Gay Goes Mainstream
If there was 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 in which they are eating, 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 has 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. Back then, 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 in its stance against the war. The group took substantial hits in its fundraising for having involved itself in issues that were not "gay."
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 has changed.
Consider the language and tone of these antiwar statements. Here's CABN's Dec. 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's 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 '70s-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, which can be read in full online at 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, inaccurately, 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." In fact, 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 Jan. 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."
Even NGLTF -- which has been far more cautious about taking such stands since the outcry against its actions during the first Persian Gulf War -- on Dec. 30 signed on to a statement issued by the National Council of Churches on Dec. 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 U.N. 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 all signed on. Such a coalition harks back to our past and may point toward our future.
In many ways, the gay community's new willingness to take policy stands on national issues outside a narrowly proscribed gay realm simply marks a return to its roots. When 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 fact, 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 -- as the saying went -- "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. And 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 -- both young and old -- began coming out, the political and social parameters of the movement transformed. And with that, so did its goals. The movement for gay liberation founded by a small group of young, countercultural, 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-nondiscrimination 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 other groups -- civil-rights, feminist, labor, environmentalist -- generally fell by the wayside.
The singular focus on gay issues began to change, in myriad ways, 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. And on the center-left side of the spectrum many of these groups are deeply committed to coalition building.
So part of what we are seeing these days is a return to an earlier mode of organizing, one now rooted in a growing movement that places gay rights within a broader politics. It would have been unthinkable a decade ago for the Metropolitan Community Church to have the political vision to speak out against the Persian Gulf War -- not that the group was for war, but its mandate did not lie in making pronouncements about public policy. And it certainly would have been highly unusual to see politicians such as Illinois state representative McKeon sign antiwar petitions as an openly gay elected official.
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 has guided queer groups -- 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). He can be reached at email@example.com.