Just as the sun was setting on the landmark year that delivered marriage equality — an achievement unthinkable just a decade earlier — an unsettling headline appeared from Time magazine: “2015 Made History for LGBT Rights. Why Few Are Optimistic About 2016.”
The piece was written by veteran reporter Philip Elliott from Las Vegas, where LGBT leaders had gathered to assess both the progress made and the road ahead. After interviewing some 25 movement leaders, Elliott noted, “a fractured picture emerges that suggests little agreement about what should — or even what can — come next.”
The story put a punctuation mark on what many of us have been wondering ever since 2015 began its slow, seemingly inevitable push toward the freedom to marry: Who or what would emerge to carry the movement forward in the wake of unprecedented gains that made the LGBT movement the envy of every other progressive movement in the country?
Of course, just as the LGBTQIs’ diversified agendas defy uniformity, no single answer to that question has emerged over the past year. But perhaps more disconcerting, nor has a single leader delivered anything that amounts to a compelling narrative on the way forward. Unlike others, however, I don’t see that lack of singular vision as cause for despair as much as an open-ended invitation to opportunity that beckons to each of us, in our individual capacities.
A bit of chaos amid the changing landscape of our country and the needs of our movement is only natural. It is a muted chaos, to some extent. Most of the basic structures of our modern-day movement — such as the Human Rights Campaign and Lambda Legal and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, to name a few — aren’t going anywhere in the near term. Yet we are also seeing signs of transition with Kevin Cathcart, who has led Lambda Legal for nearly 25 years, announcing his retirement effective April 2016. And some movement staples, such as Freedom to Marry and the Empire State Pride Agenda, are ceasing operations.
At the same time, some new arrivals, like the progressive-conservative donor mind meld Freedom for All Americans (FFAA), have begun to lay out their visions for achieving nondiscrimination protections nationwide, starting at the state level and eventually moving to the federal level. This organization is interesting in two respects. First, it represents a significant point of differentiation between the LGBT movement and other progressive movements in that we are actually increasingly being resourced by both liberal and conservative donors. Even if many Republican politicians don’t yet reflect this reality in rhetoric, the LGBT movement has still managed to reach across the aisle for critical legislative wins in states such as New York (enacting marriage equality in 2011) and even federally (passing employment protections through the U.S. Senate in 2013). Appealing to conservatives and, on occasion, Republican lawmakers has helped us achieve momentum that the climate change, DREAM, and pro-choice movements are still striving for.
Second, FFAA embodies an organizational model that is more Freedom to Marry and less Human Rights Campaign — the organization is not intended to exist in perpetuity but rather to achieve its stated goal, and then fold. In many ways, this should help keep it focused on its goal rather than on continually growing a budget to meet multiple objectives that require the organization to become more territorial even as it becomes less accountable.
While this model will perhaps make the organization more nimble, it does not guarantee the type of visionary leadership that has thus far been missing to combat new obstacles to LGBT equality, such as 2015’s right-wing attack on the toilet. You know the one — where anti-equality forces frightened the bejesus out of voters with their predatory messaging about trans women.
LGBT advocates led by the Human Rights Campaign, among others, dropped more than $3 million on the effort to pass the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). But after suffering a stinging and resounding defeat of 20-plus points on that November ballot measure, none of our well-heeled organizations have offered any explanations, even in hindsight, that hint at a strategy going forward.
Chad Griffin, president of HRC, suggested in several different interviews that if only the local TV stations that ran the opposition’s deplorable “No men in women’s bathrooms” ads had rejected them instead, we somehow could have avoided disaster. If that’s one of the big takeaways of our lead organization on how to combat what’s emerging as the homophobes’ next line of attack, we are in real trouble.
Our large organizations know we’re in trouble too. That’s why they have been advising against pushing a pro-LGBT nondiscrimination initiative in Michigan that, at the time of this writing, appears to have a shot at making the ballot in November. [Update: The Michigan initiative has now been pulled.] In particular, Equality Michigan and the American Civil Liberties Union are advocating continued lobbying of Michigan lawmakers over the next few years because equality can apparently wait for another day.
Competing sets of information about the prospects for passage have emerged from the group pushing the measure, Fair Michigan, and FFAA, which conducted modeling to analyze how voters might react to the types of messages used in the Houston campaign and elsewhere. The ballot measure is supported by 68% of voters, according to the polling firm the Glengariff Group. But FFAA’s Amy Mello explained to Between the Lines reporter Jan Stevenson in December why her organization reached a different conclusion:
“When the opposition comes out with exaggerated and emotional claims that voters may hear for the first time, we found that polling was not capturing what happens when people actually vote on LGBT issues. It takes a lot to combat the negative impact of the opposition ads.”
Even with the possibility of a loss, I’m pleased to see Fair Michigan pushing the issue for several reasons. First of all, they have little to lose. LGBT Michiganders don’t currently have nondiscrimination protections, so if you start with nothing and you lose, you’ve still got what you had before — nothing. However, if you win, you’ve got something you never had before.
Second, anyone who thinks the right-wing Michigan legislature is going to start cozying up to equality based on lobbying efforts anytime in the near future is living in an alternative universe. This is the same GOP-controlled body that watched Indiana take it on the chin last year following the passage of its anti-LGBT initiative and yet still moved forward with enacting a package of antigay “religious refusal” laws that allow publicly funded adoption agencies to deny adoptions to same-sex parents. Waiting on Michigan’s hyper-conservative government to enact equality measures is nothing but a prescription for justice delayed. Some of those lawmakers are going to have to lose their seats over an anti-LGBT vote before they start going the right way on our issues, and I don’t see anyone pouring the resources into Michigan to unseat anti-LGBT lawmakers.
Third, the past decade has shown our major organizations to be preternaturally risk averse. I say this even as I believe that our legal advocates at places like Lambda Legal and GLAD are doing incredibly good work. But grassroots efforts like those being pushed by Michigan attorney Dana Nessel and Fair Michigan are a necessary part of our movement’s process.
Could we lose in Michigan and other places? Yes. We should reconcile ourselves with the fact that we may have to lose some of these nondiscrimination battles before we figure out how to win them. Indeed, we lost 30-some antigay marriage measures before we celebrated resounding victories on four marriage-related measures in 2012. One of those wins came in Maine, where voters had overturned a marriage equality law at the ballot box just three years earlier. If we lost in Michigan in 2016 and came back to win in 2019, that would still be faster than waiting for lobbying efforts to take hold in the Great Lakes State.
After covering the movement for the last decade and chronicling its advances in my book Don’t Tell Me to Wait: How the Fight for Gay Rights Changed America and Transformed Obama’s Presidency, I have come to believe that the push-pull between our establishment groups and grassroots efforts is not only a necessary tension but the ideal for advancing our struggle for equality. Some of our most productive time periods in the modern-day movement have come when those at the grassroots level have pushed the hardest: the late ’80s and early ’90s with ACT UP, and the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency with activists who eventually formed GetEQUAL.
The fact that no one agrees on anything isn’t necessarily cause for despair. What’s most important is that we have an aggressive grassroots effort to push the establishment groups out of their comfort zone. That’s a tension that forces the innovation necessary to propel our movement forward.