Hope and History
BY Michael Joseph Gross
April 26 2010 3:00 PM ET
We need better tools for educating ourselves, our allies, and our opponents about our issues. Some of these tools are straightforward, old-fashioned techniques that have been honed in recent years at the state level. Groups like the Equality Federation and Gill Action have organized grassroots work that’s delivered unprecedented progress with staggering speed toward the goal of marriage equality -- which was, until the first Massachusetts same-sex weddings took place in 2004, an even more audacious concept than a black president. Legislators, mayors, and governors who worried they would lose elections if they supported us found out instead that we had their backs.
So far no elected official who voted for marriage in any state has been defeated, because a network of LGBT volunteers and straight allies knocked on doors, made phone calls, registered voters, and made sure that those lawmakers got reelected. At the state level this campaign strategy has created strong bonds between gay activists and other progressives -- labor, environmentalists, people of color -- and defied the common, counterproductive, and well-founded stereotype of gay activists as being unable to think of anything but ourselves.
We also need to be more intentional and strategic about telling our stories, not just expressing our opinions. Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, points out that most Americans have a false idea of the story of gay life. “Most Americans think we are rich, white, and live in big cities,” she says. “But most of us are middle-class or working poor. A huge number of us are LGBT folks of color. And we live in rural and suburban settings. We are not privileged -- economically or educationally -- any more than anyone else. Families who are already struggling to pay their bills and provide for their kids on top of that have to worry about being harassed on the job based on their sexual orientation. They fear that their families and communities will alienate them if they are honest about who they are. We have to show the toll it takes to live that lie -- that narrative of people living in fear. We have to give America a chance to feel empathy for these people.”
Chris Hughes, the gay cofounder of Facebook who ran Barack Obama’s online campaign -- a virtual arsenal of tools that, arguably, was the most decisive factor in Obama’s long-shot election -- says we haven’t even begun to tap the power of the Web to “tell the story not just of gay politics, but the story of everyday people who face injustice in their everyday lives.” We need an online resource, he says, that pulls together “a chorus of individuals who are united, focused, organized, seizing a political moment in order to pull it together in a political movement. This would send a powerful message to the White House, to the people who make the news, who decide what movies and books get made and published. A well-organized movement of people who tell their own stories loudly, together, diversely, would be the most powerful thing. That’s what’s missing right now.”
Hughes says no leaders of any national gay organizations have asked for his help or advice about how to create virtual mechanisms for creating publicity and leveraging action. Think about that. Not asking this guy for help is like having Marie Curie as your chemistry lab partner and letting yourself flunk out of school. (To his credit, Hughes is quick to add that he has not offered his advice to these organizations either.)
We also have to learn from the history of the liberation movements that preceded us. Since ACT UP we have done nothing on a mass scale to exploit the potential of passive resistance and nonviolent civil disobedience, the most effective, proven techniques of social action refined in the last century. Aside from a few rogue players who’ve applied for marriage licenses and small bands of activists like Soulforce (who’ve been arrested for trespassing on Christian college campuses where they try to instigate conversations about homosexuality), we have not even tried. When gay soldiers get kicked out of the military, why don’t they refuse to leave? Why don’t the rest of us go to support them? Why haven’t we tried? HRC’s Joe Solmonese says such action “has to be organic.”