Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Gay Rights: A Profoundly Democratic Cause


Name a gay rights leader.

Ok. There's Harvey Milk but he had been dead for 30 years before you heard of him.

Now name a living gay rights leader.

I'm waiting. Cmon . . . Cmon. We haven't got all day. The gay rights movement has made enormous strides over the last six months and the last six years. Where are the transcendent moral figures of contemporary gay rights. Who's the Martin Luther King making the closet disappear? Where are his or her famous lieutenants--the Ralph Abernethy's, Joseph Lowry's and Jesse Jackson's of the gay rights struggle. What about the Malcolm X's, Stokely Carmichaels, and H. Rap Browns of gay rights. What about the famous gay rights writers in the vein of James Baldwin? Who's the gay rights version of Thurgood Marshall?

That's all right. I'm waiting for myself to find out as well. As a rural kid whose only news access to news was a small town newspaper and the CBS Evening News, I was aware of everybody named in the previous paragraph except Lowry and Jackson. Even though I'm a much better informed person today, I still couldn't name any of the leaders of the gay rights movement outside Harvey Milk and Randy Shilts and both of them have been dead for a long time. A lot of that's my fault, but the fault doesn't lie in me alone. In an age where practically everybody gets the celebrity treatment, gay rights leaders haven't gotten the celebrity treatment. People know Joe the Plumber infinitely better than they know the leaders of gay rights organizations or the lawyers mapping out the legal strategies for promoting gay marriage.

But the gay rights movement is winning anyway. Gay rights organizations have effective leadership and there's lots of excellent gay rights lawyers, and gay rights writers. And they all deserve a great deal of credit for their effective work. But I'm not sure that the moral weight of the gay rights movement--the main thing that keeps driving the gay rights movement forward-- the leadership. Rather, I think that the moral giants of gay rights are the millions of gay people who have come out to their parents, friends, and communities and are living openly as gay people despite often paying an awful price for their courage.

Celebrity leadership is generally over-rated and somebody like Martin Luther King did not direct the civil rights movement so much as he symbolized the broad activism of the African-American population. But the profoundly democratic character of the gay rights movement is especially evident in the fact that it's succeeding without celebrity leadership.

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