Adam Bink

The question of issue prioritization

Filed By Adam Bink | February 17, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Don't Ask Don't Tell, ENDA, LGBT movement, OpenLeft, progressive institutions, progressive movement

I like to have a lot of discussions around political strategy with friends, both politically-oriented folks as well as more detached friends. I was e-mailing with one fairly politically-oriented friend of mine back and forth through the day yesterday about Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and the question of issue prioritization.

He wasn't comfortable with me publishing his response or naming him, but his complaint boiled down to why the LGBT movement is prioritizing repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell - which, in his eyes, affects a tiny fraction of LGBT people in this country - over passage of other issues, notably ENDA, given that employment discrimination against people based on sexual orientation is still legal in 29 states, and legal based on gender identity or expression in 38 states.

I think this question is an important and valid one, and I have a number of thoughts on what's wrong with the question itself, and why it isn't entirely up to "the LGBT movement." More in the extended entry.

  • While it is true that the momentum has shifted from ENDA towards DADT, the work to pass ENDA has not completely stopped. There are a number of organizations out there who are focusing almost entirely on ENDA, as well as activists in online spaces such as this one. Frankly, that is probably a good thing. There shouldn't be one collective hive mind directing everyone to do one thing. There is a diverse movement that is moving on many different issues at once, so calls for "the LGBT movement" to do something, aside from being vague and unproductive, don't mean a lot since "the LGBT movement" never moves in lockstep.
  • That said, there is the question of resources. As I wrote at my home blog,, when raising questions about the timing of the National Equality March and being spread thin, I have never been a "we can walk and chew gum at the same time" - you have to have enough gum to go around for every issue movement, and there isn't enough.

    The answer to that is that sometimes this is out of activists' hands. President Obama mentioned DADT in the State of the Union (and did not mention ENDA). The result was increased chatter on DADT for the next several days on cable news, in op-ed pages, polling firms choosing to poll on the issue and release the results, and people like me writing about all of it. All of that led to John McCain's comments, Colin Powell and Dick Cheney choosing to speak out, and so forth. In other words, the President helped kick start the momentum - momentum we haven't had since 1993, in my view - and now that it's there, it's important to take advantage of it. You could say that activists like me calling for the President to discuss repeal in the speech, and institutions lobbying for the same, helped lead to all of that, but there wasn't any one major decision that "okay, the LGBT movement is going to collectively shift to Don't Ask, Don't Tell! Go!" Thus, another reason why attacks on "the LGBT movement" aren't entirely accurate. President Obama played a major role in starting this momentum, and when it's there, you have to grab it, and channel resources to that effect.

  • The third point I want to mention is on the question of resources and enthusiasm. The question was raised in the same way around how activists working on marriage equality were "sucking the energy out of the room" around ENDA. On this, I turn to the words of Markos at DailyKos - "it's a big internet." If you don't like the direction being taken in terms of strategy or prioritization, you can always do it your own way.

    I also would refer to a piece my colleague at OpenLeft, Chris Bowers, wrote titled "how to start your own netroots organization," in which he describes methods we have used at OpenLeft to build online mobilization efforts. When I was in Dallas for Creating Change, where I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with Bil, one thing I mentioned is that a number of institutions - including OpenLeft - have sprung up in response to disagreement with the strategy or prioritization taken by other institutions. Hell, that's one big reason some of the earliest progressive bloggers started blogging.

    Now OpenLeft even has our own tools like an e-mail list, a fundraising apparatus and action tools for contacting legislators, and with our readers' help, we got a health care public option in merged Senate bill, elected Rep. Donna Edwards in the face of establishment backing for Al Wynn, got every major 2008 Senate Democratic challenger to come out in favor of net neutrality, and other wins, not to mention some close losses like in Maine (coming close in no small part due to the efforts of Projectors!), and changing the debate on issues like no residual forces in Iraq. Folks like Dr. Weiss here at TBP are already taking it into their own hands to work on ENDA. All of that came because a number of us didn't like the way other institutions were acting, so we built our own, and so can you.

The bottom line is that there are entirely valid questions about channeling resources and issue prioritization. Some of it is in activists' hands, and some is not, but there is no collective focus on just one issue, nor is it wise to just ignore all of the momentum on Don't Ask, Don't Tell and insist on focusing on ENDA. Opportunities must be taken as they come.

Cross-posted from my home blog,, where I write about LGBT and progressive movement strategy, and build online mobilization efforts.

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There are other reasons for the fact that DADT repeal is the only LGBT rights iron some believe is hot than a couple of sentences in the SOTU. And those sentences were less of a cause than a result of those other reasons.

