Great Expectations

Gay power in the age of Obama: Will this president -- and his appointees -- make equal rights part of this nation's recovery?

BY Michael Joseph Gross

March 04 2009 1:00 AM ET

Last November brought a reconfiguration of power in American politics as a whole, and specifically in the gay movement. The grassroots organization of Obama's presidential campaign and the outpouring of activism in the backlash against Prop. 8 gave strong voices to outsiders. In gay politics, it became clear that power, for now, is most easily mobilized on the issue of marriage -- and specifically, by anger at being denied the right to marry.

Those were object lessons of the overnight success of Join the Impact, the Web-based organization founded by Amy Balliett, a 26-year-old search engine optimizer in Seattle who coordinated simultaneous Prop. 8 protests on November 15 that drew more than a million participants in hundreds of cities throughout all 50 U.S. states and about a dozen other countries. "The turnout had a lot to do with anger," Balliett says. "Anger mobilizes. But I am not an angry person, and I don't want to promote anger. Trying to turn that anger into energy isn't the easiest thing to do." Controversy, though, keeps people engaged. With the Warren fiasco, Balliett says, Join the Impact's Web traffic jumped from 100,000 unique visitors per page, per day, to 1 million.

Collectively, gay people are still bruised from 1993, when Bill Clinton, after overreaching on our behalf with regard to the military ban, tried to recover by throwing us under the bus. Memories of that betrayal, combined with aftershocks of the rage that drove our recent Prop. 8 protests (rage that was exacerbated by the Warren situation), have given some grassroots activists a hair trigger. They are fearful that Obama will betray us too and skeptical that our own leaders will press for swift progress.

This is part of the movement's tradition. Out for Good , Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney's history of the struggle for gay civil rights, asserts that "the recurring theme of the gay movement" has been "not building on history but discarding it." The Gay Liberation Front did it to the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis; Gay Men's Health Crisis did it to the Gay Rights National Lobby and the National Gay Task Force. Since November, it has sometimes seemed that we were eager to burn down the house again. Balliett says, "There's a feeling in the grassroots movement that the top-down people don't ask for help. And it's not true. People like Joe Solmonese and Rea Carey ask me, How do we use social networking to involve more people? I think social networking is going to unify this movement in ways that we've never seen in the past.

"Social networking has a unifying effect, period," she continues, alluding to the unique foundation of gay politics -- if politics is broadly defined as the bonds that hold individuals together in a group: "It changed dating for the gay community, completely. When I was 17 years old in high school and had no idea how I could find anyone to talk to or date, PlanetOut was my solution. It revolutionized how we communicate as gay society."

Now, Balliett points out, the Web reaches further: "I have a friend who lives two hours outside of Seattle who thought that he was the only gay person in his neighborhood. Because of Join the Impact, he's found 30 people in his town who he can be friends with and have a sense of community and camaraderie with. He had been there for two years with one friend. Technology gives people the chance to realize they are not alone."

In a different way, this effect of technology applies to organizations as well. Carey remembers preparing a list of 80 policy priorities for Obama's transition team: "After you prepare a list like that, then usually you need to work long, hard hours to make sure it sees the light and go around to all the agencies. The transition team said, 'We'll put this online in the next couple of weeks, and we will give it to each agency.' That was a little disorienting for us, and it made some people frankly nervous: Sometimes we put things forward and they get taken over by the opposition and criticized. But the transition team wasn't nervous about secrets getting out. They said, 'If you have any more suggestions, let us know, we'll put them into the system.' The explicit sharing of information, and greater transparency of power, is a radical change in the culture of how issue-advocacy organizations interact with a presidential administration."

As Washington's tactics for working toward full equality change, so to are the tactics for coordinating that work with activism in the rest of the country. Both Carey and Solmonese regularly talk with Balliett about strategy. "The real question for this big, loose activism energy is, Where do you go with it?" Solmonese says. "What I keep asking Amy and others in this grassroots movement is, 'Do you have the same energy that you expended in the aftermath of Prop. 8, that same selfless will, to get on a bus and ride an hour to protest or staff a phone bank or go door to door and try to move public opinion?' That is the central question."

For the past eight years, when I have visited Washington, D.C., I have avoided the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court. What's happened inside these places has made their outsides appear increasingly ominous and appalling. But on first seeing the Capitol during this latest trip, my heart leaped, to my surprise. I had the feeling that this building was mine again, in something like the way it was mine when I first visited this place as a child, when it stood for virtues and ideals in which I trusted unconditionally.

It's impossible, and would be unwise, to believe in these buildings again with such innocence. But I am trying to say, in some dim way, that gay people are now in a position to help recover the truths these places symbolize and that the stewards of these places deserve a healthy measure of our trust, because we are no longer strangers here. To reclaim the truths enshrined in these big white buildings, though, we have to accept a burden of mundane responsibility. With all that's in us, we have to commit to do the tedious, hard work of making these places ours, to accept the very boring blessing of being citizens in full.

The New Kings of the Hill View profiles of President Obama's LGBT appointees Brad Kiley Brian Bond Fred Hochberg John Berry Mike Perriello Michael Camuñez Nancy Sutley

 

Tags: Politics

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