Pride in the Time of Trump: Lessons from LGBTQ History By Eric van der Vort
What changes two years can bring. To say that the LGBTQ experience in the United States in that time moved in highs and lows seems inadequate. First, the high: on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that all states must grant same-sex marriages and recognize such marriages performed in other states. LGBTQ people and their friends, families, and neighbors celebrated across the country. Then, then low: less than a year later, on June 12, 2016, a mass shooter at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub killed 49 people and injured 53 others. The weddings and celebrations of 2015 gave way to vigils and mourning in 2016. We are now entering 2017’s Pride Month. Will there be joy or mourning, weddings or vigils? How can we tell? Most important, how can we work for a brighter future?
There are no easy answers. Many LGBTQ Americans feel political uncertainty. The pace of change in the legal, political, and cultural status of LGBTQ people means that many newly inclusive policies feel contingent. Marriage feels like a fundamental right, but even now, states are moving to chip away at that gain. Some states do not guarantee adoption or custody rights. A number of states do not prohibit discrimination in employment, public accommodation, or other areas based on sexual orientation; still more have no protections based on gender identity or expression. Despite of rapid gains in some areas, LGBTQ people remain semi-citizens. This fragmented citizenship may feel less secure in a time of political uncertainty.
This is not the first time that LGBTQ Americans have faced uncertainty. In the face of World War II, of Stonewall, of HIV/AIDS, debates around marriage, and now debates about trans inclusion, these communities have struggled. They have fought.
They have done the hard work to build a movement and to secure rights. The LGBT movement is actually a coalition of multiple constituencies forged by common struggles and shared goals. Over time, a coherent identity and a relative sense of linked fate have emerged. Still, the different political, social, and material needs and realities of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and trans people are large enough that they have formed a core cleavage among LGBT rights organizations.
The art of managing these cleavages without erasing difference in uncertain times was necessary for the movement. It can provide a useful model for our own times, both for LGBTQ advocates and for those engaged in other battles. Here are four lessons that LGBT movement history can teach social movements and advocates.
Acknowledge difference. White gay men often lead LGBTQ rights groups. This was (and remains) a frequent criticism of the movement. Early groups like the Mattachine Society organized explicitly around gay men. Lesbian groups also emerged, like the Daughters of Bilitis. As the movement evolved, some organizations sought to build difference and diversity into their structures. In doing so, they helped to bridge these cleavages. The National Gay Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force) mandated that women and people of color be centered in their structures as early as the 1970s. Today, The Task Force continues to be one of the most diverse and vibrant grassroots-oriented LGBT organizations.
Pursue and provide education. LGBTQ advocates have found that education and contact are the most effective tools for building inclusion. This has two components. First, we know that people who personally know an LGBTQ person are more likely to favor LGBTQ inclusion. “Coming out” is a tried and true persuasive tool. However, this education has also been necessary inside the movement. The LGBTQ coalition is comprised of many groups. The acronym itself has expanded and adjusted to include more diversity and, along the way, has required more education. This incorporation has not been simple or easy. It has required movement actors themselves to pursue education and contact. For example, as trans rights moved into the movement’s mainstream, movement attorneys received multiple trainings at one of their regular gatherings. This training provided critical knowledge about trans lives to these activists. At its best, this combination of education and contact can empower an intersectional approach to advocacy.
Build informal policy networks. The act of bringing people together for a meeting is not enough. The most important work of movement building and maintenance happens in the quiet spaces between big events. In the LGBT movement, energy was not sustained by lurching from event to event. Informal networks of individuals working on particular policy issues provided momentum on a day-to-day basis ands laid the foundation for movement success. In seeking to overturn the nation’s sodomy restrictions, informal policy networks kept the lines of communication moving and sustained energy even in moments of defeat. The knowledge disseminated and relationships formed by these informal networks provide important infrastructure for later organizing.
Turn networks into durable coalitions. In each of the highest-profile successes of the LGBT movement, informal policy networks gave way to durable coalitions working on the same issues. In the case of sodomy repeal, informal policy networks gave way to the Litigators’ Roundtable, which continues to coordinate the movement’s legal strategies. This Roundtable grew out of an informal coalition litigating sodomy before the Supreme Court. When they lost, they formed a long-standing coordinating committee (or coalition) that has proven critical to movement success. In the case of marriage equality, numerous informal efforts gave way to state-level advocacy groups and the group Freedom to Marry. Transitioning from informal networks to formal coalitions and organizations makes long-term fights easier to wage and win.
Eric van der Vort is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Syracuse University.