Learning from History

If there are two groups in this country who don't seem to learn from history it would be the Religious Right and Moderate Gays.

In Los Angeles at the latest Equality Summit, the gay leadership met with activists to discover what went wrong on the "No on 8" campaign this year.

Geoff Kors of Equality California made the following statement about what he felt went wrong:

"When I look at what was the biggest mistake, when I lie awake at night prepping my e-mails I'm going to send to all of you and I think about the biggest mistake that we made, it's that we've turned everything over to political experts and political consultants, and I would never ever do that again.

You know, when we started Equality California, everyone was, like, 'Hire professional lobbyists to go lobby on LGBT issues,' and I was, like: 'You gotta be kidding. We're going to do our own lobbying because it's about our lives and we know what we're talking about and we know how to do this.' One thing, you know, that I would never do again ... we should have been in the strategy room and part of those (consultants') conversations, and that was a huge mistake."
Indeed, even at the summit, many seemed to be upset that these same "political experts" were running the show and doing their best to silence the grassroots radicals by requiring that questions and comments be written down and read rather than activists being allowed to openly debate them on various policies and tactics.

Yet, to those dedicated "history geeks" among us, none of this was surprising. As Prop 8 and Prop 102 (AZ) unfolded we noted quietly that this had all the earmarks of the debacle that was the 1977 repeal of the Dade County gay rights ordinance.

Way back then, the political leaders of the Moderate Reform Gay groups took charge of the opposition to Anita Bryant and Save Our Children. As Bryant's rhetoric heated up they flew to Florida to hobnob with our "Liberal Friends" and work the political process. They threw money at the problem and held closed-door meetings begging for a handout from liberal straight allies whose own political lives were on the line.

In the meantime, when the street activists proposed a new wave of "Freedom Riders" inundate the area and protest openly, they were told by the politicos to stay home. The political operatives worried that angry street protests would embarrass them and their "liberal friends." In short, they told the people who were most worried: "Just, chill, we've got this."

Obviously, they didn't have it. The ordinance went down to stunning defeat on "Orange Tuesday" and the fight set up a dichotomy between a powerful ultra-right theocratic movement and LGBT Americans that still resonates to this day. Both positions were solidified in the crucible of that fight.

This year the same things happened again. Our "leaders" assured us that they had it covered. All we needed to do was send them money and they would mount slick ad campaigns and hobnob with their liberal political friends and assure that the measures would go down to defeat. Instead of angry queers in the streets, we had the usual rounds of cocktail party fundraisers and calls for photogenic couples with a cute child to appear in TV ads. Hired lobbyists and professional "directors" used our money to wine and dine our "liberal friends" while the ultra-right steadily gained ground in the fight.

The result in 2008 was the same as in 1977. We went down to ignominious defeat and the "gay Leadership" stood around looking shell-shocked. Like 1977, the aftermath from the streets was swift and telling. Thousands across the nation poured out to vent their anger and frustration and as the protests, boycotts, and screaming reached a fever pitch it seemed that regular voters were changing their minds. People who voted for Prop 8 began to feel that they had done the wrong thing or acted in ignorance.

WAnita Bryant PieImage by
hyperbolic pants explosion
via Flickr
hat could we have learned from the Dade Ordinance fight that could have helped us today? First, anger is a great motivating force. After the Dade fight, the backlash crushed the Briggs Amendment in California because LGBT activists were angry and weren't afraid to show it. They worked tirelessly on every level to defeat the measure. That same grassroots anger and organizing could have saved the day this year. Instead, we were all assured that sending a check was enough. If you really, really, wanted to do something you might put a sign in your yard. Other than that, just chill out, the professionals had it covered.

We learned after Prop 8 how powerful the power of the gay purse really was. Boycotts taught people that there was a price to be paid by smiling to our faces and stabbing us in the back. When the very first quarterly contribution forms came into the state, activists could have begun organizing boycotts and protests of those business and yes, even churches.

The Prop 8 map has become a boon and controversial tool, but it is effective. It lets people know that if they want to be bigots, it's fine, but they don't get to be closet bigots. You give money to hate campaigns then people will know who you are and where you are. That could have been begun early too. In addition to the official contributions, people could have listed places that anti-gay "Yes on 8" signs appeared on maps.

The professional politicians who run our organizations would be incensed by such tactics, I'm sure. The arguments of the "Moderate Reform Gays" has always been and continues to be that we play nice and don't embarrass or inconvenience straight liberals with our rhetoric. They still believe, just as they did in 1977 that given enough time and thoughtful dinner conversation that everyone will come to love us and eventually bestow upon us the blessings of liberty.

Folks, it didn't work then and it didn't work in 2008. Maybe instead of a huge conference that causes you to have to send yet another appeal for money, you could have just picked up a history book.

Remember: Power is never given. It must be taken.