not recognize. LGBT youth took the Shepard activism to heart and began the kind of local, grassroots organizing that can transform the political climate. At the time of Shepard's murder there were only about a half dozen gay-straight alliances in the nation's schools. Within six months of his murder, there were over 1,000. For LGBT people who came of age before 1998, the idea of pro-gay youth groups to support us while we were in high school seemed like an impossible dream. The Shepard protests marked the "coming out" of the LGBTQ youth movement.

GOOD Mass Marches, and BAD Ones

As important as large-scale community mobilizations are for changing public opinion, if they are not combined with a savvy political strategy, the legislative result can be nil, the hopes of the affected community dashed, and a huge defeat reaped instead. The 1993 LGBT March on Washington was a classic example of this. Our community focused all of its fire on the bigoted Republicans who opposed our presence in the military, while putting no pressure on Clinton and the Democrats. This focus meant that the march's implicit message was that the Democrats could do virtually anything they pleased and our community would not make them pay a price if they crossed us. Our reward was "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" just weeks afterwards -- introduced into Congress by none other than Rep. Barney Frank.* [*The Democratic leadership's sell-out was not something that couldn't have been foreseen -- one week before the march, Clinton's Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, used the pages of the New York Times to float the idea of segregating gays in the military!]

A positive example of large-scale community mobilization, combined with a savvy political strategy, was the classic 1963 March on Washington. Part of the little-known history of that landmark event was that it was a march which the Kennedy administration initially opposed -- vehemently. Over and over again they attempted to get Dr. Martin Luther King to call it off, but he refused. Even though the Kennedy administration appeared to be more amenable to civil rights than the preceding Eisenhower administration, Dr. King was not going to sacrifice the civil rights of his community to the political alliances he had developed with the Democratic Party. Kennedy was faced with a choice -- openly ally himself with the goals of the '63 march or risk, in the words of one of his aides, of it becoming "an anti-administration march." Kennedy made the right choice, and while racism has proven much more resilient than that generation of civil rights leaders hoped, few would deny that the 1963 march had a sweeping impact on both public opinion and legislation.

Strategies For LGBT Civil Rights

Today, amidst the civil rights crisis facing the LGBT community, we need to make a sober reassessment of how our civil rights resources are be allocated. It is not a wise strategy to say that "everything's good," that we can afford to spend money and labor on all endeavors and just hope that everything works out for the best, especially when our opponents often have much greater resources than we do. Any good business, military or political tactician facing a difficult task will assess the objective situation with an eye to determining where he or she "will get the most bang for the buck," and then concentrate their resources in that area.

In the struggle for our civil rights, our opponents are generally able to outspend us many times over. Relying on a huge constellation of right wing mega-churches and foundations developed over many years, they have an institutional infrastructure that we can't hope to match any time within the next few years. In a "capital-intensive" political campaign relying on huge media buys, not only can they easily outspend us and dominate the "air war" on the commercial broadcast stations, they also have a huge stable of right wing "Christian" radio and television networks and syndicated shows saturating most parts of the country. In all 19 states where we've had an open battle, including relatively liberal Oregon, the capital-intensive strategy to oppose the constitutional amendments has been soundly defeated.

To the extent that we've had any success in stymieing these statewide amendments, it's only been thanks to the much more inflexible nature of the amendment process in some states, and by having our lobbyists and allies use these often arcane laws and constitutional provisions to bottle up the right wing assault. But this is just a rear-guard action on our part, and not one that's going to radically turn the tide of the struggle in our favor.

The "Sit Back and Do Nothing" Approach to Winning Rights

Many professional political commentators, and many in our community, act as though it's just a matter of time before we see the end of all discriminatory laws, including laws against equal marriage rights. This complacency is dangerous.

While the threat of a federal constitutional amendment appeared to have receded over the past several months, this week the amendment passed out of a Senate subcommittee and will be headed for another vote in Congress next year. This would make the Senate and House votes on the amendment right in the midst of a nasty midterm Congressional election, with five more anti-gay amendments on state ballots, and Neanderthal legislators using the circus-like atmosphere to scapegoat our community. If a number of additional states pass amendments and join the 19 already ranged against us, they could contribute to a national political momentum that could make a federal amendment a real threat once again.

