From Madison to Tripoli, the conventional understanding of political order at home and abroad has been upended–turned on its head in a matter of days and weeks since the beginning of 2011. So why is this moment so critical for the future of the progressive LGBT political agenda?
I was struck by these juxtaposed electrifying events as I watched television, slack jawed from my hotel room in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, last month as news of Wisconsin’s public workers, including police officers and fire fighters, stormed the state capitol pushing back against a newly-elected Republican governor bent on union busting, who has been backed by Tea Party supporters and financed by the uber right-wing Koch Brothers. Indeed, Koch Brothers, Inc. opened an office in Madison, within a convenient couple of blocks of the Capitol building, which they apparently bought and paid for with Republican Scott Walker ‘s election into the governor’s office.
Events in Madison were being reported side-by-side with unthinkable news coming from Tripoli, Libya, as the country became seized in a rebellion which continues to throttle the first significant challenge to dictator Muammar Qaddhafi’s rule during his 41 years in power. Could it be that Libya’s oppressed citizenry were following in the giant steps of a North African revolution that had already ended ossified dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt–the latter being the keystone state of the Arab world–consequently shaking Middle East capitals to their autocratic foundations in Bahrain, Oman and Yemen? I was awestruck by the globalized nature of political change coming at lightning speed–political change that had seized the attention of the entire planet, as well as our imaginations and fears, depending on your point of view.
Why do these events have relevance to the U.S. national LGBT movement and the current state of its national and local politics?
Ever since I watched progressive journalist Laura Flanders‘ (who happens to also be a lesbian) terrific GRITtv December interview of Urvashi Vaid, lesbian activist and thinker, self-proclaimed community organizer and former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force during the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s, I have wanted to write about her astute political analysis of the current state of the LGBT political movement. Flanders’ interview was about Vaid’s mostly overlooked lecture delivered at CUNY (the City University of New York) in November, post mid-term elections, entitled: “What Can Brown Do For You: Race, Sexuality and the Future of LGBT Politics?” that called for intersectional, grassroots movements that look beyond formal equality to true social justice.
Vaid, an Indian-American whose partner is comedian Kate Clinton, delivered this lecture before the dizzyingly-rapid revolutions took place in Tunisia and Egypt, which was followed by an unprecedented public worker uprising in Madison, Wisconsin, that saw the Senate Democrats leave the state and decamp to Urbana, Illinois, where they currently remain. The fire fighters and state police, although exempt from the governor’s union busting proposed legislation, joined ranks with targeted workers, leading demonstrations while playing bagpipes as they marched on the streets of Madison and the state police announced and organized a “sleep over” job action in the capitol building, keeping the state government open to all, against the directives of the governor and Republican controlled legislature. Workers and their supporters came together 13 days after protests began last month, more than 100,000 strong according to some media reports, arguably one of the largest demonstrations in the country since the Vietnam War; certainly, a record-gathering outside of the nation’s capital.
This too was largely overlooked and under-reported by mainstream media.
Whatever the legislative outcome in Wisconsin, the public worker push back there has shown all of us that when enraged people unite together against injustice, voices can be heard creating an opening of some political space in the country that most progressives did not think was possible just a few weeks ago. Even Rasmussen Reports, a Republican-aligned polling company (that some say has been discredited,) has announced a March 4 opinion survey that indicates 66 percent of Wisconsin’s likely voters are opposed to Gov. Walker’s intention to eliminate collective bargaining for public workers. There is a growing consensus within Wisconsin today that Walker will be recalled and the most likely challenger is progressive and former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, who recently launched ProgressivesUnited.org, a political action committee.
This progressive moment is a major opening for the LGBT movement–a moment that should be pounced upon–an opening that LGBT politicos should be exploiting, knowing just how difficult the federal legislative terrain will be at least through the 2012 elections. Vaid’s analysis of an increasingly narrowed political agenda by the national groups could not be more fortuitous given this progressive moment and political opportunity now present in Wisconsin that is spreading across America.
“The national movement has shrunk its vision,” says Vaid, who is also a Visiting Scholar with CUNY’s Graduate Center’s Department of Sociology. “The LGBT movement has become too focused on appeasing, and remains centered around the needs and wishes of white middle-class men–at the expense of women and people of color, and poor people around the country.”
Furthermore, she said, “My contention is that it is exactly this narrow and limited focus that is not only causing us to stall in our progress towards formal equality, it is leading us to abandon or ignore large parts of our own communities, with the consequence of making us a weaker movement.”
Vaid makes the point that during the 1990s the LGBT movement, at least the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), was working in coalition on a whole host of progressive issues, from reproductive rights, to D.C. statehood, to funding the National Endowment of the Arts, to health care, racial equity and hate crimes, women in combat, and gays in the military.
As the political space has continually narrowed under both Democratic and Republican leadership during the past 16 years, so too has the LGBT political agenda setting inside the beltway, as it has increasingly focused on “gay only” organizations, going it alone in ways that Vaid points out that has significantly undercut our advances toward achieving legal equality.
