Phil Reese

The birth of a movement: LGBTQ rights become civil rights

Filed By Phil Reese | March 20, 2010 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics, The Movement
Tags: civil disobedience, Dan Choi, DOMA, Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal, employment non-discrimination, ENDA, HRC, robin mcgehee

Thursday was a crazy day for me. I woke up late. I had a ton of homework to finish. I had a coming out panel. I had a work meeting and my regular work hours. I hadn't scheduled in a revolution.

But that's exactly what happened.

choiISchained.jpgThursday morning - the day of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act blogswarm, the day of the Human Rights Campaign's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" lobby day with Kathy Griffin - something beautiful began to happen.

The "gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and queer" rights movement grew up and became the new civil rights movement. LGBTQ activists got serious.

You see, everyday people's lives, livelihoods and reputations are on the line every single day because they are LGBTQ. They can get fired from their jobs, denied a promotion or not get hired at all, discharged from the military, tossed out of school, get pulled over for having
a disco ball on their mirror, denied access to institutions others are granted, denied visitation to their loved ones in the hospital, or shunned from their families. A million things happen to queer people just because we happen to be queer.

It's not so, however, for full-time activists like myself. I don't have anything on the line. So many activists complain about these folks "not getting involved enough" but they put everything on the line every day by living in the actual world battling against society's prejudices closing in around them. We don't put anything on the line.

Thursday it began.

Activists put their livelihoods and reputations on the line. In a big way. On a large scale. Before the eyes of the world.

Robinarrestd.jpgLt. Dan Choi, one of the most respected leaders in our movement, who has put everything on the line, joined dozens of other activists in leading actions around the nation by chaining himself to the fence of the White House with Captain Jim Pietrangelo. At the same time, National Equality March co-chair Robin McGehee was handcuffed and taken away from the action in a police car and later released on $35 bail.

But that was just the beginning. As the day progressed, it got more exciting. Kip Williams led a group of activists into Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's office in San Francisco, as other activists occupied her office in the Cannon House Office Building in Washington DC until they were arrested by police in riot gear. They were later released without bail.

A paradigm shift

Civil disobedience has not been much of a tool of our movement lately. We're really concerned with maintaining our reputations, with not being confrontational. With being neat and clean and planned, planned, planned.

This action was messy and shocking and didn't get approval from "the powers that be," but I think we're looking at a new era in our movement. A paradigm shift.

As our movement matures, our emerging leaders will make an impact - not by their ability to make people like them, but by making people respect them - by demanding equality and taking risks.

Careful hasn't been successful, and we've all seen that. It's time we all embrace what Dan Choi and Robin McGehee did yesterday--and put it all on the line. After watching things unfold Thursday, I'm ready to get arrested for my rights. I would love to start seeing a high profile arrest a week. Our big gay divas should go participate in sit-ins in lawmakers' offices--imagine Gaga actually going to jail. Everyone who believes in equality should be ready to get messy and get in trouble for equality.

Civil disobedience is the new queer order, and I'm ready to see us embrace it.

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 Crawford Michael Crawford | March 20, 2010 10:50 AM

"Careful hasn't been successful, and we've all seen that."

I would argue that direct action hasn't been so successful either and that what we need is not one or the other, but instead we should be smart enough to recognize that we need a multiplicity of tactics tied to a coherent strategy designed to achieve results.

We should be looking at every tactic and asking ourselves "how's that working out for ya?"

I truly believe that we have smart, committed, and passionate people working in a range of locations to win full LGBT equality.

We shouldn't throw up our hands and say lobbying hasn't worked when its clear that there has been some progress. Not the amount of progress we need, but there has been progress.

We also shouldn't dismiss direct action out of hand and dismiss it to the scrap heap of political history. There's a definite place for it in our fight for equality.

There's a lot to be done and not nearly the number of people we need doing it. We need to bring more people in and help develop clear and effective strategies that will help us win.

Much respect to you sir but we do seem to recall a few occasions when direct action did quite well to move things along for the LGBT Community, for example: Compton's Cafeteria; Stonewall and ACT-UP come immediately to mind.

Robin Tyler | March 21, 2010 2:17 AM

No, we did not become a civil rights movement
last week. I am very proud of Dan and the others
for what they did. But, in addition to Act Up,
there are many respected community organizers who have been organizing and resisting for years.
Andy Thayer of Chicago comes to mind. Also, after Prop 8 passed in California, tens of thousands of us took to the streets in Los Angeles for countless demonstrations, again and again. We have been a civil rights movement from the beginning. And those of us older activists have had this as our battle cry for years. Only now, we are joined by a younger generation who is ready to act on their anger.
The DNC has done nothing but lie to us since the first March on Washington in 1979. Our community was co opted and tens of millions of dollars were wasted by HRC, who have done nothing but protect the DNC. We need to stay on the streets, but also, those of us who were Democrats, divorce the National DNC. We started with Don't Ask, Don't give. If they do not pass ENDA, and repeal Don't Ask, Don't tell, and, as our President promised, repeal DOMA, then during the next election, it is time to initiate 'Don't vote.' No, the LGBT community will not lose the election for the Democrats. They will have done it by continuing to lie to us. Why are we sitting at that table when the needs of our community are not being served? Robin Tyler, age 68.

