Lessons From the LGBT Equality Movement

George Lakey Apr 2, 2013

As the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with the question of whether to grant marriage equality, many people have been talking about the rapid progress of homosexual rights. My own feelings are different. In the time since I came out publicly in 1974 I’ve usually felt the progress as been maddeningly slow. The gay side of me has been impatient.

On the other hand, the student of social change in me can see the other point of view: Given deeply structured heterosexism and its link to patriarchal oppression, policies toward LGBT people are indeed changing fast.

That being the case, let’s consider what can we learn from this struggle for equality that could help activist strategizing for other causes.

A movement’s context, of course, matters hugely. Not everything depends on strategy. Various social forces in the United States have offered gays some wiggle room in the last half century compared with, say, the stunning obstacles set before the labor movement.

Still, when we consider the uncertain progress of the peace movement since the 1960s and the environmental movement since the 1970s — even though the reasons for backing both have become ever more compelling — we might look to gay equality as a clearly successful movement for possible strategic lessons. Four fundamental characteristics stand out for me.

Uncompromising conflict

All successful movements make strategic compromises to gain some wins and make enough forward motion to keep morale high. They expect that their short-term compromises will yield space to tackle bigger issues later. The LGBT movement is no exception; I was part of visionary gay liberation’s early days, and accepting short-term, winnable goals hasn’t been easy for me.

Nevertheless, a core declaration remained present, whatever the strategic choices: “We’re queer, we’re here, and you’ll have to get over it.”

“You’ll have to get over it.” What has been uncompromising about the LGBT struggle has been the requirement that people let go of a fundamental attitude they inherited that had become part of their identity and dictated their politics. If that approach were taken toward those who resist the peace movement, it would require insisting at every turn on getting over our dependence on violence when threatened. For those who fight for eco-justice, it requires an insistance on getting over our individual dependence on more stuff rather than on quality of life. For middle class people who are caught in the class war, it requires getting over the default loyalty to the 1 percent.

LGBT activists have designed strategic campaigns around many concrete, forward-moving policy changes — but behind those small steps is a collision over fundamental beliefs, like that male-is-better–than-female and light-is-superior-to-dark: We’re colliding with a basic attitude, and you are going to have to get over it!

The intensity of this confrontation may be easy for straights to miss if they’re just looking at photos of happy same-sex couples cutting a wedding cake. But when you talk to the individuals involved, you hear stories of intense confrontation: the parent or admired uncle who turned their back, the people at work who didn’t invite them into the inner circle, the grown-ups at church who visibly worried when they talked with their children.

Social change for sexual minorities is moving rapidly, so older LGBT people have more of these stories of confrontation than younger people. But gay teenagers still kill themselves more frequently than straights. Confrontation with an age-old attitude still makes for trouble.

Because homophobia comes up even when LGBT people demand something modest like equality at work, edginess is built in. Other movements might ask themselves: While we design campaigns for specific goals, how do we also build in an edgy confrontation with an underlying attitude that fuels ongoing resistance?

Turning a problem into an opportunity

Movements are often at their most brilliant when they turn a liability into an asset. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, argued for armed struggle for independence from Britain as a young man, borrowing from the American colonists’ example. His friend Mohandas Gandhi reportedly asked him where he would get sufficient weapons to go up against the world’s mightiest empire. Gandhi then challenged him to turn the liability into a strength: Unarmed revolution would force the British out.

A culture of gay oppression allows many of us to hide in plain sight and pass as straight. That reality has kept many people alive in tight spots, but it is also onerous in all kinds of ways — especially with respect to building a movement. The strategic turn-around has been to use coming out as one of our most powerful tactics.

Even politicians notorious for opposing progress have announced themselves as gay allies because a daughter or son has come out to them; after that, ideology is no longer enough to lock away their hearts. Our enemies, once they know we’re in their families or workplaces or bowling leagues, realize sooner or later that we’re still here and that they might as well get over it. WNV contributor Eileen Flanagan has written about how this dynamic works.

