What Gay Rights Activists Can Teach the Left About Winning

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Nothing seems to provoke President Obama more than being challenged by the progressive base. Maybe that's why it's a tactic that works.

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Remember when you believed that if we just elected enough Democrats to Congress and took the White House, we could take this country back? We could stop giving tax breaks to people who didn't need them so that we would have a shot at creating jobs, providing for those in need, and still break even. We could end government-inspired discrimination against people because of the way they look, who they love, or where they were born. And we could actualize "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," to quote Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.

That was 2008.

As Keith Harrington, an environmental activist, wrote last month:

Three years ago, I spent a number of weekends going door to door in Virginia urging people to vote for our president. In that campaign I found a sense of pride, a sense of excitement, a sense of energizing virtue.

This weekend, I spent a good chunk of time training to do civil disobedience at President Obama's door in the desperate hope that he'll fulfill the promise that drove me onto the streets for him in 2008. And in so doing I've found the same sense of pride, the same excitement, and the same energizing sense of virtue that I did three years back.

Harrington is one of more than a thousand Americans who traveled from every corner of the country -- California, Florida, Nebraska, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont -- to sit for arrest in front of the White House over the course of two weeks toward the end of August.

But his actions and those of his fellow activists embody a realization that many progressives have had: It wasn't enough to elect historic Democratic majorities to Congress and place a Democrat in the Oval Office.

This was a revelation that began to dawn on many gay rights advocates sometime in 2009. I'm not exactly sure why we were one of the first progressive constituencies to conclude that we needed to make our voices heard loud and clear to President Obama and Democratic lawmakers -- that we needed to let them know in no uncertain terms that we weren't going to sit by quietly while they abandoned campaign promises only to reemerge like an impulsive suitor come 2012.

Maybe it's because we were tired of paying the same taxes and not being able to pursue our happiness with equal fervor. Maybe it's because for decades we had been told by Democrats, "Elect us and we'll help you," yet we had only seen discriminatory measures like "Don't ask, Don't tell" and the Defense of Marriage Act enacted into law. Maybe it's because once your intelligence has been insulted flagrantly enough and your humanity denigrated deeply enough, you've got nothing left to lose. Whatever it was, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans had had enough.

And that's why LGBT activists started handcuffing themselves to the fence that forms the perimeter around the White House, showing up at presidential events and sometimes shouting down Obama -- even at fundraisers for progressive allies like California Senator Barbara Boxer. In fact, nothing seems to provoke the president more than being challenged by the progressive base. After studying Obama as a member of the press corps for nearly four years, the only time I have seen the fire of true indignation flare in his eyes is when he feels as though the left is questioning the authenticity of his progressive ideals.

To be candid, not all gay rights advocates agreed with these tactics -- some found them unseemly. But in retrospect, "Don't ask, Don't tell" was essentially the only piece of legislation passed during President Obama's first two years to address the concern of a specific progressive constituency. The one exception to that rule was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that relaxed the statute of limitations on when women could file a complaint for not being compensated at an equal level to men. That sailed through Congress in the first couple weeks of Obama's presidency.

The politics of ensuring women equal pay for equal work was a no-brainer for Democrats. But the politics of climate change, immigration reform, enabling labor unions to organize, ensuring access to abortion, and advancing LGBT equality -- those issues proved tricky. Lawmakers and the White House -- which had enormous sway over the congressional agenda in Obama's first two years -- needed to be convinced that they were worth the effort. Before they would act, they needed to see that the progressive left could be just as loud and boisterous and electorally essential as the conservative right. And that's what some queer activists set out to prove.

The lessons of that effort were not lost on advocates from other communities. Although immigration activists staged some direct actions during the 111th Congress, they have ramped up their aggressive efforts in recent months. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago was arrested in July along with 11 other activists during a 1,000-person protest outside the White House in Lafayette Park. Their beef? President Obama's deportation rates were exceeding those of President Bush's and he passed the milestone of one million people deported by mid-September.

The day before the arrests, Obama had tried to explain in a speech to members of the National Council of La Raza -- the nation's largest Latino group -- that he couldn't change the laws by himself, he needed the help of Congress. But Obama's words were met with a new twist on a familiar refrain. "Yes, you can! Yes, you can!" they shouted at the president.

