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Pride of the Left

Forget the election—the biggest winner of the last four years has been the gay rights movement. How LGBT activists got up off the mat after their Prop. 8 defeat and rewrote the progressive playbook.

Four years have passed since Kate Kendell heard the champagne corks popping off the walls during the Barack Obama victory celebration at the Westin St. Francis. She remembers with pristine clarity the muffled whoops and cheers as one state after another tipped into the D column, the roars as John McCain conceded, and the way the whole country seemed to choke up at the same moment as the first African American president-elect took the stage in Chicago. But what Kendell recalls most about that evening is the bitterness of what came next: the searing confirmation that polls predicting the passage of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage in California, had been dismally accurate.

In one of the bluest states in the country, neighbors had sided against neighbors, coworkers against coworkers, relatives against relatives. To Kendell—executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, resident of the Excelsior, spouse of Sandy Holmes, mom of two—the vote against marriage equality was a “punch in the gut,” a rejection of everything she’d been working toward for 25 years. Not even the election of the man she ardently believed would be “the most fierce and inspiring president in my lifetime” could soften the blow.

Heading into this November’s election, with same-sex-marriage referendums on four state ballots and the Supreme Court likely to hear at least one case on the issue this term, you’d think that Kendell would again be readying herself for heartbreak. And she might be, if it weren’t for an extraordinary turn of events. Since 2009, her movement has been on a remarkable run, with so many notches on its victory belt that activists like Kendell hardly even dwell on the defeats (and, on a state-by-state level, there have been some significant ones).

A highlight reel of LGBT wins includes passage of the federal Matthew Shepard hate-crimes law and the legalization of same-sex marriage in Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and, sweetest of all, New York. There have been new rules extending all sorts of benefits—housing, hospital visitation, medical leave, and more—to the families of LGBT federal employees; the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; the Justice Department’s decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court; and, finally, the icing on the wedding cake: Obama’s public endorsement of same-sex marriage. (Never mind that it took a Joe Biden gaffe to get him there.)

Ask gay rights leaders, and chances are you’ll hear a degree of shock in their appraisals of this disconcertingly fruitful period. “I’ve been doing this work for 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything like what we’ve seen in the last four years,” says Cleve Jones, the civil rights and AIDS activist. “There’ve been several moments in the last few weeks when I had to pinch myself to be sure that this is really happening and I am alive to see it.”

Back in 2008, that’s exactly how progressives concerned with other issues in the Democratic platform—immigration, green jobs, climate change, healthcare, financial reform—dreamed that they’d be feeling now, too. Instead, many of them see a political landscape littered with rose-colored glasses, Shepard Fairey posters flapping forlornly in the wind. What has Obama given them but half-victories, missed opportunities, thwarted agendas, and capitulation? Not even Obama-Biden’s ability to hold their own against Romney-Ryan and Koch-Rove has lifted the mood of the liberal left. Sure, Obama still might win; yes, the GOP incursion on the Senate seems likely to fall short. No doubt Democrats will even claw back some of the House seats that they lost in 2010. But hope? Change? Don’t be so naïve.

But is it really naïve to think that the next four years might be different from the last? The astonishing accomplishments of the LGBT movement in the post–Prop. 8 era suggest that maybe, just maybe, cautious optimism among the liberal left is justified. After all, it isn’t just gay rights advocates who’ve figured out how to motivate the president, overcome lawmakers’ timidity, and blunt the worst attacks of the right. Activists toiling on a range of issues, including immigrant and voter rights, have made surprising progress, informed and inspired by the strategies of the LGBT vanguard. Instead of wallowing in who’s-to-blames and what-might-have-beens, rather than rehashing the lost promise of single payer or the failure to close Guantanamo, a growing number of progressives are studying the LGBT playbook as if their future—and the country’s—depended on it.

