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.

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

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