As a community, we've spent most of the almost forty years since Stonewall getting our asses kicked by the conservatives and the fundies pretty regularly and pretty soundly. Not once did we rise up all over the country in the kind of numbers we're seeing now in response to the passage of Prop 8.
Maybe it's that people feel safer to come out and be seen now than they used to be?
Well, all of the Pride events I've been to since the mid-90's when I first came out have drawn pretty good crowds, so I don't think it's a fear of being seen. Could it be that people are just selfish and don't care? Nah, I can't believe that either. Anyone in our community who lives anywhere in or near a major city or owns an Internet-capable computer knows that just isn't the case. Could it be that there's been no one to organize and coordinate large scale LGBT activism and events? Nope, that hasn't been true for decades now, and besides, these protests really don't have any organization or group of organizations leading this effort.
So then, what is it? Why did it take not simply being denied equality but having already-won rights stripped away before we finally began taking the kind of bold, wide-scale action we've desperately needed to happen for so long? I think we all know the answer, don't we? Yep, plain old laziness.
It's easy to be complacent when things are good, or at least, not bad. Just as many who have good jobs and nice homes don't seem to take a lot of interest in fighting to protect the homes and jobs of those who don't, people who aren't personally impacted by the lack of ability to get married haven't seemed especially motivated to stand up and speak out for those who are. That is, until now.
Passage of Prop 8 a Good Thing?
In a way, the passage of Prop 8 is probably the best thing that could have ever happened to our community. Stunning in its hatefulness and bigotry, cast into even higher relief against the backdrop of the election of Barack Obama, I believe it is that very juxtaposition of simultaneous events that has brought us out of our warm and fuzzy Queer cocoons at last.
We watch our country and our world cheer as a new President prepares to take office, marking a major step forward in the history of racial equality and civil rights in America, but at the very same moment we see ourselves slapped down hard. As most Americans now look with anticipation and excitement toward what is now possible with a new and more progressive federal government, we ourselves are forced to face what has been taken away from us.
For me, and I'd bet for many of you reading this, particularly if you are transgender, the parallels to the recent past are pretty obvious. When the transgender community was stripped from ENDA, we responded in much the same way, though on a much smaller scale.
For the past year or so, there have been regular protests at Human Rights Campaign events nationwide, and while significantly smaller in size, they've been consistent and they've been active. Despite their small size, the message has gotten out, slowly but surely, not by force of numbers but by constantly being out there, constantly promoting the same clear message of equality and fairness, and by never, ever, backing down or giving up on what we know to be right.
That's how this battle will be won. Not by marching and protesting for a week or even a few weeks, but by being consistent and unrelenting, by making our voices heard wherever and whenever they need to be heard, over and over and over, until the message finally starts sinking in to the community, to those inclined to support us, and eventually to average fair-minded straight Americans. We've seen it happen with HRC and ENDA, and we'll see it happen here, perhaps even more quickly because of the huge numbers involved.
Lessons from the Transgender Movement
Consider where the transgender community was just a few years ago. We protested, we yelled, we screamed, but we couldn't even get our own community media to pay attention for the most part. In my opinion, the biggest part of the problem was that we had just two protests in the summer of 2004 and that was it. Sure we had plenty of community-created media online addressing our issues, but the reality we quickly discovered was that the only people really interested in what we had to say were fellow transfolks, and preaching strictly to the choir just doesn't have much of an impact. The only time non-trans-specific media took even a cursory interest in our issues was when we finally got out from behind our computers and actually protested in front of HRC's headquarters.
Over the course of the last year we've seen that level of interest and support increase significantly, and I believe that's directly due to fact that we're not just shouting in the dark anymore. We've called out HRC on their home turf, their dinners and events, all over the country. First, our own community media began picking up the story and then it spread to mainstream media. Once that happened, things suddenly started to change.
As news stories and columns on the topic have run in mainstream news media, we've seen more and more people step up and join our struggle. Where just four years ago the Democratic nominee for President publicly opposed our fair treatment and equality, we now have a President-elect who has publicly and repeatedly expressed his view that transgender people should be included in ENDA.
Politicians all over our country have declined to attend HRC events because of the increasing public outcry over their selfish, discriminatory, and transphobic political games. States and municipalities all over the country have taken it upon themselves to extend workplace anti-discrimination and hate crimes protections to their transgender citizens. We've seen Barney Frank go from being publicly supportive of treating us fairly to non-supportive to supportive once more. The political playing field regarding the issue of transgender equality has changed drastically for the better over the last four years and that's because we've kept putting the message out there consistently.
It's taken us over four years to come this far and the battle is still far from over. The battle for same-sex marriage will take far longer because there's so much farther to go. As hard as it's been to achieve the gains we've already won, trans-people didn't have to first overcome laws and constitutional amendments prohibiting our equal treatment under the law as already exist in 90% of American states.
Yes We Will
It's far harder to argue convincingly that there are moral and religious prohibitions against treating people fairly in the workplace or protecting them from violence driven by hate than it is to make the case against same-sex marriage. That shouldn't be the case, of course, but it's nonetheless true, requiring us to either hope for a Supreme Court decision of a scope and impact on the level of a Roe v. Wade or Lawrence v. Texas, or we must resolve to engage in an intensive state-by-state battle that probably won't be completely won in our lifetimes. No, it isn't fair, but it is the unfortunate reality.
Stonewall got people to take notice, but it took decades longer before the promise of that uprising began to bear fruit in any significant way. In fact, it's arguable that it's only in the last ten years or so, long past the time of Harvey Milk and the repudiation of the Briggs Amendment by California voters, decades after the ACT-UP HIV/AIDS uprisings, that we've really begun making serious inroads toward equal rights and treatment for all LGBT people in this country.
We've made enormous strides over the last decade, despite suffering through the most aggressively homo/transphobic federal government in modern memory, and in the face of loss after loss in terms of the legal validation of same-sex relationships even as we've made great progress in other areas.
Just as is being said about our current economic problems, things will likely get worse before they get better. Regardless, we must continue to persevere. As Dr. King said, "the arc of history does bend toward justice", but it will not reach that point unless and until we are committed and relentless in pushing forward toward that goal.
It's time for gay and lesbian people to heed the lessons not only from their own history but also from the struggles of racial and ethnic minorities and from their transgender brothers and sisters. We will win this war (and yes, we must consider it a war if we are to have a hope of winning it), but only if we understand and act on the undeniable truth that we are still closer to the beginning than we are to the end.
We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song
I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
- The Who, "Won't Get Fooled Again" (1971)