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WOLF, Sherry. LGBT struggle - where do we go from here.docx

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http://isreview.org/issue/69/lgbt-struggle-where-do-we-go-here January 2010 LGBT struggle: Where do we go from here? By Sherry Wolf Issue #69: Features What did the march accomplish? BY ALMOST any gauge, the National Equality March (NEM) on Washington October 11, 2009, was a colossal success. With barely any organized forces, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) political and movement establishment largely in opposition, and the gay press and blogo
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  http://isreview.org/issue/69/lgbt-struggle-where-do-we-go-here January 2010 LGBT struggle: Where do we go from here? By Sherry Wolf   Issue #69: Features  What did the march accomplish? BY ALMOST any gauge, the National Equality March (NEM) on Washington October 11, 2009, was a colossal success. With barely any organized forces, the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) political and movement establishment largely in opposition, and the gay press and blogosphere contemptuous and dismissive of the  NEM early on, intrepid grassroots activists mobilized more than 200,000 people to demand full federal equality in all matters of civil law in all fifty states.   At a price tag of just over $150,000 for Port-o-Potties, insurance, and a few incidentals  —  it was a marvel of anti-corporate non-sponsorship  —  this was one mass LGBT march not brought to you by Citibank, Miller beer, or Absolut. The march was a vindication of the idea that mass protest is possible, necessary, and desirable if the left is to challenge both the right and the politics of don’t -rock-the-boat gradualism gripping the Democratic Party and its liberal defenders. As a member of the march’s leadership and an author and public speaker who has been on tour for several months, I had a bird’s -eye view of how this march was organized, warts and all. We were a rag-tag bunch, some veterans, but mostly developing young activists who are more multiracial, anti-corporate, and suspicious of the Democratic Party than previous generations of organizers. Tanner Efinger, a Los Angeles bartender who labored for months without pay to build the march, introdu ced one of the march’s initiators Cleve Jones at the rally, saying: “I am no one of note, I am not a seasoned speaker, I have no published pieces of work or even a college degree. I have no health insurance, I am in debt...We are, all of us, an unrepresent ed motley crew of underdogs.” It was an eloquent description of the carpet of humanity laid out before the Capitol on that gorgeous fall day. The mobilizing efforts for the march  —  which were derided by an anonymous Obama adviser as the work of fringe “bloggers” who need to take off their “pajamas”—  included not only aggressive online promotion, but good old-fashioned street heat on campuses and in communities, where speak-outs, teach-ins, rallies, and educational events drew anywhere from dozens to hundreds.  Twenty-seven-year- old Kip Williams from San Francisco’s One Struggle, One Fight was the sole paid organizer for the march, earning minimum wage to work tirelessly, dashing across the country and getting groups and individuals onboard. The march’s student c oordinator and socialist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor helped centralize a mammoth effort to organize students to hold days of action, phone bank and  join the huge lead contingent of youth at the front of the march. Robin McGehee, a Fresno, Calif., mother who wa s kicked out from leading her local PTA after Prop 8’s  passage in November, volunteered countless hours to orchestrate march logistics. And Chloe Noble, who is marching cross-country to raise awareness of homeless LGBT youth, organized workshops with Chelsea Salem the day before the march, as did transgender activists and LGBT families who brought together hundreds of kids and same-sex couples at a milk-and-cookies event to make protest signs and schmooze among other families like their own. Though UNITE HERE organizer and Harvey Milk protégé Cleve Jones was attacked for his audacity to build a march in less than four months, and for countering the incremental approach of the dominant LGBT groups  —  and red-baited for his collaboration with me  —  none of these attacks stuck. Openly gay Rep. Barney Frank’s oft -expressed contempt for the march  —”The only thing they’re going to be putting pressure on is the grass”—  earned him the derision of student protesters, who chanted: “Barney Frank, fuck you!”  The legislative accomplishments of the march have garnered the most attention. President Obama felt pressure from the grassroots to alter his travel plans and give one of his trademark orations, broadcast nationally on the eve of the march at a Human Right s Campaign (HRC) dinner, calling for an end to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and other civil rights advances. While no sitting  president has ever promised so much (nor explicitly included transgender people in a speech), Obama offered nothing concrete beyond soaring prose, which compelled sex columnist Dan Savage to quip, “Imagine all the wonderful things this guy is going to accomplish if he ever actually gets elected president.” Nonetheless, Obama’s verbal solidarity with the LGBT civil rights struggle  —  in stark contrast to many of his actions  —  stokes heightened expectations and organizing when his promises go unmet. The passage of hate crimes legislation  —  amended to a military authorization bill  —  was greeted by many LGBT organizations as long overdue, coming eleven years after the torture and murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, and the thousands of gay and trans bashings since. Whereas leftists should be encouraged by the federal government’s effort to break w ith its ugly homophobic past, it must be noted that brutal attacks on LGBT people are fueled by official discrimination written into federal and state laws. The same government that creates a climate of anti-LGBT sentiment and holds 2.3 million people behind bars, not surprisingly poses harsher prison sentences as a solution to hate crimes. Tellingly, it costs the government little financially or  politically to commit to this tough-on-crime act, which serves to bolster the prison-industrial complex.  Genuine reforms and the portent of more have come down since. The Reagan-era ban on travel to the United States of people who are HIV-positive was lifted after twenty-two years. Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) introduced a bill to repeal DOMA, and opinion polls, even those by FOX news, show only one-third of Americans today oppose legal unions between LGBT couples  —  even if many disagree on whether to call it marriage or civil unions. All of the networks, MSNBC, and CNN gave positive coverage to the march and stories about LGBT civil rights issues since have received greater national coverage than in the recent past. In addition, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Salt Lake City, Utah, anti-discrimination ordinances have passed overwhelmingly. The march clearly both expressed the desire for, and helped stoke the expansion of, LGBT civil rights. Setbacks  The failure of the same- sex marriage forces on Election Day in Maine’s No on 1 campaign to retain marriage equality passed earlier in 2008 by the legislature highlights four central problems: 1) Civil rights activists are weakest outside of urban areas where the financial and institutional resources of the right can dominate rural politics; 2) President Obama and the Democrats have failed to deliver on their promise of “ fierce advocacy” of LGBT civil rights; 3) LGBT rights must be enacted into law by the federal government; and 4) Civil rights should not be reduced to election fodder to be manipulated by well-financed bigots. Despite the fact that the No on 1 campaign, Protect Maine Equality, raised $4 million and the anti-same-sex marriage forces raised only $2.5 million, the strategy of statewide  ballot initiatives plays to activists’ weaknesses, especially in non -urban areas. In addition to the purposely confusing language used by the right in these initiatives  — voting “yes” denied equality, voting “no” would have retained it—  larger population centers create opportunities for activists to reach people in groups, as in Portland, Maine, where the vote was an overwhelming 73 percent against Question 1. At the University of Maine’s Orono campus, 81 percent of students voted against taking away equal marriage rights, also showing the generation gap that persists on this question. Similarly, in Washington state, it was urban King County that voted overwhelmingly for the “everything but marriage” referendum, while the less -populated eastern part of the state voted against it. Just three weeks after the march, conservatives were punching back. Right-wing bigots like Pat Robertson have attacked recently enacted federal hate crimes legislation, saying, “The noose has tightened around the necks of Christians to keep them from speaking out on certain moral issues.”  In the face of this hostility and legal challenges, the Democrats have been passive at  best and hostile at worst. The White House and Congress have failed to deliver so far on  promises to reverse decades of legal discrimination in federal and state laws. When Attorney General Eric Holder was asked about Maine’s Question 1, he said that he and President Obama “are of the view it is for states to make these decisions.” Holder later said to one blogger, “I don’t really know enough about the referendum over there to comment.” As Cleve Jones said on MSNBC of President Obama’s sil ence on Question 1, “This is a far cry from the fierce advocacy he promised us in his campaign.”    Even more outrageous, not only did the Democratic National Committee (DNC) refuse to help finance the No on 1 campaign, but it expressed crass indifference to LGBT rights when the DNC’s organization “Organizing for America” (formerly known as “Obama for America”) e -mailed Maine voters the day before the election about getting involved...in the gubernatorial contest in New Jersey (which lost)! The failure of the Democrats to hold onto huge gains made in the 2008 election in New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races  —and the flaccid response from Obama’s base in this off-year election  —  reveals that the inability of the Democrats in power to deliver on their promises is alienating progressives. Maine’s reversal on marriage equality proves once again the bankruptcy of the state -by-state, issue-by-issue strategy upheld by many establishment LGBT forces. This approach concedes that civil rights must remain on the precarious turf of the states, in a country where one Constitution is supposed to guarantee equal protection under the law. Activists can no longer accept that LGBT civil rights can be attained outside the federal government. Even if Maine voters had rejected Question 1, most marriage rights like Social Security are only gained through the federal government and married LGBT  people in Maine, as in the equal marriage states, would have remained second-class citizens under the law. The right’s strategy of placing L GBT civil rights on state ballots for a vote places the  battle for human equality on an unstable and hostile terrain. Why should anyone have to  battle in each locality for equal treatment in a country where the Fourteenth Amendment  —   passed after the Civil War!  —  guarantees equal protection to all U.S. citizens? Why should LGBT people have to repeatedly reassert that we are equal human  beings in every state and municipality forty-five years after the Civil Rights Act  prohibited discrimination? The most horrific indirect impact of the lack of civil rights protections for LGBT people is the continued violence against members of the community. In early November, fifteen-year-old Jason Mattison was found raped, gagged and beaten to death in a closet in his family’s home in Baltimore. The popular Black teenager was a gregarious, openly gay young man who was killed by a family friend recently released from prison. A few days later a nineteen-year-old, Jorge Steven Lopéz Mercado, was found decapitated and  burned in Puerto Rico by a man who allegedly murdered Jorge upon discovering the slight young man in a dress was not female. In stark contrast to past bashings, however, protests and vigils erupted in at least twenty cities from New York to Abilene, Texas, to commemorate their lives and mourn their deaths. In Chicago and New York, politicians and religious leaders spoke out against these horrific crimes and local activists who had mobilized for the march helped  publicize these cases, which broke through the usual silence of the national and local media that covered Jorge and Jason’s deaths and the marches and rallies.   Seize the moment  The need for a national movement to cohere the grassroots groups that formed before and in the wake of the march is palpable. March organizers are initiating a grassroots network called Equality Across America (EAA) to form a democratically run group with an elected leadership, strategy, and structure. It has been decades since a national

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