“We are engaged at the highest level in this century in a fight between liberty and authoritarianism, between democracy and oligarchy, between pluralism and fundamentalism, between movements with visions rooted in liberation for all and movements with visions rooted in elitism…This is a struggle about competing visions of human freedom and responsibility.”
A version of this presentation was given in May of 2007 at the University of Washington in Seattle. Copyright 2007 U. Vaid
The title of my talk comes from a song by the Canadian poet and song writer, Leonard Cohen. In a song called The Traitor, he writes: I could not move to warn all the younger soldiers /That they had been deserted from above/So on battlefields from here to Barcelona /I’m listed with the enemies of love. (Leonard Cohen, The Traitor)
It is my starting premise that love is the redemptive and transformative power behind social justice. The love to which I refer is the love of humanity, of creation; it is the love of family – be it of choice or origin, of community, of liberty. It was this love that Gandhi, King, Rustin, Mandela and other major leaders of our time called upon to transform brutal and unjust regimes; it is this love that underlies the demand that we must end poverty and create a more compassionate economic system; it is love in the form of justice that underlies the experience of peace. And it is this spirit of love that motivates progressive social change movements.
All religious traditions speak of love as a force for transformation, as the key reason for existence, as a force for wholeness and peace in the world. Yet we live in a time where love does not guide our public policy or our interactions with each other Our world is ruled by domination and submission, violence and threat, hatred and distrust – hardly by love. In our time, religious leaders around the world use love for far less noble ends. In the name of love itself – they endorse actions that would decrease equity, oppose human freedom, do not work to end poverty with all their might, condone the use of violence and terror in the service of power, and seem to justify inequality.
Given the centrality of love to every religious tradition, from the Abrahamic religions to the Hindu and Buddhist ones that preceded them, there is also a profound irony to the demonization of a movement for a right to love and be loved.
The King James Bible at I John 7 “Love is of God, and Everyone that loveth is born of God and knoweth God.” Reconciling this injunction to love with their practice of preaching intolerance against LGBT people has led religious leaders to contortions like “love the sinner/hate the sin.” But if love is not a sin, then offering an act of love cannot be a sin. If we are of God and sex is of God then why is it condemned unless it is conducted in accordance with the dictates of certain rules set by people who don’t have sex? The reduction of same-sex love to an “abomination” is an act of selective interpretation, an out-of-context rendering that is made to enhance the secular power of those making this argument. Similar selective interpretations have been deployed by the enemies of love to defend slavery. Interpretation cannot negate the truth that same-gender loving people are as much God’s children as all other beings.
Love should not just be seen as the province of religion. A true politics of compassion is needed to address the social, political and economic inequalities we find in the world today. A politics rooted in love, forgiveness and social justice is perhaps the only way forward out of the violent polarized and soul-draining space in which the world finds itself today. Love is a force that can motivate and unite, it has the power to bridge across vast divisions, and to heal. Love has the power to create trust and affinity, the power to empathize and feel in a world which numbs us with its massive problems, inundates us with its data and its complexity and frightens us with its indifference. Such a politics of love can topple power structures and reorient priorities. And that is why this politics of love and social justice has powerful enemies today.
My talk is about the GLBT movement in particular, but that movement is not separate from the broader context, indeed this movement’s success is key to the preservation of human liberty for all. Similarly, the safety and security of GLBT people is intimately tied to the outcome of the broader power struggle in which we find ourselves. We are engaged at the highest level in this century in a fight between liberty and authoritarianism, between democracy and oligarchy, between pluralism and fundamentalism, between movements with visions rooted in liberation for all and movements with visions rooted in elitism. This is not a fight between heterosexuality and homosexuality, between white and black, between men and women or even rich and poor, although the battleground on which it is being fought is our sexual, racial, gender and class identities.
Rather, this is a struggle about competing visions of human freedom and responsibility. It is a struggle between very divergent world views – the progressive world view, which values a plural, more just, multi-racial, multi-cultural America and seeks to spread its prosperity to benefit all, and the reactionary world view which aspires for a hierarchical, traditionalist, Christian dominated America, in which some are chosen and others are damned.
It is a struggle for who will control and dictate the moral vision for the world – what values will guide our economies and our global governance regimes. Over whether we will we accept inequality as inevitable, poverty as unfortunate but unchangeable, human difference and variance as something that must be changed. Or whether we will have governments and political systems which operate under new codes of conduct, rooted in love and compassion, in peace and honor.
This is a bitter and consequential struggle my friends in which there are no sidelines – only sides. You may not like my oppositional frame, but there are enemies of an inclusive vision of love and justice. They offer us another vision which they believe is more fair, more just, more truthful than ours. Each of us has choices to make, and we make them with our actions and even our silence.
This talk has three parts. First we will take a look at the GLBT present and the challenges GLBT people face? Second, we will look at the enemies of love and the obstacles they represent? And finally, we will consider how to organize at the political, community and individual level to advance a countervailing moral vision – of love over violence.
The GLBT movement is in a paradoxical place – cultural visibility has been won and it has triggered massive cultural resistance. Political access has been won but it does not guarantee GLBT people political power or clout. Specific acceptance on GLBT equal rights is evident in all public opinion polls – majorities of Americans support nondiscrimination laws, even civil unions – but the underlying moral opposition remains virtually unchanged in thirty years: when people are asked them question of whether they think homosexuality is right or wrong they answer it is wrong.
