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Commonweal Institute

LGBT Activists Should Join Progressive Fights

Michelle Mustonen

Recently, President Obama honored slain LGBT rights activist Harvey Milk, by posthumously awarding him the Medal of Freedom. One of the keys to Milk's political success was understanding issues of concern to the non-LGBT community.  Like dog poop, for example. 

Chuck Wolfe, CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Victory fund, wrote:

While Milk certainly received strong support from San Francisco's LGBT community, he knew how to reach out to others. His commitment to tackling every day issues is humorously remembered for his campaign to protect the city from the troublesome problem of dog waste.

Likewise, today candidates who are LGBT know that we don't live in a Balkanized country and to succeed in public office requires a deep commitment to being true to yourself while opening up your mind to the problems others face.

Despite the difficult economic reality facing all Americans, including the LGBT population, it is also an exciting time for people with progressive values. It is perhaps not only humorous conjecture to believe that Harvey Milk would enjoin us to grab "funemployment" and "staycations" by the horns, and to use our extra time and energy by getting involved in the political process. There can be no doubt that Milk would have taken advantage of the technological developments and advances our decade affords activists. It has never been easier to reach out to all kinds of progressives and people with progressive values, tightening and improving connections both within and without the LGBT community.

The LGBT community can also make the progressive movement as a whole more aware of our victories. And there is no shortage of them, all over the country. A review of recent LGBT actions is heartening, and demonstrative of just how direct action can work.


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Responding to pressure from the LGBT community, corporations in Rhode Island dropped sponsorship of an anti-marriage equality organization. Similar action led to another corporation cancelling appearances by a homophobic rap artist in several major cities; convincing California legislators to formally join the chorus demanding an end to Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT); and ridding Texas law enforcement agencies of violently homophobic police officers. Our examples prove that action works.

Perhaps most encouragingly, LGBT activists have successfully pressured Congress to modify the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (EDNA) to include protection for the heterogendered. This major change from the first version of the bill is a clear victory for activists, and proof that an angry, vocal, active minority can affect meaningful change. This struggle for inclusion is literally embodied in the first openly transgendered person to work on Capitol Hill, Diego Sanchez. A former AIDS activist, Sanchez now works in Rep. Barney Frank's office, who lauds Sanchez as the first transsexual many members of Congress have ever met. "Prejudice is literally ignorance," says Frank.

One can only imagine the joy Harvey Milk would find in the many victories the LGBT community enjoys today. But I'm sure he would also tell us not to rest upon our laurels, but instead strike while the iron is hot, and reach for even greater achievements.

Politics is policy, but in reality there is also an important social element to success in politics. Queer progressives today enjoy the cachet that comes with victory, and we should use that power not only to further our own community's triumphs, but in battles that affect all Americans. Despite a prevailing narrative in the mainstream media that suggests otherwise, our elected officials and their spokespeople fear the "left of the left." The LGBT community is nothing if not that, and adding our voices to the debate about policy only increases their responsiveness to our demands.

Now is the time for LGBT progressives to step up, and share our unique knowledge of the road to political victory with those involved in the struggle for such things as health care for all Americans, an end to expensive, pointless wars, and the reformation of the failed "War on Drugs," just to name a few fronts in which progressives stand at the cusp of achieving real change. Harvey Milk understood that "we're all in this together," and it's time for today's LGBT progressives to honor his memory by showing that we do too.

This article was produced as part of Commonweal Institute's Progressive Op-Ed Program
Creative Commons License

Michelle Mustonen is a fellow at the Commonweal Institute.

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