by Paula Martinac
On The Move
The week before George W. Bush’s second inauguration, 22 national gay-rights organizations issued a unity statement, putting forth in clear and almost stirring prose their continuing commitment to working for a wide range of issues to achieve full equality for LGBT people. One of the things that struck me about the joint statement was its dual definition of “movement” – first, as “an organized effort to promote or attain an end,” but also as simply “the act of moving.” (You can read the full text at http://www.lambdalegal.org and the websites of other national groups.)
That second definition is profound, but it’s one we often forget. Indeed, it can be hard for individual gay people – especially those living in hostile states – to see that we’re in “the act of moving” toward the attainment of civil rights. Many of us are, in fact, facing brutal attacks from some of the same people who helped Bush win four more years in office. The joint statement from our national leaders, then, can help us stop and remember that even though the progress of civil rights is maddeningly erratic, it is still progress.
What’s confusing, I think, is that the word “movement” implies going forward in a linear fashion, like when you get in your car to go from point A to point B. But when you think about it, driving is often not that direct. You may start off making great time, but then there might be traffic, an accident, or bad weather; you might get a flat; or maybe you hit a detour for roadwork, which sends you off in another direction or even in a circle. Ultimately, you get to point B, but it took a lot longer than you hoped.
Recent events in gay politics look a lot like that driving metaphor. In the space of 11 short months in 2003 and 2004, we saw two amazing triumphs: the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the remaining state sodomy laws, and same-sex couples began legally marrying in Massachusetts. But not long after, 4,000 lesbian and gay couples in California had their legal marriages annulled by the state. And in a political slam dunk, 11 state anti-gay-marriage amendments passed in a single day. As 2005 dawned, however, we saw victory again: Illinois joined the list of states with antidiscrimination laws.
This is “movement”? Bumpy times like these could really throw our community off-balance if we didn’t keep the bigger picture in view – that we are in the business of fighting for nothing less than equality, like so many other groups (blacks, women) before us have been doing for decades, even centuries. And unfair as it may seem, the road to equality isn’t smooth; neither blacks nor women are anywhere nearing the completion of their individual struggles for full rights.
Consider a little gay history. The fight against sodomy laws, for example, was a long struggle. We all know about Michael Hardwick’s challenge to Georgia’s law in the early 1980s, and the resulting antigay Supreme Court decision in 1986. But by the time the high court heard Bowers v. Hardwick, legal analysts had already been taking aim at state sodomy laws for decades, witnessing the first victory over this heinous legislation in Illinois in 1961. And it took another agonizing eight years for a second state, Connecticut, to follow suit.
In addition, most of us are familiar with the marriage-equality movement that burst into public consciousness in Hawaii in the early 90s and brought us civil unions in Vermont and ultimately the marriage victory in Massachusetts. But the first same-sex couple to apply for a state marriage license did so in Minnesota back in 1970, when a lot of people in our community weren’t even born and no anti-gay-marriage laws existed. That couple is still in the news, too: earlier this month, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell sued to have their marriage, which was performed by a Methodist minister in the Twin Cities, recognized by the Internal Revenue Service. (Their case, by the way, was thrown out.)
History also teaches us that “movement” doesn’t mean that everyone walks together in lockstep. Both the black and feminist movements witnessed considerable infighting over issues and tactics. And the gay movement is no different – within a day of the release of the “unity” statement, some LGBT activists rushed to criticize the major gay organizations for putting marriage equality so far down on its lists of goals, which they said could be viewed as retreating from the issue under pressure from the far right. One Illinois activist dismissed the national gay groups as basically inconsequential and “out of touch.”
But while we’re squabbling among ourselves, let’s remember that “movement” may involve taking a step forward, a couple back, and another off to the side before we are able to go forward again.