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Civil Disobedience and the LGBT Community

With news breaking of Kip Williams of GetEQUAL mounting yet another civilly disobedient action to keep pressure on the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, I thought it’d be a good time to share this.

I had an occasion to mention an action from the 1980s, by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and was rather surprised to find out how many young people do not know of their actions.

I lived through the time, and though their stakes were life and death, like GetEQUAL, they suffered from much of the same criticism, that they were too extreme, that they were uncivilized, they were an embarrassment and turning off allies.

I believe thousands of people are alive today, because ACT UP acted, when others waited.

After the jump, a look at our community’s history with civil disobedience, in case they skipped that in history class, for some of you kids.

In the beginning, there was Stonewall. And it was a riot.

Everything old is new again. The modern gay rights movement is popularly believed to have been born on June 27, 1969, at an event known as the Stonewall riots. The anniversary of Stonewall is celebrated on the last Sunday in June each year with Pride marches in New York, San Francisco and across the nation and globe.

But the amidst the misty nostalgia and grateful recognition of how far the LGBT community has come, many forget, not only that was it violent riot, it was a spontaneous act of civil disobedience.

Rather than submit to the usual and unremarkable arrests and shakedowns of the New York City police that were commonplace at gay establishments at the time, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn said together: “Enough!” And they resisted arrest. And they rose up and assaulted cops, with cans, bottles, rocks and their fists. And it lasted for days.

History vindicated these accidental activists’ assault on the New York City’s law men. In 2004 original veterans, both rioters and police reunited, marching together in the New York City Gay Pride parade to mark the 35th anniversary of the riot. The site was designated by the Federal Government as a national historic landmark in 1999. [More on Stonewall here.]

Another thing often overlooked is, in the process of this civil disobedience, the gay community obtained a Civil Right previously denied them: the right to free association. Prior to the Stonewall incident, in most places gay bars or gathering establishments were considered illegal and open targets for raids and police harassment. It was presumed it was within the government’s appropriate jurisdiction to dictate to LGBT Americans who they may or may not fraternize with. Though raids unfortunately continue to this day, it is now properly accepted that the LGBT citizens are permitted the right of free association like any other American.

As the radical political tactics of the 60s and 70s fell from fashion in the 80s, the LGBT community, too, transitioned into more docile and mainstream tactics of lobbying for legal equality. There was a the rise of traditional lobbying groups, like Human Campaign Rights. Radicalism gave way to K-Street offices and cocktail parties.

The Rise of ACT UP

Then the AIDS crisis hit. Though earliest cases were identified in 1981, by the late 80s, the government response-from the Center for Disease Control, the National Institute of Health and the Federal Drug Administration-was still lackadaisical, impotent and wholly insufficient to address the tens of thousands of annual deaths that were ravaging the gay community.

By 1987, recognizing neither our elected leaders, nor our K-Street lobbying groups were getting the job done, a group of activists, sprang to action. Calling themselves the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) they mounted a long series of spectacularly headline-grabbing civil disobedient actions. These included:

On March 24, 1987, ACT UP NY shut down the New York Stock Exchange, resulting in 73 arrests.

On April 15, 1987 they disrupted taxpayers filing last-minute tax returns at NYC’s General Post Office.

On January 31, 1988, ACT UP shut down the Golden Gate Bridge during rush-hour ruining many Bay Area resident’s daily commute.

The idea: to make it no longer so convenient for America to continue to ignore the AIDS crisis. And, in the end, an apathetic Federal Government was prodded into using their resources at the FDA, NIH and CDC to address the crisis that had swept the LGBT community unnoticed for years. [More on ACT UP here and here.]

In March 2007, as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act languished for its 34th year in the United States Congress, a founding member of ACT UP, Larry Kramer made the call to a new generation to also act up:

Kramer said that today’s judges who rule against same-sex marriage and politicians who vote against laws to expand rights for lesbian and gay people are “equally threatening as AIDS” used to be.

“I think the courts that continue to deny us our rights are evil,” Kramer said. “We are not equal, and I’m sick of it, and every gay person should be sick of it and every gay person should be ashamed if they’re ‘passing.'”

Matt Foreman of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force agrees. Days later, immediately after his own arrest protesting “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at a Army recruitment Center in NYC, he said:

“I do feel that the time for direct action is back,” said Foreman, who was last arrested at a protest in 1991. “One thing the movement has lacked for many years is a left flank. We got where we did with AIDS because we had ACT UP on one hand and the professionals in suits on the other.”

One of the people responding to the call for direct action is Robin McGehee. Appropriately, her organization has taken its name from the simplicity of its goal: to GetEQUAL. GetEqual has taken the lead in organizing acts of civil disobedience and engaging in other newsworthy protests. You may remember when, recently, the President’s speech was interrupted during a fundraiser for Senator Barbara Boxer. That was GetEqual. And they were the instigators when on April 20th:

Six people in military uniforms*, including Lt. Dan Choi, handcuffed themselves to the North Lawn fence of the White House today to protest the fact that the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy has not been repealed.

[*Note: these were actual servicemembers and veterans, not costumed protestors as CBS and other media outlets implied. The information to verify that was made readily available.]

Just days ago, GetEqual members held protests demanding passage of ENDA in Washington DC and Chicago, with some arrests.

GetEqual’s tactics seem to have also spurred on copy-cat work from other LGBT grassroots activists. In recent months groups not affiliated with GetEqual, have mounted civilly disobedient actions at the New York City Marriage Bureau, a sit-in at Senator John McCain’s office and Senator Dick Durbin’s office, and HIV activists used a Presidential visit in New York to stage a protest of HIV funding cuts. Eight activists were arrested that day.

I say good for them. Let’s make it inconvenient for them to keep ignoring us.

———————————————————-

This diary served as an introduction to a liveblog hosting of GetEQUAL founder Robin McGehee that was first posted at The Daily Kos. A Q&A session can be found there, as well as the thread of her chat.

Daily Kos hosts a regular series GLBT and Friends at Daily Kos that posts every Friday at 11:30 am EST. New users are welcome to join us to discuss issues concerning LGBT politics and culture.

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Civil Disobedience and the LGBT Community

With news breaking of Kip Williams of GetEQUAL mounting yet another civilly disobedient action to keep pressure on the issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, I thought it’d be a good time to share this.

I had an occasion to mention an action from the 1980s, by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and was rather surprised to find out how many young people do not know of their actions.

I lived through the time, and though their stakes were life and death, like GetEQUAL, they suffered from much of the same criticism, that they were too extreme, that they were uncivilized, they were an embarrassment and turning off allies.

I believe thousands of people are alive today, because ACT UP acted, when others waited.

After the jump, a look at our community’s history with civil disobedience, in case they skipped that in history class, for some of you kids.

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