Gays & the Anti-War Movement




I

f
there is any doubt left that a potential war with Iraq is what’s
on everyone’s mind, it was erased with the opening joke of
a recent episode of “Will and Grace.” After Karen flirts
outrageously with the handsome owner of the restaurant, Grace asks,
“Are you trying to get a date with that man?” Karen answers
with her best baby-doll voice: “Oh, honey. I haven’t had
a date since Bush was president and we were about to invade Iraq.”


The
line captured perfectly the intersection of foreign policy and camp
sensibility (bet you didn’t know about that intersection).
That such a joke could be made on television’s only queer sit-com
is part of an interesting phenomenon: many pockets of the organized
queer community are taking policy stands on the potential war. This
didn’t happen in 1991 during Gulf War I and it’s happened
only rarely since. (Two years ago, for instance, a number of gay
groups took stances against the death penalty.) Ironically, it marks
not only the maturation of the gay movement, but also a return to
its origins in a politics of broad social change.


Consider
how the community responded to the first president Bush’s war
against Iraq. The board of directors of the National Gay and Lesbian
Task Force (NGLTF) issued a strong statement against the war. It
declared the war an international social justice issue that demanded
NGLTF’s attention, given the organization’s mandate to
deal with gay and lesbian issues. From NGLTF’s point of view,
the Persian Gulf War would adversely affect not just the lives of
those lesbians and gay men in the armed forces, but also vital domestic
spending programs on health care and research for AIDS.


NGLTF
was the only national gay group to take such a stand and it was
excoriated by the gay press and public for having strayed beyond
the narrowly drawn definition of a “gay issue.” It’s
true that there were a few local grassroots groups, such as independently
organized chapters of ACT UP, that did the same. But for the most
part, NGLTF stood alone.


Fast-forward
to the second president Bush and, presumably, the second war in
the Persian Gulf. NGLTF has again taken a stance on the war. But
so, too, have the Log Cabin Republicans, the Metropolitan Community
Church, the Lavender Green Caucus (which advocates on behalf of
gay and lesbian issues within the Green Party), and the Chicago
Anti-Bashing Network (CABN), a queer grassroots advocacy group that
has published a series of advertisements in both of Chicago’s
gay papers publicizing its stance. These groups have been joined
by a host of openly queer celebrities, including R.E.M.’s Michael
Stipe, the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray, Ani DiFranco, and Lily Tomlin,
all of whom have come out publicly against a potential war with
Iraq.


Clearly,
a lot’s changed.


Consider
the language and tone of these antiwar statements. Here’s CABN’s
December 15 statement against the war: “A new U.S. war will
indirectly kill people in our community here at home by diverting
necessary funds away from already scaled-back social service programs.
For example, programs that prevent HIV+ people from losing their
homes and provide other life-saving services are already facing
severe cutbacks during the current recession as a bloated military
budget is given precedence over everything else. Just this year
we’ve seen huge cutbacks at Horizons Community Services and
the Howard Brown Health Center, while three AIDS service agencies
collapsed into one in order to save money, and the entire $2.5 million
state of Illinois budget for AIDS minority outreach was wiped out.”


The
statement was signed by many of Illinois’ most prominent queer
activists, including Larry McKeon, the state’s out gay state
representative; Miranda Stevens-Miller, a noted transgender activist;
and the Reverends Alma Crawford and Karen Hutt, co-pastors of Church
of the Open Door, the city’s black GLBT congregation. Additionally,
many activists with Equality Illinois, the most vocal GLBT lobbying
group in the state, signed on as individuals.


The
point-by-point refutation of the Bush administration’s push
for war with Iraq by the Green Party’s Lavender Green Caucus,
the only caucus to have achieved official status within the Green
Party, reads like a 1970s-era antiwar pamphlet: “The Lavender
Caucus of the United States Green Party stands united in opposition
to military aggression and war against Iraq and her people, for
the following reasons:


  • The people of
    Iraq have a right to self-determination guaranteed by historical
    precedent and international law.

  • President George
    W. Bush has failed to demonstrate a clear and present danger to
    the United States of America from Iraq.

  • Domestic and
    international opinion is strongly opposed to military action against
    the state of Iraq….


And
on it goes. The Lavender Green Caucus statement (www.lavendergreens.org)
makes note of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t
Tell” policy, which denies “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and
transgender individuals the right to serve openly in the military
during times of peace.” It goes on to claim that the military
suspends the discharge of gay personnel during times of war, “thereby
allowing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals to
die for the United States.” The military’s continued use
of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the war on
terrorism, which resulted most infamously in the dismissal of gay
linguists skilled in Arabic, has received much criticism from gay
and straight observers alike.


