Monday, November 24, 2008

Come Gather 'Round People Wherever you Roam

November 23, 2008

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.

Charley Beal
Art Director
This 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.

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.


rptrcub said...

Respectfully, I would have to disagree with Charley's statement in part.

We can enter into all the nice little old couples' houses we can. Or can go to Rotary Club functions you want (must be nice in Vermont; in other parts of the country, you'd be lucky just to sit down and eat a dry-chicken dinner, but you would not be able to stand up and talk about why you should be able to marry your boyfriend).

But you know what? What lurks inside the human heart when the voting booth drapes are closed cannot be reconciled. Fundamentalist religious programming still holds sway, and I know that while parts of my extended family haven't disowned me, still say they love me and etc., they make no attempt to reach out to me when I call. And I am damn sure they voted for the anti-gay marriage amendment in my state in 2004, as well as the current moron in chief. People will say one thing to your face, and in the voting booth, will succumb to their programming.

Each part of this nation needs a different strategy, and quietly attempting to reason with some people is completely fruitless. Their hearts and minds are poisoned, and there is no antidote. Yes, you can reason with some, but it will not be enough. It will help, but it is not the means which will achieve this goal.

The ultimate arbiter will be the courts. Period. It is the only way, besides the 19th Amendment (which was never really put into doubt), to which civil rights were ever secured in this country.

Yes, equality will come in time. But for what? There are people who do not have much time left on this planet to savor the sweetness of being able to enter an equal marriage contract.

I am but a year or so older than you, but I feel that time is fleeting and that we do not have time to waste. To steal a phrase from Jeebus, we know not the hour nor the day to which our ends will come. Either of us could be hit by a speeding bus tomorrow. (Not that I want it to happen us by any means!)

I want to know that I am not a second class citizen at the time I pass on from this mortal coil.

You can argue that MLK's way was the best, and Moses-like, he did not get there but saw the promised land. Well, I'm neither MLK nor Moses, and I want to be in the land of milk and honey now.

Marc said...

You, along with me, eric, and many many others, Rptrcub, want to know we are not second class citizens. Just as blacks in the '30s, '40s and '50s wanted to 'know' that they were not second class citizens. Wanting it will not make it happen. Yes, ultimately, it will come down to a landmark court decision or groundbreaking piece of legislation. But Mr. Beal is correct in that we - the LGBT community - must put in the time and effort and continue laying the groundwork now for that decision or bill in the future. Sitting around on our asses 'wanting' the court or congress to wave their wand and make it all better isn't going to work.

this Just in said...

Cool post. It's fascinating to hear what's on Milk's art director's mind. I just saw a preview screening of the film last night and I was impressed. It's really moving. I'm guessing you'll like it.

Oh, and as far as our post protest animation discussion, I didn't hear back from you. You must have a million ideas floating around, all vying for attention. No prob.

David said...

I think Charley makes a great deal of sense. Yes there will always be people who will hate us no matter the hours we spend in rational discourse with them. But they are a minority. The majority have no strong opinion, only what they believe from ignorance or lack of experience. If we get out there and talk, and show up and sit down at the pancake breakfasts, it makes a difference.

I attended a dinner at a very orthodox synagogue last year. Men in black hats and long coats and all that. The keynote speaker was a British rabbi who was invited to speak, after much arm-twisting of the rabbi at that particular synagogue buy a prominent gay (and admittedly semi-closeted) member. The British rabbi spoke of how gay jews must be accepted by their congregations because they are born that way, and to turn them away was a sin.

There were those in attendance who were not happy hearing this, but many many more had their minds opened and their opinions changed. And there was a huge and visible gay presence at this lecture. We were there, breaking bread with them and sharing the sabbath and it made a difference. If we show up and people see that we are not predators or freaks, and that even those of us who are freaks are fun and fabulous freaks, fear loses.

Anonymous said...

This brings up something I've noticed often in gay blogland that confuses me. Gays say they're fighting for civil equality, but I sometimes get the impression that what some of us really want is for 'those Americans' to stop hating us and start liking us.

Attaining civil equality and attempting to force people to like us are not the same thing. They are not the same purpose. I do not care how many people dislike or hate me, as long as the government provides me and my man with the same rights and benefits it provides straight couples; as long as it establishes laws that protect us from those who persist in disliking or hating us.

I believe civil equality is within the sphere of our collective will. Being liked is not. We cannot force people to like us, nor is it necessary for them to like us in order to secure our equality. We are neither worthy nor unworthy of equal rights (for who can escape the trap that is 'worthiness'?), they are simply our due.

RG said...

Will some people always hate us? Yep. Do I care? Nope.

I KNOW that I'm not a second-class citizen. I conduct my life in such a manner as to let people know I don't put up with their bigoted bullshit. And whether that conduct is a street protest, political arm-twisting, or judicial, its a means to an end for equality. But the most important way to let people know this, IMHO is to live one's life out, loud and proud. Living in fear, is just not an option. Not now. Not ever.

But as a LGBT people, we have to bring other people into the fight and show our common humanity. We are, whether some people like it or not, all in this together. Poverty, racism, sexism, etc., those are my struggles as well.

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