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Gay Activist Divisions Are Political, Not Generational

It had to be frustrating for Sunday’s rally organizers President Obama get a standing ovation from HRC at a gala event for simply repeating his unfulfilled campaign pledges on gay rights. This smacks of the type of lack of political accountability that can kill progressive change.

The New York Times spoke for much of the media when it framed last Sunday’s national gay rights march as “primarily the undertaking of a new generation of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender advocates who have grown disillusioned with the movement's leadership.” The Sunday march of primarily young people was contrasted with the older crowd attending the previous night’s black-tie dinner for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest national gay advocacy group. But the dichotomy between the two events was political, not generational.


Progressive gay activists have criticized more establishment gay organizations since the 1980s, and the politics of those who became known as the “ACT UP Generation” have not “moderated” with age. Further, Congressman Barney Frank, whose criticism of the march was cited by both the Times and CNN, was never a gay activist leader, and is hardly representative of a generation that features march organizer Cleve Jones (age 54), San Francisco’s post-60 Assembly member Tom “You Lie” Ammiano, author and activist Tommi Avicolli-Mecca, and countless others.

The strategic wisdom of last Sunday’s national gay march in Washington DC is worthy of debate. But the common framing of this question in generational terms plays upon long discredited perspectives of young activists as questioning and radical vs. older activists who prefer working through the system and are politically moderate.

Such a dichotomy has little basis in reality.

The ACT UP Generation
As I describe in a chapter in The Activist’s Handbook, gay activists of the 1980s formed ACT UP and mobilized and protested against the scientific and political establishment’s refusal to act “by all means necessary” in the struggle against AIDS. Among their targets was the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC). The GMHC was the nation’s largest AIDS service organization, but, like the Human Rights Campaign, represented the moderate, establishment wing of the gay rights movement that was reluctant to engage in militant tactics.

After Bill Clinton took office in 1993, progressive gay activists routinely criticized the Human Rights Campaign for playing “insider” politics to retain their perceived access to power. Urvashi Vaid’s 1996 book, Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, clearly set forth the case against the HRC, and the group’s political differences with progressive activists continues to this day.

But these differences are political, not generational. And the heroic ACT UP activists that survived AIDS are as progressive as ever.

It was the ACT UP generation that pushed the movement leftward on gay marriage. This activist generation laid the groundwork for the more militant and activist politics whose legacy includes events like Sunday’s march.

But despite the ACT Up Generation’s activist legacy, Congressman Frank was the only person above age 36 quoted in the Times account of the march, and he disparaged its effectiveness. Not quoted were such movement veterans as 54-year-old march organizer Cleve Jones. Jones’ day job is organizing workers for the hotel, gaming, food service and laundry workers union, UNITE HERE.

Anyone who has talked to Jones lately knows that he has not mellowed with age.

In addition to Jones, countless gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists over fifty could have given a more subtle and perceptive assessment of the march than Barney Frank (and its not his fault that no counterbalancing perspectives from his generation were used). But framing a story around a gay generational split required ignoring these voices.

Different Routes, Same Goal
Are young gay activists less patient toward President Obama’s fulfillment of his campaign promises? That hasn’t been my experience. Based on my talking to people and reading progressive publications, older Obama supporters appear far more vocal critics of the president than the young.

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Young gay activists in California are understandably frustrated about feeling left out of the failed No on 8 campaign. But so are many older activists. This frustration toward gay organizational leadership crosses age groups, and is not limited to the young.

Activists often differ on the strategic value of large, one-day events. The split typically focuses on resources. Should extensive time, money and organizational capacity be used for a march and rally, or is such better used canvassing voters, reaching out to the unconverted, or doing campaign work in states like Maine where a gay marriage referendum is on the November ballot?

Young people might be more likely to favor mass single-day events because it’s a new experience for them, whereas veteran activists are more likely to have a “been there, done that” feeling. But even Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, whose site is often described as the voice of the new, Internet generation of activists, questioned the ongoing strategic wisdom of mass marches in his book, Taking On the System, correctly noting that there is far less media attention for such events today than in past decades.

Obama and Gay Rights
It had to be frustrating for Sunday’s rally organizers President Obama get a standing ovation from HRC at a gala event for simply repeating his unfulfilled campaign pledges on gay rights. This smacks of the type of lack of political accountability that can kill progressive change.

But those of us who remember 1993 recall new President Clinton being roundly attacked by the left (and others) for raising the gays in the military issue so early in his presidency. At the time, it was felt that the issue weakened Clinton’s ability to pass progressive economic measures, and that he was sacrificing political capital for a cause that lacked a sufficient political base.

Had President Obama followed the Bush years by quickly addressing the Defense of Marriage Act or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, my hunch is that those among his base for whom universal health care was a top priority, or climate change, or EFCA, would have gone ballistic. It’s fine for Jon Stewart to argue that Obama should have already fit the gay agenda on his plate, but the constituency for The Daily Show is not the same as the Obama base.

It’s great that gay activists are holding Obama’s feet to the fire, even if some think it’s premature. But the passage of health care reform will leave little excuse for delay, and the young activists who marched Sunday will find the ACT UP Generation -- and older progressives -- by their side.

So ACORN’s problems will exacerbate the current lack of funding for a progressive organizing infrastructure. It’s fine to hire folks to work on elections, but as the health care campaign vividly shows, there’s a great need for people on the ground to advance progressive issues after winning elections that is not being met.

randy shaw

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press). Randy discusses how to keep politicians accountable in The Activist’s Handbook

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron

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