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Are Gay Activists Too Wedded To the Cause?

By James Kirchick
Sunday, April 12, 2009

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.

After the thrill of the October ruling in Connecticut, Love Makes a Family executive director Anne Stanback said that she and her staff took stock of where the organization stood: They conducted surveys, focus groups and interviews with supporters and donors. No one really knew where to go from there. "There was no clear consensus about what our mission should be," she says. So she and her colleagues decided to shift course, writing in an open letter released April 1: "We have accomplished our mission, and now we want to conclude our work on a high note." The organization's political action committee will continue to raise funds and support candidates, but as of Dec. 31, Love Makes a Family's lobbying and educational divisions will become inoperative.

Contrast the decision of Love Makes a Family with that of MassEquality, a Massachusetts organization that won equal marriage rights through a state supreme court decision in 2003. It fought off successive attempts to repeal that ruling, a battle that ended conclusively in 2007 when legislators blocked an effort to put a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage on the ballot. Massachusetts' gay citizens are now equal under state law in every way, which would seem to undermine the organization's eponymous raison d'etre. Yet MassEquality continues to operate and raises money that could be directed to gay rights organizations fighting more pressing battles in other parts of the country. Today, its agenda has less to do with supporting gay rights than it does with lobbying the state government to pour more money into pre-existing, already generously funded programs such as anti-bullying measures, senior services and others.

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.

Of course, gay rights are not just about the right to adopt children or the right to marry. There remain the ongoing campaigns to end the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy and to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal to fire someone on the grounds of sexual orientation. But given the overwhelming support for these moves among younger Americans, these victories are not far off, and gay rights organizations should start facing the prospect that in the near future, their missions will be superfluous.

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. Take the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, for instance. GLAAD was established in the mid-1980s, when, as its Web site correctly states, "representations of lesbians and gay men tended to fall into one of two categories: defamatory or non-existent." The situation today, however, is dramatically improved, as gays have essentially won the fight over popular culture. Countless television shows and movies feature positive portrayals of gay characters, and it's a career faux pas for people in the entertainment industry to say anything that could be remotely construed as hostile to gays (see what happened to superagent Michael Ovitz when he alleged that a "gay mafia" ran Hollywood).

Rather than rest on its laurels, however, GLAAD raises millions of dollars from media companies and wealthy donors to subsidize a bloated national staff. Its work seems to consist of little more than issuing hypersensitive press releases complaining about purportedly anti-gay content in television commercials and throwing extravagant parties to honor straight celebrities for talking about their gay friends. Far from demonstrating the increasing political power of the gay community and the acceptance it has won, GLAAD is the epitome of neediness and vulnerability.

Gay civil rights groups have a tendency to minimize victories and exaggerate threats. When President Obama chose the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, those groups complained loudly. Although Warren had campaigned in favor of Proposition 8, the California measure banning same-sex marriage, the decision to include him in a purely ceremonial position signaled no change in administration policy on gay rights. Nevertheless, his mere reading of a two-minute prayer drove gay organizations apoplectic. After all, bogeymen like Warren help with fundraising appeals.

Of course, the passage of Proposition 8 last fall highlights the fact that the struggle today remains real and that love only makes a family within clearly defined state borders. There is still important work to be done nationwide, and none of this is to downplay the daily efforts put forth by gay organizations in socially conservative parts of the country. But if the ultimate goal of the movement is to achieve equality for homosexuals, then those leading it should appropriately acknowledge progress along the way. That means accepting victory when it's achieved, rather than trumping up opposition at every opportunity.

When I asked Stanback how Connecticut's gay community reacted to Love Makes a Family's announcement, she said that the response had been overwhelmingly positive but was also characterized by sadness. "There was a sense of community," she says. "It was exciting to be a part of a movement."

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.

jkirchick@tnr.com

James Kirchick is an assistant editor of the New Republic and a contributing writer to the Advocate.

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