This presentation was made at Northeastern University Law School on March 24, 2005. ©2005 Urvashi Vaid
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
— W.H. Auden September 1, 1939
I want to talk about justice and affirmation. About where we find ourselves and where we can imagine being. About what we face. I want to reflect briefly on the broad political context that shapes the work of those of us who are interested in social justice and deep social change, about some of the internal dynamics and external challenges facing the GLBT movement and how we might organize.
My argument to you today is straightforward: looking forward, the GLBT movement must reorganize itself to be more effective politically by focusing at the state and local level more than at the national; it must deal meaningfully with race, gender and class, and it must engage culture beyond television and images – at the deeper level of religion, morality and values.
There is a broad context in which GLBT people live and there is a particular queer context. We are endangered in both. Indeed, the queer is being used to manipulate and overtake more and more aspects of the broader social and political space. In the face of these realities, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender liberation is surprisingly silent, complacent and irrelevant. We are these things at our own peril. We need to change silence into a loud and prophetic voice that tells the truth no matter what consequences we are threatened with. We need to surrender our complacency and comfort to see the gilded ghetto as still just that. And we need to stop letting ourselves be marginalized in a debate in which we are not only central protagonists, but to which we have really fresh ideas, imagination and stylish leadership to contribute.
Several dynamics in the US shape the work of all who are concerned about economic, racial and social justice:
1) the reorientation of domestic and foreign policy into a war-time mobilization and the explicit linkage of US economic global domination with US political global domination;
2) the long term impact and legacies of the fiscal policies of the past two decades;
3) the transformation of democracy into plutocracy, or even worse into a pre-fascist authoritarianism;
4) backlash movements which promote masculinism or resurgent patriarchy and seek to maintain structural racism;
5) the danger that fundamentalism poses to religious freedom.
Reorientation of domestic policy and foreign policy
9.11 resulted in a massive militarization of American society, the dramatic re-orientation of fiscal priorities at the national level, cutbacks in domestic civil liberties and freedom, the launching of two wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) so far, and the implementation of the new doctrine of “pre-emptive” attack as one of our chief foreign policy strategies. These developments have directly affected all activism and GLBT activism in particular, as political space to protest and organize has shrunk and the role of government in the care and provision of anything but police and military services has weakened.
The impact of the new focus on terror enables a series of agendas to be advanced, one of which is the very legitimate and urgent need to reduce the threats of violence and danger that terrorism poses. To achieve a goal we all share, we are told that we must live with things we find abhorrent, such as: dramatic cutbacks in public access to information, in government transparency and loss of individual freedom. Increased surveillance on the lives of ordinary people and of nonprofit advocacy organizations– citizens are asked to snoop on each other program, librarians must report what library books you checked out if asked; domestic spying and covert operations are being authorized and we will not know their scope for years to com. The creation of a new agency with a vast bureaucracy and unlimited powers – run as a political adjunct to the White House. Severe damage to freedom of expression, freedom of action and freedom of association; to privacy rights; to the right to be left alone by governmental regulation – a right that most of us truly cherish even as we campaign for government investment in our communities. And the pursuit of a dangerous foreign policy that is pre-emptive, hostile to diplomacy, manipulated to achieve domestic political objectives and dangerously rooted in notions of elitism and western hegemony.
The Patriot Act – passed by Congress in such a rush that people admitted they had not even read it—was on the drawing boards long before 9/11. That attack provided the political cover to the right to enact the policies that shred constitutional rights….what have we lost. Much of our 4th amendment protection against unlawful searches and seizures are gone– the Act permits warrantless searches and even without disclosure. There is much increased ease of wiretapping without warrant on ordinary US residents. We even saw illegal detention and the denial of right to an attorney for a US citizen (Padilla). The curtailment of free speech is massive – from government officials sending subponeas in Iowa to secure information on all those attending an antiwar meeting at Drake University to public haranguing and demonization of dissent has — the father and son in the Albany Mall told to leave because they were wearing their peace t-shirts And the erosion of balance of powers between executive, judicial and legislative branches is deliberate and seeks a permanent tilt towards a powerful executive.