 

After sweeping up the confetti and mopping up the champagne, many Democrats spent the weeks and months after November 4, 2008, taking a break from politics to bask in the magnitude of their achievement (at least when they weren’t freaking out about the imminent collapse of the global economy). Many gays and lesbians, however, felt no such afterglow, especially in California. The contrast between Obama’s improbable victory and the regressiveness of the Prop. 8 vote left young gays in particular feeling “bitch-slapped,” as Cleve Jones indelicately puts it. “For the first time,” says activist Kip Williams, who came here in 2006 to work for the League of Young Voters and other progressive causes, “people of my generation had experienced ourselves as fully equal, and we felt entitled to our rights.” The passage of Prop. 8, he says, “blindsided us.”

Now, though, Rick Jacobs, founder of the Los Angeles–based Courage Campaign and a veteran of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, believes that Prop. 8 “was the best thing that could have happened to the [LGBT] movement.” For four decades, the gay community had been making real but plodding progress on numerous political, legal, and cultural fronts, counting on demographic inevitability—the overwhelming acceptance of gays and lesbians among young Americans in particular—to propel it to full equality... eventually. But after Prop. 8, “eventually” was no longer an acceptable timeline. The defeat “mobilized us and galvanized us,” Kendell says. “It gave us a sense of urgency that wasn’t there before.”

Why the spark was ignited by Prop. 8—and not one of the 28 other anti–gay-marriage laws adopted around the country over the previous decade or so—is partly an accident of geography and timing, but mostly a function of the measure’s appalling ambition. It represents one of the few occasions in modern U.S. history when a long-fought-for civil right was cleared by the courts, only to be snatched away by voters. Six months before the election, the California Supreme Court had held that gays and lesbians had a “fundamental” right to marry and, in every other way that mattered, were equal to anyone else under state law—the first such ruling by a U.S. court. Throughout the summer and fall of 2008, more than 18,000 couples gathered in backyards and city halls, surrounded by beaming relatives and friends, to exchange weepy “I do’s.” In other states, anti-gay laws had banned same-sex marriages in the abstract, before any had occurred. The sting of those laws paled in comparison to the blow dealt by Prop. 8.

The LGBT community was outraged not only at the measure’s proponents, but also at the big groups that had so tightly controlled the disastrous “No on 8” campaign. “They alienated a lot of people, and at the end of the day, they lost,” Williams says. “That tapped into a deeper feeling that the mainstream LGBT advocacy organizations are really out of touch with the people whom they say they represent. There was a vacuum of leadership.”

Filling that void in the wake of Prop. 8’s passage was an explosion of grassroots startups that were determined to do gay activism their own way. There wasn’t much coordination among the groups; and some strategies, such as the hugely controversial effort by two hotshot East Coast lawyers (the same political odd couple who’d faced off in Bush v. Gore) to overturn Prop. 8 in the federal courts, struck many LGBT leaders as ill-timed and wrongheaded, even dangerous. Yet that case, Perry v. Brown, which is awaiting possible action by the Supreme Court, has “transformed the perception of the right to marry from the province of elite liberal Democrats to include all sorts of Americans regardless of party affiliation or ideology,” Kendell says now. Perry v. Brown resulted in one of the strongest legal opinions anywhere in support of marriage equality, as well as the kind of PR campaign that no amount of money can buy. And what could match the thrill of having the GOP-appointed federal judge who presided over that case come out of the closet himself as soon as he retired? “No one expected [any of] that,” says Stuart Gaffney of Bay Area–based Marriage Equality USA. “It shows that you have to leave no stone unturned.”

 

And no tool unused. Civil disobedience, protests, and other forms of direct action, which had fallen out of favor over the past two decades, have seen a revival in the post–Prop. 8 era, owing largely to the efforts of a new and potent radical flank embodied by a group called GetEQUAL. The Berkeley/ Fresno/D.C./Tampa/Internet–based organization was founded in early 2010 by Williams and Robin McGehee, a college teacher and mother of two who’d been kicked off the PTA at her son’s Catholic school for her “No on 8” work in the Central Valley. McGehee and Williams were originally Southerners, steeped in the history of the civil rights era as well as the more in-your-face tactics of the anti-AIDS activist group ACT UP. Both believed that the focus of gay rights advocates should be not just marriage equality, but equality, period. They weren’t content to work a slow-but-steady, state-by-state strategy. That had been the mainstream LGBT reaction to what blogger Bil Browning of the Bilerico Project calls “getting the shit kicked out of us” by Congress in the 1990s, when lawmakers passed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. This time, McGehee recalls, “We wanted a full equality bill—equal rights, federal equality in all matters governed by civil law.”