Rallies are fine. The bigger, the louder, the better.

It is VERY FOOLISH to encourage anyone to be arrested, given the long term consequences for employment with an arrest record, and the employment search disaster if you have a conviction. You folks over 25 should realize what a minor arrest, charge or conviction blemish means when it comes to an employment search.

Do what ever you like to be heard.
DO NOT GET ARRESTED, you will regret it.

Complex problems require multiple tools.

@ Michael:

So essentially you're saying is that all anyone has to do to shut you down is threaten to arrest you? I'm really glad Martin Luther King Jr didn't worry about his future on the job market when he put himself in the position to be arrested. When the system of governance is unjust, being arrested for resistance is the right thing to do. If some corporation won't give you the time of day because you failed to obey an unjust and bigoted system, then do you really want to work there?

You impatient youngsters . . . .

Seriously, Phil, our lives and livelihoods have always been on the line! Nothing's changed, and everything's changed.

When I think about my first Pride parade in Boston in 1973(?), I don't remember any floats or drag queens or sense of festivity and celebration associated with today's pride events.

When I think of that day in Boston in the early mid-70s, what I remember is my friend Peter in the back of an ambulance on the way to BCH after being hit in the side of the head by a beer bottle full of urine thrown (and undoubtedly filled) by some real men from Charleston who'd had beer for breakfast and then driven down to Boston to 'Show them queers.' -- a bottle that a fraction of a second before had passed directly in front of my eyes on its way to Peter's temple as we passed the south side of the Arlington Street Church on Boylston Ave.

We've come a long way from those days, young Phil, and both the direct action folks and we quiet types who swell the crowds and hope to lend a small credibility to the action simply by being there to witness with our presence have played our parts in moving things forward.

There's still a long way to go, and those of us who have been in the front lines of this fight for longer than you've been alive are real glad to have you come of age and be a part of the trip. Some of us are getting old and tired and are mighty glad to have you kids come along and do some of the heavier lifting. Hell, I'm even willing to let you imagine that you've been present at the 'birth' of something new.

But this is a fight that's been going on since before we both were born and most likely will continue to be fought--in increasingly diminishing ways--for a while yet after I'm gone.

The place of LGBTQ folks in our culture today, and the changes that are taking place at a break-neck pace in our public policies, literally as we speak, are both miles beyond what we dreamed of back in the day and indica of how far we have yet to go.

Welcome aboard, young Phil. Let's walk a ways together.

Rick Sours | March 20, 2010 5:17 PM

In order to achieve full for all members of the LBGT community, maybe at the present time a variety of approaches are necessary. Having been raised in one of the "historic peace churches" (Mennonite/Quaker/COB), I can appreciate the the concept of peaceful civil disobedience. During the 1960's, I had relatives who were arrested in the South.

the_czarina the_czarina | March 20, 2010 5:52 PM

An activist ally in the 60's Civil Rights Movement for African-Americans; a few years later arrested by NYC police with hundreds of others for civil disobedience by blocking the entrance to the Army Processing Center on Whitehall St. when protesting the Vietnam War, I feel when a movement has shifted gears.
It's time to get back in the saddle for this old ally: in THE Civil Rights Movement of our day.

Everybody ready? The heroes like Dan, Jim, Robin, the tireless bloggers (my favorites: TBP & Joe Jervis. For some reason my computer has a firewall up blocking Pam's House Blend that I can't get around)are ready. And so are the folks of NEM &, of course:).
It's time to ROCK N' ROLL!
It will be ~ must be ~ a helluva ride.


>So essentially you're saying is that all anyone
>has to do to shut you down is threaten to arrest

Shut you down?
You can do plenty without storming into the Office of the Speaker of the House. But if you want to get arrested, fine then go get arrested.
I suggest others do not follow your encouragement to be arrested.

You are not segregated, this is not 1960, and your cause is not the same as Martin Luther King.

Well Geena, I'm not saying that being arrested is a good and an end in itself. And I'm with those who have voiced support for a variety of approaches to the acquisition of our civil rights. But I'm really going to take a hard line on your last comment.

We don't face the same level of violence as the generation of African Americans in the 50's and 60's did. True. We don't have separate drinking fountains (just separate fake marriages that are really very far from equal). We don't have EXACTLY the same fight as they did. But I think that if they didn't pursue equality the way they did, the language and tactics of oppression applied to them would be acceptable still to our society and would be applied to us. Why is it, in many instances, impossible for a school district to tell kids in a sex and reproduction ed class that being gay is a valid and good identity without a firestorm of protest from parents and the organizations that misinform them? So yes, things are a little different, but in some ways, things are not so different.

