Michael Crawford

Does the LGBT Movement Need to "Get Real?"

Filed By Michael Crawford | November 29, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement
Tags: California Proposition 8, gay activists, gay politics, gay rights movement, marriage equality

There is a moment in every Dr. Phil show were he tells the guests of the day that they need to "get real" and stop the behaviours that are causing them pain and emotional distress.I think it is high time that the LGBT community internalize that message and end the sometimes limp-wristed approach we take to fighting for our right to equal treatment under the law.

Continuing reports and analysis coming out about the No on Prop 8 campaign show that our side ran a timid and poll-driven campaign that avoided the use of images and messaging featuring same-sex couples talking about how Prop 8 would effect their lives, ignored outreach to communities of color until the last minute and failed to anticipate anti-gay tactics that even a first year poli-sci student could have predicted.

"It seemed like there was a missed opportunity here for education in general," says Cathy Renna. After more than a decade with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Renna is now managing partner of Renna Communications, based in Washington, D.C.

Renna and other critics say what was fatally missing from the No on 8 campaign's advertising was the presence of actual gay and lesbian families telling their stories. By holding back on the emotional punch and choosing instead to focus on cold principles, they say the campaign failed to move people on the opposing side.

"I think the whole marriage debate in general has not been framed in a way that takes our relationships and our families out of more than a superficial or abstract context," Renna says.

While there are many smart and politically savvy people in positions of leadership in our organizations, I do wonder how much of gay conventional wisdom is shaped by psychic damage caused by the intrinsic evil of the closet and internalized homophobia.

That is not to say that our leaders are closet cases, but how much of the timidness and unwillingness to speak openly and forcefully about our lives and our families is the result of old-school political battles necessitating a less overtly "gay" style of activism?

In DC, the local LGBT community has made significant political gains mostly by employing behind the scenes strategies that did little to educate the larger DC community about the lives of LGBT District residents. That strategy has been so successful that we now have one of the strongest relationship recognition laws in the country, but the number of couples making use of the law remains incredibly small because the overwhelming majority of LGBT people are unaware of its existence and the rights and responsibilities it provides.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Why are so many so unwillingly to talk openly about our lives, our families and our demand for civil rights?

The passage of Prop 8 and its stripping away of a basic civil right from gay people shows that we can no longer afford to sit on the sidelines saying that we are "not political" or that we have to hide being "too gay" for fear of shoving our gayness in people's faces or that it is about winning the short-term battles and not about winning the long-term war for equality.

Winning our civil rights is going to take every single one of us standing up for ourselves and each other. To do anything less would amount to enabling the homophobia that infects our society and betraying the lives of future generations of LGBT people.

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

Michael, you make a really good point. I think part of "getting real," as far as Dr. Phil is concerned, involves taking responsibility for one's life instead of looking for others to blame. It's a hard pill to swallow, but I think the LGBTQ community needs to face up to the fact that we lost the fight in California all on our own. We're like a football team playing Monday night quarterbacking. Sure, the other side had a strong offensive strategy. But we only played defense. And a weak defense at that. We never put forward an offensive strategy. And you gotta have offense to win football games . . . and elections.

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | November 29, 2008 10:56 PM

One of my favorite lines in the movie Milk is win Cleve Jones says "I don't do losing." That's the kind of attitude I think we need to have in fighting for our civil rights.

We need to think smart and bold and act with passion. Our cause is just and we need not hide who we are and what we are fighting for.

Michael, as the lighter half of a longterm twosome, what you say resonates on at least two fronts, namely the outreach to the African-American community as well as the whole idea of showing more folks that we're here and who we are. Concerning the latter, perhaps there ought to be a nationwide "Project Visibility".

I hear a lot about the circular reasoning where GLBT folks say they can't afford to be more visible becuse of job loss, etc. While that is certainly all too true for all too many, I think that in many cases it is a convenient excuse for inaction. There are enough of us sufficiently secure in our job and other life situations that we can make a difference in the public awareness and education process. So what are we waiting for?

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | November 29, 2008 11:03 PM


Your idea for "Project Visibility" sounds great. It would be a perfect companion to HRC's Coming Out Project.

We know that when people get to know LGBT people that they are more likely to support our issues. We need to give people the opportunity to stand with us in our fight for equality.

The thinking seems to be, if we're quiet and unassuming enough they won't notice that we're gay. Then we can slip our issues right under their noses without waking up the giant.

