Last week, I attended the Net Roots conference in Las Vegas. This is a yearly event where bloggers and grassroots activists meet to network and discuss strategy for advancing progressive issues. Net Roots began with fireworks, as the gay organization Get Equal staged a major protest on the Las Vegas strip that stopped traffic.
The demonstrators were demanding that hometown Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit firing people based on their sexual orientation. A total of twenty activists endured 106-degree heat to unfurl a large banner over a pedestrian walkway. Activists Robin McGehee and Lt. Dan Choi were among 7 people arrested during the protest.
Some, who believe Reid should not be pressured during a tough reelection race against loopy Tea Bagger Sharron Angle, questioned Get Equal’s action. However, I support their advocacy and believe it brought much needed attention to a bill that seems to be languishing in the Senate. The pressure and media exposure created by Choi and Get Equal is crucial for several reasons.
First, LGBT issues should not be considered radioactive. Politicians ought to be held accountable for their promises and proudly support equal rights at all times. With the American people overwhelmingly in support of ENDA, there is no excuse for timidity. The time to end discrimination in the workplace is today.
Second, there will always be tough political battles and there seems to never be a convenient time for elected officials to take a stand. The LGBT community was told to wait its turn when Obama was elected because there were complicated issues – such as the economy and two wars. But now, defenders of the status quo still say we should hold off to avoid causing waves during the contentious midterm elections.
If the Republicans win over one or both houses of Congress we will surely be told that nothing can be done because the Republicans are in charge. If the Democrats win, we might be asked to take one for the team because President Obama has a difficult reelection campaign in the near future. And if Obama wins, we may be informed that he does not have the power to act because he is a lame duck president?
There will always be excuses why apprehensive leaders, who gladly take LGBT money and votes, should not act. Meanwhile, as the politicians dither and justify inaction, more gay people are fired from jobs every day. And, an even larger number of workers remain closeted, fearful of losing their careers and facing financial ruin in this dreadful economy.
Third, there are those who claim that groups such as Get Equal should not be targeting “friends” of the LGBT community. I happen to agree with this logic, but believe one is only a true friend in the House or Senate if they are taking bold action to end discrimination. When Harry Reid moves ENDA through the Senate he will be amazed that protesters are no longer causing traffic jams in Las Vegas.
Fourth, some critics say that we should take a go-slow approach and only end one form of state-sanctioned bigotry at a time. This crowd says, we should not push for ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and ENDA in the same year.
This is nonsense and the notion of incremental action on LGBT issues is absurd. It is just as wrong to fire a person in the military, as it is to end a person’s career in the civilian workforce because he or she is gay. If a politician states anti-gay discrimination is morally repugnant, it is his or her obligation to seek out and end all forms of official bigotry at once.
Indeed, contrary to conventional beltway wisdom, eliminating anti-gay discrimination on the same day, through one bill, would be simpler than the current plan of having several protracted fights. It makes sense that once a single vote on a comprehensive LGBT rights bill is taken – the battle would be over with. The American people would see they have nothing to fear and life would move on. No one in Washington has been able to rationally explain how having Congress take one difficult vote on gay rights is more challenging politically than taking multiple tough votes. Only in DC is 10 bloody fights considered “easier” than one.
Finally, critics of Get Equal and Dan Choi, who also confronted Reid on stage in Las Vegas, like to portray these advocates as publicity seekers. However, I can’t understand how effectively using the national media to draw attention to broken promises is bad for the LGBT movement. These activists should be universally applauded for not allowing ENDA or Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell to suffer quiet deaths on Capitol Hill. The more noise they make, the more likely these bills will become law.
Choi and McGehee headline the best young crop of activists the movement has seen. They are smart, engaging, brave, media savvy and politically aware. Most of the criticism against them stems from jealousy or a need to defend failure to get the job done. As someone who has served in this movement for two decades, I am proud to have these advocates on my side and thankful for the vitality and verve they bring to the LGBT movement.
Wayne Besen is a columnist and author of the book “Anything But Straight: Unmasking the Scandals and Lies Behind the Ex-Gay Myth.”