Under the Act, there will be increased detention and targeting of immigrants (legal and undocumented). The sweeps, the forced registration of permanent residents and citizens and lawful immigrants, have already resulted in massive anxiety, unease and pain to thousands of families in this country who have nothing whatsoever to do with terror – but are merely trying to survive. Changes in immigration policies proposed and made making it harder for all sorts of immigrants to get visas and stay – a convenient impact, because there are many on the Right who have favored more restrictive immigration policies, and this current crisis gives them the chance to implement these pre-existing agendas. The needs of legal representation, translation, visitation access, help to these families are real and the damage done to thousands is unconscionable. And these needs – which many of you are heroically trying to meet remain remain grossly under-served.
Fiscal Policies of the Right
In five years, Congress and the Administration have squandered a multi-billion surplus into a multi-trillion dollar deficit. A key reason for this is not in fact the war on terror, but the war on taxes launched by the administration. Why this obsession with taxes? One level of it is Freudian – his father said read my lips, no new taxes and waffled so the son who in all ways seems determined to finish the father’s agenda will never waver on that. This is not good public policy, it’s a cry for therapy. On a more serious level, the tax agenda is the chief strategy of the right to defund government, to destroy the liberal social policies of the past century.
The new budget will have a draconian impact on nonprofit social service organizations. These fiscal policies and cuts affect GLBT and HIV organizations deeply. Every part of our agenda requires funding – from service organizations, to youth programs, to community centers to alcohol and drug treatment programs to anti-violence programs, to law enforcement training.
We are not used to seeing the crisis of politics in America today from the lens of the term “plutocracy” which Kevin Phillips in his fascinating book, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, defines as “government by or in the interest of the rich” (p. xi). Yet is this not so? The policies of our government have for the past several decades, and are especially blatantly today, been tilted to benefit the rich. Examples abound, from the dangerous and destructive tax reforms of this Administration– that benefit extremely wealthy people the most (like the new proposed dividend tax elimination or the estate tax repeal), to the protectionist trade policies that benefit particular industries like steel and big pharma, to energy policies that benefit big nuke, big oil and big energy conglomerates, to global economic policies enforced by the IMF and World Bank that benefit US companies at the expense of all other factors, to the buying of political power that campaign contributions given by rich people.
Paul Wellstone in his book notes “in the first half of 1999 4 out of every 10,000 Americans (.037%) contributed more than $200 to a presidential candidate, [while even fewer] only .022% of all Americans had given $1000 or more. Yet this small group had spent about 2/3 of a billion dollars in the 1998 mid-term elections. Another 250 million came from corporations, wealthy individuals and unions as soft money.” (Paul Wellstone, Conscience of a Liberal, p. 145). Historically, extreme disparities in income and wealth result in “high levels of political corruption and a voter belief in the captivity of government to private interests. (Phillips, xii). And we can certainly see that today – from Enron to Arthur Anderson to ImClone to the bail-outs of the terribly managed airline industry – on whose boards and lobbying staffs sit the wives and cronies of some of the political decision-makers in Congress.
This plutocratic politics is a far cry from democracy – defined as government of, for and by the people. Yet democratic deficits caused by the control of government policy making processes by the wealthy – such as, the buying and selling of the public interest to private interests, the lack of voice for working class, middle class and poor people, the lack of participation in elections, the problem of whose vote is counted — are all problems with which social change movements must grapple.
Advocates of social, racial and economic justice have for decades has faced powerful backlash movements – against feminism, racial justice movements, GLBT rights, immigrants, social welfare policies etc. Every gain in justice and equity has been resisted and generated a counter-movement. What is different today from this long-term reality is that the leaders of these backlash movements are now in political power – in every branch of government.