Richard Rosendall wrote in Bay Windows:

Obama’s landmark campaign offers gay activists many lessons: Believe in yourself. Tell your story. Frame the issues rather than letting your adversaries frame them. Wrap yourself in faith, flag, and family — the other side deserves no monopoly. Listen to people who disagree with you; you may find common ground and supporters in unexpected places. Do your homework. Organize in a way that motivates and empowers your volunteers. Speak to your listeners' better angels instead of rebuking or pandering to them. Talk to voters like adults. Don’t flee from challenges, rise to them.

We have a compelling story. We need to shed the victim mentality and tell it.

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | November 29, 2008 11:08 PM

Rick Rosendall has been hugely successful in helping to advance LGBT civil rights in DC. The lessons he got from the Obama campaign are dead on.

We have a compelling story to tell and we need to believe in ourselves enough to share our stories with others.

Reformed Ascetic | November 29, 2008 12:23 PM

I am too young to have participated in this part of history myself, but in educating myself about GLBT history one of the things that struck me about the post Stone Wall political efforts were the divisions that sprang up pretty quickly over gender presentations. Lesbian/feminists rejecting people (drag kings to trans-women) they saw as promoting patriarchal stereotypes. Certain political failures being blamed on gay men who decided to demonstrate by showing up in dresses. To my eyes, it’s really hard not to connect these developments to some GLB vs. T divisions that exist now by shaping our conventional wisdom.

Then there were the power struggles between the more radical and confrontational elements of the movement, and the more “centrist” voices. With the grassroots voices tending to be more associated with the radical voice that many historians seem comfortable characterizing in unflattering and sometimes self-destructive ways. But even if that characterization were true you would think that others would rise up.

However then there was AIDS. I think it’s fair to say most grassroots people became busy with either dealing with friends and loved ones, or organizing to fight the epidemic at a time when the government was of no help.

Not only have my readings [I definitely do not have any access to personally describe any backroom power struggles.] described this as an opportunity for less confrontational leaders to take the reins in several cases, we all know how emotionally devastating the situation was. While discussing imperialism’s effect on Africa, Frantz Fanon suggested that decimation (a death of one in ten) could cripple a culture for generations. Many gay men from the early years of AIDS in particular can describe worse than that.

It seems hard to imagine that this didn’t play a role. It seems like it’s effects impaired the average member of the community’s ability to participate in activism, assuming this line of reasoning has any validity The younger generation who are often described as politically apathetic came into the community at a time when their immediate predecessors were simply too busy surviving to teach them about activism (of course further complicated by the generations often being separated in practice).

I think this also compares well to an event observed in people who have been imprisoned for a long period of time. They often hold their lives in a kind of psychological abeyance for the time they are incarcerated.

While I would not want to suggest that the AIDS crisis is over, I wonder if the average member of the community isn’t beginning to regain the emotional ability to take things up where this crisis made them leave it.

I feel like I should say that of course I don’t mean to ignore all the work personal and political (including all those who have publicly come out during those years) that happened during the intervening years. It just seems that no matter who maps it out all the political timelines appear to agree that AIDS changed everything.

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | November 29, 2008 11:12 PM

I think that we have a responsibility to help younger gays learn about LGBT history and we also have the responsibility to listen as they offer new ways to organize to win our civil rights.

AIDS did have a huge impact on our community and continues to do so to this day. In many ways members of our community are heroes for acting up to fight AIDS.

Michael -

I agree with so much of what you write above: the need for each of us to be out and active; the need to inform our own community of our rights, and the effectiveness of long-term public education efforts.

However, I do fear that innaccuracies are building up around what actually happened within the No on 8 campaign. If you haven't already, you should listen to the Town Hall that the LA LGBT Center did last week. You can find a rebroadcast here:


As you'll see, the campaign leaders did know about and strategize around many of the issues people are cliaming they didn't. Also, the outreach effort in communities of color was much more robust than has been reported. Also, the information that the campaign had calls into question any poll that ever showed a majority of people voting "no."

None of this negates the simple fact that the campaign made mistakes and strategic errors. However, going forward, we're going to come up with a more accurate analysis if we incorporate more accurate facts.

Reformed Ascetic | November 29, 2008 12:53 PM


I haven't had time to investigate it further yet, but I saw a post this week saying a new analysis of the numbers suggests that the African-American community voted yes by 57% (I believe that was the number without looking back) rather than ~70%.

It stuck out at me because those numbers are pretty different.

Is this the kind of thing you're suggesting when you reference different polling data?

RA -

you're correct that people are looking into those numbers and coming up with more accurate data (along the lines of what you mention). However, I was referring to internal polling that the campaign began doing in the summer. Their polling consistently showed that No on 8 was behind by varying percentages. In contrast, public polling by the Field Poll (otherwise a pretty accurate source) showed our side winning, sometimes by big numbers, through much of the summer and fall.

