A Political Coming-of-Age for the LGBT Rights Movement

By |2016-06-11T09:00:00-04:00June 11th, 2016|News|

By Wendy Howell


In my travels about the country on the campaign trail, I’ve noticed something striking: in most places, there has been a yawning divide between political operatives who happen to be gay and gay rights advocates who happen to be political. Over the years, I’ve seen few people who fit into both worlds, and little communication between them – save in places where the community is very well established and organized, such as New York and California.

This phenomenon is not new, nor is it unique to the LGBT community. It’s probably best summed up as “movement politics” versus “insider politics”. But these two concepts need not be separate; in fact, in the most effective, well-oiled political and issue organizations, the two are historically inseparable. Think of the labor movement or the NRA and you’ll have a pretty clear picture. Or look at the civil rights movement, if you prefer: there is, of course, a reason that the movement focused on registering voters and passing the Voting Rights Act.

Marrying the two has always been a balancing act because it involves walking the line between alienating the base and alienating the center. However, those who master the act are the ones who go the farthest the fastest.

Relatively speaking, the LGBT rights movement is young. It has been struggling to achieve such a balance for years, making progress without quite getting there. I know that’s why many of my fellow campaigners-who-happen-to-be-gay have stayed away from the LGBT rights movement. Political activists often speak a wholly different language than their movement counterparts. And I can tell you from personal experience that it is incredibly frustrating to hear respected political compatriots assess the relative strength or weakness of the LGBT community, and then have to agree with them that the LGBT community in many places does not have enough infrastructure or political education to be a major force in state and local elections – or, therefore, in moving a legislative agenda.

Fortunately, things are changing as these so-called “marriage amendments” have been foisted upon us. As a movement, we have been forced to grow up and develop more political sophistication quickly, or risk losing rights like domestic partner benefits that we had to struggle for years to get in the first place. In 2004, only two out of thirteen anti-amendment campaigns were able to hold the ‘yes’ side to under 60% of the vote (Oregon & Michigan). In the two years since, we appear to have moved light years ahead. This week, four out of seven losing campaigns were able to hold proponents to under 60% (Colorado, South Dakota, Virginia & Wisconsin), and, of course, we saw our first outright victory in Arizona. Each of these campaigns represents a significant achievement, and each is an indicator of how quickly LGBT rights advocates have been able to grow and learn in a time of crisis.

It’s also telling that more and more gay political veterans are going to the movement side. The most prominent is Joe Solmonese, the Director of the Human Rights Campaign, who previously was head of EMILY’s List, the largest and most influential progressive political action committee in the country. But there are many more who are coming back to work on these initiatives and in so doing help to build real political knowledge and infrastructure in the community. The right wing, for all their ideological zeal and political calculation, has unwittingly touched off an amazing positive cycle. As more and more LGBT & allied political veterans become involved in the LGBT rights movement through these campaigns and other avenues, the movement becomes more welcoming for others who may want to join them, and movement activists gain the skills and experience to be more effective in political spheres.

That’s exactly why I signed on as the Campaign Manager as the Coalition for a Fair Michigan in 2004. We worked hard to bring political animals and movement activists together. In doing so, we hoped to: 1) help develop a model to get a majority of people to vote ‘no’ on such an initiative, and 2) build the political sophistication and power of the state’s LGBT community, which had relatively little political infrastructure to start with.

To us, the ultimate loss in Michigan was disappointing, but not a shock. We knew that we were a long shot, as we hadn’t been able to raise anywhere near as much money as we had originally hoped. In the end, what really mattered is that we did accomplish both of our goals. Many of the talking points used by similar campaigns in 2006 could have been lifted directly from Michigan’s campaign materials. And perhaps even more importantly, the infrastructure developed during the 2004 campaign has transformed Michigan’s LGBT community into a recognized and organized political force, enabling them to play a major role in Governor Granholm’s and Senator Stabenow’s re-election efforts this year, and finally gaining them a full seat at the policymaking table.

The future of these amendments is yet to be written. It is now unmistakably clear that their political effectiveness has waned significantly, so perhaps we can hold out hope that the right will move on to some other wedge issue in the future. But should we face another spate of anti-gay amendments in 2008, it’s also clear that the LGBT community and its allies – movement & political activists alike – will be ready and able to respond.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.