Two weeks ago, 2,000 protesters marched on the Los Angeles headquarters of CNN, shutting down the street. They banged on the windows (til one of them ordered them not to), they sat in the street, they were determined to make their collective voice heard. Frustrated, an L.A.P.D. officer asked by megaphone, “Who’s in charge here?” and someone shouted, “We all are!”
Nobody can look back at the last two weeks and say that something hasn’t fundamentally changed within the gay community. The scope, speed and ferocity of the protests that followed in the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 8 are unprecedented.
The question on everybody’s mind is “What now?”
The far right and religious conservatives look at the crowds marching in the streets and call it “terrorism”, “fascism” and “anarchy”; mostly disingenuously, but not always so. They tell those who will listen to them that marriage equality is the first step to knocking down the churches and that it will force children to discuss sexuality at even the earliest ages. The words “witch hunt” and “blacklist” are being thrown about with casual ease.
Their argument is that people should be free to believe in and support a political cause without consequence, willfully ignorant of the fact that they’ve been denying that same luxury to equal rights advocated for years. They don’t like that the tables have been turned. They point out isolated incidents of limited violence made against Yes on 8 supporters, while ignoring that No on 8 supporters have been attacked as well.
Within the gay community, there are real fissures: Some new, some old ones brought back to life. Lori Jean of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center shouts that the only group to blame for the passage of Prop 8 is the Mormon Church. This is as simplistic as George Bush’s characterization of the war on terrorism being a conflict against “evil-doers”. Others lay the blame at the feet of the No on 8 campaign, which myopically put all of its eggs into television advertising and phone banking while actively scoffing at the idea that face time with voters would make a difference.
Like most things in life, there’s plenty of blame to spread around for the defeat in California. It’s true that the Mormon Church mounted an impressive fundraising campaign, but only the naÃ¯ve would think that there wouldn’t be a ferocious battle for same-sex marriage in one of the most influential and largest states in the nation.
Maybe we needed this to happen. For Californians to have been granted the right to marry and then have it snatched away again less than six months later made a subtle discrimination blatant, not just in one state, but across the country. Similar measures in Florida, Arizona and Arkansas that passed on Election Day have made this a national movement and while Prop. 8 remains the focus, most everyone sees this as a battle to eliminate gender and sexuality discrimination from American civic life once and for all.
The California Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the legality of Proposition 8, but even if the judges rule in our favor, it will be on a process-based technicality and anti-same-sex marriage activists will try again. We must face the fact that if we are to win, we can’t rely on court battle after court battle. We must be willing to change the minds of at least some of the people who now oppose us. The difference between challenging someone’s beliefs and disparaging them is that only one gives you a shot at changing someone’s mind.
There’s also the other 33 states that outlaw gay marriage. If California were to win back its rights and leave the other states to fend on their own, they would be the worst sort of family.
This is a big and daunting fight, but it is the civil rights battle of our time. There are other important issues that the gay community needs to address: poverty, its own institutionalized racism and misogyny, drug abuse and HIV-related issues, but marriage equality isn’t just a totem. By demanding that LGBT people be treated equal citizens, it will be easier for more people to live their life without fear. This will make it easier to reach out to minority communities and the poor. It will widen our community, introducing more diversity of opinion and it will raise allow gays and lesbians to hold their head up high.
There are three questions that must to drive this revolution. By discovering the answers, we will be able to chart a course ahead.
The first is, “Who are we?”
On the surface, this question is obvious, but its simplicity is deceiving. Who makes up the gay community? Saying that it’s just the people who have same-sex attraction is inaccurate–we should not count the Larry Craig’s and Ted Haggard’s of the world among us. The gay community ghettoized itself in cities as a way to protect itself from those who hate us. We’ve outgrown the usefulness of the ghetto. It’s the final closet the gay community must escape from.
Many gays and lesbians already have and live far away from the bars and clubs of Chelsea, SoBe and WeHo, but they often feel that they have little relation to urban gays, who can be intolerant of anyone, even other gay people, if they don’t subscribe to the same political and social orthodoxy as they do. The gay community needs to become a more egalitarian place, not for any intrinsic good, but because we don’t have the luxury of being choosy about our allies.
We must decide that the only requirement to get your gay card is a commitment to ensuring equal rights for LGBT people. This means the composition of the gay/queer community will change and that the traditional gay community will have to accept people who will not always agree with them, but this should not be a impediment to a community that prides itself on diversity.
The second question we must ask ourselves is “What do we want?”
The gay community ought to write a Declaration of Equality and it ought to do it openly and transparently. We must decide what “equality” means to us. Is it civil unions or marriage? Should we include removing Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell and employment non-discrimination? What in essence, are we demanding? We must make clear that our interests are in civil rights and that we have no designs on redefining religious institutions. We must make clear what actions we will take against those who oppose us, whether it be through speech or through dollars. If we are to boycott, we must boycott equitably. Does a grocery store clerk who donates to a measure that denies us equality warrant a boycott of the entire chain? What if it’s the CEO?
By crystallizing our goals we will make a stronger case. Legislators, business people and mothers and fathers will know exactly what it is the gay community seeks and what the consequences will be for those who seek to defeat us. We will be defining ourselves instead of letting others define us by unifying our community around a common set of principles.
The final question we must ask is, “How do we get there?”
If we’ve succeeded in answering the first two questions, we’ll have gone a long way to answering the third. We need to actively seek out and enlist people to join our cause, not just in the places we know, but also in places that we’ve written off.Â The Internet holds great promise for helping that along. These questions cannot be answered by a select few, however. This needs to be a movement of Gay, Straight, Black, White, Latino, Asian, Republican, Democrat and independent. It must be a movement that gives a voice to anyone willing to speak up and demand equal rights for all Americans. This can’t be a movement ruled by vanity or ego, but by good ideas and a commitment to justice.
There’s a sense of inevitability about the gay community achieving equality. We know we’re on the right side of history, but being morally right is not enough. Waiting for public sentiment and understanding to change on its own is not enough. We must hasten the inevitable–and we must do it the right way, with persistence, love for our fellow neighbor and with open arms to new allies and to new ideas.
“Who’s in charge?”
We all are.