Outlook: Are Gay Activists Too Wedded to the Cause?

James Kirchick
Assistant Editor, The New Republic and Contributing Writer, The Advocate
Monday, April 13, 2009; 2:00 PM

James Kirchick , assistant editor of The New Republic and contributing writer to The Advocate, was online Monday, April 13, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his Outlook article about a gay organization that closed its doors in Connecticut because its mission was accomplished.


James Kirchick: Hi All -- This is Jamie Kirchick, assistant editor of The New Republic and Contributing Writer to the Advocate. I'm excited to be here to today to discuss my article in yesterday's Outlook, "Are Gay Activists Too Wedded to the Cause?" I was hoping to provoke some serious discussion about the direction and future of the gay rights movement, and judging by the emails I've received thus far from readers, it seems that there are strong opinions on all sides!


Baltimore, Md.: While I agree with you that the ideal would be for such organizations to no longer be necessary, I think that it's a little early to close up shop. Even in the states where marriage equality has been achieved, there are still couples who cannot get married.

Bi-national gay couples -- those in which one partner is a citizen and the other is not -- cannot take advantage of the state laws because they are governed by federal immigration law.

I feel that rather than shutting down, the state organizations could turn their lobbying efforts to legislation such as the Uniting American Families Act (submitted to Congress in February by Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.). Bi-national gay couples are often too scared to act on their own behalf, since legal status in the country can be delicate. It is often not safe for them to advocate for themselves.

Do you think that state organizations should consider it their responsibility to make sure that ALL of their constituents are seeing the fruits of their labor?

James Kirchick: I agree with the reader that the discrimination faced by bi-national gay couples is a serious one. And there's an excellent organization, Immigration Equality, devoted to fighting just that injustice. But here's a not-so-hypothetical question: what should Immigration Equality do once they've accomplished their goal of equalizing immigration laws for gay Americans and their foreign spouses?

Granted, that day may be a long way off. But take a gay rights issue that's likely to be resolved sooner, perhaps by the end of President Obama's first term: ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Once DADT is revoked -- which it eventually will -- should the Service members Legal Defense Network (which was formed in 1993 to lobby against the policy) continue to operate? At most, I could understand SLDN remaining active for a few years after repeal of DADT, just to make sure that the non-discrimination policy is implemented properly. But I think it's patronizing to gay soldiers -- whom, by the way, have served with distinction in the armed forces since the founding of this country -- to insist that a special organization exist solely to cater to them in situations when they may face discrimination. Ideally, the military will, by that point, have procedures for dealing with such issues when they arise.

I think the most effective gay organizations are those single-issue groups that have clearly defined goals. That makes it easier for everyone to focus on the issues at stake. And it's why Love Makes a Family decided to close: it won.


Simi Valley, Calif.: There is a myriad of gay advocacy organizations -- Equality Now, HRC, GLAAD, Lambda Legal Defense, NGTLF, PFLAG, Victory Fund -- and many of them have the resources to keep my mailbox filled with fund appeals. If a large share of an organization's budget goes to fund raising and $250 a plate dinners for the status-conscious then what purpose does it really serve? And if its mission has been achieved, then should it close its doors or change direction? The March of Dimes once was in business to conquer polio. Since the advent of the vaccine, it changed its focus to birth defects. Can gay advocacy groups exercise a like flexibility to change direction as social, political and legal conditions evolve?

James Kirchick: I think you raise an excellent point. I've already written about GLAAD, whose mission is superfluous at this point. I've long felt that way about the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which is little more than a radical leftist organization posing as a gay one (explain to me how there's a gay position on racial preferences?), and they have absolutely no influence whatsoever in Washington, DC.

I'm not going to go after other groups in this space because I feel I've made enough enemies with this piece already, but you get the picture. As for adapting to the future: one area where I think gay activists could be useful is focusing on American foreign policy and the dire situation of gay people living in totalitarian and theocratic societies. Gays in the American South don't have it easy, but their lives are nothing compared to what it's like to be gay in Iran or Iraq -- where just last week it was reported that dozens of gay men were murdered by sectarian militias. Just as the American Jewish Community has become an effective and influential voice for Israel, I hope that once the American gay community earns equality at home, they'll fight for the cause of gay rights abroad.


Washington, D.C.: Interesting article! Not to sound like a self-hating gay or anything, but I think the gay community has a LOT more work to do beyond gay marriage (which I am very pleased to see progress).