Be clear, that this backlash has a more inclusive face than the old racism and the old sexism. Examples: War in Afghanistan being justified as a women’s liberation fight; where were they for two decades when they built up the Taliban?; or the California Racial Justice Ballot Initiative and Ward Connerly’s strategies which promote “color blindness” but would harm people of color. We need to be careful of these cunning arguments and deployment of inclusive messages by the right – they mask the same old structural hierarchies that keep women in the home and in circumscribed roles in public life, and that keep African Americans second class and in poverty, and that keep immigrant labor flowing but immigrant people always worried and as targets.
GLBT people understand backlash movements, we have been dealing with these movements for decades. It’s important for us to continue to prioritize our fights against the right. Writer Richard Goldstein notes “Masculinism is what holds the conservative movement together. It makes brothers of fundamentalists and libertarians despite their deep differences.” (Richard Goldstein, The Attack Queers, p. 75).
In that vein, it is interesting to note the recurring connection between homophobia and sexism, worldwide. Not only are the societies most hostile to women the ones that are the deeply invested in traditional ideas of masculinity, but these are also the societies that treat GLBT people harshly. The freedom of women is intimately connected to the freedom of gay men. Homophobia is, as Suzanne Pharr so clearly articulated, a weapon of sexism.
Racial backlash is also a reality we live with. For progressives, race is a central lens through which to understand America – from our clearly biased criminal justice system, to the racialized structure of economic inequality, to vivid differences in health among black, brown, and white. From the underdevelopment of urban schools and communities, to the uneven development of the US South. Racial appeals to whites are at the core of Republican gains in the South and Southwest and of the loss of Democratic support among black voters nationwide. Racial dynamics are at the heart of welfare and poverty reform proposals, of battles over immigration visa quotas, of the environmental degradation that is tolerated and the degradation that is questioned.
Perhaps the most devastating legacy of American racism is the pervasive segregation of people in this country by race. Were it not for affirmative action – in higher education and employment – the country would be even more racially isolationist. This truth is borne out in statistics on housing and education, but most clearly it is borne out in innumerable ways through the evidence of our daily lives – in the patterns of socializing at the office, in the friendships we have or don’t have, in the composition of our places of worship, in the nonprofit sector, in who runs the institutions of government, the market and civil society. Prejudice alone does not explain it, racial separation is structural, fundamental, reproduces itself because it is more embedded in all systems in American life – its’ very un-conciousness is what makes American apartheid so potent a force to be reckoned with.
Rise of religious fundamentalism
A fifth contextual factor to consider is the growth of religious fundamentalism in the US and around the world and the concurrent shrinkage of the plurality of religious viewpoints and the danger that fundamentalism poses to democratic freedom. Theologians have consistently noted the way that the US constitution’s dis-establishment of religion – its explicit ban against the idea of a state-sponsored religion—has enabled religious liberty to flourish in this country. We are a nation of many faiths and belief systems because we are not a theocracy.
So what are we to make of the fact that today, our highest political officers are Christian fundamentalists – who believe the Bible more than they believe in the Constitution? If the President believes that God speaks to him, and that his particular faith teaches him that it is the one and only way, and that it is his mission to proslytize for his religion – which evangelical christianity teaches, what does this portend for our plural democracy? (As an aside, when our President also says in Bob Woodward’s fawning book, that the greatest thing about being president is that while people have to try to convince him they are right, he does not have to do that to anyone – are we living in a democracy?)
Should we be alarmed that 46% of Americans say they are evangelical Christians – which means they believe that there is really only one way (theirs), one God (theirs), one interpretation (that of their leaders), one destination (death and then salvation) – what does this mean for the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Jews, the Muslims, the Native Americans, the many other kinds of religions and spiritualities in this country? What does it mean for the freedom NOT to believe – and the freedom from a state-imposed religion – which has enabled religion in America to flourish and to peacefully co-esxist. As our President lets slip his deep down belief that this is a divinely ordained (holy) war, how does he differentiate himself from other world figures who believe they are waging religious war against us? Is our security and yours really enhanced by waging religious wars or the framing of wars – which are essentially battles for economic dominion – as wars of faith?