One of GetEQUAL’s more fortuitous moves was to start with the issue of gays in the military. Obama and the Democrats had promised to overturn DADT, but they seemed to be wavering. To make its point—that it was unconscionable that gay and lesbian service members faced constant redeployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, yet could not even come out of the closet—GetEQUAL was unabashedly obnoxious. It handcuffed (willing) service members to the White House fence, stopped traffic on the Las Vegas strip, and staged sit-ins in Nancy Pelosi’s office. The goal was chaos, or as the group’s website put it, “moments of crisis in existing power structures.” Says managing director Heather Cronk, “The question we ask ourselves is, ‘How do we create cognitive dissonance for the American public in a way that will signal to them that something is not right about this picture?’” But unlike, say, the Occupy protests, the point wasn’t just to vent; there was a highly focused policy goal.

And unlike other groups that had employed direct action, GetEQUAL didn’t just target its enemies; it went after its friends, too. At a Barbara Boxer fundraiser in San Francisco in May 2010, Williams loudly heckled Obama—“When are you going to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’?”—drawing jeers from the crowd and snark from the president. (“Maybe he didn’t read the newspapers,” Obama retorted, “because we are working with Congress as we speak to roll back [that policy].”) “I adore Obama,” Williams says. “He was the first president in my lifetime who I really felt like was my president. But I was angry that he wasn’t doing the things he said he would do. We had to hold him accountable. And I felt really disappointed that the way I was going to have to engage with him was to disrupt him in public.”

That kind of attitude didn’t win GetEQUAL many fans. At that point, with the nation gearing up for midterm elections and the Tea Party on fire, the left’s job—or so Williams and McGehee kept hearing—was to form a protective circle around their beleaguered leader and give him a group hug. “People were telling us, ‘Oh my God, how dare you disrespect the president?’” McGehee says. “But I remember getting an email from Air Force One, from a reporter who was funneling us information. The reporter said, ‘I can tell you that flying out here, DADT wasn’t even on this president’s radar, but flying back, it is the only thing these people are talking about.’”

Six months later, the Democrats had lost the House, Obama was bloodied and reeling, and mainstream liberals were popping Prozac by the barrel. But GetEQUAL’s members were celebrating the repeal of DADT—one of the last pieces of liberal legislation to be passed by the lame-duck Congress before the Tea Party takeover in 2011.

The moral of the story? “When you’re trying to achieve something major, it always helps to have someone on the outside ask for everything, right now,” says Jerame Davis, head of National Stonewall Democrats (and Bil Browning’s partner), “so the folks on the inside can say, ‘Well, here’s how to make that go away.’” Think of it as Carrot and Stick 101. “We can’t be afraid to be a turd in the punch bowl,” Jacobs adds. “We may not be invited to be at the next party, but that’s OK. As soon as we decide we want to be at the party, we lose a lot of power.”

 

Civil disobedience is a blunt force weapon. It creates chaos and cognitive dissonance; it puts leaders on notice and holds them accountable; but it doesn’t necessarily change minds. And changing minds has been the LGBT movement’s greatest accomplishment. Davis thinks that the most beneficial aspect of Obama’s gay-marriage endorsement was “the face he gave to that struggle. The process he went through is the same process many Americans have been going through.”

The challenge for LGBT leaders like Evan Wolfson, of the New York–based Freedom to Marry, is to speed up the evolution process so that it happens “before people are pressured to vote on the issue.” Wolfson realized after Prop. 8’s passage that there were glaring gaps in the LGBT infrastructure, including in the key area of messaging. It was only a couple of years ago that people were urging McGehee to stop talking about her son—they thought it muddied the message too much. “And I was like, ‘How do I not talk about him when that’s the core part of why I’m fighting?’” she says.