Let me tell one story that illustrates the progress made in social visibility and understanding. I spoke at the University of Richmond a few years ago in the late 1990’s and I had an early flight the morning after my talk. A taxi came to take me to the airport at 5 AM. It was pitch dark, a bit rural and the cab driver was a friendly, older white Southern gentleman who asked if I was there for work. I said yes. He said what did I do. Trying to be evasive I said I had just given a talk at the University. He said on what. I took a breath and said I spoke about gay and lesbian civil rights. He looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked with great surprise, you a lesbian? I said yes I am. Now my heart was pounding. At 5 Am you don’t want conflict on a rural road in the middle of Virginia, even in the 1990’s. Without missing a beat he said, well you know we got a case here in Virginia where this lesbian is being sued by her own mother for the custody of her kid. He starts to tell me about the Sharon Bottoms legal case, in which Sharon’s mom tried to win custody of her grandchild. He said with an incredulous tone, That woman is suing her daughter saying she is not a suitable mom, hell she raised a lesbian what makes her so much better.” Then he went on to say he had three kids and if one of them told him he or she was gay, he would never disown or sue them. I thought to myself, this is pretty cool. Then he amazed me even more. He said, you know Ellen? I said I didn’t know her personally but I certainly knew who she was. He said, well, I understand her being gay and all that but I don’t understand that woman she is with – that bisexual thing. What is that about? I thought okay, this is ridiculous, as I heard myself talking about how sexuality is a spectrum and not just an either or. How far have we come that I would find myself in this conversation in Richmond Virginia with a random cab driver!
In the past twenty years (since the late 1980’s), the GLBT movement has won the battle of visibility and begun to win the battle to be comprehensible to mainstream America – that is what this story illustrates. But when I reflect on the changes over my 30 years of organizing, I see also that too much remains the same.
To be a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person in the 21st century is to know the meaning of being “deserted from above” and to know what it is like to be “listed with the enemies of love.” We are deserted by our families and our faith communities; used as wedge pawns by legions of Rove-inspired political consultants; defamed daily on radio, print and pulpit; and abandoned by the silence of the liberal establishment, which still wilts at the prospect of fully embracing homosexuality in particular and sexuality in general as a factual, intimate and positive part of nature.
LGBT people are essentially stateless people in this country. We have no federal rights that guarantee us fair and equal protection under the law, our families are not legally recognized in most of this country, only 17 states ban discrimination in employment against GLBT people, and even fewer have comprehensive anti-discrimination protections. The litany is memorialized in our brains and regurgitated each week as some atrocious action is pressed by our self declared enemies. The Congress has been craven, failing to pass ENDA, a meaningful hate crimes bill, denial of openly gay military service among dozens of other abdications of leadership. This President aligns himself with our enemies and promotes an anti-gay constitutional amendment. And state legislatures around the country shiver in fear at the prospect of being asked to legalize what should never have been in their power to forbid — the granting of equal rights to GLBT people to enable us to live freely and to create lives of joy and meaning.
All the while, for the more than 30 years, a vigorous anti-gay industry has in the US organized, campaigned, and used all the tools in its power to spins its web of lies to seize political power. It has passed anti-gay laws in Congress and in more passed anti-marriage referenda in more than 20 states, and it threatens them in as many as 23 more in 2008. Every attempt to assert GLBT humanity is counterattacked and powerfully challenged.
There are three realities GLBT people must transform in order to move forward. First is the underlying moral and religious mischaracterization of homosexuality as sinful and immoral. Second is the silence of our straight and liberal allies. Third of course is the political power of the right wing.
Two recent stories illustrate the real challenge we face in these areas – the story of Joint Chief of staff General Peter Pace and his comments and the story of what is going on in Massachusetts.
Less than two months ago, the head of the Joint Chief, general Pace, made an outrageous set of remarks a few months ago about the immorality of gay behavior, and he seemed to cite this as a reason not to change the military policy of discrimination. He said:
“I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts,” ……. “I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is OK to be immoral in any way. “As an individual, I would not want [acceptance of gay behavior] to be our policy, just like I would not want it to be our policy that if we were to find out that so-and-so was sleeping with somebody else’s wife, that we would just look the other way, which we do not. We prosecute that kind of immoral behavior,” Chicago Tribune, March 12, 2007
After a wave of negative reaction from GLBT people, he backpedaled to say that was his “personal” opinion. Both the statement and the reaction reveal the cultural status of GLBT people and our political clout.
Pace’s’ view about the immorality of gayness represents the most important challenge the GLBT movement faces in its struggle for full acceptance — namely the widely held cultural view that gayness is sinful and immoral. It was not just an individual opinion but a larger cultural gestalt that Pace was expressing. The work ahead for GLBT people requires us to tackle the religious and moral underpinnings of this mischaracterization of our lives. The good news is that there is a vigorous pro-GLBT faith based movement in the world to which we can turn for strength and support. This movement is led by welcoming congregations, it is being waged in denominations and it is intellectually grounded in the world of senior theologians and scholars who offer a more liberatory analysis of scriptures. But up to this point, the pro-GLBT religious movement has been a under-resourced, and marginalized distant cousin to the mainstream GLBT movement.