Constitutional amendments, by their very definition, are exceeding difficult to reverse. Moreover, many people get hurt in the course of the anti-gay hysteria whipped up during the passage of measures like these.* [*For example, in the year following the passage of Colorado's Amendment 2, which forbade local governments from passing gay rights legislation, anti-LGBT violence more than doubled over that of the previous year, according to the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Colorado, a figure corroborated by the Denver Police Department.] Progress is not inevitable. History offers both examples of rapid civil rights progress and examples of devastating civil rights routs.** [**The most dramatic example of the latter being the situation of Lesbians and Gays in early-1930's Germany. In the space of just a few years, the country which was universally recognized as being at the center of the world gay movement, where Lesbians and Gays were the most free, rapidly turned into the most repressive country on the planet for us, not to mention for most everyone else.] There is nothing "inevitable" about about the advance of our civil rights. History is made by human beings. The question then is, what is the most effective strategy for human beings who want to advance civil rights for LGBT people?

How Do We Make Civil Rights Progress Today?

To get our civil rights, we need to look at how other communities have won legal equality, and attempt to emulate their successes. It was widescale mobilizations of people in the streets of the nation -- women demanding the right to vote, women demanding the right to choice, African-Americans demanding voting rights and an end to legalized segregation -- which prompted legislatures and courts to act. With these examples in mind, Dontamend.com's Robin Tyler has called for a 2008 March on Washington to advance civil rights for LGBT people.

Bearing in mind the positive example of the 1963 Civil Rights March, and the negative examples of the 1993 and 2000 LGBT marches, we intend to make the 2008 march one which not only generates large-scale community mobilization, but one which puts our demand for equality above all partisan political considerations. Put simply, any politician, Democrat or Republican, who opposes our full legal equality, will catch hell. This includes the right to marry, and as much as Democratic operatives and some of our community leaders may want to run away from the issue, there's no avoiding it. It's front and center on the political debate about our community, and we have to deal with it. Saying you oppose constitutional amendments, but also oppose "gay marriage" is not good enough -- either you favor equality or you oppose it.

The alternative to a civil rights-style strategy of protests in the streets is to "stay the course" -- continue lobbying politicians who don't give a damn about our community (except when it's time to collect money and votes) and who blame us for their own lack of courage in standing up to the religious right. If we are going to put ourselves in a position where the politicians will have to respect us, where lobbying will become effective again, then we are going to have to make our community a force to be reckoned with by changing public opinion, and sending a strong message to all politicians, steadfast foes and fickle friends alike.

To get back to the best grassroots traditions of our community and other communities, we intend to make the 2008 march not just a stand-alone, flash-in-the-pan event, inspiring for one day but leaving no impact. Beginning in 2006, focusing on the "red" states, we will begin a series of local organizing meetings for the march. The goal is to spur local organizing among different community organizations and individuals with events in 2007. As our community's 1979 and 1987 marches demonstrated, a national march can serve as a tremendous boon to both local and national LGBT organizing, reinvigorating local organizing projects and creating new ones where needed.

We are going forward with organizing the 2008 march because we feel it meets a vital need of our community. Our belief in this is being confirmed by the flood of emails we're receiving from people around the country offering to volunteer (to the point that it's difficult keeping up with the mail!). If you would like to be part of the 2008 March organizing effort, we encourage you to write us at RTdontamend@aol.com

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Andy Thayer is National Action Coordinator of DontAmend.com, an all-volunteer organization, and also served in that role for the successful StopDrLaura campaign against hate radio hostess Dr. Laura Schlessinger. A co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network in Chicago (www.GayLiberation.org, formerly known as the Chicago Anti-Bashing Network), he has been very active in that city's movement against the U.S. war on Iraq and against police brutality.

Robin Tyler is Executive Director of DontAmend.com and cofounder of StopDrLaura.com. The first "out" Lesbian comedienne in the United States and Canada, she initiated the calls for the 1979 and 2000 LGBT Marches on Washington, and produced the main stages for the 1979, 1987 and 1993 marches.


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