Hope and History
This article originally ran in the September, 2009 issue of The Advocate.
He looked like a hero, and that was the problem. Barack Obama seemed almost reckless with the truth, implausibly idealistic -- and (though we might not have said this out loud) we worried that America wasn’t “ready for a black president.”
After eight years of George W. Bush, we were sick of being excluded, sick of being hated. Hillary Clinton seemed the safer choice. We knew that she knew how power worked, and we wanted someone who could win. Moreover, many gay leaders -- the men and women with money and influence, whose success was built on cunning -- looked at her and saw themselves: making her way by wile, unafraid to sacrifice integrity when the game demands it.
But truth will out, and many placed their bets on Barack Obama, and when he took the lead in the primaries, he won over most of the rest. He talked to us -- and about us -- more, and more explicitly, than any nominee before him. And not just when he had to. Not just at Human Rights Campaign dinners. At black churches, in his stump speech, on the night he was elected: He said the word that every major candidate before him had found every excuse not to say. He named us. He said gay.
After his election Obama named someone else. The world’s most influential Protestant minister, Rick Warren, who campaigned against gay marriage, was asked to give the inauguration’s invocation. Obama tried to quell outrage and concern by restating his commitment to be “a fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans.” And during his first months in office, while he worked with Congress on the economic stimulus package and the wars, and laid groundwork for legislation to protect the environment and reform health care, we were on our best behavior, waiting for him to reveal his plans to keep his promises to us.
Momentum for gay equality kept building -- in the courts, in legislatures, and in culture. Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine legalized gay marriage -- which was, significantly, also endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Dick Cheney too announced his support for marriage equality, as did top Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who managed John McCain’s presidential campaign. Polls showed clear majorities supporting repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” even among conservatives and churchgoers -- constituencies that had long been in favor of the antigay military policy. Still, through all of this, one word was conspicuously absent from the president’s vocabulary.
The hero was a player after all.
History offers an uncomfortable answer. At the start of the 1990s, when Bill Clinton had a vision for America and we were part of it, gay people were intoxicated with excitement and a sense of opportunity. By decade’s end, the president had signed DOMA and “don’t ask, don’t tell.” “The movement was not honest enough with itself about our own failures,” Guerriero says. “The president caved to Congress because we didn’t show up and provide the air cover he needed with smart, strategic, robust activism.”
That’s because, on the federal level, “we don’t have an organization that fights for us with sufficient teeth in their arsenal,” says novelist, playwright, and gay rights pioneer Larry Kramer. “I’m sick of saying it, and everyone thinks I’m nothing but a curmudgeon. But I am approaching closer and closer to death, to my death, without being able to marry my lover, without being able to leave my estate to my lover without it being taxed into oblivion.”
Kramer’s tone isn’t curmudgeonly. It’s weary, almost shell-shocked. Gay activists in Washington are feckless, he argues, because they are enchanted by a false idea of power. “We are not here to make friends,” he says. “We are here to get our rights. And these two statements do not join together to blend into one happy halo.”
The national gay rights movement is trapped between activism and politics, between anger and ambition. We are trapped between wanting equal rights and wanting to get invited to parties at the White House. Even Joe Solmonese, the president of HRC, who according to Kramer represents the movement at its most complacent, suggests that to become real players we are going to have to start acting a little more like heroes: “One of the things our movement does not give enough appreciation and reverence to is ACT UP. Their rage. Their anger. But always with an endgame, always with a strategic center,” he says.
Kramer, who founded ACT UP in 1987 to address the AIDS crisis, says the group worked on very simple principles. “We all, hundreds of us, got ourselves in a room, and we planned very specific points of attack, and we divided the various plans into segments, each of which was taken over by one or another of our committees and put into operation. You go after the things that you want. Marriage, inheritance, adoption, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ repeal of DOMA. And then you start doing public demonstrations about each of them. Passing out detailed literature explaining the action. Naming names of the people who are preventing progress on these actions. You are merciless in confronting [those people], day after day. Consistency is so important. You have to be an activist every day, seven days a week, until you reach your goal. It’s not rocket science, any of this. You want something that somebody won’t give you? You find out how to get it.”
The gay movement today, he contends, lacks leaders with the level of commitment that animated ACT UP -- people who are willing to employ the shaming techniques that ACT UP used, and people who are willing to identify as gay first and foremost.
Kramer’s right on both points. Yet the problem is intractable. Shy of another dozen equally well-publicized Matthew Shepards or a new plague, it’s hard to see how a critical mass of gay people might be moved to experience themselves as “gay first and foremost,” how we might be moved to choose the radically separatist identity that has been, in our own history, our best weapon. Is it possible that the enemy has changed? If so, is it possible that different techniques are called for?
“I do not see a different enemy,” Kramer says. “The enemy is the enemy. We are hated too much by too many. And we are afraid to acknowledge this and to look it in its face for what it really is, hate, and to stare it down and fight it back. And become, as we did in ACT UP, our own heroes.”
There is in these remarks a huge amount of truth. There is also, I believe, a toxic measure of self-pity and sentimentality that ignores the progress we have made.