The Peter Pace flap also aptly illustrated the 2nd huge challenge GLBT people face in the coming years – overcoming the silence and uneasiness of our liberal political allies. The silence of so many political and civic leaders on these comments was amazing to me. The leading presidential candidates equivocated in condemning Pace’s statements until they were pressed into making stronger statements. Corporate leaders did not condemn this defamation of millions of hard working people. In this these leaders were no different than most other liberals who have been silent for decades while gay people have been attacked. Sometimes I imagine how different our lives would be if mainstream civic and political leaders had spoken up against the right in the 1970’s, the 1980’s and the 1990’s when we faced all those successive waves of anti-gay prejudice. We would not be facing such a strong enemy today.
Liberalism’s strength is its respect for individual rights and a rule of law. But liberalism’s weakness is its ultimate unwillingness to define and defend its radical moral vision of pluralism. Pluralism means multiplicity, but it does not mean a lack of judgment. Violence in a pluralist society is as wrong as it is in a totatlitarian society. Liberalism and pluralism does not mean that anything goes. It means inclusion and Inclusion means all are welcome and covered under an evenly applied system of rules and laws. Tolerance does not mean we tolerate violence or abuse or domination. It means we strive for a society built on respect for all and create space for dissenting views, even when we do not like what they are saying.
When I think of the Massachussetts example, I get really angry. And it should steam you all up too. In the next two months we are likely to face a vote in the MA state legislature that will put the issue of same sex marriage on the ballot box in 2008. As few as ten votes are the tipping point between the people of that state having the freedom to continue to choose to get married or potentially losing it. This does not need to happen. It is only happening because of the interaction of religious opposition, the silent acquiescence of straight allies to anti-gay bigotry and the power of an organized right wing. We all should be furious about Massachusetts. In that very liberal, heavily democratic state, why are we still 9 or 10 votes short?
MA has had same sex marriage as a result of a court decision which interpreted the state constitution as requiring equal protection to all people (how radical, how activist of those judges that they think constitutions should be equally applied!) The earth has not split open in MA. Straight people are still getting married and having kids. Gay people are too. Everyone seems to be getting along and having the same challenges – taking care of elderly parents, finding work, paying the bills, saving for the vacation or the kids college fund. Despite the evidence of more than three years – the state legislators – in a heavily blue state are willing to sacrifice their gay constituents out of their own fear and individual moral uneasiness. It’s an outrage and an insult. And a sign of our weakness as a movement.
Internally, the GLBT movement is at the same crossroads of demobilization that has confronted movements for civil rights and social justice that are older than we are. The energy does not seem to be there, a younger generation does not seem to be stepping up and leading the movement instead we have an aging cadre, the streets are not filled with protests even though atrocious things happen ever day. What is going on? The first thing that is going on is the agenda of the GLBT movement is not inspiring the base. A second thing that is going on is that racial and economic fragmentation in our communities is keeping us divided from allies and from our own strength. And a third thing that is going on is that our movement is much larger at the national level than at the state level, and the national does not touch our lives as much and is therefore less engaging to all of us.
Agenda and Base
I remember when President Bush first mentioned and condemned same sex marriage in his State of the Union address in 2004, I was flabbergasted. The country was reeling from the lies it had been told that got us into a war without end, people all over the country are losing their jobs and the President chose the state of the Union to elevate this issue and urge the passage of a Constitutional amendment to Ban same-sex marriage. “A strong America must also value the institution of marriage….If judges insist on forcing their arbitrary will upon the people, the only alternative left to the people would be the constitutional process. Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.” State of the Union, January 21, 2004
President Bush made a political calculation for the mid term elections to use the issue of marriage to motivate his base. It was stunning. And it worked. But the thing that shocked me even more was the lack of anger in the GLBT community at being named and defamed by this President. There was no mass protest at the White House, no taking it to the streets. There was nothing again in June of 2004 when Mr. Bush invited some of our most strident opponents to the White House for a strategy meeting on defeating a right that we have barely begun to have.
Even I had to admit, that I was more angry about the right wing’ agenda using us as a tool in its larger game than I was about the specific right to marry. Now do not get me wrong – I believe GLBT people should have the right to marriage equality – we should have FULL access to all institutions of society without discrimination. But saying this does not contradict what I also see as true – the marriage issue may be the most salient one we deal with but it is not the most exciting one to the majority of GLBT people.
We have to examine how and why the marriage fight has had the unintended consequence of alienating the GLBT base, even as it has undeniably motivated some new people to be engaged in this work. A friend made the argument the other night that the marriage issue matters to those who have kids, who are concerned about their security and who have a personal stake in this – people in coupled relationships, people who are perhaps a little older, people who are worried about health or property or some of the scores of other material issues and benefits that the legal status of marriage offers.
But the fact is that there are just as many if not more GLBT people whose personal stake in the marriage issue is not as immediate – the single, the childless, the young, the non-monogamous, the non-conformists. One of the delightful aspects of the GLBT movement has been its friendliness to different and hopefully more honest and healthy forms of human relationship and sexual pleasure. The prospect of seeing all that lovely sexual freedom contained in the heteronormative container of traditional marriage is simply not enticing to a lot of gay people.
Because GLBT liberation also stood for sexual freedom and experimentation and that this tradition of questioning tradition is perhaps what is causing the dissonance within the community – the paradoxical situation where we are under virulent attack on our basic human freedom to form relationships and we are not out in the street with fury at the attack on us.