1. Though I sometimes believe I could throw a rock out my Castro district window and hit a dozen young gays who actually think that out gays COULD serve in the military BEFORE DADT, opposition to the ban on gays is as old as any other issue in our movement.

In fact, it was the focus of the very first gay protest in the US at New York City's Whitehall Induction Center in September of 1964—five years before Stonewall. Photos and video of organizer Randy Wicker discussing it here:

There were also protests against the ban, three years before Stonewall, in 1966, in Washington DC, New York City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Photos at:

2. I can't recall a single real "poster boy or girl" for LGBT job protection. Lifting the ban has had a series of such nationally and internationally covered spokespersons, from Leonard Matlovich starting 35-years ago through Keith Meinhold, Tracy Thorne-Begland, Jose Zuniga through Grethe Cammermeyer et al., up to Dan Choi and Victor Fehrenbach today. The first named gay person on the cover of a national news magazine was there because of fighting the ban: Leonard. The first made-for-TV movie about a living gay person was also about his fight, and another one was made 17 years later about Grethe's fight, winning 3 Emmys and a Peabody Award.

3. They were/are embraced and made briefly famous by mainstream media not because Gay, Inc., held a gun to MSM's head and said you will ONLY highlight this issue nor just because of their Purple Hearts and rank and personal courage and charisma, but because it was easy, as it must be in all poster persons, to see the injustice to all gay servicemembers in their individual stories, even tho they represented different branches of the military, different races and genders, and different jobs in the military. Why? Because the media, like the public generally, have had a generalized image of "the military" and "soldiers" for hundreds of years. Ask any of them what branch is represented by the famous Iwo Jima Memorial and it is likely only those with some connection to those branches themselves will correctly answer, "Marines and Navy." Raise your hand if you know the branch represented by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier aka Tomb of the Unknowns because there are three.

By contrast, the very nature of job protection for civilians...proposed for millions of people across, what, thousands of different kinds of jobs...defies personalization. The public didn't think of Leonard as an Air Force Race Relations Instructor, Grethe Cammermeyer as a nurse, or now Dan Choi as an infantry officer. But they are used to thinking in terms of civilian professions: doctors, lawyers, waitresses, construction workers, ad infinitum.

So the polling data showing even higher public support for gay job protection than DADT repeal is much more about a generalized concept of fairness than the latter for which they have had faces to associate with violations of such fairness.

Further, as federal civilian employees already have job protection thanks to an Executive Order by Bill Clinton, and a private sector civilian worker such as a software programmer or a teacher can't be tied to "national" issues such a national security or the cost to taxpayers that DADT can, it's hard to even imagine how to successfully make ENDA an issue that the average American feels motivated to engage in its passage.

4. Finally, exactly because of the preexisting emotional identification with, value applied to, the military as evidenced by countless public monuments, national holidays, their presence in innumerable public celebrations and sporting events, etc., creating the change wherein that hallowed [whether or not it SHOULD be] institution says "Gays Are Okay" is the issue that can demonstrably lead to success with ENDA, marriage equality, etc., far more than any of them can the reverse.

Despite my decades of involvement with the issue, were it up to me it would not be DADT or ENDA or marriage equality getting the most attention and proposed action. It would be a war on the terror endured by kids in public schools perceived to be LGBT. But we gain nothing by immobilizing ourselves because the issues we think are most important are not the ones being focused upon at any given time.

Thank you.

DADT is abominable. It is a "compromise" in that it's like any other "compromise" with the GOP: That is that the conservatives get their way and the progressives get to declare victory. It needs to be scrapped. That being said, people who have been put out under DADT have it much better than those of us put out for the same thing prior. Trust me. They at least get to keep their rank and earned benefits. And nobody is suggesting that trans people be included in that repeal, though there is nothing in the UCMJ about being transgendered, while sodomy is expressly forbidden. One of ENDAs main sticking points in transgender inclusion and people like Barney Frank are only too ready to throw us under the bus. I for one, am sick of fighting for LGB rights on the vague promise that they will fight for mine in due course. Promises which almost never materialize. How many states protect the LGB "right" to work and support themselves? How many states protect the Transgendered? Until there is equity for the "T" in that equation, I'll still fight for LGB rights because it's the right thing to do but don't expect me to get all worked up into a lather about how badly they have it when so many refuse to even recognize us as part of the larger community.

Wait a second, Margaretpoa, you mean the "T" in DADT doesn't stand for...

