Celebrating Activists

It was almost funny. One minute President Barack Obama enthusing in his Pride Month proclamation about “those who organized, agitated, and advocated for change.” The next, Ellen Sturtz getting slammed for disrupting a fundraiser featuring First Lady Michelle Obama, who didn't exactly embrace the activist.

Plenty in the LGBT community were suitably horrified. The moment was badly chosen, we were told. It wasn't nice. It wasn't polite. It wasn’t…. As if poor Miz Obama was some kind of shrinking violet, not a very public face of the administration, herself an important cog in the Democratic fundraising machine, while queers — including those of color — wait and wait and wait for change.

I bring it up now because it's typical of our community. We celebrate Stonewall but resent activists, maybe because we don't understand their role in moving things forward. Our lobbyists take too much credit. Also, we're wary of anybody who may want us to do more than write checks. Like leave our homes and mobilize around stalled issues such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and other federal protections (which the White House could advocate for right now with a directive barring bias on the part of federal contractors — the whole reason Ellen Sturtz and GetEQUAL made a scene).

Even positive results in courts and legislatures require ongoing involvement by activists. How many laws are there against bullying? How many actually get enforced? That’s up to us, watching from the sidelines. Even DOMA won’t be truly overturned unless bigmouthed watchdog troublemakers are there making sure all the controversial questions, like those affecting immigration benefits, don’t get buried beneath red tape and paperwork.

We can’t count on Obama. Like most politicians, he'll do the bare minimum unless we're out there making a stink at every possible opportunity. The guy only “evolved” on the homo question because we were there kicking and screaming. I remember how after he had the queer votes in the bag in the 2008 primary, he campaigned with the same gay-hating preachers as George W. Bush. And after he won the election, he tried to curry favor among right-wing legislators and voters by blabbing about a big tent and bringing the anti-gay zealot Rick Warren on board.

He probably would have continued in that vein if we hadn’t mobilized every trick in the book — financial influence, quiet whispers, and plenty of embarrassing public howls. And we can't stop now. Both because there are lots of pressing issues and because, despite what Martin Luther King asserted, history does not move toward progress in an inevitable arc. In this country alone, we've seen abortion rights eroded at an astronomical pace. Plenty of cities and states have rolled back ordinances protecting LGBT rights and have actually passed anti-gay legislation legalizing discrimination against us.

Probably I've written this before, but it's worth saying again during Pride Month. Party as much as you want. Eat Bar-B-Q. Hook up with that cutie across the room. But take a couple minutes to think about what Stonewall launched and how precarious our gains are if we get complaisant. You don't necessarily have to take to the streets, but everyone should be involved in some way. Come out — to everyone. Speak up when you hear a homophobic joke. Anything.

Anti-gay violence and bullying are still awful. Most queer images are stereotypes of gay white men, the rest of us invisible. Our own community ignores our most urgent issues, including employment bias and poverty, affecting far more of us than marriage. Every month there's a new study showing families led by LGBT Americans are worse off financially than those headed by straights (even if other studies show we take better care of our kids). The latest, published by the Williams Institute of the UCLA Law School, shows that even two white gay men are poorer than their counterparts.

It's simply harder for LGBT people to find good jobs, and even tougher for us to keep them. We don't start on equal footing, facing an uphill battle for a decent education thanks to bullying in schools and additional problems at home and in our communities.

The most vulnerable among us are households headed by two African-American dykes. They have the triple whammy of misogyny squared by racism and then by lesbophobia. What about them? They are barely visible in our community, much less in the world at large. Like their problems. For them, jobs are a queer issue, just as poverty and hunger are. And their effects accumulate in ways as horrible and lingering as violence.

For all our sakes, we need to acknowledge that change is not a done deal and that it never comes as a reward to those who sit smiling nicely with their hands politely in their laps. Let's think beyond Stonewall and try to support activists working today.

Follow Kelly Cogswell on Twitter @kellyatlarge.