Our ambivalence about marriage also comes from an even more important source – GLBT people are concerned about the state of the world, not just the status of their relationships and individual lives. They need and want a movement and leadership that speaks to them about the whole mosaic and where they fit into it – not just their “Place setting at the table”.
I recently heard Matt Foreman of the NGLTF give a very useful framing of the progressive vision of GLBT liberation. I think if this vision were developed and repeated it would indeed motivate more GLBT people to be engaged and involved. Matt talked about the difference between the basic rights agenda we seek and the broad moral vision we have. He talked about the agenda of the GLBT movement being to win nondiscrimination protections like ENDA at the federal level or state laws like the one you passed here in WA. But he noted that our vision was that we would achieve a society which guaranteed political and civil rights to all its people. He noted that while our agenda sought to ban bulluying and harassment in schools, our vision imagined a country in which everyone (regardless of race, sexuality or economic status) had access to a high quality and affordable education. He cited the importance to of HIV drugs and health care to our communities, but he noted that our vision sought a health care system that provided for ALL.
This distinction between our agenda and our vision is what needs to be restated for our community. The vision is inspiring. The agenda can feel self serving and narrow.
Race and Racism
Our racial fragmentation renders our community less than fully mobilized because only certain sectors of it are actively organized by the mainstream movement’s institutions. You can see this in the number and kinds of people in the pride parades or in the bars versus the number of people on the rolls of organizations or attending the dinners of our larger groups. You can see it in the huge black pride events around the country and in the lack of people of color involved in the GLBT movement. In general, only a small portion of GLBT people continue to be involved in activism and a smaller number of people of color are connected to the mainstream GLBT movement.
I would offer two critical reasons for this lack of mobilization – the first is the agenda – and the mainstream GLBT movement’s failure to incorporate issues of racial and economic justice into its mainstream civil rights framework. This has left it disconnected from large numbers of GLBT people for whom these issues are central. Social service organizations in our communities see these issues clearly, but the political GLBT movement has barely worked on the policy realities that underlie structural racism, gender equity, to address poverty as a central concern.
Nor has the GLBT movement done a great job to address racial and class disparities inside our own community based institutions. Although scores of local organizations do vital work on hate violence, immigrant rights, prison and criminal justice reform, police brutality, youth organizing, schools, housing and homelessness, welfare and poverty related organizing, environmental justice, community organizing both faith based and neighborhood based, affirmative action, among other issues – these issues are not fully represented on the national GLBT agenda. The local groups are where one finds GLBT leaders and organizers of color.
There is only one national GLBT focused POC organization with any staff and infrastructure – the National Black Justice Coalition. There is an effort to start a new Latino national group but there is no Native American, API or other POC queer group. While there are HIV AIDS and Health organizations that are POC focused — these are not solely GLBT focused, although many deal with issues of homophobia.
- The mainstream GLBT movement’s leadership is almost all white.
- With some notable exceptions, to this day many major GLBT groups have weak racial diversity on staffs and boards;
- Mainstream GLBT groups do not have racial equity and an analysis of structural racism. As a result their programs are not organized in ways that might impact the ways that race affects GLBT people of color.
- Mainstream GLBT organizations around the country have not taken stands on immigrant rights or racial equity issues.
- The ONE exception to this that must be noted and really appreciated is the NGLTF – NGLTF has stood out year after year, as the organization workingon welfare reform marriage promotion, poverty reduction, immigratnt rights, affirmative action., reproductive rights, the death penaly, and opposing the war. Yet it is not the most powerful, most influential organization in our country – it is not the one that most of us are members of.
- GLBT organizations at every level have little to no relationships with African American, Latino, Asian and Native leaders and organizations – at any level (Local, state or national). The lack of relationship results in the ability of the right wing to effectively drive a wedge between GLBT people and people of color – and the wedge is driven on the backs of GLBT people of color.
- Wedge politics was effectively deployed in 2006 and in 2004 in African American communities using the issue of same sex marriage. It is going to be deployed again in 2008. To date, the GLBT movement has no strategy to counter this deployment. The enemies of love have gained traction by calling us opportunistic when it comes to race. They can do so with credibility because we have done so little to address racial equity.
The Right Wing
Let’s talk specifically about these enemies on the Right. The history of the American right wing – analyzed brilliantly by scholars like Sara Diamond, Jean Hardisty, Chip Berlet, among others, is the story of overlapping waves of interconnected organizations, funders and strategies who are pursuing some broad goals: the preservation of economic and political power in the hands of certain elites, the containment of democratic and social change movements for justice and equity, or the establishment of a theocratic state that could further institutionalize authoritarian control.
The Massachusetts based think tank Political Research Associates encourages us to see the right-wing as multifaceted and not as a monolith – not all parts of the right have the same goals. They are as PRA notes, a “complex network of social movements with different and sometimes competing agendas.” (ARC Powerpoint, Public Eye.org web site, 2007). A group of institutions and leaders from the various factions of the right wing have worked collaboratively with each other over the past three decades to build a power fulsocial movement which know how to promote public policy that advance a traditionalist and Christian fundamentalist agenda.
