The worldwide struggle for LGBT equality has dramatically changed in the past few years. From our movement’s inception, our great challenge has been to shed our invisibility and use education to overcome ignorance. On a cultural level we have been undeniably successful. By coming out in massive numbers, we have blown a huge hole in the closet door, which has allowed people to know that their cherished and respected friends, coworkers, and family members are LGBT. This awakened consciousness has led to a dramatic shift in acceptance.
Overcoming our invisibility and attracting millions of allies has given the LGBT movement clout that seemed like a distant dream not too long ago. This recently gained political power has afforded us the ability to create historic change through democratic institutions, such as the judiciary, and to a lesser extent, the legislative branch. While the wheels of justice in free societies can grind exasperatingly slowly and are replete with setbacks, in nations that champion democracy, individual freedom, and human rights, there is an upward trajectory that ultimately leads us on a path to equality.
Unfortunately, we are entering a different era where democracy is in retreat, strongmen are all the rage, and dictators and despots vigorously challenge the idea of universal human rights. Although we are still achieving significant victories across the globe, the LGBT movement suddenly finds itself operating on perilous terrain, where the expansion of democracy is no longer taken for granted and our rights are being challenged, even in the heart of Europe.
This week, for example, the barely democratic right wing governments of Poland and Hungary unsuccessfully tried to dilute a European Union declaration by deleting references to LGBTIQ rights. Thanks to the leadership of Ireland and 18 other nations, a Maltese initiative was backed that the Irish Times reports would “strongly endorse European Commission action on LGBTIQ rights.”
After a mini-revolt by conservative Republican members of Congress — who represent a party that is increasingly hostile to democracy — President Donald Trump used a footnote in his new trade deal with Mexico and Canada to negate language protecting LGBT workers from discrimination.
Recent events dictate that as LGBT activists we must realize that the way we traditionally advocate, while still effective in many ways, is insufficient in meeting the challenges and demands of today’s Orwellian political reality. It is no longer enough to just advocate for our rights through education and traditional lobbying. We must also be in the vanguard of promoting and sustaining the democratic institutions and open societies that have allowed us to thrive.
For thousands of years our community suffered through invisibility and ruthless oppression. We were ostracized, delegitimized, outlawed, excommunicated, tortured in efforts to change our sexuality, imprisoned, and sometimes maimed and murdered. Our victories in recent decades haves come so rapidly that it’s easy to forget the formidable obstacles we faced in the not too distant past.
Clearly, our contemporary success is due to the postwar embrace of Enlightenment values and spread of democratic institutions that promised free thought, the rule of law, the right to vote, the right to privacy, and freedom of speech and assembly. Though imperfect in implementation — whether for LGBT people, women, or people of color — these democratic systems do offer the opportunity to politically organize, protest, petition the courts, and educate the masses, which led directly to our astonishing progress.
However, if we allow these democratic platforms to erode in favor of authoritarian leadership at home or abroad, we are essentially powerless because we are no longer guaranteed a mechanism with which we can appeal directly to the people or government for equality. Exhibit A is Russia, where American evangelicals teamed up with Russian conservatives to pass the oppressive antipropaganda law. Under the guise of protecting children, this law basically defangs LGBT advocacy by denying activists their right to free speech and association. Combined with Vladimir Putin seizing power and becoming a dictator, this means LGBT activists in Russia no longer have the democratic tools necessary to control their own destiny.
It is clear that LGBT individuals and organizations must lead the fight to oppose the creeping authoritarianism, disguised as populism, that threatens our future. We have no choice but to work tirelessly to preserve free, democratic societies. We must fight harder than everyone else, because we have the most to lose.
It is important to remember that there is no promise of infinite progress. The world hummed along for thousands of years as we suffered under the yoke of oppression. If tyranny proliferates in the 21st century, our historic gains could prove ephemeral and an era of darkness could descend. If we don’t fight like hell now for democracies and free societies, we may end up living in hell in the not too distant future.
WAYNE BESEN is the executive director of Truth Wins Out. Founded in 2006, Truth Wins Out is a nonprofit think tank and advocacy organization that fights right wing extremism, the “ex-gay” myth, and anti-LGBT discrimination.