The use of our feared identity as leverage for change raises a question for other groups: What do we on a surface level consider as an obstacle that might become a strength with the right kind of twist? I remember, for example, former Oregon Republican senator Mark Hatfield being quite open about his pacifism while serving on a committee that determined the size of military budgets; his colleagues knew he would be formidable to deal with and, despite the hawkishness that dominated his party, they would have to get over it.

Strategic and tactical breadth

The LGBT movement stands out when it comes to sheer variety of tactics. Gays famously go beyond some activists’ stock repertoire of rallies and marches. Gene Sharp, in his list of 198 methods of nonviolent action, includes social disobedience: “disobedience of social customs or the rules, regulations, or practices” of social institutions. For decades LGBT folks have been staging collective kiss-ins or simply acting as couples publicly, holding hands or canoodling; we’ve been holding forbidden marriages and living as couples openly together.

That’s the defiant side of the two-sided coin that Sharp writes about: “establishing new social patterns.” That one — method #174 if you’re counting — has a distinguished history: Abolitionist Quaker Lucretia Mott was reprimanded in the 1830s by Philadelphia’s mayor for doing what was called “walk-alongs”: white people chatting amiably on the street while strolling with African Americans. LGBT people have found countless ways of pushing the heterosexist cultural envelope, leaving it to the enforcers of homophobia to try to get the envelope back into conformity with straight society.

The LGBT movement has played the insider/outsider game, too; talented people have been lobbying, issuing reports, organizing within political parties, writing legislation and seeking legal redress. As in other movements, there’s often tension between the advocates who choose to work inside structures and those who work outside, but for the most part the insiders have not become hegemonic. That contrasts with the health care reform movement of 2008, in which the insiders tried to suck the air out of the room for anyone who wanted to broaden the movement with a grassroots insurgency fueled by radical energy. In the health care reform case, the insiders’ boring hegemony invited the Tea Party to manifest the drama and provide the edginess that successful movements need.

For LGBT people, the tension sometimes showed up in the annual Pride parades, in which drag and erotic expression could see the light of day right next to Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. These parades, alongside impressively organized national boycotts and statewide fights against anti-gay referenda, show a movement full of diversity and life, humor and art.

Learning from the civil rights movement

It’s still an open question: How much are white activists willing to learn from black activists? U.S. environmentalists in the 1970s learned enough to win their biggest single victory to date — stopping the nuclear power industry’s dream of building hundreds more nuclear reactors — only to retreat to a more tepid, insider style. The largely white antiwar movement learned enough to be a major factor in forcing the United States out of Vietnam, but since then has largely preferred unstrategic “witness” activity to the solid nonviolent direct action campaigns of the civil rights movement.

In 1965 — before the Stonewall riot in New York that is given credit for inaugurating the U.S. LGBT movement — there was a sit-in campaign at a Philadelphia lunch counter that discriminated against gays. The action was shortly followed by picketing a national shrine, Independence Hall. Nonviolent confrontations with the homophobic mass media included “zaps,” in which gays burst into studios where live broadcasts were going on in order to make statements before being dragged away. Nonviolent disruption, usually framed by campaigns, was typical of the movement. One of the clearest examples was the direct action for changes in responding to the HIV crisis, led by ACT UP.

Maybe the life-and-death character of gay oppression made whites within the LGBT movement more open to learning from the civil rights movement. They had in common the requirement of facing harsh violence when they stood up for themselves. Movements coming from a more privileged base, like middle-class environmentalists — or even those in the labor movement who are white working-class — may have believed that making change would be easier for them and that they wouldn’t need the nonviolent lessons of survival that were battle-tested in Alabama and Mississippi.

What’s clear to me, looking back from 2013, is that it pays to face up to the conflicts of fundamental values that underlie our movements’ confrontations with the 1 percent, to transform our weaknesses into strengths, and to develop a breadth of strategy and tactics from direct action to lobbying. The fight for gay equality has made sure to learn from the most recent movement in the United States that had overcome great odds; now, even as the equality movement continues, other movements may benefit by learning from it.

This article originally appeared at

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