The PRA analysts classify the right broadly as the secular right, the religious right and the xenophobic right. Under the secular right, they include the neoconservatives, the libertarians, various corporate interests, and national security militarists. The goal of these forces is to preserve economic privilege for America. The xenophobic right includes the extreme right, the white right and militias, the anti-immigrant factions and other nativists whose racial fears advance a view of an America threatened economically and culturally by outsiders. They resist the possibility of a tolerant, inclusive and multi-racial society. And they deploy anti-elitism, economic anxieties and racial fears to campaign against progressive immigration laws or affirmative action. The religious right includes the Christian theocrats and Christian fundamentalists who believe that Christianity is the one true faith and that America was founded to be Christian. Globally this US religious right has cousins in the theocratic fundamentalist movements in Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. This right wing movement has primarily targeted gender and sexuality in its work.
We can identify at least four overlapping and at times concurrent waves of anti-GLBT panic that have been launched by the anti-gay Christian right.
The first wave of anti-GLBT organizing emerged in the 1950’s in the heyday of the anti-Communist campaigns instigated by the old right – the intimation of homosexuality was used to purge hundreds of people working in the federal government. The merest innuendo about a person’s sexuality was enough to cost them their reputation, their job and sometimes their sanity. The effort at the time was to purge gay people from government service by characterizing us as of bad moral character, unstable, and a threat to national security. The right’s anti-gay crusades link to anti-communism is curious because the implied assumption that somehow the old left provided a hospitable home for homosexuals was factually baseless – the old left was as hostile to gay people as the old right. But this early crusade established a fertile popular association in the public – the idea of commie pinkos, the idea of gayness as subversive and destabilizing to the basic economic and social order of this country.
A second wave of anti- GLBT activity emerged in the 1970’s and grew stronger in the 1980s and 1990’s as our movement itself was experiencing remarkable growth, and probably because the gay rights movement was succeeding. This wave coincided with the emergence of the political breed of right wing fundamentalists who realized the value of homophobia as a tool to build their power base: Jerry Falwell, Paul Weyrich, Lou Sheldon all have their roots in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The second wave of anti-gay right began to use the strategy of ballot initiatives. Initially these initiatives were used to try to repeal a gay rights bill when it was passed – from the earliest anti-gay ballot measure in 1974 to those most recently attempted in the fall of 2006, dozens of gay rights laws have been repealed, prevented from being passed, or undermined with these initiatives. More recently, the initiatives have been used to prevent or pre-empt pro-GLBT laws from being passed. It is important to see ballot initiative fights for the function they serve: coordinated and nationally funded strategies that helped the right build a movement and a constituency for its policy objectives. The themes introduced in this wave of anti-gay activity remain present in the discourse to this day: the second wave of anti-gay activity argued that that homosexuality was a danger to children and families, that homosexuality threatens heterosexual people and their way of life, and that gay rights laws were special rights laws.
These messages blossomed in the 1980’s, as the Right wing effectively exploited the emergence of AIDS among gay men and bisexual people in the US. exploitation of AIDS. The right wing’s messages on this era harped on the alleged and inherent danger of gay male sexual behavior, and built upon the long-standing equation of homosexuality and disease – a pathologization of sex that has been with us since the late 19th century. The notion the right promoted in this era was that homosexuality was dangerous, destructive behavior, that we needed to contain it before it spread.
The ballot initiative strategy launched by the right against gay issues has been perfected by them and is now used on all sorts of other issues as well. Its primary effect has been to perfect the use of initiatives to influence turnout in particular places in order to influence electoral outcomes. These culturally focused initiatives have also enabled the right to pick up support from constituencies that previously gave them no credence – African American voters, single women voters, suburban voters.
A third wave of anti-gay activity grew in the late 1980’s to 2000. It was marked by the emergence of a more neutral sounding, slicker form of homophobia. This wave came out of the research and polling of the generously funded think tanks, strategists and research organizations of the right. It focused homophobia to develop and strengthen the idea of cultural conservatism. The genius of cultural conservatism was its marriage of an economic conservatism with an assertion of so-called traditional values. The Christian Right in the 1990’s brilliantly recast the history of the 20th century as a battle between the forces of tradition and the destabilizing forces of “permissiveness” and argued that traditional values were functional values while feminism, gay rights, and civil liberties were dangerous secular humanist diversions that threatened the stability of the primary institutions of society: the family. Family values, family protection, a continuing critique of gay rights as special rights, and the assertion that the gay agenda was dangerous to kids and families continued to be the themes of this era.
To these themes, the right wing added a compassionate message – gayness could be cured through a turn to religion. The Ex-Gay Ministries were launched and funded by conservative foundations and institutions. The policy successes of this wave were muted because HIV demanded a response and the gay movement allied effectively with others to secure it; Bush I signed the hate crime statistics act in 1990; and Clinton’s election in 1992 slowed the right’s national anti-gay agenda. But it did not slow down their organizing. In fact the Clinton era was marked by an increased use of ballot initiatives to try to prevent non-discriminaion laws from being passed – these were deployed by the right wing at the local (municipal) and state level. The amazing thing was that the GLBT movement began to win some of these initiatives (in Flint MI, in Spokane, in Miami, and in the Supreme court case challenging the Colorado measure as unconstitutional). In response, the right retooled its message and changed its focus.
