Every civil rights movement seems to have at least one leader. Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Ron Jeremy and Jenna Jameson. So how come us homosexuals don’t have a go-to guy?
Actually, we sort of do. More often than not, it’s folks like HRC’s Joe Solmonese and GLAAD’s (since exited) Neil Giuliano who told the world what the gays’ hopes and dreams were. Fishing for a soundbite, any lazy reporter could always turn to one of these fellas, who tout huge “membership” numbers as evidence of their command. This is problematic for any number of reasons, from their black-tie-gala approach to securing our rights to their whole “part of the establishment” operations.
For a different reason, there’s a parallel here to explain why much of the black community rolls its eyes when the Rev. Al Sharpton gets on his megaphone to tell the world what people of color are thinking. “He does not speak for us,” they say. “He’s out of touch,” they note. “He’s a crazypants hypocrite,” they whisper. Much of the gay community says the same about its unelected gay rights leaders who pow wow with Obama and are charged with representing our voice to the rest of America.
The New York Times‘ Jeremy Peters takes an admirable stab at finding out why we’re without a grandstander. He fails.
One explanation is that gay and lesbian activists learned early on that they could get along just fine without one. Even in the movement’s earliest days following the violent uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village 40 years ago this week, no singular leader emerged. Some historians believe this is in part because it was — and still is — difficult for the average American to empathize with the struggles of gay people.
That the “average American” cannot sympathize with our civil rights struggle does little to address the fact that we’re still pretty good at organizing, mobilizing, and messaging. Sure, we mastered grassroots activism before it was something the Facebook kids were engaged in, but we’re no less focused on a nationwide push than, say, women’s suffrage ever was.
Another reason for the absence of a nationally prominent gay leader is the highly local nature of the movement. Unlike the civil rights and the feminist movements, the gay movement lacked a galvanizing national issue.
Ahem: DOMA, DADT, ENDA.
That movement for equality was later overshadowed by efforts to combat AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s. And AIDS itself is a reason leaders were hard to come by. “AIDS wiped out a whole generation,” Mr. Eisenbach said. “What you have is a vacuum. And that still has not been filled.”
But that would be like saying assassinations and lynchings were the reason the African-American civil rights movement didn’t have a leader. Except they did, despite those death sentences.
None of Peters’ arguments wholly explain why the gays never mounted an effort to put one person at the top. You could say Harvey Milk was on his way there, but who knows how far outside San Francisco he could’ve carried his message. In the meantime, we’ve allowed for Gay Inc. to dictate our agenda, at least in the eyes of the rest of the nation. Those in the know realize there’s much more happening on the ground, and the Somoneses of the world not only don’t speak for us, but barely have a seat at the table.
So the question remains: Why don’t we have a gay leader?
Or maybe the better question is: Do we even need one?