A wide range of domestic policies – from the right to free, public education to the right to life-saving sex education, to the right to learn about science without the bias of dogma to a woman’s right to control her body without state intervention – are all threatened by the fundamentalist regime under which we now live. Fundamentalism is the ultimate restoration fantasy – it seeks to re-impose the old orders of patriarchal authority, state-authoritarianism (that enforces religions fundamentalism
Looking at the State of the GLBT Union
Several key realities stand out when we look at the state of the GLBT union, and I want to note five: (1) an unfinished human rights agenda; (2) an ineffective use of allies; (3) a lack of racial and class diversity; (4) failure to grapple with the moral basis of the opposition we face; and (5) need to be a multi-issue movement.
The agenda of the movement is almost the same as it was twenty years ago – and it remains incomplete. The chief job of the LGBT movement remains to protect and expand the human and civil rights of GLBT people. The struggle in the headlines is for civil marriage, but all the other political, civil, cultural and social and economic issues underlying this remain: the need for nondiscrimination laws, the urgent problem of hate violence, the challenge of addressing homophobia in schools, the challenge of how to address the impact of gender dualism and recognize gender identity, the imperative to support progressive religious traditions and leadership, the value of creating spaces for ourselves to self-determine, learn, grow and build solutions to our communities problems, the lack of recognition for our families of choice and self creation.
The movement’s job is to advance civil rights and to defend them too. Every gain is contested in the legislatures or the ballot box. The courts might be with us but we have yet to organize winning majorities of the public at large for many of the issues on our agenda — in states across the country. The interesting news is that we were winning on non-discrimination laws – to defend them; but then the right changed the topic to marriage and we have so far lost these pretty badly (82-18% in Miss. To 53-47 in Ore).
Ineffective use of allies
When I started out, there were few allies of our movement. Today there are many millions more. But are we able to mobilize and work effectively with them? Not really; the GLBT movement is still very much on its own. The only kinds of coalitions of which we are a part exist for particular pieces of legislation at the national level, and these legislative coalitions do not go deeper than the beltway band of lobbyists.
Having speakers at a dinner/fundraiser is no substitute for an engaged and comprehending base of people who will vote to support our equality.
National organizations like PFAW, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Human Rights Watch, NOW, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, NAACP, La Raza, the environmental movement, economic justice groups at the national and local level (JwJ, US Action) are not effectively networked into the GLBT movement to this day – yet many have taken pro-GLBT positions, have leaders who are strongly pro gay and are doing GLBT work. Why not? Our own narrow identity politics? Their fear of losing legitimacy with their own base of taking on cultural issues?
We have failed to devise strategies or ways for straight people to work with us with one notable exception: the GSA model. GSA movement is an amazing decentralized vehicle that enables participation and learning.
Race and Class Division
Another big challenge before the GLBT movement has been with us for many decades – race and class issues. We are in a moment where a historically racist right wing is able to skillfully build cross-racial solidarity at our expense with black clergy.
Every race, ethnicity, religion, gender variance, sexual minority, class strata, type of ability and disability is contained within the umbrella term “GLBT”. This means that everyone is not in the same place economically, facing the same set of political, economic, social or cultural problems, thinking about the same sets of things as their priorities. But we do not have a movement complex enough to acknowledge this truth.
To the problem of horizontal inequalities within the GLBT community, the response of GLBT organizations is often rhetoric like “unity and diversity” or “diversity is our strength.” But these platitudes mask the abject failure of most GLBT institutions to meaningfully represent the interests and concerns of GLBT people who are poor, of color, feminist, transgender, to name just a few major differences. The ideal-type of the “member” that GLBT organizations try to represent is still white and middle class. Only one GLBT organization worked on welfare reform at the national level – NGLTF. Others did at the local level. How our national agenda is framed: as employment nondiscrimination (presupposes you have a job) versus economic opportunity (seeks equal access to full range of job and economic security)
I do not doubt the sincerity with which people in our community say they care about race or economic inequality or even gender. But I am frustrated with the level of work we are doing about racial justice. With some notable exceptions, to this day many major GLBT organizations have weak racial diversity on staffs and boards; do not have programs that in any way try to identify and meed the needs of communities of color; do not take stands on issues of racial justice (like affirmative action policies, or immigration policies). Only a handful of GLBT organizations have done any research to try to identity the needs and concerns of non-dominant populations within these communities. Our funding institutions do not support autonomous POC organizing – POC groups are not well funded by many major donors of our main communities, are dependent on government funding which leaves many of our groups politically less outspoken and less in the leadership than they want or ought to be.