The newest wave of the anti-gay right has been with us for the past 7 years – and brilliantly drew on the lessons the right had learned from its effective deployment of homophobia as a wedge issue. The newest wave, focuses on resort to religious and moral values based opposition. One can see it in the reassertion of religious condemnation of homosexuality as immoral and sinful. Faced with growing public support for nondiscrimination the Right resorts to its trump card – the Bible. Another focus of the current wave of antigay activity is the deliberate characterization of same sex marriage and families as a threat to heterosexual family and the use of this as a basis to move narrow public policy along. So called marriage promotion, welfare reform, fatherhood promotion measures and other ideas to support heterosexual families are often presented with homophobic subtexts, and are promoted by the same people who are trying to deny gay people the right to form families. The new strategy has also become far more sophisticated in its use of anti-gay messages to target voters and siphon off votes in particular places to enable the victory of far right candidates. The newest wave has benefited from the emergence of same sex marriage as the hot button issue around which it can so easily mobilize.
To these critical waves of anti-gay activity, we should add one larger contextual factor that has emerged strongly over the last decade, and especially since the attacks of 9-11. A critical challenge to proponents of a politics of love is the dominance of a military-intelligence sector economy in this country and indeed around the world. Within this sector, there is undeniably an economic and political right wing that exercises enormous and largely undocumented influence.
President Dwight Eisenhower coined the term military industrial complex in his remarks as he was leaving the presidency in 1961. He said:
“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.
Eisenhower Papers, 1961
We have come to a moment where his fears are being fulfilled. On one hand, the Bush Administration has shown us the “unwarranted influence” by defense contractors and the energy industry produces massive corruption and a lack of accountability. The revolving door between the defense department, Congress, White House, the Military and intelligence community insures that the defense/intelligence industry gets lots of sweetheart deals. And the lack of transparency in the oversight of the federal budget that is spent on these enterprises is what allows practices like over-charging, mismanagement of funds, contracts being awarded to cronies as payback, kickbacks to bureaucrats for contract awards, and secret deals done off the secret so-called “Black budget” which finances all sorts of essentially unmonitored and unregulated activity.
This is not a phenomenom limited to the present Administration, William Perry the Clinton era defense secretary and his deputy John Deutsch were both former consultants to Martin Marietta and they approved a deal in 1996 enabling that company to benefit from more than $300 million in federal reimbursements for their costs associated with a merger of another company. The military industrial complex has become the largest welfare recipient in America. Dean Stansel of the Cato Institute defines corporate welfare as “any government spending program that provides unique benefits or advantages to specific companies or industries.” Stansel cautiously estimated in his 1996 book Corporate Welfare that the federal government spent at least $75 billion in this manner. While Stephen Moore of the Hoover Institution puts the figure at $100 billion. By contrast in 1996 the government spent $130 billion on traditional welfare reform. (www.impactpress.com/articles/febmar01/corpwelfare020301.html)
Corruption is one byproduct of the military-industrial-intelligence complex but Eisenhower also cautioned against the abuse of liberty and power this mighty economic and political force could produce if left unchecked.
The lack of transparency and oversight to the intelligence and military community has produced enormous abuses of power – only a fraction of which the public has glimpsed. These too were envisioned by Eisenhower in 1961 as he cautioned us “to take nothing for granted.” Today security seems to always trump liberty. So we have had torture promoted as an acceptable dimension to US policy, secret prisons, secret detentions without access to counsel for US citizens, a concentration camp created at Guantanamo bay, and all other manners of secret and shady dealings underway – in the name of this great country, and ostensibly to protect you and me. As the great Mae West used to say, “Men are always trying to protect me, I’m not exactly sure from what?” What does it mean if we are using the tactics of authoritarianism to defend us against authoritarianism? Does this kind of militarization and deployment of secret forces to do unimaginable things actually produce safety? Are we more secure and better off than we were before these tactics were deployed? What is the fifty year plan here? What is the end game of a militarized world? How does it look 100 years from now for our democracy? Or even in 2009?
Finally, The economy of the US is now one that is heavily militarized and this has enormous implications on all our lives and aspirations. For one, the expenditures the government makes on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are running in the billions each month and they prop up the economic system. Technology companies, aerospace, munitions and a score of other industries benefit from the business of war. Our lives benefit from the very war we all oppose. How do we rearrange the economic priorities and very structure of the economy of our society so that war is not the engine – but peace is? Another aspect of this problem is the fact that the secret intelligence budget of the US federal government has grown so large that it is unimaginable what it might be supporting. An article in the New Yorker and a new book by a young journalist on the private company known as Blackwater, recently detailed how many private soldiers there are in Iraq – nearly a third of the forces there are private. Of course these private armies are publicly financed. What are the long term implications of having private mercenary soldiers? Can we reasonably outsource dirty tricks and then expect to be able to contain them in a democratic framework? I have a lot of questions – and I raise them with few answers because I think it is important for us to think about the enemies of love in a broad way – yes it is the specific forces that are self-identified as right wing. But it is also the assumptions that drive our economy – that war and militarization are inevitable, that military might will secure our safety, that intelligence must operate with no checks – these are dangerous anti-democratic assumptions.
These actors – the military industrial complex, the increasingly unaccountable intelligence infrastructure, the politically cynical mercenary class in Washington, and the Christian fundamentalist right that seeks theocracy — are the forces that we must target and transform if we are to truly defeat the right.
