November 23, 2008This letter comes to me from my friend, artist and activist Charley Beal. I suppose the timing couldn't have been better. Charley wrapped as Art Director on Milk just as California faced, and lost, the Prop 8 campaign. He's angry, as are the rest of us, but also a veteran.
An open letter to my LGBT brothers and sisters:
With the passage of Proposition 8 in California I expect that you all feel as passionately upset as I do. However, I believe that it is imperative that we channel our passion into an effective strategy to undo the defeat that we have suffered.
So what do we do? March on Washington? Ask President Obama to legalize gay marriage? Ask the Supreme Court of California to overturn Proposition 8?
These remedies sound good but maybe we should take a moment to pause and analyze our predicament and devise strategies and tactics with an understanding of what has worked historically.
Perhaps it is time to realize that it has been counter-productive to believe that Judges, Courts and Executives can wave a magic wand and make ordinary Americans love us. Let us take a moment and reflect upon some key moments in the history of Americans achieving social justice.
1. President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and proclaimed that he had “delivered the south to the Republican Party for the next twenty years.” It was more like forty years, but who’s quibbling.
2. Roe vs. Wade in 1973. The US Supreme Court legalized abortion. At that time, the number of states that had legalized abortion stood at 11. The American electorate was not prepared for this ruling, so yet again, the enemies of justice were handed a club that they successfully wielded to achieve electoral victories.
3. January 1992. President Bill Clinton began his presidency by trying to make good on his MTV pledge to allow gays to serve openly in the US military. Senators Bob Dole and Sam Nunn pounced and crippled his presidency. Two years later, the Republicans were swept to power in the US Congress.
In contrast, consider the following.
1. In December 2003, Vermont Governor Howard Dean signed LGBT Civil Unions into law. It was controversial, but the groundwork had been laid. LGBT couples had spent the previous two years visiting Rotary Clubs, churches and city counsels all across the state. They also went door to door to educate the people of Vermont about the fundamental issue of fairness in regards to LGBT relationships. There was a backlash but it was ineffective because of the work that had been done on the ground.
2. Consider another US Supreme Court decision, Lawrence vs. Texas, June 2003, that abolished sodomy laws in America. Due to the hard work of LGBT organizations across the country, only 11 states had sodomy laws on the books. The American people were ready to accept this ruling because they were convinced that sodomy laws were unjust. And the backlash? It didn’t happen.
3. This morning I read in the New York Times that the president of Bob Jones University had apologized for their past ban on accepting black students and their later ban on inter-racial dating. Yes, this apology was belated, but I guess with a black president elect, well, better late than never. Will Bob Jones University accept openly gay students?
So what does history teach us? Big demonstrations are a great way to vent anger and to create visibility, but do they really change minds? I attended numerous, huge marches protesting the invasion of Iraq. Those marches didn’t work.
Marching helps. Marches make us feel better, but asking Courts, Governors and President to make our troubles go away with the stroke of a pen is like asking daddy to make the bogey man go away by giving us a reassuring pat on the head.
It’s legal but ineffective.
Now, don’t get me wrong and assume that I haven’t “been there” and “done that.” I attended my first civil rights demonstration in 1962 when I was six years old, carrying a sign that was bigger than me. I also bear a scar on my right knee from when I was hit with a teargas canister during an ad hoc riot in East Lansing Michigan while protesting President Nixon’s decision to mine the Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam. Oh, and I really enjoyed bathing in the fountain in front of the US capitol building in Washington DC in 1974 when Nixon invaded Cambodia. That day we carried a thirty-foot long papier-mâché cockroach with the face of tricky-dick, up onto the steps of the Capitol. It was hot that day and, well, I needed a bath.
So I have lived it and still I am frustrated. I am frustrated when my LGBT brothers and sisters continue to employ proven failed tactics in an effort to achieve justice.
Should we march on Washington? Let’s go! Should we lobby the courts? Yes! Should we lobby Governors and President Obama? Yes! But not until we have done the work needed to achieve justice.
To achieve our goals, we need to work on the ground. We need to visit Rotary Clubs, Churches and city councils and knock on the front doors of those who don’t understand us.
I'm posting this on my blog because it's important that we use the torches of our past to light our future. We need advice like this. We need wisdom and words and stories.
Despite my ready and willingness to be a red-faced angry and belligerent protester/activist, notes like these help me catch my breath, take a moment and think, quietly and conjure the ways in which my anger can be channeled into a format of constructive use.
My generation and the younger ones will be among those appointed to roll Bill O' Reilly's wheelchair into the retirement center, where he might even still be screaming, although nobody is listening. His time has come, the wheels have rolled and the brakes are now on. We'll be there to pat his head and feed him his pudding and somewhere in there we'll wonder how this man ever thought the world should work as he said it should. We will use him to remind us of a history where things were unjust and discriminating and we will use advice like Charley Beal's to remind ourselves of how we successfully brought light upon those darker days.
I will be at the gates shaking the foundations but, as a veteran tells me, I may also be on a couch, in a living room, in a quaint suburban house, or church pew, gently and patiently allowing an evolution of understanding to take place.
I am looking forward to tonight's meeting.