Do not make light of our struggle. MLK and his example of non-violent civil disobedience and resistance are are heroic and inspiring to me. But tell me that there is anything reasonable, acceptable, or less disgusting about the way that LBGT folks are treated by this society? Tell me when you see our congressmen and women calling us unnatural, naming us as a threat to the fabric of this country and saying in no uncertain terms that we are not welcome here - tell me that that's less of an affront to our humanity than the same messages that were being aimed at the black community!

To Hell with this. To Hell with mundane, impotent, centrist-democrat, moderate, gradualism. And to hell with the fear of being arrested for being gay. What is this Iran?!

Along with this shift in view we are seeing some confusion I believe. I love the overall shift but a tour of discussions relative to this from earlier in the week show some of the confusion of which I speak.
The organizers of this recent event and other recent events are being accused of trying to just create a new queer organization, and some of them may very well being trying to do this. I don't believe that it is going to work well and I do believe that they will, if they have not already, realize what is happening.
I also think that many who are making these comments are suffering from tunnel vision based on old models. They are thinking in terms of the older LG...B..t organizations which have represented us in the past and been membership and lobbyist based. Members pay and lobbyists get paid.
I feel that what we are seeing is that this younger generation, with a healthy does of us over 40s, is operating differently. These events are grass roots style events and can be very effective but they are a series of once off events. These younger people are interested in supporting an organization which drains off money to pay itself. They are interested in taking action and will organize, through the latest communication methods, very effective single events.
This is IMO the direction to go in for our community. I believe that it stop being focused on a resource that many of us lack, money, and focuses rather on people. We are not getting lobbyists paid but we are getting, for lack of a better term, boots on the ground.
I look to the work of Bayard Rustin who organized the now famous march on Washington which featured the famous speech by Dr. King. The organization that centrally managed it was small and master minded by one of the great intellects of the 20th century in Mr. Rustin. But those people who turned out and massed in Washington were not primarily members of organizations and people on mailing lists and donors to large orgs. They were people who turned out for an important event. That is what the civil rights marches then were.
Yes there were a few planners who organized and notified people but the body of folks who turned out were not there because if membership in an organization and not because they needed to support lobbyists.
I for one am extremely happy to see this younger generation turning out to take serious action and honestly if Gay Inc can't handle it I say flush Gay Inc since they try to bargain and they end up bargaining away everything and everybody. Between the bargaining the smaller groups with the movement and the telling everyone to 'straighten' or at least 'straightish' up I think we should be done with 'em. I would be happy to see HRC-GLAAD-NGLtf and all of those other LG...b...t? businesses go under.

Totally agree with you, Jimmy... Many have noted that MLK and civil disobedience alone would not have garnered civil rights for African Americans if not for folks like Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, and yes - even the SLA. There is something about handcuffs, pepper spray, and trials, etc., that gets the attention of those who oppose civil rights. Those kinds of sacrifices count for a lot in the stodgy public's imagination. As yet another 'old guard' activist who's been arrested, I guarantee you it's not the end of the world - and I'm proud of sticking my neck out those 20 yrs ago. I long ago stopped financially supporting the HRC and other mamby- pamby groups because I disagree with their agenda and because I've seen that mere hand-holding and polite discourse is never enough. For God's sake; have we forgotten that pelting cops with bottles and over-turning police cars is how our movement got started? We might still be in Vietnam if not for thousands who got arrested and shed blood (Kent State). In addition to the glad-handers, and those who sit down to the table in suit and tie; we need our own 'underground', our own 'resistance' comprised of those who are not afraid of a little tear-gas, or 24 hrs in jail. I feel certain too, that there are plenty enough folks who would be happy to quietly fund it as well. Congrats to Dan Choi, and yet - imagine if every gay service member the world over had handcuffed themselves to a fence; wherever they were and all at a coordinated moment? Yes; all would be arrested, but DADT would be repealed with the week!

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | March 21, 2010 8:35 PM

Reliance on HRC and other Democrat Party front groups, and their spawn, to fight for us is foolish.

They‘re primarily interested in making a living hustling the movement and using it to elect Democrat sell outs like Obama.

We should approach elections as the excluded outsiders we are and use them to educate our communities and others about the undemocratic nature of US society.

The way to get what we want is to break with the Republicans and Democrats and organize independent, militant, mass actions for our program. When those mass actions become mass civil disobedience we'll be close to winning.

LGBTeaBaggers. Lucky us.

Shannon Greene | March 23, 2010 12:25 PM

The arrests of Lt. Dan Choi, Pietrangelo and Robin McGehee led to some small but mighty rallys and protests in San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Fresno, Orange County, Fayettville AR and New York NY.

We have got to raise our visability. If we are visable we can be counted. If we can be counted we cease to be a silent minority.

Getting arrested at the White House is risky but like Lt. Dan said (in paraphrase) the real chains were the ones he wore when he was serving in the military in the closet.