On
January 5, the Metropolitan Community Churches—a national group
of gay and lesbian Protestant congregations—issued “A
Call for a Peaceful Resolution to Conflict with Iraq,” which
states: “We must stand together unequivocally for peace. This
is neither an issue of political affiliation or nationalistic loyalty.
It is rather a deeply spiritual issue with potentially devastating
consequences to God’s world. It is a deeply spiritual issue
in which we are called to enter into the mind and heart and will
of God’s creation.”


NGLTF—which
has been far more cautious about taking such stands given the outcry
against its actions during the first Persian Gulf War—on December
30 signed a statement issued by the National Council of Churches
on December 12. Titled “Keep America Safe: Win Without War,”
the statement reads, in part: “We are patriotic Americans who
share the belief that Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to possess
weapons of mass destruction. We support rigorous UN weapons inspections
to assure Iraq’s effective disarmament. We believe that a preemptive
military invasion of Iraq will harm American national interests.”


The
“Keep America Safe” statement has managed to bring together
a wide range of progressive groups, only some of which are focused
exclusively on “gay” issues. The National Organization
of Women, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Rainbow/PUSH Coalition,
Working Assets, and Women’s Action for New Directions, for
example, have signed on.



W

hen
the Gay Liberation Front was founded in 1969 in the aftermath of
the Stonewall Riots, gay liberation was a broad- based, grassroots
effort that did not focus on what we now call “gay issues.”
It was as important in those early movement days to fight against
the war in Vietnam and to fight for reproductive rights and feminism,
as it was to fight for the rights of homosexuals. In its inception,
the gay liberation movement was relatively unconcerned with the
idea of “gay rights.” Its platform promoted a vision of
widespread social change. The theory was that oppressed queers were
just one of many oppressed groups and “No one is free until
all are free.” Other groups approached activism in the same
way. Huey Newton of the Black Panthers, for instance, wrote a glowingly
positive position paper embracing gay liberation. Even when other
political groups had problems with homophobia—some early feminist
groups were profoundly uncomfortable with gay men and lesbians (especially
lesbians)—the gay liberation movement was committed politically
to work in coalition with other groups fighting for social change.


But
a funny thing happened on the way to the revolution. As the movement
grew and more and more people began coming out, the political and
social parameters of the movement transformed. With that, so did
its goals. The movement for gay liberation founded by a small group
of young, counter-cultural, political radicals became more conservative.
While it made for quite a bit of tension at the time, it also made
perfect sense: the broader a movement’s constituency, the more
watered-down its political goals will be.


Within
a year of its founding, the gay liberation movement morphed into
the gay rights movement with a special—and, some would argue,
ever-narrowing—political agenda that dealt only with issues
defined as specifically “gay”: employment-non-discrimination
laws, sodomy-law reform, laws protecting “gay” families.
Not surprisingly, many of these issues (although they affected a
wide range of gay people) were supported by an increasingly narrow
range of a mostly white, middle-class, and (in the beginning) male
constituency. As a result, the national scope of gay political work
became increasingly less concerned with a broader political agenda.
Coalitions with civil-rights, feminist, labor, environmentalist,
and other groups generally fell by the wayside.


The
singular focus on gay issues began to change in the late 1980s.
This was partly a response to the AIDS epidemic and the rise of
such groups as ACT UP and Queer Nation. But the homo-political landscape
was also changing from within. Sure, there was an increasingly wide
range of groups never even imagined before, such as Parents, Families,
and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight
Education Network, and Seniors Aging in a Gay Environment. But there
was also a fabulous breadth of groups, many of them local, grassroots,
and very political, on both the left and the right. Indeed, we live
in a queer political world so broad-based that it can and does cover
a range of opinions from anarchist punk to Daughters of the American
Revolution conservative, from no-government libertarians to vegan-
and PETA-inspired anti-World Trade Organization rabble-rousers.
On the center-left side of the spectrum many of these groups are
deeply committed to coalition building.


Yet
another sign of the movement’s maturation is that not every
gay group that has taken a stance on the war has come out against
it. The Log Cabin Republicans, the most prominent of the right-of-center
national queer groups, has taken a very vocal stand supporting the
Bush administration’s Iraq policy. “We support the war
against terror,” states Mark Mead, director of public affairs
for the Log Cabin Republicans, “and we see regime change in
Iraq as part of that war. We don’t want to see any more innocent
American civilians killed.”


(All
that said, the Human Rights Campaign, which is the largest national
gay-rights lobbying group, has not taken a stand on the war. In
fact, the group has a policy to address “gay” issues only.)


It’s
a new day in gay organizing when the Log Cabin Republicans and the
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force both take positions on a matter
of public policy that is not “gay.” It’s a remarkable
break from the paradigm of gay organizing that’s guided queer
groups both large and small for the last three decades. If nothing
else, this new wave of queer activism makes clear, as radical groups
claimed in the 1960s, that business as usual isn’t good enough
anymore.







Michael
Bronski is the author, most recently, of



Pulp Friction:
Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps



(St. Martin’s
Press, 2003).