The significant losses that happened in 2008 were huge blows to the long-standing strategy of the mainstream LGBT movement. Like many other social movements over the past few decades, the most well resourced elements of the LGBT movement have largely abandoned organizing as a core strategy for change. Instead, it has shifted its primary focus to public education, legal and legislative strategies. The LGBT movement has also moved away from an intersectional approach to a political approach that focuses narrowly on single issues. The state-by-state struggles around same-sex marriage revealed the limitations of those strategies and of that kind of narrow focus. So now, a wider range of people are questioning what the absence of a long-term organizing means for our work. Many of the big LGBT movement players are now back at the strategy drawing board, and a lot is up for grabs. This moment presents an important opportunity for more progressive forces to weigh in on the strategic direction of the LGBT movement.
How is the LGBT movement different from other social movements?
The LGBT movement is different from many other social movements because it has a very small centralized and consolidated group of people who lead many of the largest national LGBT organizations and who are in regular communication about strategy. They actually sit down and decide which issues are going to be prioritized and well-resourced. That can make it challenging for smaller and more progressive LGBT organizations to impact the strategic direction of our movement. But, because so many of these strategic questions are up for grabs at this point, we now have an opportunity to impact that debate.
Relatedly, the HIV/AIDS crisis that came to national attention in the 80s and still exists today, resulted in the loss of a large layer of our movement’s leadership and therefore our history. This huge loss of leadership from the more militant era of our movement is something that is widely felt in a moment where HIV/AIDS and LGBT organizations continue to de-politicize and mainstream themselves.
What significance does California’s Prop 8 have on the state of the LGBT movement?
A great deal of this debate centers on reflections from the struggle for same-sex marriage in California and – in particular – on the absence of grassroots organizing as a core strategy in that struggle. California was the most crucial battleground state for gay marriage, and the defeat of same-sex marriage in California was a huge blow for the LGBT movement. The movement in support of same-sex marriage was based on a state-by-state strategy, and California was seen as an essential anchor state that could help to sustain the battle for same-sex marriage in other states.
For people who aren’t familiar with that fight in California, same-sex marriage was initially won in the courts, but then it was overturned through a state-wide ballot initiative: Proposition 8. That turn-around demonstrated that we need a mass base to move a progressive agenda. Even if we can win progressive policy changes through the courts or through legislative processes, we run the risk of having our progressive victories overturned if they are not won by a variety of tactics with organizing as the fundamental strategy. If we don’t engage in the hard work of sustained grassroots organizing, we won’t have the base that we need to get people to vote the right way or to defend our legal victories.
Progressive forces in the LGBT movement have reflected that the campaign for same-sex marriage in California didn’t have a sustained organizing approach. Instead, the campaign organizers parachuted in and expected to win same-sex marriage by running more convincing TV ads than the proponents of Prop 8. They didn’t have a good ground game. And the people that attempted to execute a good ground game didn’t have a strong base in communities of color. Initially, the media reported that Proposition 8 passed because of communities of color had turned out in larger numbers to vote for Obama and simultaneously voted against gay marriage. That assumption has since been refuted. It is true that communities of color had high percentages of support Proposition 8, and that is a troubling reality that the racial justice movement needs to confront more directly. But – even though California’s population is majority people of color – its electorate is majority white. Proposition 8’s passage was primarily due to voting patterns of straight white families with children, acccording to a recently released report about the failures of the No on 8 campaign.
On August 4, Judge Vaughn Walker overturned Proposition 8 in California courts. Appeals of this ruling are expected to eventually land in the Supreme Court. LGBT people across the country are celebrating this victory. It is sparking momentum for similar fights in other states. They are forcing the federal government to once again engage in a debate that they have largely conceded to state-level politics. One of the lead lawyers making the case that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, Theodore Olson, is a well-known powerhouse lawyer on a range of major conservative issues, including fighting to overturn affirmative action laws and the court battle that eventually put George W. Bush in office in 2000. It’s worth noting that established national LGBT organizations were largely excluded from weighing in on this court battle, demonstrating more fissures in the mainstream movement’s leadership and strategy. In fact, many of the most powerful national LGBT organizations cautioned against taking this case to the courts so quickly after the passage of Proposition 8, but it moved forward regardless.
How can the left impact the future direction of the LGBT movement?
We need a conversation that brings together the left and progressives forces in the LGBT movement with the more liberal forces. We need to talk about the fact that public education, legal strategies and high-level advocacy aren’t enough to win and that we need to promote grassroots organizing as a primary strategy to win and defend policy changes. It’s a good thing that a wider range of forces are now agreeing that we need to engage in organizing, but we need to remember that people have different entry points to that conversation. Left and progressive people see organizing as a question of both strategy and values; we believe that we need the participation of a massive number of people in our change efforts, both to win on our immediate issues and to lay the groundwork for a broader progressive agenda. Mainstream forces, on the other hand, approach the need for organizing as a strictly tactical question in the electoral arena; they think that we need to organize people around one or two issues, such as gay marriage, and then we’re done. We need to enter that dialogue and we need to promote organizing with those forces, but we should do it with our eyes wide open. We shouldn’t have any illusions that we can easily change the trajectory or issue-focus of the mainstream movement. Essentially, what I’m staying is that our longstanding strategy of non-engagement with the mainstream LGBT movement is not a strategy.