What I appreciate about the Political Research Associates taxonomy of the Right wing is their admonition to see the right as broader than their anti-gay platform. They are a complex set of movements with an interlocking, sometimes divergent set of interests. But they find a way to work together and advance.PRA’s taxonomy of the right as secular, xenophobic and Christian clearly identifies the social movements that must become more closely allied to fight them – progressive, racial justice and immigrant rights, and GLBT and feminist.
What have we learned from fighting the anti-gay right wing? Could these lessons be generalized to the struggle against the larger violence and repression we face from the political right, the military and intelligence right? I think so. Several lessons emerge from recent LGBT history having to do with the importance of a moral vision that includes sexuality; the importance of focused political organizing, done at the state and local level; the value (and limits) of identities as vehicles for motivating and moving people; and the importance of addressing the problem of fear and apathy.
A moral vision matters to people. We want political leaders to speak to and be guided by values. That is why Clinton succeeded. That is why Reagan succeeded. And that is ultimately why President Bush will fail. The GLBT experience teaches us that the moral vision we articulate for the future must fight the right wing’s world view – including its ideas about sexuality and gender and family. In a book called Sexuality and its Discontents, the British gay writer Jeffrey Weeks argues persuasively that the decline of the left and the rise of the right was due in part to the unwillingness of the former to deal with the issues of sexual politics. Weeks argues that “The political paradox of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that continues is that [it was] traditional moralists [who] recognized the opportunity provided in the growth of sexual politics, and the old left, which failed to respond to these politics.” Weeks calls the right’s mobilizations around sexuality a series of instigated moral panics – a term I love because it so wonderfully describes the combination of righteousness and hysteria that cloaks the right wing’s attacks on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Sex has always been a wonderfully manipulatable battleground for right wing movements. The regulation of what people do in their most intimate lives – in their sexual beings — is the ultimate power that the church and the state can enjoy over individual people. It is no coincidence that the first sodomy laws were created by Henry the VIII, who was engaged in a bitter power struggle with the church – the regulation of sexuality served to extend the control of the state over a sphere of community life that had been previously regulated by and the domain of the church. Sodomy laws, like abortion laws, assert the power of the state to dictate sexual choices. The right promotes one form of sexual behavior – procreative sex in marriage. It characterizes all other forms of sexual expression as sinful. The good news for us is that this world view is unenforceable – people vote with their bodies and violate these rules all the time. The bad news is that the right wing has too much political power
This brings us to the third lesson from the organizing we have done against the Right- we need to build political power for progressive people and ideas across this country. We must do this through state by state action, through literally taking over state legislatures and city councils – and I am not talking about a Depcractic Party we here – rather a progressive values based we. The issue is not partisan at all in my mind – it is about the larger framework in which we situate ourselves.
Neither progressives nor GLBT people can succeed without better, attractive and winning messages. This is a vexing task. The challenge of distilling a digestible, sound-bite sized message out of a very wide ranging progressive agenda is tough and will always be imperfect. One of the critical weaknesses of the progressive infrastructure lies in the disconnection between policy ideas generated by the research and policy think tanks of the left and their reach out into the general public. Without attention to the overall framework or to the moral vision that progressives offer American society, the particulars of a policy agenda are less effective.
Broad messages that are needed in this moment must address three critical areas – economic freedom, the balance between liberty and security, and the tension within this country over race and ethnicity. An economic message that counters the market fundamentalism of the day with an appeal that revives a role for the public sector is essential. But the economic message must also reflect the reality that socialist ideals that many progressives cherished have mutated into the notion of achieving a socially responsible capitalism. Progressive economic appeals must center on how much more valuable, sustainable and profitable capitalism can be, when it is bounded by a lean and muscular regulatory framework that at once enables competition, but restrains corruption.
Finally. to build a progressive movement requires personal action. Here is what surprises me the most about the pervasive problem of apathy that we find in America – everyone, every family is suffering and yet only a minority of people even do something as basic as voting. Every family is full of fear about economic insecurity, and yet people vote again and again for policies and politicians who stand up for the rich and stand against the middle class. Every one of us has experienced the terror of not knowing if our insurance policies (if we are lucky enough to have any of them) will cover the particular crisis we face – and yet we allow the insurance lobby to kick us down with shabby rules that they promote through the politicians in their pockets. We stand by while we have no health care and just postpone visits to the doctor because that is what we have to do.
What is going on? Why are so few of us active or even outraged?
The political process and political leaders make many of us feel like they are unaccountable to ordinary people and beholding to those with great resources – like corporations, lobbyists, and special interests. I think most working people are really cynical about their ability to impact anything – they are kicked around all the time, they don’t have time to go fight city hall they are trying to pay the bills or take care of the grandparents or the kids or themselves. This pervasive disempowerment is the reason why community organizing is so important as a skill, as a tool and as a training method. If you can get together and take action and fight city hall or the power company and win, it’s a life changing experience. Even if you lose, when you engage in contesting the powerful forces arrayed in the world that you think are unaccountable, it is life changing. Example – working on HIV AIDS in the 80’s.
The other side of disempowerment, however, is entitlement, and it creates its own forms of inertia. Apathy is a common byproduct of comfort, and complacency – or a desire not to rock the boat or a desire to protect what one has achieved and gained. Apathy is in each of us because it is tied to a desire for safety and security – who does not want to just come home and relax in the safety and comfort of a beautiful and loving home? Who wants to slog out in the rain to attend a community meeting? Or picket in support of a union? Or get up from watching American Idol to write a letter to Congress? We rely increasingly on email – we dial it in, and do not put our bodies on the line. The problem with this kind of apathy is that it is built on a delusion that is getting harder to maintain – the delusion that I can just live my life and everything will be fine. We live in an interconnected world and it is each of our responsibility to take care of it.
