America's Gay Leadership Crisis

At a time when gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are flourishing in America's public life like never before, those charged with advancing their civil equality have retreated into the closet.
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The leadership struggle for civil equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Americans is in crisis. A glut of organizations, with competing interests and shifting priorities, of professional lobbyists pitted against grassroots activists, splintered over race and religion, jostling for influence whilst shirking responsibility, has created an unprecedented leadership vacuum.

It is this crisis of leadership -- not the conservative movement, the Republican Party or the Mormon Church -- that represents the single greatest threat to LGBTQ rights. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the attempts to overturn Proposition 8 and restore marriage equality to California.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest group, is abstaining from this "state" issue to focus on federal campaigns. A host of groups, lead by Prepare to Prevail, is undermining a 2010 attempt. Equality California, the single organization charged with repealing Prop 8, decided to ignore a ballot of its membership who voted 69 to 24 percent in favor of a 2010 challenge, to put it off until 2012 because that's when the "experts" told them they could win it.

So, the very organizations that so vocally criticized Congressional Democrats and the Obama administration for asking the LBGTQ community to "wait" for the appropriate political moment, have come to embrace the very same principle of "the fierce urgency of whenever," as Andrew Sullivan aptly puts it. Now, it is the Human Rights Campaign and Equality California, and not just the Democrats, who say: cut your checks now and wait a little longer, equality is right around the corner.

And they have been waiting, patiently: 13 years for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, 16 years to end Don't Ask Don't Tell, 22 years to lift the HIV travel and immigration ban, and 233 years to have their relationships recognized by a Republic that declared "all men are created equal."

Maybe the "experts" have a point. Isn't the practical road just the safest route to a principled destination? According to them, we must wait until support for repeal reaches a safe number, around 60%. How is this to be achieved? They say by a coordinated "grass-roots" campaign, "outreach" initiatives to minority communities, and "generational replacement," which is a cruel euphemism for waiting for our opponents to die.

Yet attempting to launch any mass volunteer based movement with the expectation that it will be able shift 10 points in the polls in the absence of an election campaign is perhaps the least practical of any of the options considered. The idea behind their thinking is that little actual campaigning needs to be done because in the long term society will move in a linear progression towards marriage equality by itself. But the long view has a short-term memory, forgetting that was precisely the mindset of activists in the 1970s on the eve of the Reagan-led conservative backlash that set them back decades.

Nor is this the consensus among political professionals: Steve Hildebrand, the deputy campaign manager for Obama's presidential bid, recently declared that "2010 is the right time to courageously win back marriage rights in California -- as strongly as I felt when I decided to devote two years of my life to help Barack Obama run for President despite warnings from the pundits and pollsters that he would never occupy the Oval Office."

America's LGBTQ leaders only want to lead when there is nobody left to be led. This could not be more opposed to the very leader from their own community who has been posthumously awarded this week the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Harvey Milk. Milk was not afraid to risk defeat, and was defeated many, many times. He also understood that each time he went into battle he was one step closer to winning the war, whether he won or lost.

This was not hopeless idealism, but a kind of pragmatism that is entirely missing from out political culture. Let us not forgot that the when the Brigg's Initiative was first placed on the ballot in September 1978, 61 to 31 percent favored the passage of the proposition. Had it passed, it would have fired the homosexual employees of California's public schools, under the slogan of Anita Bryant's "Save our Children." In fewer than three months, the numbers had flipped with 58% voting against the measure. The consultants who say we must wait for 60% approval before committing to a vote should take note of Briggs and Bryant's defeat.

At a time when gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are flourishing in America's public life like never before, those charged with advancing their civil equality have retreated into the closet. In the spirit of Milk, it's time to say: "come out!" not just to your friends and your families, but your own communities who need you now like never before. Now is the time to lead.

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