This line of thought was sparked by an email message from a comrade in the media reform movement lamenting "How would you like to wake up one morning and discover you were a second class citizen." It made me realize the Achilles heal of the LGBT movement. At it's heart, it is run by members of the majoritarian culture with no tradition of fighting for their rights.
This creates a profound psychological weakness within the movement. Time after time, the LGBT movement has lost because it has simply failed to understand the nature of the opposition and what it means to fight for your rights. For the movement to succeed, it will need to guard against this weakness.
More below cut.
My aunt Merle Feld is a professional poet and author -- which in our culture means you need some serious kick-ass talent and insight. She has a poem which describes how, when she was growing up, her mother used to dress her in her best cloths before sending her out to play on Sunday morning. Why? So she would not attract undue attention from her church going neighbors. The poem describes her puzzlement over this as a child, and her own growing understanding and wrestling with this as an adult.
I bring this up because it is an important psychological insight into what it means to have a tradition of being an oppressed class. It gets bred into your bones. For over 1000 years, Jews lived as second class citizens -- subject without warning to having their property confiscated, their homes taken, their rights (such as they were) eliminated. And, were this not enough, they woke every day secure in the knowledge that they might suffer personal indignities or communal violence for no reason -- and the world would approve.
The result is a population that still grapples with the psychological issues of oppression and a fear that lurks just below the surface. Yes, it recedes as generations pass and as Jews become more assimilated. I have it less than my grandparents or even my parents. My son will -- God willing --feel it even less. But even I, who have "made it" in every sense of the word, feel a trill of fear when I read about the economic collapse that has nothing to do with whether I will have a job or the value of my 401(k). It goes to whether my passport is up to date, and how would I protect my family from a riot. Because I know too much history. Because I know that time and again the neighbors of my ancestors have NOT risen to protect their friends. Because I know, as we noted the 70th anniversary of Krystalnacht this past weekend, how fragile the bonds that protect my rights really are.
And I am from a minority group that has "made it." I can "pass" if I wish. I can tune it out and pretend that I am just a happy well-off white male with a college education. My parents have never had "The talk" with me about how, when a white police officer stops your car, even if it is for no good reason, you keep your eyes down and your tone respectful because you will end up in jail -- possibly with a beating for "resisting arrest" -- if you don't. I have never had respected pundits on cable explain how my relatives are spreading leprosy to "real" Americans.
It gives you a very different perspective on life. It means you do not expect life to be fair. You do not expect to see your rights vindicated without a fight. It means you take nothing for granted and never underestimate the ability of people to hate you irrationally, or underestimate the number who will simply not care enough to act.
LGBT activists expected opposition from "the religious right" and "fringe" elements. they never imagined that lots of their friends and neighbors would be quietly complicit in the voting both with taking away their rights. They appear to have completely misjudged the fact that African Americans and Hispanic voters are often socially conservative. They appear to have assumed that any "oppressed people" would automatically have sympathy for the civil rights of others.
LGBT are an anomaly in the annals of oppressed minorities for a number of reasons. It is the only minority group whose members do not discover their status until some point in life after they begin to mature. Folks born Jewish, or Hispanic, or whatever generally know it. Not all members of a group respond the same way, but the notion that a majority of a culture may target you is not exactly a surprise.
But LGBT folks are, by and large, born into families that are not LGBT. Indeed, if we accept the genetic argument, and assume an equal distribution of whatever combination of genetic traits is involved, we can expect the majority of LGBTs to be born and raised in the majority culture. In other words, they grow up expecting the world to work in a particular way. They have to discover -- repeatedly -- that the people in the world can be utterly irrational and can take your rights away in an instant. And if that happens, the Universe does not care.
I am disappointed that Prop 8 passed. I am a little surprised given how the early polling numbers went, but I am not shocked in the way some of my friends in the LGBT movement appear to be. For me, this is like finding dog poop on the street despite the presence of leash laws. It shouldn't be there, but it is hardly a shocker that it is. Contrast this with the sheer astonishment on the part of so many LGBT folks that so many people could do this to them. How many African Americans said they never really believed a black man could be president? Contrast that with an attitude that simply did not believe, at heart, that a majority of the electorate in California could calmly push a button and take away someone's rights, then go home and eat dinner in the happy certitude of having done the right thing.
Worse, this blind spot prevents the LGBT movement from understanding what drives its opposition. They simply do not understand how all those wonderful, happy pictures of men marrying men and women marrying women and their happy families with two mommies or two daddies would drive so many people to to the polls to vote for Prop 8. When pushed on this, the usual reaction is that it shouldn't have that effect, that it is wrong that it has that effect, and if there are people who are so motivated, screw them. Contrast this with the Jewish attitude which cringes at the nomination of Rahm Emmanuel for Chief of Staff because now anything that goes wrong in the administration is "our fault." We don't waste time on the unfairness of it. We just accept it and deal with it. Same with the members of minority communities who are now obsessed with the fact that Obama will be blamed for the continuation of the economic downturn and that this will reflect poorly on racial minorities.
White people generally think this is silly and paranoid. They chuckle at the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is going on at great length about how antisemitism is everywhere and the opposition to bailing out NYC is antisemitism. Jews laugh at that too, but with an edge.
Until the LGBT movement overcomes the blind spot of basically seeing the world through "white privilege," it will keep losing. The struggle for LGBT rights is one which should, in the realm of civil rights struggles, be relatively straightforward. Unlike traditional racism, it really has no economic underpinning to re-enforce the segregation. Preventing gays and lesbians from marrying does not create a pool of cheap labor, nor does an "open marriage" policy of allowing anyone to marry threaten anyone's job security. Further, all polling shows social attitudes moving increasingly toward acceptance. Indeed, the tragedy here is that CA was already moving toward acceptance in the legislature. And, had CA residents had time to grow accustomed to the idea like MA residents, odds are good Prop 8 would have failed.
But, unlike in MA, opponents of same sex marriage were able to bring the issue to the electorate before a majority of people with irrational "ick" reactions got used to the idea. And LGBT activists once again failed to appreciate what that would mean. They comforted themselves with early polling. They believed that they were making their case by showing the happy same-sex families. They could not imagine that a majority of voters might be swayed by such obvious hate speech as the advertising of the opposition. Nor did they imagine how much time, money and energy the opposition would invest. They did not come out of the gate fighting as if their lives depended on it, as if they believed that a majority of people not only could take their rights away, but actively would take their rights away, for no other reason than that they regarded gay marriage as different and therefore suspect. At heart, LGBT activists expected that "regular Californians" were just like themselves -- the classic perspective of the majority. And as a result, they lost what should have been a relatively straightforward defensive win because they did not realize until too late that they had a real fight on their hands.
The continued failure of the movement -- absent the occasional court win in which all that is necessary is persuading a handful of atypically educated decisionmakers who are not accountable to the broader population -- derives from the persistent belief among its leaders that they shouldn't have to fight for their rights; that all reasonable people should clearly see the injustice of the current situation and -- in accordance with our stated ideals in this country -- fix it. The utter determination to take Prop 8 to the U.S. Supreme Court because it is in violation of the Constitution and the Supreme Court should see that is evidence of this continued blind spot. Activists seek their own Loving v. Virginia, apparently not really believing in their heart that they will make their own Plessy v. Ferguson.
Until the movement understands why a Jewish mother would dress her children in their "shul clothes" on Sunday, they will continue to lose. It is only when you accept that you struggle against the natural order of things that you can change them.