Another kind of resistance to action is a byproduct of fear. It is really important to not underestimate how afraid people are today. The primary fear is the economic insecurity that we all live under. Poverty has increased in the US, more middle class people have joined the ranks of the working poor, and even the super rich seem to be terribly insecure, worried that they will lose their privilege because they know how unsustainable it is. Young middle class kids are in huge debt, focused on careers rather than social justice – and this lack of a youthful energy driving radical social change is one of the key reasons the left is so anemic today. Recently, this fear has been brilliantly exploited after 9/11 to keep all of us too afraid to say things to take action to respond. None of us wants to aid and abet terrorism—and we are told we are doing that whenever we protest the war, whenever we challenge the illegal detentions at Guantanamo, whenever we condemn torture, when we speak out in support of the civil liberties and human rights of those individuals accused of terrorism even if they would deny us our freedom and lives through their actions.
Another kind of fear is the fear of violence. We should not underestimate the many kinds of violence that rule so many people’s lives – physical violence, gun violence in our communities, bullying and harassment, sexual abuse, the pervasive and horrific levels of violence against women, the pervasive levels of prisoner violence and sexual abuse in families, the pervasive fear of attack and assault too many people face, the realities of war and random terrorist violence, the violence of poverty, the degrading and numbing violence people do to themselves because they are addicted or alcoholic – these forms of violence are with us in the world and deeply inhibit people’s willingness to be politically active.
Social justice movements have to speak to these fears and realities of violence, and this is another reason I think that the paradigm of love is so powerful. What can counter these multiple forms of violence – truly it is the idea and experience of love. Love of self – to have the respect to not abuse and violate ourselves. Love of each other – to be able to step into the breaches and hatreds that lead nowhere to offer forgiveness. Love of community – to be able to solve problems in ways that transcend narrow self interest.
Fear still operates inside the GLBT community as well. I’ve worked as an out of the closet GLBT organizer for more than 30 years. I was out when it was not popular or fun or profitable, as were some of you. And it still is not popular or fun or profitable for many of us who are out. But the fear of being out still inhibits far too many GLBT people from taking action on the issues that most affect their lives. People are afraid of losing their jobs, being targets of harassment and violence, being disrespected by their peer group, being marginalized as a single issue person, and so much more. You know what, these fears are common – they have a particular expression for gay people but I would submit that there are so many folks who are afraid of speaking out or getting involved because they fear losing their jobs, their friends, their safety, their way of life. Fear is addressed by education, and it is the opposite of faith.
And that is the final issue I think we have to consider in daring to be active. Do we have faith in the power of our activism?
If we are honest with each other we will admit that we have real deep doubts about the possibility of success in so many social justice efforts. Can we really end the war? Can we really change the second class status of women around the world? Can we change the characterization of lesbians as immoral? Yikes… sometimes I wonder.
But in my moments of doubt, I have the experience of my own life to turn back to. And I recall that in 1977 I was working as a student organizer on my campus on the issue of ending Apartheid in South Africa. We wanted our college to divest its holdings in corporations doing business in South Africa, and we held vigils and sit ins and almost got kicked out of school for that activism. Did I think we would win? I do not know, I knew that unjust, violent and immoral racist system had to end, and I had simple pure blind faith that my actions were a small part of bringing it down. 15 years later it did end and South Africa is free. Of course the divestment movement helped, as did the courage of thousands of South Africans who gave their lives.
Our Republic finds itself in a moral and political crisis. We are in a moral crisis because the American promise of freedom, justice and equality for all is deeply threatened by the actions of powerful social and economic movements – the right wing — who ARE the enemies of love. This moral crisis requires of us an articulation of new values and new visions for justice; a faith in the transformative and redemptive power of love; and a commitment to a practice of politics that is guided by compassion, not merely anger, or resentment or self serving.
The political crisis we are in is embodied in the lack of courage exhibited by those in leadership at every level of public life – from government to the university; from the arts to the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, from the pulpits to the pews – we are not speaking out, not organizing, not voting, and not resisting the right wing pressure as strongly as we must. It is time to wake up and take action, to reclaim our idealism and build a future grounded in love, peace and justice.
As Audre Lorde wrote, our silence will not protect us. As a result of our inaction and weak organization, we are in a political crisis in this country in which the legitimacy, credibility and future of our democractic republic is threatened.
Those on the right identify the danger as an external enemy – the other – who wants to destroy our way of life and our comfort. They point to people like me as the source of our moral decay inside this country – I only wish I were that important. For my part, I agree that there are external enemies that threaten the land of liberty, opportunity, and pluralism that define the America of which I dream and which I love. But I would name these enemies not by any religion, ideology, nationality, or sexuality but by their true identities – I would name the enemies as greed and arrogance, hypocrisy and abuse of power, ignorance and fear, poverty and inequality, shame and silence, and the legacy of humiliation. These are the sources of violence, and the enemies of love.
Instead of pointing the finger at the Other, let us join each other hands to solve the crises of our republic together– for it is we who bear responsibility for saving our world, whether we are left, right, center or unaligned.