I agree it is a little difficult to get all worked up into a lather about DADT. And then rinse and repeat for the next tiny slice of equality, to carry the analogy along.

And it's not just because of the whole, "even if it is repealed trans people still won't be able to serve". Although that is true, I almost get the feeling that we are being manipulated away from the real battles. Almost like this one is a nice, sexy win-win that certain politicos can hold up and say, "see, all you GLBT people, we DO love you".

And we are all falling for it. We're dropping everything else to get all blogged up about it. Meanwhile, time is slipping away from us.

So let's say DADT gets repealed sometime before the next elections. The window will be too small to build up a fight for anything else, anything truly controversial like actual equal rights bills. Where will we be and what will we have gained with whatever political capital is left? We will have squandered everything away on a media-shiny-sparkly issue while once again letting the real fight for equality slip away for another decade.

I almost get the feeling that the folks running the GLBT political show really don't care so much for anyone below them in the privilege pyramid.

With respect, I must correct the persistent myth that being able to "keep benefits" by virtue of one's discharge "characterization" is a product of DADT when, in fact, the change from typically issuing an Other Than or Dishonorable Discharge to Honorable ones predates it by several years.

The change was first partly influenced by Leonard's high profile case and the military's subsequent desire to appear that they weren't entirely monsters to a growing sympathetic public of which, according to Gallup, 51% support letting gays serve by as early as 1977.

The change formally dates to the results of a DOD study group in 1978 during the Carter Administration, finally ordered by Deputy Secty of Defense W. Graham Claytor, Jr., on January 16, 1981, that, in the absence of "aggravating circumstances" [e.g., being caught having sex on base] gays should receive Honorable discharges. [Unfortunately, he was also the author of the notorious "123 Words" which both eliminated the then-existing if nebulous possible exceptions to discharge and was the basis for much of the language of DADT.]

There was a great deal of resistance from military commanders in 1981 to the softened discharge characterization policy and some nefarious commanders still try to get servicemembers to accept a General ["under honorable conditions"] discharge which, while it comes with many other benefits, disqualifies one from educational ["G.I. Bill"] benefits assuming one has served the minimum number of years required of everyone.

Sorry, but I don't buy this argument for even a microsecond, not after thirty years of waiting for Congress to find its spine on ENDA, which was around long before DADT was even in the picture.

This is just more Dem excuse-making for politicians who don't have the will or the courage to truly lead this nation.

Dems pander to the rich and powerful, and DADT is the Queer elite's cause of the moment. That's all this is about, money and votes. That's all it's ever about for these people.

Wake up, Adam. Eventually, you too will realize these people are playing you for a chump and really have no intention of standing up for any of us if it might cost the Democratic Party even the slightest amount of political capital or effort.

Brilliant insight, so what's your plan?

My plan? I've been doing what I do, calling them out for it in the media for years.

The trick here is that we can no longer take no for an answer. If the Dems don't stand up for us and pass these bills, they should get no support from us or our community. No money, no endorsements, no volunteers. Nothing until we get what we want and need from these people.

If it costs the Dems an election or two, so much the better. The only way we're going to make our point with these people is to by costing them money and votes, and it's past time we started doing exactly that.

The politicians are playing hardball. If we ever want to see real equality in our lifetimes we'd better start doing the same.

I actually mean your plan to pass legislation this year. A lot of your commenting has focused on how Democrats suck and they don't care, etc. etc. ad hominem. There is a very real chance to enact repeal this year. So, rather than forecasting early defeat and proclaiming Democrats suck, what's your plan to enact pro-LGBT legislation this year, and how is it different from what I'm talking about?

Gather up enough bits-n-pieces of incremental, specific legislation like this one and you will have:

ENDA without the key generic protections. You will have a big pile of very specific protections that only make a difference to a very small number of people.

Now, please consider this:

DADT is to ENDA as ENDA is to the Civil Rights Act.

The way I see it, our job is pretty clear. Focus all of our efforts on the one piece of legislation that is a superset of everything else. Everything else is a bright shiny object, a distraction to keep us from full equality. But don't let the established "professionals" do it for us. They'll see the value of a multi-year fight to their coffers and careers and never get the job done. This is our fight and we need to take ownership of it. All of us.

Leonard is right, and I can tell you that the issue has been around as long as another comment says. I personally was kicked out, as, rather than for an act, a homosexual, in late 1956 and participated in the 1966 national effort to educate (we called it The Committee To Fight Exclusion of Homosexuals From the Armed Forces)along with Harry Hay and John Burnside, (we were the Los Angeles effort), Bonnie and Vern Bullough, Don Slater, Melvin Cain, Jim Schneider, et al, and our Motorcade was written up by Peter Bart in the New York Times. And we covered it in Tangents Magazine in the May 1966 issue.