Essentially, I think the biggest obstacle for gay men is moving beyond the stereotype. I find it depressing how SO many gay guys fall into the negative stereotypes: hyper-promiscuity, substance abuse, major insecurities, superficial body issues (either a gym rat or extremely thin), etc.

People always dismiss this critique as just a bar-related issue. In my experience, it's unfortunately not -- I've seen plenty of it at work and in my political activates around town. I also hear it's just a function of my age (I'm in my mid-20's), but I know plenty of older gays with the same issues.

Of course, there are exceptions. But it seems, in my experience, to be just that: exceptions. I obviously think marriage is certainly a step in the right direction to resolve some of these issues. It would be nice to have some prominent gay figures speak out on this (like Bill Cosby and Pres. Obama do for young black men), as a kind of wake-up call to better ourselves.

So essentially, I completely agree that gay activists have plenty more work to do beyond marriage!

James Kirchick: I understand the frustration you've encountered. And without trivializing your point, I think that once gay rights groups can start tackling the "superficial body issues" of gay gym rats, that will be the ultimate sign that their purpose has expired.


Chicago, Ill.: As someone who posts frequently here and elsewhere on behalf of gay rights the breadth and depth of the anti-gay hatred I encounter on the internet can hardly be overestimated. Passing laws towards our equality is vitally important, of course, and laws themselves do their part in gradually changing hearts and minds but they can also be undone and aren't the entire answer -- especially when they originate in the courts. My question -- Can we really afford to lose advocacy groups and their accumulated learning that can continue in the task of changing hearts and minds once our legal equality has been, for the time being at least, secured?

James Kirchick: I think you strike at a very important issue here which I've written about myself, which is recognizing the socially transformative limits of the law That's why I'm so skeptical of the intense focus that gay organizations place on hate crimes legislation (which is really just a politically correct way to criminalize thought) and employment non-discrimination statutes. At the end of the day, will imposing stiffer penalties on anti-gay crimes and employers who fire gay workers because of their sexuality make people less homophobic?

The answer, I think, is no, and the struggle to change hearts and minds is far more difficult that merely changing laws. African-Americans, after all, have been legally equal at least since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but there are obviously still racist people in this country. And, likewise, there will always be anti-gay animus. To be sure, the law plays a fundamentally important role in stigmatizing bigotry, but it's going to take a lot more than new laws on the books to help the closeted high schooler in Alabama who fears that his parents will kick him out of the house if he tells them he's gay.

So do gay organizations play an important role in changing those hearts and minds, to make it easier for that closeted Alabama teenager? To some extent. But I think that the number 1 indicator of whether or not someone harbors anti-gay animus is whether or not they have friends, relatives and/or co-workers who are gay. Personal interaction with openly gay people is what most effectively combats prejudice. Numerous polls show that people are more likely to support gay equality if they personally know someone who is gay. Society is becoming more and more tolerant with each passing day, and as more gay people decide to live their lives openly and honestly, we will continue to minimize anti-gay prejudice in this country. Sure, gay organizations have some role to play in this, but they're mostly on the sidelines.


Re: On Eexcutions of Gay People Abroad...: President Obama recently signed a treaty that condemns nations that murder people for their sexual preference. For some unfathomable reason, President Bush opposed it. But will just signing this treaty be enough? How can we stop the executions abroad? Thank you.

James Kirchick: I actually just wrote a piece about this very subject a few weeks ago: http://advocate.com/exclusive_detail_ektid76224.asp

While I agree that the United States was absolutely right to sign onto this resolution condemning governmental homophobia, I think it's important to remember that it was a United Nations resolution, and like everything related to that organization, is ultimately useless. Iran doesn't heed the complaints of America or its allies about its illegal nuclear weapons program or its funding Shi'ite militias in Iraq. What makes anyone think that a toothless UN resolution will make them stop murdering gay teenagers?

Unfortunately, homophobia is so deeply ingrained in the Muslim world that it will be very difficult to change the situation for the better. What we can, and must, do is support those liberal reformers who will work to move their societies in a more democratic direction. That's tough work, and the results won't come as fast as we would like, but it's the only way.


washingtonpost.com: Sexual Resolution (Advocate.com, March 24)


Woodbridge, Va.: Do you think that transgender issues could be part of the new focus of state/regional and national organizations? As both a transgendered and a gay person, I'm more for focusing on trans issues. I'm 21 and issues of transitioning and etc., is more important to me than the ability to marry. As far as the acceptance of gays and lesbians, transgender issues have much further to go.

