Can we talk?

Do gay rights groups need to abandon their drive for affirmation at the ballot-box after Tuesday's drubbing?

By Rebecca Bryant

Published November 10, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

On election eve in Fayetteville, Ark., nearly 50 people gathered at the Campaign for Human Dignity headquarters. "How many think we're going to win tomorrow?" asked Campaign Manager Anne Shelley. Arms surged in buoyant optimism.

A day later, at the election watch party, the mood had plummeted. Final results tallied 7,800 votes against a resolution that would have extended the city's equal employment policy to homosexuals. Only 5,700 voted for the resolution, while progressive city council candidates who had backed the measure collected 9,300 votes.

What happened in Fayetteville mirrored a national trend. Democrats and swing moderates put their foot in the door of the Republicans' party, but gay civil rights ballot measures fared miserably. In Fort Collins, Colo., where Matthew Shepard died in a hospital after a vicious beating in Wyoming, voters trounced a measure that would have prohibited discrimination against gays in housing, employment and public accommodations. Statewide efforts to restrict gay marriages won by landslides in Alaska and in Hawaii. The single gain was South Portland, Maine, where citizens passed a broad nondiscrimination ordinance. While many commentators are calling election results a rebuke to moralizers, the rap on the knuckles of gay rights activists was equally severe.

Why did Fayetteville's resolution go down? We could point a finger at our opponents' reckless and hateful rhetoric about "special privileges" and the "homosexual agenda." Or we can take a moment and think about the broader meaning of the election results. I joined the Fayetteville campaign reluctantly, knowing the vulnerability and pain I would feel on election night if, after serving up part of my identity for outside affirmation, we lost. But even before the numbers came in, I'd been watching the toll our opponents' rhetoric was taking on volunteers. I'd begun to wonder: Is affirmation by ballot box an effective keystone strategy for the gay rights movement?

Initially I attributed our uphill battle in Fayetteville to the other side's ignorance. But after three months of campaigning -- morbidly punctuated by Shepard's death, mourned by most of the country but gloried in by the Dickensian Rev. Fred Phelps and his supporters -- I realized I had no idea where the ultra right was coming from. I thought about a speech made by Arkansas campaign consultant Betsey Wright -- President Clinton's former campaign whiz -- about the drive in politics today to draw a line and simply declare those on the other side evil. Was I doing that? Maybe I was the ignorant one. If so, my ignorance -- my simplistic view of the good vs. the bad, the enlightened vs. the unenlightened -- appears to be reflected throughout the gay rights vanguard of the civil rights movement.

The writing of conservative gay authors has helped me understand where the ultra right is coming from. Andrew Sullivan, in his provocative New York Times Magazine essay "Going Down Screaming," describes the ultra right as a new blend of conservatism and Puritanism, motivated by a fear of a post-1960s liberalism that no longer exists. The nation has reformed welfare, reduced teen pregnancy and promiscuity; even divorce rates are down. Gays are asking for the right to be married, Sullivan observes, not threatening the institution. But the right wing, thrilling to persecution and ideological battle, continues to see liberalism everywhere, like the Japanese soldiers who didn't know World War II was over, who needed the war as an affirmation of their identity. So abortion and homosexuality become obsessions, symptoms of the country's moral decline.

Peter Gomes, Harvard minister and author of the bestseller "The Good Book," detailed the religious context behind the right's political positions. Since the first compilation of early writings that became the Bible, some have used it as a map to regain a lost moral society. Others have used the Bible to reach toward an ideal society never attained. Today, says Gomes, we are engaged in a struggle to reform our national character "as complex, ambitious, and destabilizing as any of those reformations that traumatized sixteenth-century Germany and seventeenth-century England."

I'm no virgin to politics, but my focus has been environmental causes. Still, while my vision has been peripheral, outsiders sometimes see things that insiders don't. I remember the ACT-UP activists I watched from the door of the Clinton headquarters, then joined, marching through Manchester during the '92 New Hampshire primary, chanting: "Suck my dick! Lick my clit!" Our naughty adolescent behavior had a psychological label: oppositional defiance. Since then, I've watched the gay rights movement gain sophistication, but it still lacks reach; it lacks the generosity of spirit that results from understanding the other side. We need to understand the anxiety of those who see gay rights as another crusade to undermine family and community as they have known it.

Matthew Shepard's death generated public sympathy and moral capital for gay rights. It was a historic turning point, a pivot, but instead of compounding the moral advantage and using this as a platform for peace talks, gay and lesbian leaders shoved forward national hate crimes legislation, another victim-centered oppositional strategy. We're stuck in a reactive, enemy-centered mode, defending our rights, insisting on outside acceptance.

