LGBT groups are gaining political influence. And they exert hard-won political muscle to fight for full equality and support LGBT and LGBT-friendly elected officials. But given so much work left to accomplish on equal rights and limited resources, gay groups should not be so quick to enter debates on non-LGBT issues.
This past January, one gay political group did so during debate over SOPA and PIPA — the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act. Pushed through Congress by the entertainment industry, those bills were intended to give copyright owners more ways to fight online piracy, especially against foreign websites that facilitate infringement of digital entertainment content. Opposing the legislation as censorship, Wikipedia and other Internet companies led a “blackout” of certain web services on January 18. The move created enough public pressure to stop SOPA and PIPA, at least in the forms proposed.
Anti-piracy legislation has nothing to do with LGBT issues. Yet, the Stonewall Democratic Club in Los Angeles stepped into the debate in an email blast. The message called on followers to “Tell Congress you OPPOSE” the legislation and declared “SOPA and PIPA Are Too Dangerous To Revise, They Must Be Killed Entirely.”
That email found its way to inboxes of LGBT lawyers at a major movie studio who raised eyebrows at seeing a gay political group take such a vocal position on a non-LGBT issue. They wondered why a gay organization would so stridently oppose the entertainment industry, which employs so many LGBT professionals.
One year earlier, in 2011, there was a much bigger controversy when the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation supported the then-proposed merger between AT&T and T-Mobile. GLAAD also weighed in on the debate over “net neutrality” principles by sending a letter to the FCC opposing it. (The group later withdrew the letter.) Net neutrality proponents do not believe in restrictions that could affect a consumer’s access to the Internet nor restrictions on content and web platforms. Given that GLAAD has no institutional interest in telecommunications regulation, an ensuing controversy led to the resignation of GLAAD’s then-president. That was followed by GLAAD withdrawing its support for the AT&T/T-Mobile merger and reversing its position on net neutrality. It now claims that a freer Internet cultivates more online resources for isolated LGBT persons.
Confused? So was I. Irrespective of your opinions on SOPA/PIPA, potential merger partners for AT&T, or net neutrality, these incidents raise larger questions of when and why LGBT groups should advocate on non-gay issues. In my mind, it should be rare.
Perhaps the gay community should count itself fortunate to have accumulated enough political might that our opinion matters. But exerting our influence is fraught with hubris in believing the rest of the world cares what the LGBT community thinks about non-gay issues. The dreamer in me certainly hopes one day the LGBT voice will resonate across any issue. But for today, the realist in me believes we should stick to debates in which we have a unique voice.
The political capital, money, and people resources we have are limited and must be spent wisely. Having served on the board of an LGBT organization, I know firsthand how challenging it can be to raise funds – even from members of our own community. Donors increasingly ask how their money is used and can justifiably question any diversion of resources to non-LGBT issues. Given all the work still needed to achieve full LGBT equality, I, for one, encourage organizations to focus resources on their primary missions.
Moreover, we must recognize the LGBT community is not itself a monolith. Even when it comes to gay issues, we do not always agree with each other – though luckily we largely agree on the major items. But go beyond gay causes and you are fraught with capacity for disagreements among LGBT people. Some of us supported SOPA and PIPA; some did not. Some gay people believe in net neutrality; some do not; and most probably can’t even tell you what it is. Representing a population that is defined by diversity, our LGBT groups should not assume all constituents think alike.
Certainly, there can be valid reasons why gay organizations should care about matters outside the LGBT sphere. For elected officials, we should absolutely support straight political allies whose presence in office can help us achieve LGBT goals. We should also support other minority groups in their efforts to combat discrimination of all forms, just as such groups stood up for us to support marriage equality.
But when it otherwise comes to legislation or policy on non-LGBT issues, situations that justify our public support should be rare. Our precious advocacy resources should be reserved for when a non-gay issue materially impacts the LGBT community. Perhaps I’m being too much of a pragmatist. But I’ve witnessed the hard work invested by LGBT organizations to achieve the stature they have today. Let’s focus our loudening voice on our own missions. Let’s not undermine or dilute ourselves by stepping into other debates.
JIMMY NGUYEN is nationally recognized as an award-winning lawyer, new media expert, LGBT leader, diversity advocate, commentator and motivational speaker. He formerly served on the board of directors of Equality California. In 2008, Lawdragon named Nguyen one of the 500 Leading Lawyers in America, and in 2010, the National LGBT Bar Association recognized him as one of the Best LGBT Lawyers under 40. He also writes for his own website at JimmyWin.com. Follow him on Twitter @JimmyWinMedia.