30 November 2006

Civil Rights Are Not Hors d'Oeuvres! (Part One)

I'm typing these words a couple of weeks after Democrats won control of the US Congress again. They'd been a minority party for twelve years, but the electorate finally decided to give them another chance. George W. Bush will be in office until the end of 2008, but a majority of American voters are hoping that the Dems will be able to curtail his war-mongering, treasury-looting, civil liberties-destroying, religious Right Wing-pandering agenda long before then.

Understandably, most LGBT Americans have been jubilant at the outcome of midterm elections. In the interest of full disclosure, I'll confess that a friend and I celebrated the Republicans' ouster at a popular Japanese steakhouse. I'm an Independent voter, but you certainly don't have to be a partisan to oppose government by rubber stamp! My friend and I had a good meal, and our post-election conversation (which admittedly had a strong anti-Bush slant) was immensely enjoyable.

However, we both had serious questions about how and where Gay people will fit into the Democrats' agenda. Now that we have a party in power that's more sympathetic to our concerns, what do we expect? What's realistic to expect? What demands are we in a position to make?

Columnist Wayne Besen has been asking these questions, too. He's given a lot of thought to the answers, and put those thoughts into a recent essay titled "Time For A Smart Gay Agenda." Here are some excerpts from that piece, which he blogged on 23 November:

The new Democratic Congress is about to triumphantly take the reins, offering a unique opportunity to pass legislation, but we must tread carefully to avoid repeating past mistakes . . . one lesson from the past is that if Gay issues are haphazardly introduced, they can be radioactive and sidetrack the Democratic Party's broader agenda. If the Democrats are seen as kowtowing to a controversial special interest group the moment they are in the majority, it may jeopardize their ability to reach mainstream Americans.

The Gay leaders should offer to step back and make no demands for six months to let the Democrats establish a tangible record on bread-and-butter economic issues. The party must establish itself as one that represents all people and cares most about the concerns of average families. Once party leaders have built a reserve of political capital and are able to boast of bipartisan accomplishments, they will have earned credentials with suburban families and can address Gay Rights without looking like they are pandering . . .

Democratic leaders should agree that for the GLBT community's six months of silence, a major piece of legislation would be introduced in June. The most logical legislation would be the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation . . . after this bill is passed, we should take our lobbyists off of Capital Hill for another six months and do nothing else until 2008.

In this presidential election year, we should introduce hate crimes legislation, which has the least potential to create a backlash, since even our opponents profess that Gay bashing is wrong . . . unfortunately, I left off my short list overturning the ban on Gays in the military. I think we should steer clear of this issue until after the presidential elections. This topic is too prone to demagoguery, with Conservatives once again descending into submarine barracks. If a Democrat wins the presidency and the party holds both branches of Congress, this would be a good issue for 2009 . . .

. . . if our groups strategically and systematically work with (House Speaker Nancy)Pelosi and (Senate leader Harry) Reid, we can eat our victory cake and they can still win re-election in a cakewalk.

My Stuffed Animal whiskers bristle at the concept of LGBT Americans as a "special interest group"(there's nothing special about being interested in basic Civil Rights!), and I take strong exception to the idea that our families are less important than "average" ones! I also can't remember a time when politicians of any party ever pandered to Gay people! What's more, it's naïve to think Right Wing forces couldn't make ENDA or any other Gay Rights initiative just as radioactive as they've made marriage equality and military service; all they need to do is frighten the electorate with lies about our intentions, and they're proven experts at doing that.
Nevertheless, I commend Wayne Besen for putting his ideas on the table. I daresay most political analysts would find his reasoning absolutely sound. Even I have to admit that his plan of action seems like an excellent long-term strategy . . . for the Democratic Party!

Where Wayne and I differ is his opinion that what's good for the Democrats is necessarily good for Lesbian, Gay, Pansexual and Transsexual Americans. I don't agree! It's a mistake to think all Democrats are politically progressive. Many of the candidates that got elected to office on November 7 kick like Democratic donkeys but trumpet like Republican pachyderms; they may not be card-carrying members of Pat Robertson's "700 Club", but quite a few could probably get honorary memberships on request! That's why Gay people can never expect the Democratic Party to deliver civil rights to us on a silver platter. Not in this election cycle, or any other!