The election provides another opportunity to reset our bearings. But I see little evidence that's happening. The Human Rights Campaign, which had invested heavily in the Hawaii ballot measure, immediately announced its intent to muscle forward with "every ounce of energy, commitment and vigor." And when I asked Kerry Lobel, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, how she felt about election results, she mostly defended the movement's strategy. "We've built infrastructure where we never had it before, engaged people who were never engaged before. This is how the movement has grown -- by taking risks and fighting." Lobel's words echoed those of PFLAG (Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) regional coordinator Carolyn Wagner, who initiated Fayetteville's resolution. "We have such a statewide database now," said Wagner, "and we've educated a bunch of newspapers that two years ago wouldn't print a PFLAG ad."

I asked Lobel how she explained the political undertow that took down gay ballot measures even while progressives did well in Fayetteville and nationwide. Her answer: "We have a long way to go before we completely make our case to progressives that the fight around women's and other civil rights issues are connected to gay rights." I waited for some pause, a reflection on the message of the '98 election, an indication that what she calls GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered) leaders will be evaluating their keystone strategy of affirmation by local ballot box. Despite the significance of election losses and increasing resistance to legislated tolerance, Lobel appeared to be steering NGLTF full speed ahead.

What about reaching out to dialogue? I asked. "That's not in the leadership's interest," Lobel noted, then added with barely a skip, "the conservative leadership, I mean. They have no interest in seeing me as anything but a figure they can demonize in order to generate funds and consolidate their base. Our tactic is building coalitions. Theirs is stripping down to one idea and building a base. I have everything to gain and nothing to lose by reaching out. If tomorrow Gary Bauer [president of the Family Research Council] decided to have a conversation with me, he would lose his job."

But the first step in mediating differences is to understand the underlying interests of each party. That requires conversation. How do we converse across an ideological chasm when the ultra right is increasingly inflexible, irrational and intolerant but winning the ballot game? One way is to opt out of the game, at least for a while, since we are so out of sync with the national mood. Moreover, it's in our own interest to move along developmentally toward cooperation and interdependence and to cultivate new strategies that sustain the spirit of those on the front line.

Maybe America's '98 election message to both queers and sneers is "grow up." Maybe it's time to get past notions of the oppressor and the oppressed, instead lining up actions behind values in resolute self-affirmation. Growing up, unfettering our collective gay spirit, requires reflection and sincere self-evaluation. We need to ask tough, painful questions. Does the gay rights movement evince the same besieged Japanese soldier mentality as the conservative movement? Are GBLT leaders unconsciously casting each issue as a crisis to generate funds and perpetuate their organizations? Once liberated from its electoral mind-set, in touch with its natural generosity, humor and tolerance, the gay rights movement may find the ideological chasm less onerous. It may be easier to reach out to those who fear they will never regain their lost moral utopia.

A path in this direction has already been cut into the political landscape by Oregon-based Love Makes A Family (LMAF), a gay nonprofit that engages in dialogues with conservatives to discover common values and bridge differences. LMAF Executive Director Bonnie Tinker says there is a small but growing reconciliation community within the gay rights movement. Tinker is best known for her four-year talk radio show about lesbians, gays and family values hosted by a right-wing station.

Among Tinker's many stories of change, her favorite is Natale, an elderly Italian man who frequently called to argue, "You weren't born this way. You can change." Using nonviolent Gandhian speech and political techniques, Tinker has been successful in wedging open room for disagreement so that Christians who believe homosexuality is wrong can also confirm that gays deserve civil rights. Natale called in during the bitter 1994 campaign over Oregon's failed anti-gay Ballot Measure 13 to say, "I don't think this is what Jesus would want us to do."

Ballot measures fit into a tool kit of strategies, such as direct action, judicial recourse, election of friendly legislators and education. The increasing reliance on city and county ballot measures to fight discrimination is "a product of not getting the work done at the state and federal level," says Kerry Lobel. Many of the 160 resolutions and ordinances passed in the United States that extended civil rights to homosexuals were passed in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But since the early '90s, such ballot measures have been subject to increasing heat and opposition.

There are times when conflict, direct action and oppositional strategies are appropriate and effective in catalyzing change. But today such techniques seem stale, both to those of us working inside the gay rights movement and to the general public. Is this, then, the political foot we want to continue putting forward, the image we want to continue projecting?

Lobel was familiar with Tinker and Love Makes A Family. Her voice warmed reminiscing about a youth program she did for Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock. "I think we're afraid to have these discussions," said Lobel. "I was." Such difficult but generous efforts to reach out -- not just to our opponents but also to the higher expression of our collective spirit -- are, like South Africa's Truth and Reconciliaton Commission, what it may take to inspire change today.

Shortly before the election, citizens gathered for the dedication of the J. William Fulbright Peace Fountain on the University of Arkansas campus. Speaker after speaker rekindled the memory of Sen. Fulbright, who hailed from Fayetteville, holding aloft his torch of wisdom: The way to peace among different cultures is through education. The towering Fay Jones sculpture of interlocking, interdependent parts at the center of the fountain will forever symbolize two things for me. First, that the cultural divisions in this country can be as dangerous as those between nations. Second, that reaching out to others, seeking first to understand, remains the most effective bridge across the chasm.

Rebecca Bryant

Rebecca Bryant is a freelance writer.

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