And this is just the easy superficial stuff to point out. Many other dynamics exist about race in our communities, and we have got to deal with this internal and external structural challenge.
Sexuality and moral values
To win, we will need to speak out more forcefully about sexuality from the moral authority of our roots as a justice movement and from the perspective of various religious traditions from which GLBT people come. We need to engage more actively in debates about sexuality in general – this means reproductive freedom, young people and sex education, homosexuality, teen pregnancy and many other issues of sexual regulation that are at play in this country.
The GLBT movement has yet to grapple deeply and publicly with morality and values. I raised this issue in my book, when I argued that until we tackled the religious and moral resistance to our full equality, we would live in a state of “Virtual Equality” Over the past decade, the need to speak to the moral basis of resistance to our rights has been raised eloquently by Chai Feldblum law professor at Georgetown University Law School.
In a recent talk at the University of Pennsylvania, Feldblum argued that: “instead of running away from the “moral values” issue, I want to turn around and embrace the importance of moral values in a democracy. And, I want to make the argument that doing so would, in fact, make it more likely that we will ultimately achieve full equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people….” (Feldblum, U Penn talk, p.2). She calls for the launching of a Moral Values Project that would approach the problem in the following way. By arguing that:
1) Moral values are important to a healthy society.
2) Intimate relationships between individuals, and family structures, are critical moral and political units that can create a healthy society.
3) It is the government’s responsibility to nurture these moral and political units.
4) People in opposite-sex relationships, and people in same-sex relationships, equally embody this moral good and equally deserve support from public policies.
5) Our current public policies undermine the moral and political unit of same-sex couples and families and that is a moral wrong that needs to be rectified. (Felblum U. Pennsylvania p. 6)
She argues that the “Moral Values Project” should have three discursive aims. First, to move antigay religious discourse to a more pro-LGBT stance. (This is about making religious people, or other people who care about religious views when it comes to homosexuality, more comfortable about LGBT rights. What this may mean practically is — working for change within and between religious denominations). Second, change public perception of religious discourse to reflect the reality of a more diverse, and probably more sympathetic, range of views regarding LGBT people and issues. And third, we should seek change in the public understanding of the term “moral values” to mean values that are not necessarily religious – but rather values that reflect “morality” generally, whether the source for that morality is religion or a secular belief system. (Feldblum – p. 6-7)
These diagnosis and suggestions are very helpful. They point us to one of the most important challenges to the future of GLBT activism – the need to tackle the obstacles to our full human recognition as moral beings based on a false notion of morality. Religion and people of faith cannot be ignored.
Multi-Issue or Single Issue
To be true to our social justice roots and values, and to adequately address the issues of class inequality as well as issues of racial prejudice, the GLBT movement must be about more than equal rights for gay people. It needs to be about ending poverty as well as injustice. In my view, the question of what do other issues like racism, sexism, poverty, welfare, have to do with GLBT politics is the wrong question to ask. The better question is what kind of denial allows GLBT politics to pretend it is unaffected by racism, or sexism or economic policies? I believe in a progressive GLBT queer politics that is capable of taking on the broader set of problems than our current single-issue political framework allows us to address.
A commitment to social justice politics, to intersectional politics does not require you to choose the “right issue” it affects how you choose to do your work on whatever issue you work on.
