The Future Of The LGBT Movement In The US

It is interesting to try to imagine or envision the future, both the near future a couple of years out and the future a few decades into the next century It may even be useful. But as everyone knows, not predict the future. Anything can happen! We could be living freer lives, happier lives free persecution and discrimination. Or we could still be struggling for basic civil rights -- the right to marry and to be protected from discriminatory treatment in all its myriad forms. We could be fighting to keep gains we have made or, worse, organizing to get back rights we have lost. Because we live in one of the more peaceful and secure places on earth, despite the violence in our society, it is hard for us to take even more dire threats against us seriously enough to contemplate. The idea that we could be cleansed or holocausted or deported is too unreal to us at the moment to spend time worrying about.

Even though I can't predict the future and anything can happen, I can make guesses about the future based on what has happened in the past and present. I am a teacher and student of history, having taught it for 30 years at Parkland, and can't help but base my visions of the future on the past. Whether I look ahead 2 years or 30 years, I see that 80-90% of LGBT people are outside of the organized LGBT rights movement. Like all oppressed people of every class, category, color, and creed, most LGBT people are involved in their own lives. We are busy making a living, raising families and/or functioning within them, doing the daily tasks necessary to sustain life, socializing, resting, or recreating so that life is worth living and so we can keep on working. Some LGBT people are aware of the movement, are happy to know it exists on the rare occasions when there is mention of us in the mass media. A few may even do something political once in a great while, such as attend a gay pride parade or festival, go to a rally or lecture, make a call to an elected official. Even more will vote for candidates who support LGBT issues. I don't see that changing.

I think that in our minority group and most others, only 1-10% of the group's members will be active in movements for change. In the discussion later, I want to hear your views on this. Do you agree that activists will always be a small minority of LGBT people? If not how will more become involved? As for the 1-10% of us who are active, I will briefly describe two possible scenarios of what we will be doing in the future.

In scenario one, we will be doing what we are doing now, which is exactly what women did in the campaign for the ERA in the 1970's until 1982, when it went down to defeat, failing to be ratified by the required 38 state legislatures. It was ratified by 35, but we could not get the last three, including Illinois. I will say more about this later because I think there are many similarities between the two civil rights movements -- the ERA struggle and the campaign for LGBT rights.

What we are doing now and what we did then, with a few exceptions, is work in political campaigns to get supportive people elected to the state legislature and lobby and do legislative work. We also did and do educational work (leafleting, literature tables, petition campaigns, cultural events, paid ads, speakers at colleges and the few public groups who will let us in). Much of the work, especially the lobbying, was and is done by paid professionals and full-time volunteers; decision making was and is highly centralized in the two or three lobbying or litigating organizations, and the grassroots of interested and potentially involved people were/are mobilized occasionally for a big once-a-year lobby day or march or rally. In the case of ERA, these events were sometimes held on Sundays when the legislature was not in session or in Chicago, far away from the state capitol.

In the case of the ERA movement, suggestions and pleas to the lobbying organizations that we try other tactics in addition to the absolutely necessary ones of lobbying and electoral campaigns, because time was running out (there was a deadline for ERA ratification), were met with resistance and hostility. When grassroots women acted independently and did a few actions in Springfield designed to directly confront legislators and get media attention for an issue that had been disappeared from the legislative agenda and from the mass media, the lobbying organizations were furious. They were so furious and they so misunderstood the technique of direct action that they also re-wrote history and blamed the failure of the ERA on the small group women who did the few pitiful acts of direct action. I was one of the grassroots women. I was there.

The ERA did not fail because of the few acts of direct action committed in Illinois. It failed nationally because the political right was more organized and dedicated than the pro-ERA forces, because they were at the legislature en masse daily, because they were backed by conservative money. The anti-ERA movement was also successful because of a larger historical phenomenon, a shift politically from the progressivism of the 60's to the conservatism of the 80's. The ERA ratification drive fell on the cusp of that swing of the political pendulum. The little pitiful bit of direct action that was done did not cause its failure, and the failure of the ERA is not a test of the tactics of direct action. In fact, it is clear to me that too little direct action was done too late. The grassroots were not mobilized effectively, and that is one of the major reasons it failed. I do not know if the lobbying organizations that are working for LGBT concerns have the same resistance to other tactics and groups that the ERA lobbyists did. I hope not. Because in scenario one, we continue to use the electoral/lobbying strategy exclusively, and we do not get HB 474 under that number or any other. Just as we did not get ERA, because we relied exclusively on an electoral/legislative lobbying strategy. It was relying on that strategy that helped us lose EKA and not the few meager attempts to employ other tactics. And the same thing is likely to happen if we rely on an exclusively electoral/legislative strategy in the LGBT movement.

