I want to look at the issue of fighting versus negotiating. What has brought us our success? In the last couple of weeks, the President has brought this up in London and then again later at Howard. Over last weekend, a person I know wrote me, questioning whether I was right to say, in a recent blog, that it was necessary for activists to fight. This person advocated for the traditional values of kindness, generosity, openness, and “open-heartedness.” Why would the President say that it is right to hold on to our principles, but when the time is right, it is necessary to negotiate and to compromise? Why would he say that? I presume he says it because he is the President, and he may not feel that as President he can publicly advocate civil disobedience—fighting—even though he can and has praised civil disobedience in the past. But his inability to speak the word—fight—does not mean that the word is not the right one.
Most histories of the LGBTQ movement say that the most powerful force driving LGBTQ success was the huge increase in the number of persons who have come out as LGBTQ. Daniel Cox, writing on five-thirty-eight, says, “Few things have more fundamentally altered public opinion on same-sex marriage than the increasing presence of openly gay and lesbian people in America’s social networks.” This argument is widely accepted, and it’s wrong. It depends, for its truth, on the belief that coming out makes other people like us better. Most gay people have relatives and acquaintances who have known for decades that we were gay and who, even after decades, are still driven by an insane hostility to gay people. Merely knowing a gay person does not turn a vicious person into a kind, loving, respectful friend.
The prior question is Why did so many gay and lesbian people come out? Approached that way, we stumble over answers blocking our path: Because we had to, we had to create a safe space for our selves, we had to find others like our selves, we needed to be validated, we needed sex, so we reached out to other people who might be LGBTQ, and so we came out. The response of the culture was not to say, Gee, you’re such sweet people, and we’re going to give you all your rights. Instead, the culture said, Holy shit, you’re determined, you know what you want, you don’t seem to give a shit what I think of you, you won’t be satisfied, you keep chaining yourselves to fences! We have to fight you to defend our way of life! Over the last sixty years, every time the culture came up with a new rationale to deny LGBTQ people their rights, the LGBTQ movement batted it down. Gay people are security risks? We fought back, pointing out how many gay people had served the nation without endangering our security. Gay people aren’t good parents? But they are, and here’s proof, data from double-blind scientific studies. We have taken each charge and fought back until the charge was dropped. The other side didn’t drop charges against us because we were such sweet people. They dropped charges exactly because we were not sweet. We were powerful, and we were relentless. We had better arguments, and we had better advocates. We have proved determined. We picketed the States Steamship Lines in 1969 (before Stonewall) in San Francisco for firing a gay man and then we picketed Tower Records for firing a clerk they suspected of being gay. They were stupid charges, and were only the first of hundreds in the sixty years since then that we have emphatically answered, and we have been smart in answering them. And we have been successful.
We don’t know what President Obama says to leaders of civil rights organizations he meets with privately, but we do know what President Franklin D. Roosevelt said to civil rights activists who came to him in the midst of the Depression, asking for his support. See here. President Roosevelt told the activists, “I agree with you. Now go out and make me do it.” Put pressure on me, help me build a movement for these actions.
Jack Mirkinson, writing in Salon, speaking of exactly why the Administration suddenly became very aggressive in support of trans people, says, “In what feels like the blink of an eye, it has become more politically advantageous for the White House to be on the side of trans people than to sit on the fence. Actually, forget that positive framing: it’s politically dangerous for the White House not to take this sort of stand. And that’s because trans people, and queer people more generally, are reaping the rewards of decades of sustained, confrontational, fearless activism and movement-building.”
And here you have it. If you want to know the answer to the question, “How did Marriage Equality become acceptable?” the answer is, because LGBTQ people made the culture do it. Jack Mirkinson says that “trans people, and queer people more generally, are reaping the rewards of decades of sustained, confrontational, fearless activism and movement building.” In the end, first Joe Biden, and then, several days later, Barack Obama, came out on our side because they didn’t have another option to take. We made him do it. Read Mirkinson on Salon. Mirkinson says trans people have inherited that method of making change and progress.
Sustained, confrontational, fearless activism—those words can just as easily describe the several hundred fighters on Christopher Street in the West Village at 2:30 AM on June 28, 1969, as they fought the New York cops to a standstill and never lost control of the street and then were able to come back the next night with more people ready to fight. When the AIDS years seemed darkest, when it was impossible to get any kind of response out of President Reagan, ACT UP was not polite nor kind nor understanding. Here in Cambridge, they poured (fake) blood on the steps of the Harvard Medical School, to the point that the Dean had to assert that he was not a bigot, to general derision. The effect of the rudeness of ACT UP and other activists was that the practice of medicine in public health emergencies was changed. For the better. As marriage equality became available around the country, there were a lot of photos of the sweet faces of elderly LGBTQ persons who had been in relationships for twenty or thirty years, dressed up in their holiday best, marrying in churches and on beaches and in City Halls. What was not shown were the decades of sustained, confrontational, fearless activism that preceded those celebrations. It wasn’t being sweet that made us win, it was being fierce.
David Carter. Stonewall: the Riots that Sparked a Gay Revolution. New York: St Martins Griffin, 2004. Source for pre-Stonewall gay activism on West Coast.
Steven Epstein. Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. For information on the politics of AIDS and the delivery of public health.