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Navigating the Schism in the LGBT Movement

Crossposted on ZackFord Blogs.
(A follow-up post addressing HRC's response can be found here.)

I first wrote about the schism in our movement back in March, but an extremely thorough piece on paints an updated picture on where things stand through the lens of DADT repeal. I, personally, have been chastised for speaking out against what could perhaps be called the "old guard" of the movement with the suggestion that I am not informed enough about history or that I do not have enough respect for the work of those who came before. The "enough" suggests that if I had enough, I'd be singing a different tune.

In the interest of both clarifying my own point of view and an attempt to make some sense of these divides in the community, I'm going to use this post to explore some questions that help sort out the different perspectives. This will hopefully help people (myself included) clarify who they are calling out and why.

Do we measure success by progress or by full equality?

Obviously, this question isn't really a dichotomy, and yet it seems to effectively separate people out. I don't think anybody who is equality-focused is ungrateful for progress and I don't think anyone who is progress-focused is blind to equality. The forest is made up of trees and each tree makes up the forest.

The distinction here is the idea of "success" and our standards for it. What is it we celebrate? What is it we take pride in?

Our movement has largely been based on incrementalism, resisting discrimination at every turn. There were many battles that had to be fought, from pushing the APA to revise the DSM, to countering Bryant and Briggs, to trying to save our own lives at the height of the AIDS epidemic. These battles continue to this day: we denounce NARTH and Exodus, we track the NOM tour bus, and we have a new epidemic of suicide-inducing bullying threatening the lives of our young ones (three more this week, including a college student) as HIV still ravages our community.

In many ways, ours has been a movement of defense and survival. Our successes have been measured by our ability to resist attacks on our rights, a measure by which we still struggle, as evidenced most recently by California's Prop 8 and Maine's Question 1. There continues to be a constant barrage from the religious right that never ends (NOM, AFA, FOF, ADF, FRC, etc.), and we cannot ignore these attacks on our community.

Yet, it seems the tide is turning (if it hasn't already) in that we are successfully progressing in legitimately positive ways (as opposed to breaking even). From Lawrence v. Texas in 2003 to marriage equality in six states to the recent Prop 8 and DADT federal court decisions, we have seen progress at an epic pace. This challenges the old standard for "success" and, I think, begs for a reconsideration of where we place the goal line. Are we just kicking a can to keep it moving down the street or are we playing to win the championship for our lives?

What context informs our perspectives on the movement?

I think there is a growing generation gap resulting from a difference in shared memories. When we entered the movement and what experiences we've had with our identities play a huge part in how we answer the previous question.

Consider that among the span of currently-living LGBT people, there are people who've experienced homosexuality as a mental illness. (Our trans brethren are still somewhat in this boat.) There are people who've experienced homosexuality as a crime. There are people who lost countless friends and loved ones to HIV/AIDS as the government stood by and did nothing. People have been bullied, fired, deported, and beaten within inches of their lives. Many of those experiences will not resonate with younger members of our community.

I'm one of those younger members. By the time I came out in 2004, there was already extensive scientific research about the nature of sexual orientation and gender identity. Being gay was no longer a crime, and one state already had marriage equality. While I know people who are HIV+ (and once had a scare myself), I've never had to watch a loved one suffer and I've never lost anyone to AIDS. I wasn't even bullied that much, and as far as I know, I haven't been discriminated against in hiring (though I still could be here in PA). My story isn't particularly compelling; there was little hardship.

Thus, my emotional engagement with the movement comes from a very different place. I'm not a survivor. I haven't endured harassment, pain, and loss. I have great admiration for struggles endured, but I don't get choked up at the thought of AIDS; I just don't. I am fresh young blood who sees injustice persisting and I am motivated to interrupt that injustice. My perspective is primarily defined by my foundational understanding of our identities and the progress I've seen in this decade. When Don't Ask, Don't Tell passed, it was considered progress. Better that we could serve closeted than not serve at all. Ultimately, it didn't pan out that way, and I've only seen how disastrous and damaging it turned out to be. I understand that it was a big achievement in 1993, but I was in 3rd grade; it doesn't resonate with me as ever being a "success" or a worthwhile compromise.

What stuns me is that a young person coming out today will take the progress I've seen for granted. The closer we get to equality, the less patience young people will have to seal the deal. This impatience isn't ignorant nor naive. It doesn't speak to a lack of experience or a poor understanding of what's come before. It also doesn't speak to a lack of gratitude or appreciation for those who have achieved the progress we enjoy today. It speaks to new times, new circumstances, new momentum, and new fervor that cannot simply be dismissed as immature insolence. If anything, it represents the success of progress both legally and socially.

