Making them do the right thing

March 30, 2010

After the successes of the past year, the LGBT movement for equality is ready for a new step forward.

IN THE months since the National Equality March, when more than 200,000 people marched in Washington, D.C., in October 2009, the LGBT movement has experienced some disorientation.

Believing that progress was imminent because of President Obama's speech expressing solidarity with the struggle for civil rights the night before, some assumed their mobilizing work could pause and wait for the results to roll in.

Surely, many felt, at least the costly "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military, which has led to the dismissal of more than 420 gay and lesbian servicepeople in the last year alone, would be repealed amid two wars and occupations.

Of all the reforms around LGBT issues, this one seems like a no-brainer. The last Gallup poll on this issue shows that 69 percent of all Americans approve ditching this butter-churn of a social policy. Even 58 percent of Republicans think gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly while acting in the interests of oil and empire.

Gen. Colin Powell, the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who advocated the policy in 1993 under Bill Clinton, has called for its repeal, as have the current Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chair Adm. Michael Mullen.

And yet the best the Obama administration has been able to muster is a new policy against anonymous outings--supposedly a more humane way of implementing "don't ask, don't tell."

What gives?

The fact remains that without continued mass pressure from movement activists, we aren't going to see significant gains for LGBT people. It's a conclusion that ever-larger numbers of activists are drawing.

In March, nearly 300 activists gathered in Chicago for the first of the regional gatherings for the national grassroots network Equality Across America (EAA). Around 400 more attended a similar conference in Boston, where issues of history, strategy and tactics for LGBT activists and their allies were hammered out.

After the Chicago conference, more than 100 people joined a national EAA conference call to share ideas and plot local actions, including civil disobedience, for the Harvey Milk Day week of actions--beginning with International Day Against Homophobia on May 17 and ending with the anniversary of Milk's birthday on May 22.

Demanding full equality at the National Equality March
Demanding full equality at the National Equality March

When it was announced in early March that repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" would be put off at least until the end of the year, rather than being a setback for the movement, activists were outraged and remotivated.

Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point graduate and Iraq war veteran who outed himself on the Rachel Maddow show last year, chained himself to the White House fence in protest with two others, and was arrested. On the same day, a handful of activists with GetEqual sat in and were arrested in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, demanding passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

A week after his arrest, Choi was back on Maddow's show, rightly dismissing the meager tweaks to the military's policy, designed to cover for the fact that "don't ask, don't tell" is still in place. "It misses the point entirely," Choi said. "It enforces closetedness and shame and lying and deception...The ball is still in his [Obama's] court, and we need to see action...I am somebody and I deserve full equality."

THE LGBT blogosphere, EAA's conferences and Facebook are buzzing with talk of how to ratchet up the pressure on Obama and Congress. Sixteen months after the passage of Prop 8's denial of marriage equality in California that inspired this "Stonewall 2.0" movement, activists are impatient and ready for bold action.

Drawing on the great tradition of the Black civil rights struggle, many LGBT activists see civil disobedience as a next step. I am among them.

Not because I believe that getting arrested is the gold standard of activism. Our goal, after all, is not breaking the law, but winning our demands. In fact, there are many committed militants whose immigration status, job or family circumstances would make arrest a sacrifice far beyond the usual 24-hour (or less) inconvenience it is to many of us.

Rather, the reason is that there are now hundreds of LGBT people and straight allies living in dozens of cities who are now in a position to coordinate mass civil disobedience actions on the same day, which can push aside the foot-dragging approach of the administration.

Full federal equality--in essence, getting LGBT people added to the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1964--is a winnable demand in a society where a huge majority of people finds continued official discrimination an artifact of a bygone era.

Since 2008, 89 percent of Americans polled by Gallup believe that LGBT people should not be discriminated against on the job, yet it remains legal to fire someone for being gay, lesbian or bisexual in 29 states--and in 38 states, to fire someone for being transgender.

This contradiction should be pushed into the public eye, and Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress should be forced to act as if they, too, dwell in the 21st century, along with the rest of us.

As with the Black struggle, civil disobedience must be viewed as one tool in our battle for equality, alongside mass marches, speak-outs, rallies and educational events. It's a tool most effectively wielded, in my opinion, when coordinated with others to ensure solidarity actions, bail money, media and support.

Martin Luther King's 1963 nonviolent campaign in Birmingham to "fill up the jails" in order to end segregation ultimately succeeded. He wrote from jail:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.

For years now, I have heard the word "wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "wait" has almost always meant "never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

We are now approaching the 41st anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion in Greenwich Village, a time when being gay was illegal and being out of the closet was a perilous act of brave rebellion. The stigma, legal limbo and soulless discrimination against those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender cannot be buried so long as the federal government sputters and delays. Let's force them to do the right thing.

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