James Kirchick, an assistant editor of the New Republic and a contributing writer to the Advocate, suggests that it’s time for the gay rights movement to think about hanging it up.
Just in time for spring wedding season, gay marriage activists are celebrating a triumphant few weeks. Last Tuesday, the Vermont legislature effectively legalized same-sex unions in that state. Days earlier, the Iowa Supreme Court had ruled that a statute barring gay marriage was unconstitutional. And here in the nation’s capital, the D.C. Council voted unanimously to recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere.
But amid all the history being made, one gay rights organization did something really historic: It announced that it would shut its doors at the end of the year, because its mission was complete.
Formed in 1999 to lobby for the right of gay couples to adopt children in Connecticut, Love Makes a Family was the lead organization advocating for same-sex marriage in that state. It successfully lobbied lawmakers to pass a civil unions bill in 2005, but fell short of achieving its ultimate goal until last October, when the state supreme court ruled that the Connecticut constitution endows same-sex couples with the right to marry.
“Mission accomplished” is one of the most difficult things to say when your organization depends on working toward a cause, but Love Makes a Family did it. And other gay groups may soon need to follow suit. If the gay community truly wants to achieve equality, it will have to overcome a victim mindset that is slowly becoming obsolete.
Once the goals of an organization with a specific mission are achieved, as Love Makes a Family’s were last October, it should relish its victory, cease operations and move on. This is the sign of communal maturity. The continued operation of a gay rights organization in the state that was the first to institute marriage equality and that has the most progressive gay rights laws in the country reflects a sense of eternal victimhood.
This is a realization that comes easier to younger gays like me (I’m 25) than to older ones. For people who grew up in a time when being open about one’s homosexuality could result in being fired or thrown into prison, it’s harder to move out of a mindset that sees the plight of gay people as one of perpetual struggle. This attitude is all the more pronounced in those who hold leadership positions in the gay rights movement, as their life’s work depends upon the notion that we are always and everywhere oppressed.
It’s in the culture of any institution to justify its existence. This is especially so with civil rights groups, which thrive on a sense of persecution, real or perceived.
In the first place, “the notion that we are always and everywhere oppressed” isn’t just a notion. It’s a fact, both in state, federal, and local laws and in large segments of the majority religious faith — Christianity — in this country. It’s not just a notion when the state of Florida still bans adoption by gay couples for no other reason than they are gay. It’s not just a notion when 46 states can still discriminate against same-sex couples getting married. It’s not just a notion when members of Congress can still advocate amending the Constitution of the United States to specifically target a significant portion of the citizenry of the country based solely on an innate trait such as sexual orientation. And it sure wasn’t a notion to Matthew Shepard or any of the other countless gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgender and others who have faced brutality, cruelty, demonization, and terrorism, sometimes at the hands of their own family. It’s all too clear that oppression, real or perceived, is out there.
It’s not as if passing laws or achieving a victory means the battles are over. Melissa McEwan of Shakesville and I were discussing this via e-mail today, and she noted that “the National Organization for Women was founded in founded in 1966 as a general women’s advocacy organization, but, by virtue of the politics of the time period, had a heavy focus on Roe — which they’ve STILL got to defend today, almost 40 years after its passage. Is there any reason to expect that same-sex marriage will just be a ‘done deal,’ given what’s happened in California?!” Absolutely not.
Mr. Kirchick is correct in saying that some civil rights groups — or at least elements of them — tend to perpetuate their own existence and could conceivably outlive their usefulness, but that may be more a problem within the group, not the cause itself. And at the risk of taking a page from Benjamin H. Grumbles, this young whippersnapper wouldn’t be able to come out with an article like this if it hadn’t been for old farts like me and the people who stood up at Stonewall in 1969, or going back further, who literally risked life and fortune to form the Mattachine Society and advocate for gay rights in 1950, two years before I was born. At the tender age of 25, he has benefited from the work — not to mention the pain and suffering — of a lot of men and women, gay and straight, who worked to give him a world where he can sit there are blithely say, gee, thanks, you made your point, now shut up and go away.
It’s understandable that a civil rights organization’s decision to shut down would induce nostalgia for struggles gone by. But the underlying reason for the move represents a step forward. Arriving days before Iowa and Vermont legalized gay marriage, it points to the day, hard as it may be to imagine now, when civil rights groups will no longer be necessary.
Yeah, wouldn’t that be nice; I’d like to see that day, too. I also like to see an end to world hunger, peace everywhere, a cure for AIDS, a chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage. But you don’t get those by just wishing for it, and as far as civil rights are concerned, there are always going to be those who think that not everyone is entitled to the same rights as everyone else. And as long as they’re out there, we’ll need to be there, too.