National Commentary

Anything But Straight: Winds of Change

Few people at the three Proposition 8 protest rallies I attended – two in New York and one in Chicago – were familiar.

The ones I recognized were the hardcore advocates and tireless workhorses who have long carried the GLBT movement. However, these semi-spontaneous rallies had a different flavor. There was an injection of raw energy and an infusion of new inspiration that has eluded our movement for more than a decade. I peered into the great expanse and saw a wide-eyed sea of fresh new faces – neophytes who needed help to complete the old chant, Hey, hey, Ho Ho…(Homophobia’s got to go).

There has been a paradigm shift in the movement following marriage defeats in California, Florida and Arizona – as well as an anti-gay adoption measure passing in Arkansas. From seemingly out of nowhere, people who have sat on the sidelines are now making headlines at rallies across America.

The leaders of what is being billed as Stonewall 2.0 are not coming from large, established organizations, but Internet savvy activists who can use a mouse to mobilize the masses. While Internet activism is nothing new, the fact that this huge outpouring of organic outrage is not being channeled through official organizational channels has enormous implications.

Up until two weeks ago, major GLBT groups instructed people to write a check and then essentially instructed donors to check their activism at the door. Sometimes, one was asked to take their commitment a step further by sending e-mail or attending a dinner. I think this week’s protests mark the end of the Passive Era of gay politics. A sign at protests, “No More Mr. Nice Gay”, highlighted this monumental change.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the Passive Era served its purpose. By the mid 1990’s exhaustion had beset the movement. Many leading activists had either died from AIDS or were worn out from fighting the culture wars. People felt deflated by the early Clinton years and dispirited after Newt Gingrich wrested control of Congress. Most of the tangible results during this period occurred in the courts, which produced historic victories, but relegated most GLBT people to cheering bystanders.

At this moment of malaise, technology afforded people the ability to engage in activism without leaving the house. While these notable advances have greatly aided the GLBT movement, they also allowed many people to be anesthetized by the Internet. It soon became a movement of elite movers and shakers, with little room for direct action.

The upside to the Passive Era was that aspiring gay insiders actually did sometimes get inside the halls of power and have a voice in the political process. Our organizations became more professional, better organized and institutionalized, which meant that they were not always on the brink of bankruptcy and had the ability to plan for the future.

But, make no mistake – we are not the same movement we were prior to Nov. 4. Having our marriage rights stripped away by a slim majority in California was a transformational experience for many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals. I have lost count of those who have approached me to say that they never thought they were the political type – until now. These people will bring new ideas, untapped energy and significantly strengthen our work.

It is still unclear how this influx of fiery emotion will specifically change the movement. But, I will make the bold prediction that those organizations that do not adjust to this new reality will wither and die. Newer, sleeker models will replace those that remain stodgy and continue to fight by fax, without incorporating the heat on the street. The new activism is a hybrid of direct action and digital activism. It is evolving, mutating and morphing by the day. And, whichever groups figure out how to be a conduit for this anger – and effectively turn it into a force – will lead the movement in the coming years.

This is a rare moment where the pain of Proposition 8 meets the possibility represented by Barack Obama. A great many people can now see that passion can lead to real progress – and they demand a role in creating change.

Lastly, the rules of the Mormon, Catholic and Evangelical churches are now enshrined into civil law. We are all unofficial members of these religious institutions and captive to their narrow, sectarian rules. They have effectively hijacked the state and now govern our personal relationships and private lives – whether we like it or not. I think people are finally awakened to this existential threat and willing to fight back.

On Nov. 8, I stood in freezing weather with hundreds of Chicagoans. Last week in Washington, 900 protesters braved a tornado watch to rally in front of the Capitol. Far from a victory, anti-gay forces unleashed a ferocious storm with powerful winds of change that will only end with the sound of wedding bells.