So a GLBT progressive politics focused on AIDS also pushes for health care reform;
- a GLBT movement seeking access to family law must defend single women and single parents from the demonization they are facing in the welfare law;
- a GLBT movement courting the corporate market can challenge those corporations to be committed to progressive workplace policies, support for social welfare programs and a socially responsible capitalism;
- a GLBT business community that is concerned about safe streets might be more credible if it campaigned for increased taxes to provide housing and social services for people who are homeless or mentally ill;
- a GLBT movement interested in non-discrimination laws for queers CANNOT sit silently by while civil rights remedies like affirmative action and other measures are systematically dismantled;
- a GLBT movement for an end to violence could seek interventions in schools and families that tackle the construction of violent people – not just seek bias penalty bills;
- a GLBT workplace movement could have an economic analysis of why some people have work and others don’t, how our global economy fosters uneven progress and greater disparity in opportunity and how it could be addressed; how a prison industrial complex has replaced a military industrial complex and how we as a criminalized class might want to challenge that development.
It is how we choose to work on the issues we prioritize that makes us progressive NOT whether we have chosen the “correct” issue. The poet Audre Lorde once wrote “I know the boundaries of my nation lie within myself.” I’ve always read that text as a reminder that our imaginations are the only limits to our activism. The boundaries of our movement need not be contained by the limitations of one aspect of our identities. Unbinding the movement to deal with race and class, freeing our agenda to encompass issues like aging policy, family, educational policy, the death penalty, affirmative action, sustainable development, among others is a critical key to the future of a lively and relevant GLBT movement.
The Work Ahead for GLBT progressives
We gather at an extraordinary moment in our nation’s history and in the history of civil rights movement in general. Our nation is in the midst of a sea change in the structures of political power, the shape of the economy, the direction of public policy, in the role of the state and in the influence of technology on our every day lives.
The liberal political coalitions that guided government policy since the 1930’s have dissolved and new conservatives coalitions are dominant.
Core principles which informed national policy making for two generations – a commitment to civil rights and racial justice; the expansion of opportunity for all; the role of the government in providing care for the poor and those in need; the idea of a secular state – are all under attack or being discarded.
A global capitalism — with its exploitation of poverty the world wide for cheap labor — and the new technologies do indeed breed prosperity for a small number of people but they also breed tremendous insecurity in employment, wages, declining benefits for most Americans.
Family structure, gender roles and sexual values are more fluid and open today, causing fear and confusion and resistance among some.
And through it all, a vigorous and organized religious-based political movement wages campaigns of fundamentalist interpretation of religious scripture, wages campaigns of literalism, purity and moral supremacy for one church and one meaning of GOD.
These upheavals in a broad sense set the context in which all civil rights movements must do our work. How are progressives and GLBT people organized to deal with these huge and complex changes? IF we are to be honest with ourselves, we must answer we are not ready.
As the right has attacked liberalism and the idea of a state which is responsible for delivering services to its entire people — liberal leaders and social justice movements in this country have responded by retreating. The self-serving, valueless, senseless, short sighted, often deeply racist, and visionless politics of accommodation to the right known as “centrism.” Is the dominant ideology of our time – not the values-based, spiritually strong, exciting politics of liberation theology.
As the right wing has made itself a strong grassroots political presence, the pro-GLBT movement is poorly organized at the state level, unable to defeat ballot initiatives for the most part, and struggling to assert its political clout in state law-making, in city councils. Progressive faith based activism has not focused on the politics of power, of being able to mobilize its constituents in opposition to the eradication of a justice-role for the state. Instead, we have had to be so much on the defensive: to be engaged in the annual, congregation by congregation, intra-denominational battles of recognition and respect. We have been put on the defensive by our opponents. We have spent vital time first and foremost in healing ourselves and GLBT people who are so pained and insulted and defamed by their faiths.
For these reasons, perhaps, because we have been so focused on self-defense, we have not been able to seize the affirmative and promote the alternative values and vision of society we embody. Over the past decade, we failed to seize opportunities to enact progressive public policy — like universal health care, failed to use the passion of our bodies in the streets or the courage of the righteous in our voices. Instead, we allowed the insurance lobby and the doctors lobbies to destroy our chance for universal health care in 1994. Over the past three decades we have allowed the right wing think tanks to thrive and to propagate their destructive ideas, while progressive organizations and institutions –be they churches, synagogues or political organizations — struggle and flounder.