Now LGBT leaders are constantly bringing up their kids and families. “People want to hear values, they want to hear the human connection,” Wolfson says. “So it’s important for us to begin, first and foremost, with commitment and love.” Of course, no one claims that the LGBT movement invented the family-values, everyone-on-the-same-page approach; indeed, that comes straight from the “Conservative Guide to Controlling the National Agenda Forever.” What blows other progressives away (and no doubt dismays right-wingers as well) is how effectively LGBT forces have mastered strategies like these to transform what was until very recently one of the most reviled groups in American society into The New Normal.

“Everyone kind of idolizes the LGBT movement. The success that they have had in what is seemingly, but not really, a short window of time has just been incredible,” says Judith Browne Dianis, codirector of the Advancement Project, a leading civil rights group. “While there are lots of lessons that we have learned from chapters one and two of the civil rights movement, we’re in a new day. We need a little boost. There is so much to be learned from [the LGBT forces].”

As the 2012 election cycle makes clear, progressives have been cramming—and it’s paid off with the work being done by a wide array of civil rights groups battling an onslaught of restrictive, GOP-passed voter laws. Voting has long been a focus of the civil rights movement, and right-wing attempts to discourage blacks, Latinos, and young people at the polls have been raising alarms since 2000. But the issue has broken through the mainstream consciousness only in the past few months, becoming major news this fall in part because of a successful shift in messaging by groups like Browne Dianis’s.

Most striking has been the framing of white voters, especially older ones, as victims of voter suppression, shifting the focus from groups that are actually harmed the most: blacks and Latinos. This has been a deliberate strategy, admits Browne Dianis. “We’ve been bringing in groups who are not traditional voting rights groups, trying to make the narrative broader than ‘this hurts people of color.’” The goal, she says, is to reframe a racial issue into “an American issue.”

Would voting rights groups have been as successful in breaking through if they hadn’t made the discussion more inclusive, similar to the LGBT model? “Probably not,” Browne Dianis says. “I’ve been doing civil rights work long enough to know it’s hard for people to have empathy for what disproportionately affects people of color. We were very cognizant of that as we were crafting our strategy around this work. We have to get people to have empathy, and the empathy starts with themselves.”

 

Messaging, of course, only goes so far. What Browne Dianis is referring to is more than just using focus-group-tested buzz-words and sticking to talking points. She means storytelling—creating a narrative that brings people to a new level of understanding or compassion and moves them to take some sort of action. Gays and lesbians have been especially effective practitioners of this because, in essence, the very act of coming out is an act of story-telling. “The other side talks in ideologies and doctrines and right and wrong,” says Marriage Equality USA’s John Lewis, husband of Stuart Gaffney. “We can talk about what’s really true—what’s in our hearts and how we feel about our human dignity.”

A particularly striking example of narrative-changing, rivaling even that of the marriage-equalizers, has been accomplished by the DREAM Act kids, whose pressure on the White House led to an executive order this June deferring deportation of up to 1.7 million undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors. The turning point came in early 2010, when four young immigrants trekked the 1,500 miles from Miami to Washington, D.C., along a so-called Trail of Dreams that was meant to evoke the Underground Railroad. The young people weren’t merely average; they were exemplary—they seemed to understand the American Dream better than many people born here. “They’ve crushed the stereotype we’ve had for many years about who’s undocumented,” says Leisy Abrego, a Chicano studies professor at UCLA who has written extensively about the DREAM Act movement. The protest also helped break the impasse over immigration reform, says GetEQUAL’s Heather Cronk. “All these multimillion-dollar immigration organizations were going, ‘Oh my God. What the hell are we going to do?’ Four people managed to change the [whole] political calculus in D.C.”

The similarities between being illegal and being queer—the hiding, the prejudice, the fear—are painfully obvious. Many prominent DREAMers are gay, including Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who came out as undocumented in a New York Times Sunday Magazine essay last year. With so many parallels, it was inevitable that the DREAMers and the LGBT forces would team up, training together and lending each other critical on-the-ground support. Indeed, Brazilian-born Felipe Sousa-Rodiguez, one of the Trail of Dreams walkers, is now GetEQUAL’s national field director. The alliance was also partly defensive, because lawmakers tried to play the two groups against each other, pressing them to pick their higher priority, the DREAM Act or DADT. “They thought they had us in the palm of their hand,” Sousa-Rodiguez says. “We said, ‘No, you can’t do that, we’re working together, we won’t choose.’”