James Kirchick: While I sympathize with the plight of the transgendered, I don't see the connection to gay rights. This is a very sensitive issue in the gay community and there's very little dissent from the orthodoxy enunciated by movement leaders, which is that transgenderism is directly related to homosexuality.

Without wading into what could become a very esoteric debate, I should say that while I don't think transgenderism has much to do with homosexuality, and that the "T" doesn't really belongs in "LGBT" (neither, of course, do the "L" or the "B," as lesbians are gay and bisexuals are only "oppressed" in the sense that they're part homosexual), I do support efforts to make society more aware and tolerant of the challenges transgender people face. I just don't think it's fair, or strategically wise, to expect gays -- who still lack full legal equality -- to burden themselves with an unrelated cause that is even more unpopular. Insisting that gay people make transgender issues part of their agenda is akin to gay rights activists foisting gay marriage upon Martin Luther King at his 1963 March on Washington.


Houston, Tex.: Has any attention been given by gay rights groups to the all-important distinction between "rights" and "privileges"? Currently, it's my understanding that marriage is not a right granted by the government, but a privilege granted by several other sources: the applicant's family, church, those of his fiancee, and in many cases also the peers, ethnic subculture, and neighborhood. There are frequently conditions to meet, multi-step checklists for validity, and even initiations to be endured.

If oversight into marriage is removed from these bodies and granted solely to government agencies, haven't we violated the Separation Clause? Isn't it disingenuous to insist on a total separation of Church and State, and then to appeal to State to overturn Church's decisions?

James Kirchick: As long as the government grants a certain legal status to marriage and simultaneously prohibits same-sex unions, then it will be denying "rights" to gay people. And I don't know any serious gay activists insisting that certain religious denominations should be forced to marry gay couples. They can preach whatever they like about homosexuality. The question is whether or not the government -- to which all of us, gay and straight, pay taxes -- will continue to exclude a minority from a legal status to which the majority is entitled and takes for granted.


Ft Lauderdale, Fla.: I think a clarification is in order when knocking Hate Crimes legislation, and that's the fact that the U.S. has had a national Hate Crimes Law since 1969 which addresses bias crimes based on race, religion and a few other categories. Now when there's broadening support for adding sexual orientation and gender identity...only NOW we hear so much about philosophical objections to such a law? If the one objecting is intellectually honest, shouldn't he/she be working for repeal of the 1969 religion and race protections? And 2nd -- good point about whether laws change anti-gay animus, but let's not forget about real-life effect on the gay person fired --- loss of income, loss of health care, possible loss of career, etc. I don't know that the person fired for being gay (and it happens every day) would join you in intellectualizing on why such a law and will it theoretically reduce future animus. Thanks.

James Kirchick: First off, there are no reliable statistics on the number of people fired because of their sexuality. I'd like to see some evidence that it "happens every day," because I've studied this issue and have yet to come across anything remotely as dire as the situation you've presented. Nor have gay organizations, at least to my knowledge, been able to produce anything other than anecdotal information here.

As for hate crimes, while I remain philosophically opposed to the notion of increasing penalties for crimes committed because of the victim's gender or race, I understand that those statutes won't be revoked, that suggesting they should be is political suicide, and that as long as other minority groups are being "protected" in such fashion, it's understandable that gays would want in. But that doesn't mean that I have to be enthusiastic about it, and it certainly doesn't mean that the energy devoted by gay groups to this largely symbolic cause is at all commensurate with the actual problem.


Washington, D.C.: Perhaps an important aspect of promoting tolerance is the importance of fairness. I have seen teenagers -- both gay and straight -- put off by gay adults who insist that having affairs and then divorcing their straight spouses causes no pain for the family members affected, just as I've seen teens put off by straight adults who do the same. Should an organization address these issues?

James Kirchick: Should an organization address these issues? Maybe. But I see no reason why a specifically *gay* organization should. Straight and gay couples get divorced. Once we're talking divorce, we've moved beyond the discrete, legal concerns of the gay community and onto a universal problem.


James Kirchick: Thanks everyone for your thought-provoking questions. The hour is up, but if you'd like to get in touch, drop me an email at jkirchick@tnr.com.


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