As the Republican war escalates against women and girls’ reproductive rights and access to safe and legal abortions, constitutionally protected rights, the LGBT community should be working shoulder to shoulder with the women’s groups who are fighting like hell against this extreme right wing agenda that does not respect constitutionally protected privacy rights, initially established for women’s access to birth control by the U.S. Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965, and in the Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision for gay sexual privacy rights, 37 years later in 2003.
Who does the right wing continually target: time after time it is women and gays. It also has a strong racist undercurrent to its extreme agenda and politics in general, which has now migrated to the insurgent Tea Party movement. We should be front and center on confronting racism because not only does that comport with our progressive core values and principles, but because LGBT people are members of those communities too.
Here are Vaid’s other reasons for combating racism as part of an LGBT progressive agenda: because it is a matter of justice and we are about a fairer society; because we need to reciprocate – so when we ask communities of color to support us around sexuality, we need to show up on issues of race; because there are LGBT people of color in our communities and racism affects us, so our movement must deal with it; and because dealing with race is in our own self-interest, and “brown,” as Vaid said in her CUNY address, will help us win at the ballot box.
Vaid persists in her harsh, but fair critique of the LGBT movement on the vexing question of racism as an issue the LGBT community which has assiduously avoided–addressing the structural racism that exists within the movement and has done very little to substantially advance laws and policies addressing the persistent presence of racial inequity and discrimination in American society. Vaid has been the only person of color to lead a national non-minority affiliated LGBT organization for a significant period of time since the Stonewall uprising in 1969 (NGLTF had a Latina executive director for a short period of time in 1990s) and points out the lack of minority outreach, leadership development for executive and board positions within all the major national groups.
The ugly specter of American racism continues into the present moment, manifestly evident in our shoddy public discourse about “illegal immigrants” and Muslims–American citizens who happen to be Muslim and those Muslims outside of America–two highly charged issues that present both challenges and opportunities for the gay community.
Today, the LGBT movement is strong across all fifty states with hundreds of organizations delivering direct services and lobbying for rights before city councils and state legislatures. Vaid’s lecture outlines the millions of dollars, the hundreds of professional staff and diversity of services now provided to the LGBT community by organizations and foundations alike.
NGLTF continues to build the movement through its unparalleled Creating Change conference that reinvigorates activists annually by training emerging LGBT leaders and by bringing activists together in sharing lessons learned. NGLTF’s work with state and local organizations is exemplary and has been steadfast in this effort over many decades in the trenches and at the barricades.
But the only national LGBT organization that possesses dynamic leadership at its helm in this moment in our history that has a progressive agenda is GetEqual, the youngest national LGBT organization on the scene, that has been growing by leaps and bounds and has nimbly created openings in a political space virtually calcified for nearly 20 years. Its effectiveness was made evident during the military equality fight, pressuring everyone from President Obama to members of Congress, including the Human Rights Campaign, creating political space that made possible the passage of the DADT repeal in December. GetEqual filled a vacuum that had become a gaping wound with the demise of ACT UP! in the early 1990s which substantially grew as the LGBT movement narrowed its political agenda in the aftermath of the failed military ban fight in 1993, as Vaid has described.
Setting a new progressive agenda with a new vision, Robin McGehee, the director of GetEqual, sent out this note to its supporters on Feb. 27:
Organized labor has long stood in solidarity with the LGBT community — in Wisconsin alone, the labor community was among the first to stand against a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. Government shouldn’t be about taking away existing rights — it should be for expanding equality.
NGLTF was the only other national organization to call for solidarity with Wisconsin workers on their blog Feb. 27. Where was Human Rights Campaign on Wisconsin? A deafening silence from the movement’s “largest LGBT organization” as well as the most wealthy–far, far removed from the lives and daily concerns of working LGBT people.
If we support the defense of D.C. marriage equality, we should support the equality of all residents of D.C. to be equally represented by two voting senators and a member of Congress. If we care about economic justice and nondiscrimination on the job for LGBT people, then certainly we should work toward the attainment of economic fairness and justice for all workers in America. If we care about creating a more just society that will include those immigrants who want a fair chance to realize the American Dream, then we should work to achieve comprehensive immigration reform that can include federal recognition of bi-national couples. If we care about extending Martin Luther King Jr.’s progressive agenda to eliminate poverty and hunger and create more opportunity in America, then we should commit resources toward education reform and creation of worker trainings for the 21st century and push for adopting a more progressive tax code that can lift all boats during a troubled time when Americans are truly hurting and more that 16 million children live below the poverty line.
But a “go it alone” agenda will no longer do–we can not get to the mountaintop by ourselves, at least not very quickly. I do not want to wait for another extended period of time before enjoying the fruits of legal equality advanced.
GetEqual’s Robin McGehee clearly articulates this progressive vision and agenda:
Our movement should be working with allied groups to find intersections of inequality and to work together to win equality. This [Wisconsin] is a chance for us to also highlight the need for worker protections that a federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act would provide. The rights of those who are working to provide for themselves and their families — regardless of income level, sexual orientation, or gender identity — should be protected at a federal level. Anything less is unconscionable.
Tanya L. Domi is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, who teaches about human rights in Eurasia and is a Harriman Institute affiliated faculty member. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi worked internationally for more than a decade on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights, gender issues, sex trafficking, and media freedom. Cross-p0sted from The New Civil Rights Movement