Let me say that I respect lobbyists and those involved in party politics and electoral campaigns. Their work is absolutely essential. But I do have criticisms of some that I have encountered in terms of their understanding of alternative strategies such as direct action. All of us have limited vision and can not see or understand the whole, our roles and behaviors limit our perception. Some lobbyists believe that only their work or their type of work gets results, because it is legislators' votes, after all, that are ultimately being sought. But they sometimes do not see that there are other factors affecting that vote than pure reason or persuasion or schmoozing or promises or bargains. Political behavior, legislative voting behavior, is mysterious, and among the factors influencing it are public attention, pressure, scrutiny, criticism and the tension which results from them.

Also, some lobbyists see state houses as their territory or turf, feel a sense of ownership of the legislature and are afraid of actions and events that are not under their control. This is not an evil or bad thing; it is understandable. If I were a professional lobbyist, I would feel the same. Another thing that some lobbyists do that make them hostile or resistant to alternative strategies is come to believe the words of some of the most skilled manipulators on earth -- politicians. Politicians threaten to pull their votes if the grassroots act up or come to the state house or do anything but beg and beseech them for their votes. But legislators usually do not follow through. Those most alienated by alternative tactics are not our friends anyway and don't vote for the issue we are supporting. Yes votes who threaten to pull their vote because of tactics know that they would look like idiots and fools and lose support if they actually followed through and voted no. We learned that in the ERA struggle. After we used alternative strategies, we lost no votes despite endless threats. In fact, we gained two votes on the final roll call in the House. What else we gained was dozens of column inches in the print media, nightly television coverage, national coverage, renewed and vigorous public debate, an actual vote in both houses of the legislature on the issue. Without the alternative strategies of civil disobedience and direct action, there was unlikely to be another vote on ERA ratification, because legislators did not want to have to stand on their records in the November elections. Interestingly, due to the anger that some no votes aroused in an atmosphere of heightened public interest and awareness, several anti-ERA legislators lost their seats in the 1982 legislative elections.

So in Scenario One we do more of the same, and we most likely do not get our basic civil rights in Illinois. Historians know that no civil rights movement has ever been successful without mobilizing the grassroots and without using a variety of strategies and tactics. Unfortunately, lobbying and electoral strategies mobilize the dedicated, the sophisticated, the committed. They do not mobilize the grass roots. They do not touch us emotionally; they aren't dramatic enough to speak to melodramatic Americans; they aren't exciting enough to move the young or the newly inflamed; they don't offer a satisfying outlet for people who want to do something now but can't or won't commit to the long-term and mundane, albeit necessary, tasks of phone banking, lobbying, going door to door. Alternative strategies are an entry point into movements and the political process. They bring in people who are new to politics. Once hooked and excited and motivated, these same converts will lobby and do the rest of the difficult and unglamorous daily work necessary for success. But an electoral-lobbying strategy alone will not work in a major civil rights struggle. Feminists did not learn this soon enough, and we lost the ERA. What we have gained, other than the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments, has come through the courts and can be eroded by conservative justices. Feminism, because of the failure to mobilize grassroots women by using alternative strategies, is losing power. Our organizations are smaller and smaller, our revenues and resources are shrinking. We have fewer feminist institutions and publications, far less positive media and public attention than we did 20, 15, even 10 years ago. In part because of the times -- the triumph of unbridled capitalism and the move to the right politically -- and in part, because we did not learn from history or from those in the present who were asking that we expand our repertoire of tactics, we did not get the ERA and are weak and small.

In scenario II we learn from our mistakes; adopt alternative strategies; create new organizations which carry out these strategies; educate the lobbyists to support us and to understand our value rather than obstructing or manipulating or trying to control us. In scenario II we come up with a different term than "direct action", which seems to scare and confuse people. Many national liberation and anti-colonial movements around the word have engaged in armed struggle, in murdering, bombing, and killing for their goals. Others have mobilized non-violent mass movements and been killed and maimed in the process. It seems to be only women and queers who are currently so timid and inhibited that we do nothing but campaign for candidates, lobby, and do an occasional picket. When I use the term "alternative strategies" in place of "direct action", I am advocating that we do creative acts in Springfield, that we directly confront legislators, that we be visible to them, that we be persistently in their face, perpetually present as much as our small numbers allow. And it does not take large numbers to have an effect. Twelve women fasting and twenty plus using a variety of alternative strategies accomplished incredible things for the cause of the ERA in June of 1982. It is our persistence, perpetual presence, creativity that will mobilize people to write that letter, or make that call or send that e-mail, or vote more wisely. In scenario II we start organizing alternative strategies and groups now. We go to Springfield regularly and often and perform dramatic creative and non-violent acts. And we either convert and convince lobbyists and others, who think their way is the only way and don't want us doing our thing, of the efficacy of alternative strategies or we ignore them and get on with our work. I firmly believe that scenario two will achieve LGBT rights in Illinois, at least in our lifetime.