We have allowed the Right wing to defame and discredit social justice values with a sneer and epithets like “PC” and “special interest groups” and “special Rights”.
If we look at our work historically, we can understand that we have not paid attention to the most basic kinds of lessons: to thrive, every movement must have a strong and motivated base. And a base of support is what the GLT movement needs to grow and to achieve its goal of enabling every single human being to experience their god-given sexual and gender identity without the stigma of prejudice.
Another lesson from GLBT history is that when we engage in vigorous and fearless dialogue with the world around us, we create more space for ourselves – but when we retreat into our gilded ghettos, or class privilege, our sense of intitlement, our illusion of safety – we are threatened.
The time we live in requires GLBT progressives to join with other communities that are feeling the pressure and threat of economic and fiscal policies of this Administration to build that power and base. As we do this, we should remember a handful of things that can guide our practice.
Local and State politics will be more successful for is the next ten years than national politics. On many GLBT issues, we are able to win in state legislatures and city councils more than we are able to win at the Federal level. This means we ought to spend more of our time and monies focusing on those arenas. To the extent that we work the federal system, we need to concentrate on the executive branch and the courts – Congress is not where its at for the next few years, until the majority changes.
We must invest more resources in winning strategies and move away from less effective organizations and ideas. A mobilized GLBT community, engaging in direct door to door grassroots organizing, doing public education and cultural work through music, theater, media art, bringing litigation, living out and proud lives in our communities – have all been winning strategies. Pretending we are so well integrated right now that we are post –gay, relying on wealthy GLBT people to carry our political agenda and access to political leaders, hiding our sexuality in shame or in don’t ask don’t tell compromises with the envirnoment around us, denying and hiding sexual desire, trying to have one public view of gay people ––have all been losing strategies.
Finally, if we study the process that enables GLBT civil rights laws to pass, we discover that coalitions are the key to passage. I think it is imperative for GLBT organizations to devote more energies to building effective alliances and networks with allies across issue, identity and other lines, we would be able to win more advances for GLBT equality. This means that in the short run, we need to add the dimension of coalition building to our work: we need to create networks with each other – roundtables, study groups, socials, whatever it takes to try to connect grassroots leaders and organizations with each other.
The short-term goal of this networking has to be trust and relationship building. Such trust can also be achieved through shared work on common campaigns, or common goals. A couple of years ago, for example, NGLTF worked in California against the Ward Connerly initiative to eliminate all data collection based on race. If such a law had passe, it would have threatend the fragile data gathering measures we are trying to achieve – be they hate crime statistics acts, or counting GLBT people on the census. This is an example of a campaign in which our community as a voting bloc can make a winning difference, but that is on a “non-gay”, racial issue. Campaigns are educational opportunities, the right has used us to build and mobilize its coalition, its base. We have not used attacks against us to do the same.
The long term goal of our work this work to win governing power for a vision of democracy that is inclusive, plural, truly in support of freedom. But both the GLBT movement and the broader realm of social change organizations suffer from a deficit of political power. This is so because the social justice sectors of US civil society have worked on community building, identity building, defending ourselves against attacks – but in most parts of the country, we have not built political power seriously enough at the state and local level. Such a strategy might be characterized as the pursuit of democracy without politics.
Imagine the potential of the creation of permanent, progressive voting blocs in every state. Clearly progressive voters would not be able to muster enough clout in every district, but given the reality of low turnout elections, a systematic mapping of state districts to identify the progressive potential, to strengthen and network the existing progressive infrastructure, toorganize in a coordinated and systematic way with allies could enable advocates of justice to create winning majorities.
This talk has outlined a set of challenges and opportunities facing GLBT and progressive allies interested in building a more vigorous justice movement. These are by no means the full set of challenges nor the full agenda of opportunities. What this sketch reveals is that there is much reason to be hopeful if we commit to organizing and working seriously for at least the next decade.
In his epic poem, “America” Allen Ginsberg wrote “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” Let’s do just that and take back our country.