Queer politics

Which way to liberation? Middle-class lobbyists and grassroots lefties debate.

AS WE MOVE into the 21st century and the modern Gay Movement sails into its fourth decade of existence, one has to wonder if we will ever get to where gay foremothers and fathers were going: Gay Liberation.

Since the beginning, tension has existed between left-leaning intellectuals who fought for social justice and middle-class gays who saw the movement in terms of civil rights and government's responsiveness to the needs of the community. Two groups currently lead the Movement and embody this split: the grassroots, leftie National Lesbian and Gay Task Force (NGLTF) and the middle-class lobbyist PAC Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Both fight the good fight and have worked in concert and conflict over the years, and, regardless of difference, each has demonstrated a dedication under the best and worst circumstances. But is either of these organizations choosing a path that leads to liberation?

Contrary to conservative opinion, gay people can't agree on an agenda, much less a vision. With so many issues to choose from and such a diverse community, it's impossible to prioritize. The Gay Movement is less a marching band than an orchestra in which each musician plays a slightly different version of the same song. From an activist point of view, it is a series of steps forward and small victories hampered by the occasional backlash or rebuff. It is both a reaction to current events and an attempt to correct historical wrongs. But for most gay people, the Gay Movement is neither actual nor symbolic, rather a sense that things are getting better and in the end will all work out.

Large-scale social and political change is not done lightly. It requires people, money, and an infrastructure to make it all happen. It's this role that the HRC and the NGLTF aspire to play.

"The Human Rights Campaign, the largest national lesbian and gay political organization, envisions an America where lesbian and gay people are ensured of their basic equal rights and can be open, honest, and safe at home, at work, and in the community," say HRC promotional materials. The HRC is the only political action committee (PAC) for gays and lesbians, and while their membership is huge by queer standards (approximately 300,000), it pales in comparison to conservative groups whose members often number in the millions.

"HRC is active and involved with every part of the country," says David Smith, HRC communications coordinator. "We're working on a number of different projects on a number of different levels. Our highest priority is electing a fair-minded Congress and Al Gore."

To this end, the HRC raises money to support candidates friendly to gay and lesbian issues. They also employ a dozen Washington-based lobbyists who work with Congress on a myriad of issues ranging from AIDS policy and lesbian health to hate crimes and employment discrimination.

Recently, former Seattle City Council Member and HRC Board Member Tina Podlodowski has led the effort to establish a chapter of the HRC in Seattle.

"The HRC has always had a strong membership presence in Washington state, approximately 3,000 members," said Podlodowski, who is excited about the resurgence of local interest. Approximately 30 gays and lesbians, many of whom are part of the HRC Federal Club, a select group of donors who pledge at least 100 dollars a month, have formed a Seattle steering committee. They are working on having a presence at Seattle's Gay Pride event, bringing Candice Gingrich, Newt's queer sister, to town, and planning a series of events including one for special donors with Ellen DeGeneres.

Podlodowski joined the HRC after many years of working with the NGLTF, where she was also on the board. "The Task Force is a great organization," said Podlodowski, "but the work I wanted to do was more electoral and around family issues. There is not as much of a federal focus for the Task Force."

"The NGLTF is the national organization that gets involved in local fights," said Urvashi Vaid, director of the NGLTF Policy Institute. "We're also the national organization that's thinking long-term about what it takes to win a progressive agenda."

While the HRC works to elect gay-friendly politicians to the federal government and lobbies to effect policy, the NGLTF works with local activists to build a grassroots-based gay movement in each of the 50 states. The HRC believes that to achieve their goals, it needs to be a corporate-style lobbying group that works on a bipartisan basis to accomplish legislative goals. The NGLTF, on the other hand, sees success in the fostering of 50 highly linked state movements that work with other marginalized groups. "It's a different style of getting things accomplished," says Podlodowski.

BUT THE DIFFERENCES are greater than that; the NGLTF and the HRC are playing two very different games. When it began in 1973, the NGLTF was largely made up of activists and intellectuals who worked toward long-term goals of social acceptance and Gay Liberation. Though the organization has become more directed in its issues, its commitment to progressive values and broad-based social justice remains strong. At the same time, such a commitment has diminished the NGLTF's popularity with middle-class gay Americans who are unwilling to have their issues tied to other marginalized communities.

In contrast, in order to be successful the HRC must demonstrate that gay and lesbian people are key constituents whose issues are important to elected officials. As a PAC, the HRC relies a great deal on their donors for direction. This results in the HRC being more active on those things that are important to middle-class gay Americans: family, workplace benefits, adoption, and military service. Meanwhile, the HRC continues to struggle internally with issues pertinent to gays and lesbians of color, poor folks, and transgender people.

Both of these organizations do important work. There's nothing wrong per se with a lobbying organization for white middle-class gay Americans or a multi-issue social justice group. All this work will lead toward a better life for gays and lesbians. They are political strategies for political gain.

But it's false to believe that civil rights are equivalent to liberation. Government policy and legislative acts will never change how someone feels about his gay neighbor. They can discourage actions based on those feelings by making them illegal or financially unrewarding, but one cannot confuse equality in the eyes of the law with acceptance in the hearts of the people.

In the '90s, the HRC has moved away from being a grassroots organization, but by embracing traditional American politics, it has merely re-created for gay people a system that isn't working for most Americans. Nobody wants to feel that their members of congress will only listen to them if they've made a large enough donation. And though the NGLTF may be alienating middle-class gay people, by investing in collaboration, community, and a grassroots network, they will in the end be in a better position to have an impact on the lives of gays and lesbians.

After all, what the gay community needs in the New Decade is the same thing it needed in the '70s: to come out of the closet; to be accepted by our families, neighbors, and coworkers; to create romantic and familial relationships that are respected by society; to do with our bodies what we choose without interference; and to feel a connection to other gay and lesbian people.

This is not work that can be done in Washington or by lobbyists. Liberation will not happen by way of Supreme Court ruling or presidential decree. It will happen when gays and lesbians reach out to families and neighbors, and they reach back.

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