Wayne's carefully thought-out one-party strategy won't even put us within reach of our various goals. As to which of those goals should be pursued first, how could a group of people as dissimilar as American Lesbians and Gay men ever agree on that? It's impossible! We're not like other minority groups; we don't have a common culture. No, we don't! Our life circumstances vary to a tremendous degree. Our broad divisions of class, ethnicity, gender, political philosophy and education level make us the very antithesis of a monolithic interest group.

There can be no hierarchy of LGBT issues, no "ENDA first, and then we'll look at the other stuff later"! For years, I've heard intellectuals argue otherwise, but they always forget to factor in the huge amount of diversity in the so-called Gay community. To a White, upper-class Gay man, prioritizing ENDA makes the most sense. A basic need like spousal benefits resonates more strongly with a working class Black Lesbian mother. A Gay Latino serviceman is primarily worried about the threat "don't ask/don't tell" poses to his future. Individual LGBT folk are motivated to act on whatever concerns affect them most on a personal level. Take their concerns off the table, and you've taken away their motivation, too!

At this point in time, we should be more concerned about what we as a minority group are willing to coalesce around, rather than what politicians are likely (???) to give us. Instead of a piecemeal approach to legislation, I feel we need to agree among ourselves on a package of Civil Rights reforms. We need an initiative that all of our myriad parts can commit to and take part ownership of.

However, we won't get far with either a piecemeal or a package approach if we do nothing but depend on the political process! Civil Rights activists certainly didn't do that in the 1960s. Seldom if ever did they wet their fingers to test the political winds before deciding to take action. They had fire in their bellies! They were hungry for equality and willing to put their asses on the line for it in the form of boycotts, protests, sit-ins, and other forms of civil disobedience. They repeatedly made it clear that the status quo was not acceptable to them.

Seems to me Gay people are generally satisfied with the status quo! Sure, I see a few scattered protests around the country, but nothing on the scale of what happened in the '60s. The kind of talk I hear definitely doesn't evoke '60s activism! Marriage rights? I don't want to get married, so why should I care about that? Military service? I'm opposed to militarism, so "don't ask/don't tell" doesn't matter to me. The right to work for religious charities that accept tax money? Churches can hire and fire according to their moral convictions. Gay people shouldn't have anything to do with organized religion, anyway.

It gets worse! I've heard a million reasons why we should opt out of full equality. Many of us act like Civil Rights are morsels on an hors d'oeuvres tray that we can pick and choose according to personal taste: Oooh! I'll have some of these, and some of those, but none of those others with anchovies in them! It's so pathetic, it's almost quaint! If we're as ambivalent about equality as all that, why do we bother complaining at all?

Civil rights are not hors d'oeuvres, and a civil rights crusade isn't a spectator sport. It requires direct action! It requires upsetting the normal order of things and applying social pressure to institutions of power. The African-American Civil Rights movement had both Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X to agitate on its behalf, leaders who basically played "good cop/bad cop" to the racist establishment. The Gay Rights movement has neither a good cop nor a bad cop! We have neither a carrot nor a big stick to wave at powerbrokers. Without a militant rank-and-file that can be mobilized quickly, we're at their absolute mercy! Politicians can feel free to make promises to our self-appointed leaders that they have no intention of keeping.

Suppose Gay Rights lobbyists do as Wayne Besen suggests . . . suppose they tell Democrats they can ignore our issues for a few years? What's likely to be the result of that? The Democrats will put discrimination against LGBT Americans on the back burner indefinitely! If we ourselves are willing to put it there, how important can it really be to us?

I know Wayne will disagree with me, but I don't think it matters so much which party is in power. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will take our issues seriously until we take them seriously, and no group that's serious about its issues tells legislators "we'll let you put us on hold for a few years". That's not the way to exercise political clout, and political clout is what you need to make things happen on Capitol Hill!

"Civil Rights Are Not Hors d'Oeuvres" concludes with Part Two.