The DREAM Act passed the House in the same lame-duck session that repealed DADT, but mustered only 55 votes in the Senate, not enough to overcome the threat of a GOP filibuster. So the DREAM-ers and their allies doubled down on Obama, trying to nudge him to do by executive order what Congress had failed to pull off.

A great narrative always needs a villain, and Latinos had the perfect one in the Tea Party, whose members were vociferous supporters of the wave of anti-immigrant laws enacted by state legislatures since 2009. The DREAM Act–ers and their allies, including Presente.org (a Latino version of MoveOn), went to work on Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who seemed to be positioning himself for national office in 2012 or 2016. Presente.org defined the Cuban- American as a “Tea Partino”—Tea Party Latino—while simultaneously hounding him into proposing his own DREAM Act alternative. “We wanted him to start talking about immigrants in a positive light so we could pit him against Obama,” Sousa-Rodiguez says. The allies continued pressuring the president too, reminding him that if Latinos didn’t turn out in November, he’d be toast. The White House’s DREAM Act–like order this summer was the result. Once again, all of this might not have happened but for a key confluence between the Latino activists and their gay counterparts. “Because they’ve both had the experience of coming out, they’ve had more conversations with each other of the kind they maybe haven’t had with other people,” Abrego says. So great, in fact, is the overlap that there’s now a term for them: “undocuqueers.”

 

The November elections could bring new milestones for the LGBT community, possibly including the first openly gay senator, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin. But the election could also bring major setbacks, depending on the outcome of marriage referendums in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington. LGBT leaders are hopeful; in Maine the measure is on the ballot because they put it there, eager to overturn a ban passed by voters in 2009. (The Supreme Court’s hovering elicits much more trepidation.)

Meanwhile, irony of ironies, the military has moved “from being the largest employer in the country that discriminated against gays and lesbians,” says Wolfson, to being a de facto gay rights lobbyist. “The Pentagon is now having to advocate for gay service members and their children and families.”

GetEQUAL is launching a new campaign called “Fight for the 14th” (a reference to the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law, as well as automatic citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil). It’s organizing and helping to get out the vote in states like Texas and Georgia, away from the gay urban bubbles, where LGBT people and immigrants are nowhere close to equal. The group is also continuing to help other left-leaning activists be more effective in pushing their agendas. When the youth-oriented global climate-change organization 350.org staged a series of protests at the White House last year, an action that is widely credited with influencing Obama’s decision to delay the Keystone XL pipeline project, GetEQUAL helped with the strategy, the messaging—even the bullhorns.

In the voting rights world, groups that have been successful in holding off voter restrictions are turning their attention to the long term, just as the LGBT movement has done. “There’s a recognition that the war on voting is not going to stop in November—we have to be on top of this year in and year out,” Browne Dianis says.

All of which is exactly the way it’s supposed to be, according to Peter Leyden, a futurist and progressive whose newest venture is the Reinventors Network. He puts the left’s recent disappointments into historical perspective, comparing this moment to the early 20th century, when robber barons ruled their own version of the 99 percent with far more impunity than the 1 percent does today. “Back then, there was zero federal income tax,” he says. “Rich people took everything. There was no minimum wage. And in just 15 years, all that changed.” Leyden believes that the country is at one of those huge economic, political, technological, and cultural junctures that happens every few decades, brought about by world-shaking (and world-view-shattering) disruptions. At times like this, he says, “The amount of things you can do quickly is dramatic. We’ve done it [before] in American history, and there’s nothing to say we can’t do it [again].”

The really important battle is for the future, Leyden says. Disruptions present enormous opportunities as well as risks. The question progressives need to answer isn’t just who they need to fight, but what they want to do. What is the narrative they must create to bring the country along with them? Without seizing this opportunity to think really, really big, the left will lose the future.

As for Obama, he’s just one man, albeit one with a lot on his plate. If the left can’t persuade, or cajole, or force him to listen, can they really blame anyone but themselves?

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