To those of us in the LGBT community, it was a familiar conversation. The administration would tell us that they had no choice -- they had to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). They didn't have the executive authority to change the trajectory of the issue alone, they said. And they did defend it. For two years, they filed brief after brief in support of the law only to be skewered time and again by the blogosphere, grass roots activists and even the mainstream press. Eventually, they realized that there was a bigger political cost to defending the constitutionality of the law than there was to abandoning the effort. After Obama earned great adulation for repealing "Don't ask, Don't tell" -- there was virtually no downside -- White House advisors decided LGBT equality had more popular support than they had thought and rightly concluded that getting a black eye every time they filed a new brief defending the offensive law hadn't been worth the headache.

So it also wasn't particularly surprising to some LGBT activists when the president and his advisors discovered that they did indeed have the "prosecutorial discretion" to suspend deportations of immigrant youths who pose no threat to public safety. The Department of Homeland Security is now in the process of reviewing 300,000 deportation proceedings one-by-one to determine whether they should move forward. The White House suddenly found that power just a few weeks after the president's La Raza appearance, the widely publicized arrests in front of the White House, and amid polling that showed Obama's numbers tanking among Latinos.

And then came what's known as the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would provide a pathway for some of the dirtiest oil on the planet (known as "tarsands") to be piped down from Canada through the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico. There's just two problems: 1) this isn't your average oil -- this particular type of oil is so dirty that one of the top climatologists in the world, NASA's Dr. James Hansen, has said that fully tapping into the tarsands would amount to "game over" for the planet; and 2) no one seems to have a handle on how to clean up spills from this type of oil even as the first section of the pipeline, which opened just last year, has already had 14 spills. That seems particularly worrisome to people from Nebraska, as the pipeline would pass through the state's largest source of drinking water.

The good news, if there is any, is that the decision to let the project proceed resides solely with President Obama. He has to approve the pipeline in order for it to move forward, which means this will be a moment of truth for him. Since Democrats abandoned the climate bill in 2010, this will be the most telling environmental test of his presidency heading into the 2012 election cycle.

And so a cadre activists, led by leading environmentalist Bill McKibben, flew in to be arrested in an elaborate protest that unfolded in front of the White House during the last couple of weeks of August. The group ranged from 80-year-old grandmothers to former Obama for America youth organizers (including Obama's top '08 youth lieutenant, Courtney Height). When all was said and done, the U.S. Park Police had processed about 1,252 arrests, leading organizers to bill it as "the biggest act of civil disobedience in the history of the climate movement."

"We're being as polite as can be -- even to the president," McKibben wrote in an essay shortly after being freed from a two-day jail stint. "Instead of saying, 'We won't vote for you if you do the wrong thing,' we're saying, 'Think how charged-up your supporters will be if you do the right thing.' That's a good political argument, I think -- one look at the 2010 elections demonstrates the problem of a demoralized base."

Whether McKibben and his cohort will succeed in convincing President Obama that approving the pipeline is bad politics remains to be seen. The short-term benefits of pleasing big oil companies and spurring job creation may be too appealing, as evidenced by Obama's recent retreat on new air pollution standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency. But the activists' task is to keep him focused on the pipeline's long-term consequences -- for the planet, for his re-election campaign, and ultimately for his legacy.

Now some progressives may find it a disheartening realization that politicians -- even progressive ones -- rarely if ever stand on principle. In fact, Obama's smashing electoral success in 2008 was partly tied to his ability to convince people that he would. But politicians are inevitably politicians. They drop anchor in the safe harbor of the status quo and are not easily loosed. That is exactly why activists are such a necessary and indispensable part of the political system.

At the very moment that a promising politician gets elected, a true activist's work has only just begun. And it seems to me that advocates across the progressive spectrum are increasingly reaching this conclusion after a two-year parade of disappointments from the party they labored to place in power.

It turns out the "change we can believe in" must come from within. It starts, by necessity, as a yearning that gives rise to a voice, which gives way to disenchantment, and even to unrest, if unanswered.

When the "Don't ask, Don't tell" repeal was finally certified on September 20, queer rights advocates had at least the beginnings of an answer to their yearnings. Make no mistake -- it is only a speck of light on the horizon for the movement. But it felt like the beginning of dawn -- the start of a new era fulfilling the promise of America for the GLBT movement.

And as young as that day is, at least it has begun for us. Many of our progressive sisters and brothers are still groping in the dark.

Image credit: REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi

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Kerry Eleveld is a freelance writer, consultant, and former White House correspondent for The Advocate.

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