Apparently it’s the time of the year to give talks about the State of the Union, State of the State, and State of whatever. So why not State of the Gay Movement?
As someone who has been doing queer political work for almost 40 years and now has quite a bit of contact with younger lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans young people as a teacher in a New England college— the movement isn’t doing too badly at the moment. But unless it makes some serious changes, it is going to have some rough years ahead.
If you were to tell homosexuals in 1968 that within 40 years the United States would have passed major laws outlawing discrimination based on sexual preference, that the Supreme Court would have declared sodomy laws unconstitutional, that open and proud lesbian and gay parenting would be treated seriously by the legal and medical professions, and that same-sex marriage would be legal (at least in one state), no one would have believed you. Undoubtedly, the movement has succeeded beyond its wildest expectations.
But it is unclear to me that we can keep this momentum. This isn’t because the people working in the movement these days aren’t working hard enough—they are. Or that the movement’s agenda isn’t clear— even if activists disagree about prioritizing gay marriage, there is plenty everyone does agree on. The problem is the “official” gay movement organi- zations—National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Lambda Legal Defense, The Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Lesbian Rights—are not soliciting or listening to the views of young people in the LGBT community. In my experience, most young (under 25) lesbian, gay men, bisexuals, trans people, and self-identified queers that I know do not trust, agree with, or see any connection to national LGBT groups. This is, or will be, disastrous.
Most people working in the “official” movement are products of the late 1960s and 1970s. Even though our politics vary widely, we come from a time defined by specific types of oppressions. But after we move on—by death, exhaustion, or sheer tiredness—who is going to be the next wave of agitators, activists, and rabble-rousers?
When I talk to my students, these organizations hold no interest for them. In fact, they see them as having little to do with their lives. As far as I can tell, the organizations themselves have no interest in finding out what younger people want or even what their interests are. What are they thinking? Who do they think is going to be running the movement in 15 years? Who do they think that their funding base is going to be?
I gave a talk in January at the 30th anniversary of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, a Boston based non-profit, queer advocacy group that has done amazing work over the past three decades, including getting the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to rule in favor of marriage equality. In preparing for my talk, I emailed about 20 of my students to ask what they thought of the state of gay politics today—what issues interested them, what did they think the national gay groups might be doing, wrong or right.
One of the feelings that ran through all of the responses was an explicit recognition of being disenfranchised from the movement. One woman wrote, “I do feel as though there is a disconnect in the gay rights movement between older and younger GLBT individuals” and went on to cite specific issues—like marriage—that lead to this. The same ideas were in other responses. An 18-year-old first year student wrote: “The main thing I would say about the future of the gay rights movement is that it should continue to actively seek out new, young members to the cause. It is important that the fight for social equality and increased rights isn’t lost because it fades and dies out over time. I’m not sure what the best method is to do this, but I think that simply giving young people the opportunity to get involved is a good start.”
Certain issues, such as the situation of LGBT students in schools, stood out as an important concern to many: “There are obviously many issues that I think are important, but as far as youth is concerned, I think addressing the challenges that LGBT youth face in schools and communities is very important—both from an overall discrimination perspective and a safe space perspective. Combating homophobia early on and putting LGBT education programs into schools would likely have a profound impact on subsequent generations.”
Queer youth march in Springfield, Massachusetts—photo from www.gbpflag.org
While GLAD and other national groups do work on anti-discrimination issues for LGBT youth, it probably isn’t enough, and LGBT youth are not as aware of them as they might be—probably because the national groups have made little effort to inform young people of what they are doing.
On the fight for marriage equality, all of the students who responded were aware of the importance of equality under the law. As one male student wrote, “As far as marriage, in my opinion, it’s a very important issue from an equality standpoint. Queer people should have exactly the same rights that heterosexual people do and one of those rights is marriage. Civil unions would be fine, if they had the same benefits as straight couples receive. The problem now is that civil unions seem to be an attempt at ‘separate, but equal,’ and everyone knows that doesn’t work.”
But almost all of them were critical of the huge emphasis the national movement has put on this fight for marriage equality. This may be that they have a different plan for their future than older generations—or even than many heterosexuals of their generation: “I think many older people tend to be overly obsessed with the marriage issue. It’s not really more important than any other measure of equality, such as employment non-discrimination laws, hate crime bills, etc. Maybe part of why I feel this way is because I don’t plan on getting married any time soon, if ever. But I also think that our generation is less enamored of the prospect of marriage as a permanent suburban arrangement producing two kids, two cars, and a dog. First of all, that life just seems so boring. I don’t know how anyone could do the same thing for 50 years.”
A great deal of the criticism of marriage equality was politically based as well. A lesbian wrote: “I feel continually frustrated by the movement’s almost singular focus on marriage equality. The relationship that I want for my future has very little in common with the examples of ‘traditional’ marriage I have seen in my daily life. Marriage is a leftover remnant of the traditional and limiting constructions of gender and sexuality—and religion—that seeps through most civic matters in our society. In my mind, the movement is desperately working toward a flawed institution.”
She later noted her specific concerns: “As a woman who wants to raise kids with another woman, and actually have the children, women’s reproductive health, particularly as it relates to artificial insemination, seems as though it could be a more central topic of discussion…. Again, it seems as though movements are focused on those who are currently in that stage of life, rather than expanding into populations of supporters who will be in another five to eight years.”
Other students had a clear political analysis of the issue: “I think the movement’s current focus on marriage equality is misguided and potentially harmful; the idea that LGBT people should want to conform to traditional societal notions about marriage and family life is detrimental to a struggle for true equality. We must ask ourselves why we should strive for acceptance within social structures that deny our rights and look down on us with revulsion; instead of working within the existing system (i.e., fighting for marriage rights, seeking political office), we should define for ourselves what it means to be in a loving, caring relationship rather than asking permission from those in power. In this sense, the queer movement is inseparable from class struggles in this country; we are denigrated to being second-class citizens, but instead of attempting to climb higher in the hierarchy, we must act in defiance of the government.”
What also came through in many of the emails was a sense that these younger LGBT people were eager to interact with older women and men: “I think it is critical that young LGBT, especially young gay men, have the opportunity to communicate and learn from older gay men. These men should serve as mentors and teachers. Before taking [a course on HIV/AIDS] I may have had a basic knowledge of some of the struggles associated with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but I didn’t understand many of the sociopolitical struggles that occurred within the gay community and in terms of the larger U.S. society.
“I think that an important focus of the movement should be for older gay men (and allies) to relay their own stories of living through the HIV/AIDS crisis to the younger generation. Through personal testimonies and communications, I think there is a chance to bridge the generation gap that I feel currently exists between older and younger gay men. Also, I feel this is important that my generation more fully understand the epidemic so that the struggles of so many gay men, women, and allies are not lost to a few paragraphs in a U.S. high school history textbook.”
Many students also voiced a great desire for understanding the past as well: “The fact that gay youth do not have any grasp of the fight that has been fought or the rich literary, artistic, and political history of our “people” [is a problem]. We are essentially an ‘uncultured’ minority. We lack the renaissance of pride in our past (not pride in our present, but pride in the rich history that has gotten us to where we are). I think the gay youth of our time have the need to be passed on information from older generations of our rich cultural history so that we can better appreciate and understand the context that we live in today.”
If the national groups do not begin to reach out and listen to the political, social, and emotional needs and desires of LGBT youth they will have missed a tremendous opportunity. More than that, they are ensuring that they will have no real future if they do not begin to radically rethink what they are doing. They need reliable and productive ways of reaching out to all aspects of the community, especially those that are the future of the queer community.
Michael Bronski is a film critic, writer, teacher, and longtime activist.