For decades the leadership of the LGBT civil rights movement has come from inside of the Beltway. The leadership was often powerful and insightful and it still continues to serve our community well. There were clearly defined 'turfs' by each organization - one for politics, one for grassroots, one for gay elected officials and several on the legal front. If one became too aggressive and spilled over into the other's turf often there would be a little turf war which was quickly settled by the powers that be in DC. It worked for years and years.
As we make the transformation into a genuine and meaningful civil rights movement that is recognized by gays and straights alike, the equation will by necessity have to change, as will the way we do business.
Movements can not be fenced in by the way things have always been done. By their very nature they tend to be spontaneous, eruptive and filled with creative people armed with new ways to implement change. History has shown us time and time again that is the case.
If we look back to the historic struggle for African-American rights, we can see a prime example. For years the NAACP, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Urban League basically decided policy from within the Beltway. They did a splendid job. However, the moment Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, that all changed. Dr. King, James Farmer, John Lewis, Stokely Carmichael, and so many others emerged from civil rights actions around the country. At the beginning hardly anyone knew their names and often they were viewed as a threat by Roy Wilkins (NAACP) and Whitney Young (Urban League) to the traditional ways of creating change. In fact, at times, both men thought that Dr. King was placing civil rights legislation in jeopardy by pushing the wrong court cases! Many in Washington were opposed to taking The Rosa Parks Bus Boycott to court because it couldn't possibly win.
Those African-American Washington-based leaders at that time were not evil men and sometimes they were right. But what they didn't understand was that they had succeeded in arousing the spirit of freedom in hundreds of thousands of African-Americans around the country. Because of their success, they no longer could contain the aspirations for freedom in a nice neat box in Washington. Slowly, but wisely, those leaders in the 1960's did their best to catch up with the parade they had started.
With the advent of an epic civil rights movement in the LGBT community, we are faced with a somewhat similiar problem. Our national leaders seem to have been taken aback by their own success. All over America, people - gay and straight - have responded to the call by showing initiative, espousing creativity and planning powerful actions. Now everyone knows that some of these actions will be not effective, sometimes duplicative and even sometimes harmful. But most often, they will serve as the catalyst to great historic change in a relatively short time span.
Just by writing about the need for a March on Washington, I was totally stunned by the thousands, yes thousands, of emails from organizations and individuals all over America ready to move. Most of them young and eager to be part of a great moment in their history. Only Chuck Wolfe of the Victory Fund in DC responded to their call. Most likely this March will now be organized by leadership outside Washington and by people who are willing to do it via the new technology and, thus, much cheaper. Sounds like 1963, doesn't it?
Almost all the organizations within the Beltway yesterday couldn't condemn quickly enough the court suit by the Equality Foundation which would take Proposition 8 to the Federal Courts. Does anyone really believe that someone, somewhere in California on their own would not challenge Proposition 8 to the Federal Courts? Did they really believe they could control it from Washington in these passionate times? What is amazing is that it is not some fringe challenge to the Federal Court, we are being given a top notch, star studded challenge. We should be celebrating this powerful team instead of discouraging them. We hear the lament "now is not the time" and "we can't win". If we waited until we were certain of victory most likely I would hear about it in heaven because that is how long it would be for the possible to become practical.
There is even talk in Washington DC by our national organizations about compromising on the full repeal of "DOMA". Say what? This may be the best Congress we will ever have and our leaders are the last people who should be telling our elected officials to compromise. Never, ever give away the 'kitchen sink' until it is absolutely, positively necessary. Can you imagine the reaction around the country from the tens of thousands of young people who are newly involved if they heard we are the ones that told Congress to compromise on DOMA and leave parts of it intact? I can promise you it would not be pretty. Nor should it be.
A movement is about rapidly moving forward and embracing the creativity and excitement of actions around the country and disregarding the refrains from Washington of "No", "Now is not the time" and "We know better than you". The leadership in DC has done an extraordinary job. It is their success that has created this marvelous historic civil rights movement. They should embrace it, support it and open their minds to new ideas and new ways.
These leaders, too, will catch up with the parade just like those remarkable figures of Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young did.