Adam Polaski

A Panel's Attempt at a Progressive LGBT Discussion

Filed By Adam Polaski | July 07, 2011 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Campus Progress, Kenyon Farrow, Mara Keisling, marriage equality, National Center for Transgender Equality, New York, priorities, trans, Trina Olson

campus-progress.jpegYesterday, Campus Progress, the student-focused subsidiary of the Center for American Progress, hosted its annual national conference in Washington, D.C. While not wholly based in LGBT issues - Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! and Bill Clinton served as plenary speakers for the 1,300 young activists who attended - the conference did feature several opportunities to specifically address LGBT issues.

One panel - "The State of LGBTQ Movements," included Mara Keisling of the National Center for Transgender Equality, Trina Olson of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, and Kenyon Farrow, who has worked with Queers for Economic Justice. The theme of the panel, essentially, was that just being LGBTQ doesn't make you a progressive.

The panelists spoke about the massive amount of LGBT money being poured into the marriage battle. The amount of priority marriage receives, Keisling and Farrow argued, overshadows - and, at times, cripples - other worthy LGBT causes, like anti-discrimination laws for trans people, LGBT youth homelessness, HIV/AIDS advocacy, the aging population, and local resource centers.

"It's so disproportionate," Keisling said. "Our queer-organizing local places are hurting for money, and we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on getting marriage. Now, we need to get marriage. We need to eliminate all these bad marriage laws. But there's no perspective. We've convinced ourselves, and the government, and the media that marriage is our highest priority. Therefore, it's our highest priority."

Keisling and Farrow said they feared that as soon as marriage equality looks like a sure thing, donations to LGBT groups will plummet and the movement will suffer greatly. One approach to nipping that collapse in the bud, Keisling said, is refocusing our efforts now and strategically looking at long-term goals for the movement. Combatting racism and economic imbalances in the country - with specific emphasis on trans people and queer people of color, is central to the fight for equality.

"We don't have a social justice framework right now," Keisling said. "Part of that is because we have civil rights framework in the United States instead of a human rights framework. But part of it is because we just want ours. If you are not doing racial justice work, you are not doing enough queer work."

Olson sought to galvanize support for grassroots activism among the 70 young people who attended the panel. She explained that being there, on the ground, is one of the best ways of effecting change.

"It's really important to realize that for LGBT people, there really is an opposition. There are people who get up in the morning, put their pants on, and go to conferences to fight with us," Olson said. "They're real people. So the same people who are icked out by us - and I really believe the reason that the marriage fight has continued to percolate and sparkle for the Republicans - is because this is about homophobia and transphobia. We're talking directly to voters. And they're not hateful. They know gay people - in their families, in their friend bases. Logic has nothing to do with any of these arguments anymore."

After the panel, which ran for an hour, most of the young LGBT activists migrated to the LGBT-specific breakout discussions.

The first three topics we discussed in my "caucus," as the discussions were labeled, were the New York marriage equality victory, what's next for California and marriage equality, and hope for a federal marriage equality amendment.

The progressive LGBT ideas discussed an hour before the "caucus," it appeared, had fallen on the deaf ears of the young LGBT progressives.


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Jay Kallio | July 7, 2011 4:56 PM

Actually, it sounds like the presenters were grossly out of touch with the political savvy and heart felt enthusiasm of the young LGBT activists, and did not address the real needs of their lives and futures. Perhaps they better start to listen to what the youth need and want.

I've argued fiercely that fighting to rectify the institutionalized injustice of marriage rights is a huge step to ease the lives of the poor, like myself, who need the 1,300 additional benefits that civil marriage confers on opposite sex couples. My life partner died because we could not marry and obtain health insurance for her, because of the astronomical costs of ongoing medical care that rendered us destitute, and unable to afford the care she needed.

Talking about the completely unrealistic goals sounds very irrelevant to the politically savvy who know there is no hope of winning more entitlements, or rights that are not yet ripe for the picking. I understand perfectly why they were not interested in talking about pie in the sky, when we have the chance to make some real inroads in rectifying injustice and actually helping people's lives. I keep arguing, it is the poor and marginalized who desperately need the benefits of marriage, not the rich, and privileged. Sounds like the activist presenters are the ones who have "deaf ears". Wake up, heads of organizations, people want action and advocacy that is relevant to our lives, not drivel about utopian goals that are unrealistic and doomed to lose.

