LGBT infighting only benefits the bigotsPolitically Aware Thursday, October 20th, 2011
Commentary: Politically Aware
Marriage equality would not have saved Matthew Shepard. Whether harsh, obvious – or both, it’s worth keeping in mind before we re-arm the circular firing squad that is often our activist community.
Last week saw a hurricane of events in LGBT politics. Gov. Brown signed 10 of the 12 pro-LGBT equality bills passed by the California Legislature. On National Coming Out Day, it became clear that opponents of the FAIR Education Act failed to gather enough signatures for a referendum to repeal it. Before we could enjoy those victories, however, the executive director of Equality California (EQCA) resigned, putting a spotlight on internal dissent about the organization’s decision not to pursue a repeal of Proposition 8 in 2012. Love Honor Cherish (LHC) then announced they would gather signatures for a repeal referendum.
I have no problem with LHC picking up the torch for marriage equality, but “we do not believe in sitting on our hands while our rights are being decided” was an unnecessary shot at EQCA and other groups who have made a similar decision.
Anyone could have lost some perspective in the storm of events, but the 13th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s tragic death seems a particularly poor time to suggest that marriage equality is the only important LGBT cause.
Matthew Shepard wasn’t killed because he wanted to get married, or because he couldn’t. He was murdered by people who believe it is acceptable to treat homosexual people as something less than human. Opposition to marriage equality is certainly part of that ethos, but legalizing same-sex marriage will not stop people from harboring, or acting on that hate. In fact, data from 2008 suggest a surge in hate crimes related to the intense feelings around Proposition 8. When considering whether to seek a repeal in 2010, some of the most moving “no’s” came from parents in non-LGBT friendly communities whose children needed a break from neighborhood warfare.
Even the Hate Crimes Prevention Act bearing Shepard’s name probably wouldn’t have saved Matthew Shepard. People whose hate is strong enough to kill aren’t usually weighing how long their prison sentence will be. If anything would have saved Matthew Shepard, it would have been preventing the seed of hate from being planted in the hearts of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson.
Accomplishing that would require teaching people that prejudice and discrimination are unacceptable in daily life; and starting early, school children should learn that bullying is never OK. The societal contributions of people from a variety of backgrounds should be highlighted, so no group can be seen as expendable. That sort of training should be continued in higher education. Seth’s Law (AB-9); the FAIR Education Act (SB-48); and Equality and Equal Access in Higher Education (AB-620) are just three of the 10 pro-equality laws enacted in California this year. These are good laws that will plant seeds of tolerance. But these laws only passed with the help of coalitions largely led by EQCA. It may not be marriage equality, but it’s life saving work and far from hand-sitting.
Including passage of pro-equality bills and defeat of anti-LGBT initiatives, EQCA has led at least 10 legislative victories every year since 2003, save one. The exception was 2008, when their focus necessarily shifted to fighting Prop 8. When the enemy brings the battle to your gates, you don’t get to see what else is on your agenda, or decide if it is the best time for a fight. You simply defend yourself.
Repeal is different. We do get to choose the time and theater, and we should do it carefully. I don’t know why EQCA, or at least slightly over half of its board, decided that 2012 was not the year. Maybe they didn’t want to strip Perry v. Schwarzenegger of the chance to bring marriage equality to the entire nation. Maybe they thought that simultaneously promoting a “yes” vote to overturn Prop 8 and a “no” vote to help keep FAIR Education would be a little confusing (sorry, folks, the failed attempt to overturn SB 48 was the first, not last, battle in that war.) Maybe they decided that ballot initiatives aren’t what they do best. That’s certainly what they heard in 2009, from some of the same people who question why they won’t lead the charge in 2012.
A wise woman taught me that the relevant question in political resource allocation is, “What is the most strategic thing I could be doing right now?” Not the biggest. Not the highest profile. Not even the most important. The most strategic, because it matches your skills and motivators to the movements needs. A repeal initiative may well be the most strategic use of resources for LHC, but not EQCA. More than most, our community should recognize the strength in that diversity. When we spend our time shaking hands with each other, instead of shaking fists at each other, we stand a much better chance of achieving marriage equality, and preventing tragedies like the murder of Matthew Shepard.
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