One strong possiblity is that Field got it wrong all along. If so, their polls may have lulled a lot of people (and donors in particular) into false security and given the impression that we, as one commentator wrote, "snatched defeat from the jaws of victory." Instead, the more accurate acount may be that the No Campaign actually closed signficant gaps among the electorate (just not enough to win).

I think one narrative that hasn't surfaced much in some of the "analysis" is that this may have been a much tougher fight than many of us wanted to believe (a belief spurred on by the Field poll). And, while the campaign could have certainly done things differently, the possiblilty that doing those things would have ended in a win seems to be a foregone conclusion for many of the folks who are analyzing the campaign. For me, that conclusion smacks of the kind of easy satisfaction that rarely holds up under scruitiny.

Karen Collett | November 29, 2008 2:36 PM

The 70% number came from exit polls, which should always be regarded with extreme suspicion. Check out FiveThirtyEight's Ten Reasons Why You Should Ignore Exit Polls.

thank you for your thoughtful post, I'd like to respond to the following quote:

"Renna and other critics say what was fatally missing from the No on 8 campaign's advertising was the presence of actual gay and lesbian families telling their stories. By holding back on the emotional punch and choosing instead to focus on cold principles, they say the campaign failed to move people on the opposing side."

I couldn't agree more with this statement. I can understand people who are still afraid to speak up and out because of backlash at work and because I was once too in that position, it's hard for me to get angry with them. On the other hand, you have a lot of people who are very, very "out" -- LGBT families, particularly if they have school age children. They may not be hugely "out" at work, or even in their neighborhood, but for their kids sake, few hide it at school. Since the anti-equality bunch always runs on a platform of "protecting children" and "what will happen in the schools" I think that this is a natural place to build a campaign from.

I have read, and argued with in some forums, the apologists of the poll-driven campaign who insist that LGBT-headed families don't test well.

I am sure that we don't test well. It's really easy to dismiss us when we are invisible, "abstract" as the quote above states.

When confronted with a sympathetic same-sex parented family, I'm sure there are folks in the focus groups who squirm in their seats--nobody likes to be confronted with proof that their "deeply held religious beliefs" are just prejudiced nonsense.

Of course one commercial isn't going to change their minds--it's just going to piss them off. But I think we're learning that this is a war of attrition, our "enemy" is age and lack of education (well before any specific ethnic minority group).

We need a prolongued, "The More You Know"-type of campaign, or some gay-Huxtables, to challenge the "ick factor" of LGBT-headed families, and it should start now so that the next time this is on the ballot, wherever that may be, we have laid a foundation for being able to talk to people about the reality of LGBT-headed families without freaking out the focus group-bunch.

There is a new conversation on Pam's House Blend that fits nicely with this topic, hope you don't mind my linking it:

Thanks again for the conversation

Michael - Thank you for this. I completely agree and have been thinking we need to overhaul the way in which we approach this. We can no longer be apologetic or be concerned of offending people for being who we are. No one certainly cares about offending us. I think there is a very civilized and rational way to fight for our rights as well as acceptance. We need to work to see that the ridiculous, tired, old lies about homosexuality are not taught.

There will come a day when people will see the error of their ways. We just need to find a way to help them get there sooner. We must carry ourselves with dignity and maintain our integrity - we will not be ashamed.

So when will the lawyers finally get smart and realise that, all of the state amendments fail on critical test, federal constituionality?

Why do you think the right wants a federal amendment? Each and every one of the state amendments are unconstitutional under the US constitution, if not personal freedom, then the establishment clause.

All of the amendments are based on arguments that are supporting a judeo/christian mythology. That implies the establishment of that religious belief system as a de facto "state" religion.

Thus, they fail to stand up to the first amendment's prohibition of the establishment of a state religion.

In states which have their own establishment clause, they create a constitutional dilemma as well, and should thus be overthrown there as well.

You can call America a christian nation, you just can't create laws that make it one.

You're right, Michael. The backroom deal has become the overwhelming preferred method of political expediency for the LGBT community.

Here in Indiana, for example, not one leader of Indiana Equality attended the marriage rally at the City Hall. Why? Why would they miss the opportunity to gain lots of new and (obviously) active potential members/allies?

My answer? They've been fighting an amendment for years by claiming, "We don't want to get married, we just have to fight an amendment since it's a slap in the face. By denying that we actually want any civil rights, they can fight the amendment with the fact that we already have a DOMA law, just not an amendment.

But is it a smart strategy to ignore dozens of possible new activists so you can achieve closet case politics?