Our progress is measured by the generation gaps that fracture the movement. There is a gap between the ACT UP cohort and the daughters and sons of Will & Grace (who, having escaped the worst of the plague, don’t share their elders’ righteous anger except when they try) -- and another between the Will & Grace generation and the Facebook generation (most of whom don’t know a single person who has died of AIDS).
These gaps aggravate the mutual resentment of elders who see younger gays as lazy and entitled, and younger gays who see older ones as peevish and irascible. The gaps also create confusion about what our goals should be, because younger people want access to the very social institutions from which older people struggled to liberate themselves. The Stonewall generation and the ACT UP generation were defined by separateness. It was their salvation, the only way that they could live. It also defined their suffering, and it continues to define our suffering today.
To be, as Kramer and many of the ACT UP generation wish us to be, “gay first and foremost” is to make a fetish of our separateness. To win equal rights, we must not only reclaim the strongest parts of our collective history but also look beyond it.
Maybe there’s a good reason that we have yet to rise up and demand equality. Maybe most of us believe that ending the wars, fixing the economy and health care, and protecting the environment are more important than any of the gay rights legislation before Congress. If you offered me a choice between marriage equality and climate change, I’d choose climate change.
Unquestionably, a lot of us have been patient about progress on gay civil rights during these first months because we are still traumatized by the culture wars. We fought hard to get this president and Congress elected, and we don’t want to mess up their chance to fix what’s broken. But the window of opportunity for bold action on gay rights at the federal level grows narrower every day. Obama will probably never have as much political capital as he has now. Things will go wrong: Unemployment shows no sign of slowing, the wars could drag on for years. To move beyond this impasse we must learn not only from our history as a movement but also from our history as individuals.
The anxiety that a fight for equal rights for gays could derail this administration bears more than a passing resemblance to the anxiety that the world will end if you come out to your parents. For some people, of course, the world does end. For most of us, however, those fears turn out to be narcissistic fantasies. When we come out the truth does set us free. Usually, the people we feared would abandon us rise to the challenge and accept us.
We have to face the fact that we are in a moral battle and that the truth is on our side. Bruce Bastian says, “The president and Congress have really big items on their plate. I’m sure some politicians think, Why can’t the gays be patient? Well, every day that we’re patient we have more gay kids killing themselves. We have more soldiers getting their careers destroyed. We have more religious bigots convincing people to stay in the closet. You can’t get rid of bigotry with legislation, but you certainly can stall it. You can shut it up. Every day that we sit quiet and stay patient, we are losing people.”
Suspending “don’t ask, don’t tell” “is a winnable moral victory,” says Nathaniel Frank, the author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. Frank thinks this issue, if framed in moral terms, could remind both gay and straight people of what we most admired about Obama in the first place. “Obama can’t get us out of the Middle East overnight or cure poverty or fix the environment with an executive order. But he can do this,” he says. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, the straight Irish Catholic Iraq war veteran who became chief sponsor of the House bill for repeal, makes the same point: “This is about speaking truth to power, choosing the harder right over the easier wrong. You have to expect people to do the right thing.”
To act with moral authority we must confront and dismantle our enemies’ fears. “The antigay Christians are afraid that we want to normalize homosexuality in the schools and that their kids will be taught that homosexuality is OK. They’re right. That is what we’re trying to do,” says Mitchell Gold, chairman of Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams furniture and founder of Faith in America, a nonprofit that fights religious prejudice against gay people. “I want gay 14-year-olds to know that it’s OK. What the president is looking for is to have this great educational epiphany with antigay opponents, but how is that going to happen?”
“When push comes to shove, we always get pushed,” says Rich Tafel, founding president of Log Cabin Republicans. “I want the chaos, the anger, the truth, whatever it is, to come out. Otherwise it’s a big Kabuki dance in Washington, fund-raising letters about nothing. Who’s willing to fast? Who’s willing to get handcuffed? This president will actually care. The last one didn’t.
“People like it when you appeal to their better angels. Because people want to be better. Most people do. They want to be appealed to.”
And we are going to have to make the appeal. It’s true that where we’re concerned he has expressed no shortage of understanding and good intentions. To the NAACP, he said, “The pain of discrimination is still felt in America…by our gay brothers and sisters, still taunted, still attacked, still denied their rights”—reiterating the analogy he made in the East Room. It’s as if he’s daring us: showing us the door is open, telling us to come in and get him. Even if his heart is in the right place, Barack Obama is not going to just wake up one morning and put you at the top of his list. His primary task right now is learning how to govern, learning how to work with Congress to get things done. His primary link to the Democratic caucus, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, is one of the most risk-averse human beings in Washington. Marsha Scott, a straight woman who worked closely with Emanuel when she was chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s personnel office (Scott also served as Clinton’s first liaison to the LGBT community), says, “Rahm can never stop thinking about winning elections. Rahm is good at governing effectively, but he’s not good on social justice issues. Rahm’s goal is to not lose one seat in Congress at midterms.”
He looked like a hero, and that was the problem. His apparent integrity frightened us at first. Then it became the reason we chose him. We voted for Obama because he appealed to our better angels, because we wanted to be better.