Right now what little safety net people have is being slashed. Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are being cut, and there is little hope of saving what little we do have. No one is winning more money except defense contractors and their ilk. No amount of political activism is going to change the reality that it is far cheaper to do business with cheap labor in India and China, and the poor there are living better because of that, while we here in the US are becoming poorer. Our jobs migrate over to enrich their lives. It the the worldwide leveling effect of free trade. There is no way to fight it because the corporations making the profits run our government. More here will suffer and die young, and others who have suffered that for generations will have a chance. Meanwhile the corporations that run America will make out like bandits, and no, they are not into sharing. Those are facts.

The Left (and I have been a lifelong member, philosophically farther to the left than most) has long made the huge mistake of ugly self righteous put downs of the politically realistic, who are trying to actually build an honest movement that focuses on really helping the poor and disadvantaged, not courting a fantasyland of goals that are futile. It alienates the very people who need help the most, and once helped, would have a good deal more trust in Left philosophy. Leave us poor behind to die and there is no hope we will support you, "leaders"! Unrealistic goals just waste our energy and enthusiasm, and we won't go along with that.

We don't want to lose, over and over again, and that is what happens when you waste the opportunities for success that are realistic. Losing over and over destroys movements. Success breeds more success, and creates a bandwagon of support, so that real change can happen. We aren't going to waste this moment. We aren't going to let debbie downer naysayers tell us that once marriage is won the movement will be curtailed. Show us we can win and we will want it all. Offer something more substantial than fairy tales, and quit putting down those who do. Marriage Equality is a winning campaign, and offers hope, you don't.

And frankly, if you don't care about my life, or the death of my partner, then I am not going to help you with what is important to you, either.

You really want to see change? Try fighting for campaign finance reform, and publicly financed election campaigns. It's all pretty hopeless until then. Our government is completely bought, and everyone knows it. Face reality, dig in your heels and start fighting for realistic goals. Otherwise you will remain ineffectual, and no one will listen.

FrankInSFO | July 8, 2011 6:30 AM

Wow, Jay, I couldn't have said it any better! Thank you for providing a much-needed perspective and wake-up call to these so-called activists with tunnel vision.

Thanks, Adam, for this very interesting report on the State of the LGBTQ Movements panel. Wish I had been there to hear the whole thing! While I agree with Jay and Frank that marriage equality is a deeply compelling issue, primarily due to the marriage-saturated culture in which we live, I also know from our experience in Massachusetts that our June 14, 2007 vanquishment of the (we hope) last iteration of the right-wing driven anti-marriage equality amendments has not been automatically followed by similar levels of energy and support for other issues, including our current effort to amend Massachusetts anti-discrimination and hate crimes laws to include gender identity and expression. What happened in the first state to win marriage equality? MassEquality, our marriage-only statewide organization, needed to re-write its own mission statement to include a full action agenda for legal equality for all. The re-direction of the organization's energy and resources has had excellent results...the organization is thriving and succeeding in multiple ways to meet our new mission and we are closer than ever to passing the Trans Equality Bill. At the same time, our base membership has decreased from its high highs of the marriage fight. Fundraising is also more challenging. The facts on the ground are these: major national donors that were keenly interested in supporting our work to protect and defend marriage equality in Massachusetts moved on to other states where the marriage fight is vigorous. No surprise since a marriage-saturated culture makes for a sharp interest in that issue. I believe as you do, Jay, that the securing of marriage equality does open doors and create space for success on other issues and it can build a much deeper and broader movement if folks stay in the game. But the transition from successful marriage campaigns, the likes of which put the issue to bed, so to speak, is not easy or simple. At MassEquality, we believe that all LGBTQ people in Massachusetts need, deserve, and will have the best qualities of life from cradle to grave and that none of us, not a single one of us, will live lives diminished by failures of government to protect us or failures of communities to accept us. We're getting there. Marriage equality certainly helped us sharpen our skills, build our relationships with political leaders and community-based organizations, and inspired us to reach more benchmarks towards full political, social and cultural participation for all LGBTQ people. And there is no doubt that we work towards goals inclusive of, but larger than, marriage rights with fewer resources. The struggles for marriage equalty will continue for some time, barring the magic bullet of a US Supreme Court decision that settles the question in support of our rights to marry. Even after that important day, or a multitude of days like we had on June 14, 2007 in my home state, there will still be much work to be done. Full disclosures: I am the Chair of the Board of the MassEquality Education Fund, the c3 entity of MassEquality; worked day and night on the campaign to protect and defend marriage equality in Massachusetts; and, as the longest-serving board member at MassEquality, am fully committed to our expanded vision, following the (we hope) permanent and sustainable victory re: marriage equality.

I was at that conference, too. Mara Keisling and Kenyon Farrow were fabulous. And then, yeah, the breakout groups. The first two topics at mine were, "omg new york marriage equality" (gag) and "omg i met dan savage once" (double gag).

So, sigh.