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Posted by on Jun 21, 2009 in Politics, Society | 7 comments

‘No Single LGBT Rights Leader’ a Feature, Not a Bug


The NYTimes today looks at Why the Gay Rights Movement Has No National Leader:

Until 1973, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Today, same-sex couples can marry in six states. How did a group that has been so successful over the last generation in countering cultural prejudice and winning civil rights make it so far without an obvious leader?

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.

If an essential component of leadership is empathy from the masses, lgbt people are disadvantaged because Americans are reluctant to identify with a proclivity that is so necessarily linked with the intimate expression of their carnal nature:

“The gay movement has always had a problem of achieving a dignity or a moral imperative that the black civil rights movement had, or the women’s rights movement claimed,” said Dudley Clendinen, who co-wrote the book “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America” and now teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. “Because this movement is fundamentally about the right to be sexual, it’s hard for the larger public to see that as a moral issue,” he said.

By contrast, the moral authority that leaders like Dr. King, Ms. Friedan and Ms. Steinem could claim — and the fact that Americans did not look at them and imagine their sex lives — made it easier to build respectability with the public.

That is a key difference. Taken further, the single most important way the lgbt rights movement differs from the black and feminist movements is that lgbt people can choose to stay invisible.

Once society wanted its lgbt citizens to stay invisible. Once the culture enforced invisibility on lgbt people. But so long as lgbt people were invisible, they could only be a hidden menace.

The choice to come out and declare one’s sexual orientation as a cultural identity was a prerequisite to progress. That lgbt people have made so much progress is a tribute to each and every individual who made that declaration to their family, friends and professional community.

Today the culture no longer wants its lesbian and gay citizens to be invisible. LGBT characters on television and in the movies, in politics and community life, along with those who are our friends, neighbors and colleagues, are clear evidence of this.

The culture, in this instance, is ahead of the courts. It is the foes of that cultural acceptance who have deftly used the courts and the law to hold old norms — norms that are no longer culturally relevant — in place.

Some years back, in Straightforward: How to Mobilize Heterosexual Support for Gay Rights, Ian Ayres and Jennifer Gerarda Brown argued that one way for straight people to support equal rights for lgbt people is through ambiguation:

Ambiguation has long been deployed by gay, lesbian and bisexual people when they are closeted. But coming out can be ambiguating, too, because people who come out are bound to defy the preconceptions of their audience…If gay peoples’ “coming out” is ambiguating, so too might be heterosexual peoples’ “going in.” This “going in” for heterosexual people could include a variety of moves: permitting confusion about whether or not they are gay; foregoing opportunities to identify opposite sex partners as spouses; making affirmative statements that align them with gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, and not qualifying those statements with disclosure of their own heterosexuality. And just as [white author of 1959’s Black Like Me, John Howard] Griffin promoted civil rights for African-Americans by even temporarily assuming a black identity, so too heterosexuals can promote gay rights by tolerating greater ambiguity about sexual orientation…consider our friend (a lesbian we’ll call Sarah) in Madison, Wisconsin. Vandals broke a window and burned the rainbow flag Sarah had flown from her front porch. When Sarah talked with her neighbors about the attack on her home, one of her neighbors, who is heterosexual, suggested that all of the houses on the street should put up rainbow flags to show solidarity and support. The flags would say to the vandals, in effect: “Do you want to persecute gay people? Well, you’ll have to come after all of us, too.”

While ambiguation never widely caught on, our celebrities (gay or not) no longer care about such rumors. Some are even complimented by them. Others take the opportunity to come out.

When Tom Cruise, a long-time target of gay rumors (he is not!), was featured in a hilarious 2005 South Park episode, “Trapped in the Closet,” Jullie Hildon asked in Findlaw, Could Tom Sue? And Even If He Could, Should He? Her piece argued that courts should stop finding claims of an lgbt identity to be defamatory:

Perhaps a straight person’s being falsely considered gay should remain an eye-opener, and cease to be a tort. (Employment discrimination based on perceived sexual orientation, whether the perception is false or true, is — and should be — separately illegal in some jurisdictions.)

In my view, a “straight-person’s privilege” isn’t the kind the courts should be protecting. Indeed, a friend of mine who’s a practicing First Amendment lawyer believes this so strongly, he won’t, as a matter of professional ethics, argue a case for libel-by-claim-of-homosexuality in court. He’d rather be on the right side of history, and decline.

The NYTimes also notes that lgbt people have no single “galvanizing national issue.” Black activists pushed for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and courts in cases like Brown v. Board of Education. Feminists had the Equal Rights Amendment.

One issue that was galvanizing nationally for gay people was AIDS:

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.”

As the AIDS crisis was contained, gay activists shifted their focus in the late 1990s and early 2000s to laws about discrimination, hate crimes and domestic partnerships. Successes on those issues were due in large part to gay rights groups that rose up at the local level and learned to work with local lawmakers.

If there were a gay agenda today, clearly it is in favor of inclusion in houses of worship, the military and marriage rights. To get there will require the ongoing work of many, many people working at all levels. In that the absence of a single national leader is a feature, not a bug.

REVISED: I began this post as a response to my fellow TMV blogger, Dalitso Njolinjo. I revised the opening because the NYTimes piece was more on point. The original opening follows below…

For his first official TMV post, Dalitso Njolinjo chose the topic of same sex marriage and asks:

…why is nobody asking where the leadership for the gay community is? …why is it that the lack of leadership for one of the most important Civil Rights issue of our time not being questioned? Who is front and centre on your television screens championing this cause, Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, Andrew Sullivan? I submit to you that, it is not up to Obama to build the foundations for gay civil rights, it is up to the community itself.

Well, golly Dalitso, from my perspective it looks like the community has done a pretty good job without a national leader.

I’ve pointed before to Nate Silver’s examination of 30 instances in which a state has attempted to pass a constitutional ban on gay marriage by voter initiative. His findings predict that by 2012 almost half of the 50 states would vote against a marriage ban. I’d be willing to wager that it comes sooner. But that doesn’t precisely answer the leadership point.