The passage of proposition 8 in California may be the best thing that’s happened to the gay community in a long, long time. Since last week, I have seen friends and acquaintances transformed, outraged, angry, and determined to do something about the injustice we have suffered and to try to change the way things are. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen groups of white gay men organize around anything besides parties, sex, or fashion, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
When I came of age in the early 1990s, the gay and lesbian movement was just coming out of the ACT UP years, marching on Washington for the first time, and looking beyond the AIDS crisis for the first time, trying to figure out how best to fight discrimination and attain equality. Marriage was not a cause any of my friends or I embraced at the time, why would we squander our political power fighting for the right to participate in an oppressive heterosexual institution? We were a large and disparate community, made up of many races, many genders and mostly outside of the mainstream. But a funny thing happened as we achieved visibility and political success on a wide scale: we went mainstream. As more people came out all over the country they came of age in a period where there wasn’t as much to struggle against and it became widely seen as okay to be gay. Certainly I do not mean to suggest that it became easy, but I have met so many gay boys and girls who had the freedom to decide who they were at a very young age, and came out into a world where they could see themselves on TV, in magazines, and in a popular culture that validated their choices.
As time went on, the scrappy grassroots gay organizations that had formed in the early years turned into institutions, and shifted their focus from activism to fundraising, targeting and servicing the wealthiest of our community, who tended to be white men. Gay men in popular culture quickly assumed the fastest path to mainstream acceptance: becoming early adopters and hyper-consumers, using their innate “queer eye” to be the arbiters of taste for a society that was told the most patriotic act it could perform was to go shopping. Gay events became a parade of corporate sponsorship, with audiences dressed up in designer clothes to applaud the latest corporations to lend their logos and a few dollars to try to win loyalty from gay consumers. Gay media sprung up, magazines, blogs, festivals and television networks, and struggled to find their voice and relevance.
The gay and lesbian community became complacent. When a landmark non-discrimination bill came up in Congress last year, the community divided on the inclusion of transgender protection in the bill, even though neither version (with or without trans-inclusion) was ever going to become law. The uneasy coalition began to fracture – activism was messy and impolite and the privileged white gay men I knew didn’t want to tie their fortunes to people they didn’t think they had anything in common with. We lost our way in politics; we stood alone and insisted that it was our way or the highway. A prominent gay media figure publicly proclaimed that he “tore up his check” to Obama when the candidate refused to back gay marriage. This typifies the gay community’s lack of understanding of politics. We can’t go this alone, and if we don’t reach out and build these bridges, nobody is going to build them for us.
We were rudely awakened by a brilliant campaign against us. Being right, just, and moral does not win elections. Money, hard work, organization, and coalition-building win elections. The “No on Prop 8” group ran a poor campaign, with bad messaging, bad advertising, ineffective organization and a baffling focus on our own community. The “Yes on 8” campaign ran a brilliant campaign with simple, poll-tested messaging, an energized base, powerful fundraising and brilliantly effective outreach and organizing to communities all around the state. They almost deserved to win.
This is a very important lesson in politics and democracy for the gay community. Our anger is a gift, use it the right way and we will get what we work for. Use it the wrong way and we will make long-term enemies and prolong our own struggle. We are not victims! Our anger must not become hatred for other minority groups that have been divided from us in our common struggle. We must not attack the Mormon Church but understand that religion is playing too large a role in our civic life and work for the repeal of tax-exempt status for churches that engage in political campaigns. We must not get angry at black churches and assume that CHANGE means the same thing to them that it does to us. We must understand that we are divided by forces which profit from our division. We must understand the common struggles that we share with everyone who faces challenges and discrimination from the state. We must look past ourselves and frame the debate in a way that includes other people. We must stop whining for our rights and organize to secure them. We must not be afraid of our enemies but we must win the argument with them. We must find our common purpose and change this country together. Civil and human rights and liberties have never been automatic in the United States, nor have they ever been under such attack. Our constitution guarantees us the chance to fight for them, it is not a blanket guarantee that they will never be trampled.
It is time to turn anger into action, to build bridges and to go work for the changes we want. Welcome back to the struggle.