Pictured clockwise from left: Obama swearing in during second inauguration; Tammy Baldwin, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire after she signed into law a measure that legalizes same-sex marriage.
There has been more to celebrate in the LGBT movement in the past few months than at any other time in history. By now, you know it well. Ballot measures in four states went our way, Tammy Baldwin is now a Senator, the LGBT Congressional Caucus has a record seven members, a pro-marriage President was soundly re-elected against long-held conventional wisdom and then he went on to make history by including our community’s equality in his inaugural address.
Let’s also not forget that nearly all speakers at the Democratic National Convention mentioned some aspect of LGBT equality in their speech. And when they did, the convention hall responded with loud cheers and applause. When the President mentioned “our gay brothers and sisters” in his inaugural address and tied it to the struggle for women’s rights and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the cheering of the crowd came in waves as the sound reached the Capitol lawn from as far away as the Washington Monument.
My head is still spinning. Things have changed in a big way and it overwhelms me with emotion when I think about how much progress has been made in such a short time. We have witnessed history in rapid succession.
After so much success, it’s easy to forget the long-held conventional wisdom that dictated that LGBT equality was too controversial to support. But it’s worth taking a look back at how we got to the amazing place where we now find ourselves. We don’t need to examine the entire history of our movement to draw some important lessons. The last four years give us plenty to learn from.
When progress seemed elusive after the euphoric inauguration of Obama in 2009, a proactive group of activists met in Dallas, Texas in May to discuss what action could be taken to capitalize on having Democrats controlling the White House and both houses of Congress. What came out of that was a document known as The Dallas Principles.
It was well received by the media and grassroots activists as a well articulated vision of how to move forward as a collective movement. However establishment LGBT leaders were mum on taking an uncompromising position in support of equality.
Also in May 2009, a new organization, American Foundation for Equal Rights filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Prop 8. Founded by current HRC President Chad Griffin along with Hollywood heavyweights Bruce Cohen and Dustin Lance Black, it rankled the LGBT establishment from coast to coast. Rather than praise the bi-partisan dream team of David Boies and Ted Olson, who famously argued Bush v. Gore, activists rampantly distrusted why a Republican would argue for marriage equality.
Not long after, calls for a national equality march culminated in hundreds of thousands of people gathering to march from the White House to the Capitol. There, participants were treated to speeches by activists and entertainers such as Cleve Jones, Robin McGeehee, Lady Gaga, and Cynthia Nixon. Speakers universally called for full equality.
National organizations were slow to embrace the march, if they did at all. The evening before the march was the HRC National Dinner, with the President delivering the keynote address. The march went unmentioned by the speakers, including the President.
In January 2010, a broader group of grassroots activists met at the famed Highlander Center in Tennessee, a place where civil rights leaders such as Rosa Parks were trained. The most notable result of the meeting was that is provided the beginnings of what became GetEqual, an organization of activists nationwide working aggressively for full equality.
Not long after, GetEqual and others organized protests that caught the ire of the establishment. When Dan Choi, Jim Pietrangelo and others chained themselves to the White House Fence to protest the lack of progress in repealing "don’t ask, don’t tell," it angered White House staff and organizations such as HRC distanced themselves from the protest. Additional protests followed. Not long after, DADT was repealed.
Then, with the President’s re-election just around the corner, activists were asked to remain quiet. Since activists aren’t so good at that, the request was ignored, causing more angst for the establishment. There was pressure for the President to support marriage equality and to issue an executive order requiring non-discrimination for LGBT employees of federal contractors.
DNC Treasurer Andy Tobias argued in an opinion piece at The Advocate’s website that such an executive order could risk the President’s re-election. Presumably, supporting marriage equality would be far riskier. This did little to ease up the pressure on the White House. Soon after, the President announced his support for marriage equality in a national television interview with Robin Roberts on ABC News.
It’s important to note that every instance above of activists and advocates pushing the envelope received positive press coverage. That’s because the media long ago was won over by the argument for full equality for LGBT people. The only thing standing in our way was the LGBT establishment that had become used to whispering in the ears of politicians that it’s OK not to be for LGBT equality since it’s too risky.
The President’s announcement wiped away all remaining obstacles within our own community. It also gave license to a sea change of public opinion on LGBT equality, including marriage.
Leadership matters. Whether it is activists pushing the envelope or the President realizing his words matter on civil rights, change doesn’t come easily. That’s the main lesson to draw. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.