I sometimes see the lgbt movement as wearing blinders. Failing to understand the need to lift dadt not only for the lgb but the T I believe is a prime example. I believe many activists are familiar with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's a "Letter from Birmingham jail" and the Article that lead to it "A Call for Unity".It is very easy to gain incite only from Dr.Kings piece but fail to see the wisdom in a "Call for Unity".To miss all that occured before Dr.King and was going on around Dr.King at the time.To miss that African Americans were allowed to serve in the military,before civilian and military "desegration",before "affirmative" action, and before "interacial marriage".To take a look at the other sides like Elijah Mohamed and Malcolm X. To look for and identify the groundwork that was obviously layed before and during Dr. King's time that allowed for his success.To have a vision for the future and know that for now you may have to wait for all that you need and want, but also that you must take little strategic well planned steps so that in the future wait turns into now is the time.The military is one of those strategic little steps we must take knowing that this great country may not be what we all know that it can be but is willing to and fully capable of becoming it given the right prodding and patience.

No coordinated effort from gay rights activists on DADT? You must not have been getting the emails I was getting two weeks ago about the coordinated media blitz that was being planned after the hearings. You can't fault the DADT folks for that - they coordinated it better than the ENDA folks did after the ENDA hearings. Then again, the further to the right a position is the more likely it is to have message coordination and money behind it. (I'm not against DADT repeal, of course, but "Support the gay troops" is further to the right than "Help the gay working class earn a living." I don't see Cheney saying much about ENDA....)

While it's fun and easy to say "If you want your issue worked on, organize yourself!" the truth is that there are reasons some issues get worked on and some reasons others don't, and they don't all come down to Obama's comments at the SOTU.

Part of it is money, part of it has to do with the fact that people who decide how LGBT movement money is spent rarely have experience anymore with employment discrimination, and another part of it is sexiness. It's a lot more fun to say you want to play soldier, to say that the gov't shouldn't formally discriminate against LGB soldiers (DADT repeal will not end homophobia or discrimination in the military), because you get to put a metaphorical yellow ribbon on your metaphorical SUV, than it is to say that we can start a fun few decades of lawsuits directed at employers with the hopes of showing them that homophobia doesn't pay. Woopie.

And when it comes to straight people, who've been writing column after column about gays in the military as you pointed out, it's easy to see the difference. They get to show their moral superiority over homophobes while not actually having to know all that much about the law or put anything of their own on the line (since most don't serve in the military either, so there's no risk for them). Plus the jokes that surround DADT are better than the ones they could make about ENDA.

Anyway, I'm glad you feel that there's "momentum" on DADT, but I don't really see why. Congress has said in about 14 different ways that it's not going to happen this year. The DoD says they have to study it for a year. Even Nathaniel Frank took to the HuffPo yesterday to say that DADT is about to die in Congress. It isn't controversial, but there doesn't seem to be much reason to believe that DADT repeal will happen this year. But we'll see - perhaps the Dems will get more courage as we approach the election.

Where did I say there was "no coordinated effort from gay rights activists on DADT"? I said there was no one hive mind directing every LGBT resource towards one issue fight. Two different things.

I don't think we disagree that there are barriers to activism on issues, like funding streams. But unfortunately, lots of my friends in both LGBT and broader progressive circles hold the view that all the power is centered in large, well-funded institutions, and there's nothing we tiny people can do about it but yell at those large institutions. It isn't so. Several successful models- MoveOn, PCCC, Blue America, AMERICABlog and OpenLeft, to name a few- have proven successful and electing candidates, winning both electoral and legislative issue fights, building an echo chamber, and changing terms of the debate. None of these are as well-funded and top-down as larger institutions- support and even direction in many cases comes from polling among supporters- and at least in OpenLeft's case, are funded almost entirely with small contributions. It is more possible than you realize, Alex.

On the optics of DADT, I think it's important to make a distinction between momentum and legislative possibility. Just because we still have a lot of work to do, and it's in trouble, does not mean there is no momentum. And yes, it appears we disagree that the effort is dead- not there yet.

"'Support the gay troops' is further to the right than 'Help the gay working class earn a living'."???

Of course, you're entitled to that opinion.

"Gay troops" aren't "working class"???

"I don't see Cheney saying much about ENDA"????

Perhaps that's because no one's asking him about ENDA.