Have Will & Grace, Queer as Folk, and Brokeback Mountain been extremely validating for me as a young gay man? Absolutely. And that too is "progress." But that "progress" rings a lot truer in gay-haven cities like New York, DC, and San Francisco where people can relish in that visibility through concentrated self-isolation. We don't feel that out here in Middle America. I see protests and rallies in SF or NYC that support the movement and in some ways can't even relate. Life in those homo-meccas is so far beyond what the rest of us are experiencing, but that is where many of our movement's leaders are speaking from. Despite my efforts to keep up with what is happening throughout the whole movement through my blogging, I so often wonder if folks realize what little impact actions in those cities really have on those of us in the rest of the country. It's great that it's convenient for them, but what good does it do us?

And while I've seen a lot more visibility and access to information about LGBT issues (thanks to television and the internet), that same visibility and access has been harnessed by our opponents, who continue to keep us at bay with their taunting and disparaging campaigns.

How accountable must politicians be to continue receiving our support?

This seems to be the question of the hour due to the impending midterm elections.

Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine if groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the Stonewall Democrats only supported candidates who were 100% committed to LGBT issues—willing to cosponsor every one of our bills in the House and Senate. This would mean there would be plenty of races in which no candidates get endorsements from the LGBT community. There would be no obligation of loyalty to candidates who didn't follow through. There would be no endorsement of lesser evils. Money would be saved up to support candidates who didn't hedge in their support of our community and the issues that affect us.

In this dream world, only Dennis Kucinich would have gotten direct support from the LGBT establishment in the 2008 election. It's a crazy thought, I know. But I think considering this extreme puts into perspective the current debate about our "friends." There are a lot of folks who think we should never challenge our "friends," particularly when some of us are trying to get those same "friends" reelected (Sen. Harry Reid comes to mind). For them, the standard to earn the title of "friend" is incredibly low. Politicians don't have to promise much in regards to LGBT issues to get their support; in fact, they will even engage in defensive apologetic support for elected leaders who don't follow through, as they have with President Obama.

These differences in standards lead to conflict within the movement. This is good conflict. Unfortunately, the impression I get is that the apologists are quite good at silencing and ostracizing dissenters. As perhaps best epitomized by HRC in the piece, the apologists are institutionalized and they maintain a proprietary grasp on some of the connections that are most important to our efforts. Critics like myself are accused of "shooting our own" or the topic is dismissed as being unproductive or unimportant. Meanwhile, no real critical discussion takes place about how our movement is being led or whether or not current strategy is the most effective (or effective at all). Such silencing of dissent is perhaps even more dangerous than the dissent itself is perceived to be. It speaks to privilege and a sense of ownership over the movement rather than a willingness to grow and adapt. The pace of society in the 21st Century is too great to accommodate such rigidity.

Honestly, I think the tide has turned enough that the LGBT movement should stop trying to "get whatever we can." Rather than wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars and personhours campaigning for lesser evil candidates, we should dedicate that energy to community education and voter motivation. We can help voters choose lesser evil candidates to support without endorsing them. Our focus needs to be on addressing the experiences of our own community across the country, not just ensuring another Congressional term of grasping at straws. Similarly, we need to have the courage to ask for more than breadcrumbs. We can show the power of our voting block and save up our financial support for candidates who will truly stand for us. The Don't Ask, Don't Give campaign has definitely gotten a lot of individuals thinking about their giving; I would love to see it translate to the economic forces in our movement.

Until the organizations and individuals in our movement with the most status agree to let go of the stronghold they currently maintain on incremental apologetic strategy, this internal conflict is likely only going to escalate. Likewise, LGBT individuals in Middle America will continue to feel isolated and left behind because political power will still be prioritized over education and outreach, as I voiced concern about last week.

At this point, I am not convinced that continued incrementalism and support of AINOs (Allies in name only) is the best course for our movement. Did it get us where we are today? Yes. I won't argue that. But is it going to get us where we should be tomorrow? That I'm not so sure about. If I can look around my state and see that the legal situation for LGBT people hasn't really changed despite all the progress made elsewhere and in other ways, something has to change. Change doesn't mean disrespecting what came before; it means respecting what needs to come next.

The movement ought to belong to all of us. It would be nice if all ideas and perspectives felt welcome.