During the first weekend in December, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the National LGBT Blogger and Citizen Journalist Initiative summit in the very beautiful (but very cold) nation’s capital.
Queer bloggers known around the world and those just getting their start joined to discuss how the LGBT blogosphere can work together with traditional, legacy LGBT organizations and the mainstream press. Novel ideas and in-depth discussion on strategy abounded all weekend.
As a history geek, I completely ate up a presentation on the history and possible future of the LGBT movement given by decades-long advocate Tim McFeeley, a former executive director of the then-Human Rights Campaign Fund, as well as a former head-honcho of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.
His extensive background and historical source information on the past that has brought us thus far to the present was brilliant. In particular, I listened keenly as he described his vision for pushing our movement forward.
According to McFeeley, our movement has been stuck in a “victim” mentality for decades. The “victim” mentality keeps the focus on us — something we’ve all been a’okay with. But at what cost does this inward focus come? His ideas include reframing and moving us forward by recasting ourselves in a greater vision of what and who America is.
Instead of asking for equality, we should aim for excellence. We just don’t want to be equal to heterosexuals; we want to be able to excel on the same, even playing field that should be guaranteed to all Americans at birth.
Instead of demanding liberation, we should strive for leadership. We just don’t want to liberate ourselves and go home to play by our lonesome; we want the equal opportunity to fully participate in our nation’s life and take leadership roles in our community, local neighborhoods, states and nation.
Other framed messages include, “America deserves discrimination free workplaces” (instead of “Gay workers need government protection”); “America needs the strongest military we can find” (instead of “Lesbians should have the right to serve in the military”); “Marriage is good for families and our nation” (instead of “We deserve same rights as straight married people”); “Every child in America deserves a loving home” (instead of “LGBT people must have equal right to adopt children”); and “Let’s make America a good place for all” (instead of “America is a bad place for LGBT people”).
McFeeley’s larger point is simple: To change the hearts and minds of those who still hate us and even those in the “moveable middle,” we have to focus on what they care about. They don’t like us; the focus shouldn’t be on us — it should be on what matters most to them. While minions of the anti-gay Right don’t care about the gays, they do care about America.
Perhaps what I found most compelling was McFeeley’s suggestion that we move away from demanding “rights” and focus instead on “responsibility.” Equal human and civil rights are inherent. We know that. We understand that. At least to some extent (no matter how hard they deny it in their actions) the Right knows it, too. The Constitution and Declaration of Independence clearly state as much. But we also know that being a citizen with full rights is a two-way street. In order to complete the social contract, a citizen has responsibilities and obligations — to himself, to her family and to his community and her nation.
We just don’t want equal rights for the sake of having rights. Does the story really stop after a receipt of rights? No. We want equal rights so that we can best live up to our responsibilities and obligations to take care of our families and our loved ones, to be fully involved in our communities and neighborhoods, to be active in our participatory Republic and become fully functional, contributing members of society.
McFeeley’s suggestions sound eerily similar to “assimilationism,” I know. In a way, it is. But, this isn’t a perfect world. It never has been. It never will be. Equality is never freely given. In order to win it — in order to earn it — those demanding it must step up to the plate and show those in power that we’re capable and responsible enough for it.
Unfortunately, that’s just the way it is — right or wrong. Sometimes we have to be pragmatic. As openly gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) said at the Victory Fund’s International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute Luncheon on Dec. 6, idealism without pragmatism gets us nowhere.
Case in point: McFeeley related to the assembled bloggers how in 1977 the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force approached the highly-respected and internationally-revered Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and asked to join as a civil rights group.
The Conference said no. “You aren’t a civil rights group,” they said.
McFeeley related, “The people with whom we should have most been allied and tried to be allied, said,
‘No, we don’t want you here.’”
Years later, the Task Force tried again. This time, they were allowed in, but only on the condition that gay rights would not be on the table. Pragmatism dictated they comply. And it’s good news they did. The HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s changed the Conference’s and others’ views of our community. As we pulled together, leaders in organizations across the nation took notice of our community’s ability to organize and our willingness to stare death and destruction in the face, no matter the circumstances.
As we proved ourselves, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights included us in their activities. By the 1990s, gay rights were on the table. Now legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act top the highest priority list for the group.
As our community moves forward, we will inevitably achieve what many of us have wanted all along: The ability to live, excel and contribute in a society that sees as no better, no worse and no different than them. We just have to be smart about getting there.