What Next for the LGBTQ Movement in Illinois?
We Need to Work on a Social Equality Agenda and Support Every Stripe of Our Rainbow Community
GLN permalink 11-21-2013
While most states still do not enjoy full legal equality, in Illinois we now have largely crossed that threshold and so face a crucial juncture in our movement.
Today our situation recalls that faced by the African American movement following the passage of the great civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s. Formal legal equality has been finally achieved, but entrenched social discrimination persists. Illegal discrimination is disguised by euphemism and deceit and is still abundantly harmful.
In 1968 Dr. King was tragically cut down as he was trying to lead his movement into the new era. Radical organizations like the Black Panther Party took up the torch and articulated the need to go beyond formal legal equality by addressing poverty, a racist justice system and persistent unequal access to jobs, education and health care. The job of King and his more radical colleagues remains unfinished. Racist discrimination today, shocking and undeniable, persists in almost every facet of American life.
LGBTQs of all races are at a similar juncture. Trans people face rampant employment and other discrimination and face open violence on our streets. LGBTQ youth suffer disproportionately from homelessness and suicide, their schools anything but LGBTQ-affirming and often outrightly hostile, and the programs for our seniors are meager at best in major urban areas and utterly lacking elsewhere.
In short, we have light-years to go. Nor will our enemies go away. Powerful forces like the Catholic leadership and evangelical Protestant churches will continue to block every pro-LGBTQ program in Illinois and re-double their efforts in surrounding states that lack even formal legal protections.
A minority within our community have from the start opposed working for equal marriage rights arguing that family life, whether traditional or non-traditional, has a conservatizing influence on people and draws them away from politics into private life. But these opponents have a mistaken notion of where the real threat to our movement lies now.
Yes, some people will drop out of our movement now, thinking that their work is done, just as some dropped out of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s after the achievement of formal legal equality. Sheer exhaustion after facing years of violent racist repression was one reason; the trauma and depression caused by King's assassination was another. But there was another reason some people retired from the struggle. It's embarrassing to talk about and therefore doesn't get the attention it deserves. But it is as pertinent to today's LGBTQ movement as it was to the civil rights movement then, and it can be expressed in one little, ugly word: class.
The LGBTQ community, like all minority groups, has a small number of rich people who use their wealth to have a disproportionately large effect on the political life of the community. Most boards of LGBTQ organizations and newspapers, as well as their executive directors, have six- and seven-figure incomes and are very politically-connected. These self-selected "leaders" share a political agenda that serves their own social and economic interests. Their drive to be "equal" is to be equal with others of their own class -- not to be truly equal with their maid, rent-boy or other employee. This is why it's accurate to call these organizations and their social networks "Gay, Inc."
Gay, Inc. is closely tied to the Democratic Party; in fact, it's such an intimate relationship that Gay, Inc. can be said to be a mere adjunct to the Democrats. But so is the leadership of labor, and so are many of the organizations that claim to advocate for all African Americans or women or immigrants. The top brass of these groups has its primary allegiance to the Democratic Party and that is why they are willing to sell measures billed as "reforms" -- pension "reform," education "reform, "immigration "reform," welfare "reform," etc. -- that throw masses of the people they claim to represent under the bus. They tell us: "Leave it to us, we'll get the job done, we'll service your needs, you just sit back and let it happen..."
We follow and believe in this strategy of "change" at our peril. The historic gains for civil rights -- for all groups of people -- have always come about thru masses of people forming their own organizations and acting on their own behalf -- not leaving it to Democratic politicians to do it for them. It is no accident that "representatives" in the General Assembly only got on board for marriage equality well after a majority of Illinoisans already did -- and only after threats of political retribution towards House Speaker Mike Madigan and his allies.
Over the past few decades, the dependence on Democratic politicians to protect past gains has produced tragic results: a severe erosion of abortion rights in state after state, no significant new pro-labor legislation since the 1935 Wagner Act, mass incarceration of African Americans, a "reform" immigration bill in Congress that makes Reagan's 1986 law look progressive by comparison, to name just a few. There has been growing income inequality for the past four decades under Democratic and Republican administrations alike, as most people in this country, including most LGBTs, have lived through a downward economic spiral of stagnant wages, disappearing living-wage jobs, and unmanageable debt. Even Business Week and the Wall Street Journal regularly quote wealthy financial industry execs worrying about the social and political impacts of growing income disparity... while they continue to line their own pockets.
Times of economic stagnation and crisis have also historically been times of increased bigotry. Ruling elites around the world use the time-honored technique of blaming minorities for their governments' and businesses' failure to provide decent living conditions for their citizens. While some gays in the U.S. may either ignore or adopt patronizing attitudes towards LGBTQs facing desperate situations in places like Russia, Honduras and Africa, they would do well to have the humility to realize that they may be seeing a hint of their own future, as the U.S. slowly slips from being the dominant economy in the world.
In an era of budget cuts, pension "reform" and other attacks on working class living standards, most LGBTQs will need to recognize that their erstwhile, self-selected "leaders," as well as the Democratic politicians we are urged to support, are ineffective at best, and hostile at worst. LGBTQs will need to make common cause with others if we are to preserve, let alone improve, our living standards. We will need to realize that while reforms like formal legal equality can be won, they can also be taken away. Moreover, reforms that cost real money -- massive youth jobs programs, free healthcare for all, free higher education, etc. -- can only be won with renewed determination and even greater effort during times of economic crisis.