The LGBT movement has made enormous progress in recent years, in large part by focusing, laser-like, on what’s come to be called the “movable middle.” We identified that third or so of the American population that was not hateful toward LGBT people but was uncomfortable with full equality. They were not yet with us but were open to change if we allayed their anxieties by reassuring them that we wanted no more or less than what they wanted — equal opportunity, fair treatment, safety, security, and dignity.
So we targeted high-profile, glaring legal inequalities like barriers to military service and marriage and unequal treatment of LGBT parents and their children. These goals were quite conservative in one sense, in that they sought inclusion in mainstream pillars of American society. We also fought for smaller-bore but critically important gains like nondiscrimination legislation and policy changes the Obama administration could issue to make a real difference in the lives of LGBT people.
There was a strong logic to targeting the movable middle. Growing popular support for our equality in states and throughout the country is critical to raising the kind of awareness that allows for both durable political change and the equal treatment we deserve in our daily lives. And this kind of change builds on itself, as increasing visibility and acceptance invite more and more people, including politicians, to support our cause and embrace us as human beings worthy of equal dignity.
Indeed, furthering this process was precisely the point of this “tip of the spear” strategy: As Americans see proud, out soldiers donning the uniform and defending their country, as they see happily married same-sex couples raising kids and mowing the lawn next door, they recognize the sky’s not falling. Gay people are pretty much like us, they realize, and sharing with them our major institutions and our status as first-class Americans doesn’t cause harm, create chaos, or weaken our nation.
And the strategy has paid off, as the recent election dramatically showed. Three states endorsed same-sex marriage by popular vote and a fourth rejected an antigay constitutional amendment; Wisconsin elected its first openly lesbian senator; Barack Obama won reelection as the first sitting president to support same-sex marriage; and over a hundred openly LGBT candidates won office in states across the country.
The fact that this strategy paid off means it has obvious value. But there is risk in continuing with a tried-and-true strategy even after it’s yielded enormous fruit. For one thing, the lowest-hanging fruit is easiest to reach; so while momentum is on our side, we mustn’t assume the successful tactics of the past will necessarily attain for us what lies higher in the tree.
But there’s another reason to look beyond the movable middle. It’s based on a crucial difference between LGBT people and other minorities, and it’s an ethical imperative whose critical import risks getting lost in our success: Most other minorities, once they reach a tipping point in public approval, can afford to ignore the dwindling number of folks who still detest them. Their families can achieve legal equality and inhabit largely tolerant worlds where they more or less avoid encounters with those who hate or discriminate against them for who they are. (There are important exceptions, such as the horrific racial profiling against urban black males and the impediments faced by women and minorities in breaking the corporate glass ceiling.)
But the crucial difference is that, for LGBT people, the haters can be their own parents. No matter how far we come toward full legal equality, queer kids will remain vulnerable when they grow up in (largely but not solely) red states and rural areas where their immediate and inescapable communities consist of parents, teachers, and peers who think they’re disgusting, sick, or even dangerous. Here, they will continue to face the hopelessness and self-hatred that comes from internalizing parental and community opposition to homosexuality: higher rates of depression, suicide attempts, forced conversion therapy, and isolation.
Indeed, amid all the good news of shifts in public opinion, the nation remains sharply divided. True, just over half the country now supports marriage equality and tells pollsters that homosexuality is “morally acceptable.” This is the same margin reflected in the state marriage wins on Election Day. But that margin leaves just under half the nation still thinking we are immoral at our core. We can’t afford to leave the antigay beliefs of over 100 million Americans intact. We don’t have the luxury to write off the last third of the American population. As utopian as it may sound, we must learn how to win them over too.