How Queer Activists Are Getting the Better of Conservatives

LGBT organizations are behaving in unconventional ways – and their strategies may just outfox conservative bigotry in the long run.

Take the organizing around New York City’s “stop and frisk” program. In 2011, the NYPD stopped nearly 700,000 people, mostly young Black and Latino men. Nine out of 10 were innocent of wrongdoing. So what do we make of Al Sharpton, the NAACP, and LGBT mainstream groups all working together to stage a protest later this month at NYC police headquarters?

This promising alliance beyond simple identity politics – highlighted in Kate Taylor’s recent New York Times article, “ Black Leaders and Gay Advocates March in Step ” – shows both that we are all getting more sophisticated politically and that the “divide” between gays and Blacks is largely the result of manipulation by the Right. The court-ordered release of documents last March from Maggie Gallagher’s anti-LGBT National Organization for Marriage illuminated the ulterior motive for opposing same-sex marriage: “The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies.”

While the Right continues to skillfully use homophobia and racism as tools in its overall strategy to seek and maintain power, its campaigns are losing support. Queer activists have managed to win substantial victories in the recent past with little attention from mainstream media. Their success is not the result of an untethered shift in public opinion. It is evidence that queer groups are learning how to out-organize their opponents.

However, a dynamic of victory and pushback also exists, in which the Right capitalizes on every equality milestone to mobilize its own followers. Last month, members of the anti-LGBT Right like Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, lauded President Obama’s decision to come out in favor of same-sex marriage as handing Republican challenger Mitt Romney “the key to social conservative support.”

LGBT organizers and writers from across the country share lessons about how to win despite this pushback in a new report by Political Research Associates, a premier research organization about the U.S. Right based in Boston. At its core a primer on dealing with anti-LGBT political forces in 2012 America, Resisting the Rainbow: Right-Wing Responses to LGBT Gains analyzes campaigns for marriage equality and beyond in Florida, Colorado, Oregon, Michigan, California, and Utah, and profiles the present-day array of anti-LGBT forces on the Right.

We’ve learned over the past few years that to be successful in the long run, LGBT politics must be broader than traditional identity-based campaigns. One successful example comes from Oregon, where anti-LGBT measures have been on the ballot for almost every presidential election 1984. In 2008, no such measure appeared, which the statewide LGBT organization Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) saw as an opening for organizing beyond their core identity issues. They carefully developed a strategy to support labor, immigrant, racial, and criminal justice efforts, a new focus that BRO Executive Director Jeana Frazzini said “changes the organization from within in exciting ways.” Educating their LGBT constituency about these issues with voter forums, they built progressive coalitions with sister groups.

Meanwhile, as in most states, LGBT youth in Oregon have been organizing for their rights in schools for years. Basic Rights Oregon coordinated and broadened this effort, bringing almost three dozen cross-issue groups together to create a Safe Schools for All Campaign. This coalition helped pass legislation that supported not only LGBT students, including transgender youth, but any youth who might be harassed or bullied in school based on race, immigrant status, or disability. The report reveals how they managed to pass the bill without any opposition from the Right.

Another compelling David and Goliath story describes how a tiny Salt Lake City grassroots group met the Mormon Church head on -- and won. PRIDEinUtah did its homework and learned that social pressure against the church worked well in the past. After all, it was powerful negative public opinion that encouraged the church to prohibit members’ practice of polygamy and to welcome people of color as full members of the church.

The church took another hit more recently when the public learned about its secretive involvement in California and elsewhere opposing same-sex marriage with major financial and organizational backing. PRIDEinUtah successfully pressured the church hierarchy to backpedal on some of their more damaging homophobic stances, founder and case study author Eric Ethington explains, by gathering 150,000 names on a signature campaign and developing a coalition of faith communities that demanded justice on moral grounds. With a Mormon candidate running for president, Ethington’s experience offers particularly applicable lessons this year.

While the LGBT movement might at times feel that struggles with the Right are endless, we see in these stories that queer organizing can get the better of conservative forces. Organizers must continue to innovate new tactics and utilize the effective strategies of past campaigns, such as teaming up with other rights-seeking groups and their allies or making a careful analysis of their opponents’ vulnerabilities.

Even as the Christian Right continues to claim moral superiority concerning sex and sexuality, it has been forced to recognize that it might not win all its battles. Jim Daly, current president of the homophobic “traditional family values” group Focus on the Family, admitted that despite the election results about same sex marriage, public opinion is changing. A year ago he concluded, “What about same sex marriage? We’re losing on that one.” With the right approach from queer activists and their supporters, leaders like him will be conceding a lot more.

On June 19th, Pam Chamberlain and other report contributors will be holding a briefing call and Q&A for LGBT allies interested in further information. Email for details.

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