We also need to engage the new forces that came to voice in this fight, specifically the younger people who became active during the fight against Proposition 8. They wanted to take a more militant tactical approach during that fight, and they raised serious critiques of the mainstream strategy. They are representative of a broader new set of organized forces nationally – represented, for example, by a new group called Get Equal – that is committed to building more militant fights around relatively mainstream issues such as the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the legalization of gay marriage. They are attempting to engage in more militant direct actions using language reminiscent of Act UP. Are they fighting on the most left LGBT issues? No. But the fact that more and more people are becoming politically engaged through these issues and are pushing these kinds of political questions and questioning the mainstream movement’s strategy, that’s great. It represents a real opportunity. We need to think about how to harness that energy. It’s the right type of energy even if it’s not focused on the issues that we think they should be focused on. Our role should be to engage with that energy and to redirect that momentum towards more progressive issues and fights. We can’t do that if we’re just standing on the outside.
Why should left LGBT organizations engage with mainstream LGBT issues?
First, we need to keep in mind that – while the LGBT left considers these organizations to be mainstream – they are being viciously attacked by the right-wing because they are promoting same-sex marriage. And even if our long-term vision for change is not about same-sex marriage, we need to remember that the attack on same sex marriage is fundamentally about homophobia. We should maintain our position that same-sex marriage is not the only fight that the LGBT movement should be waging. But we also need to balance that critique with real work to support that fight against institutionalized homophobia.
This kind of dual engagement is important because – in the past – we have mostly decided not to engage with the broader LGBT movement because those forces didn’t align with our political values. We have had a correct critique of the mainstream movement’s over-prioritization of issues like gay marriage and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. We have criticized the fact that these are the most well-resourced fights while our communities are facing much bigger challenges, including struggling to meet their basic survival needs. That critique is correct, but our strategy of non-engagement has been wrong. We’re never going to change the politics and strategies of the mainstream LGBT movement if we don’t engage with it. History has taught us that the only way to move more moderate forces is to engage with them while we are simultaneously increasing the scale and power of our work, therefore making us more relevant. We shouldn’t abandon our left politics, but we also need to be able to engage with and move more moderate forces. Those two political tasks are not contradictory; they are complementary.
What are some examples of the kinds of issues that left organizers in the LGBT movement should be advancing?
Many left LGBT organizations have done a significant amount of work to push the LGBT movement to look beyond same-sex marriage and to take on a wider range of issues. The political landscape is different today. There are other LGBT issues – beyond gay marriage – that we can actually win under Obama.
Right now, I would say that the LGBT movement is still in the phase of re-assessing strategy and questioning the “old guard.” That means there’s more space for us to move a new agenda. New strategies and new issues are up for grabs. That doesn’t mean that the gay marriage fight and the struggle over Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will disappear. But it does create space for left LGBT organizations to advance more progressive issues and strategies, at both local and national levels. At this point, the ball is up in the air. The question is, can we kick it to the left before it lands in the same place it has been the past decade?
There are pockets of left and progressive LGBT groups that are trying to advance demands outside of the mainstream movement, like the Audre Lorde Project (ALP), Southerners on New Ground (SONG), the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and FIERCE. Many of these groups are part of a newly formed national alliance of progressive LGBT organizations – the Roots Coalition – that is trying to figure out how to take advantage of these openings. We are trying to figure out what opportunities exist for more progressive national fights. We are looking at both the mainstream issues that are already on the table that we might be able to win immediately and new issues that will push the LGBT movement to the left.
We are doing that by intentionally choosing issues that have an LGBT lens and that – if won – will also impact many other communities. In particular, we are looking to build a stronger bridge between fights focused on LGBT issues with those that are focused on racial and economic justice. An example of a fight we could consider taking up is the struggle around the impending reauthorization of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), specifically challenging the expansion of the marriage promotion programs that Obama has been pushing. The current economic crisis has increased the need for welfare programs, but the marriage promotion requirements and strict definitions of family present structural barriers that limit LGBT families’ abilities to access the resources they need to survive. The marriage promotion programs don’t only impact LGBT families; they impact all families that don’t have traditional family structures: single-parent households, households with multiple caregivers or extended family structures. We should fight to eliminate marriage promotion requirements because they hurt all of these different kinds of families. Up until now, it has mainly been welfare rights organizations and a few women’s rights organization that have had these issues on their radar. But if left LGBT organizations can position ourselves as a coherent force on this issue, we could bring more mainstream LGBT forces into the fight. That would allow us to simultaneously advance welfare rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights. This would broaden o