There is a temptation in any discussion of civil disobedience to romanticize the past and create some sort of "Kumbaya" scenario. Those who actually have participated over the years in going to jail for our beliefs know that it is a profound moment with profound consequences. Such actions never should be entered into lightly and without thoughtful discussion and strategy. Personally, I have seen participants in civil disobedience become greatly enriched through the experience and others on whom it has taken a huge emotional toll. To blindly rally folks with the cry "Fill the Jails" without such thoughtful preparation is irresponsible.
After much thought and visits with many young people and listening to the pro's and con's, I think there is a place in our epic struggle for freedom for civil disobedience if done right.
Remember, this is not a new process for many of the older ones in the LGBT community. Act-Up in the 1980's and early 1990's filled many a jail in an effort to bring attention to the devastation of HIV/AIDS and the failure of the FDA to give us speedy access to promising drug therapies. As one who both got arrested and worked inside the political process, there is absolutely no doubt of the effectiveness of a vast majority of the Act-Up actions. Political figures who condemned them in public were seeking ways to silence them with action in private. The FDA streamlined their process and everyone in America benefited from the changes.
As state after state separates us from the rest of America in their state constitutions, as violence dramatically and brutally increases toward LGBT Americans, as we are banned from outwardly serving our country, forbidden to adopt and be foster parents in many states, allowed to be fired in many more states and our loves from other nations are deported because we don't have marriage equality, it is time for us to say enough. Ballot Box Terrorism is costing tens of millions of dollars and we seem to be on the bottom of everyone's list for change. We are denied over 1,000 rights, benefits, privileges and protections granted every other American. In many areas of the country, we have to look over our shoulder to see if we are going to beaten simply for holding the hand of the person we love. We are denied access to bodies of our deceased loved ones and kept from their sides in their moments of greatest need. This nation cannot continue to create apartheid type laws, beat us, force us to continue to lie and dehumanize us and have their daily business continue as usual.
Proceeding with civil disobedience with anger dooms us to failure. We must rise above those who seek to oppose us and express hate toward us. The last thing this community needs is to sink to the levels of our oppressors. The power of the LGBT community diligently planning and with honor committing civil disobedience is the power of non-violence and the love and respect we have for each other and our community. We must find the right tone for this campaign, prepare thoughtfully and with dignity.
What kind of acts of civil disobedience would be effective? Quite honestly, that takes even more careful consideration. Random acts without specific targets and focused messages might make people feel good but they are rarely effective. Getting arrested is a huge sacrifice and you must be sure the rest of the population totally understands (even if it does not necessarily approve) why you are getting arrested. Actions, if they are to happen, must be planned, thought out and implemented with precision to be effective. Our targets must be chosen wisely so that the message is loud and clear.
What about backlash? Fasten your seat belts. There will be backlash and many will point to that backlash as proof that such actions are ineffective. In the 1980's, I heard over and over again from many people in the LGBT community and even more in the straight community that Act-Up was hurting our cause. Then I would enter political meetings and because of their demonstrations, I found my hand greatly strengthen in demanding action. As pointed out yesterday, many in the African-American community criticized the sit-in's, boycotts and demonstrations of the early 1960's as counter-productive. In Birmingham, they had to resort to high school students since so many of the adults were unwilling to get arrested.
Yes, there will be backlash and I am sure Barney Frank will condemn it loudly and strongly. But there is no doubt in my mind at this stage of our struggle that there is a role for civil disobedience. As long as we allow the politicians and decision-makers to believe they can, without penalty, take their time in coming to terms with our freedom and full equal rights, the more they will ask for more time. They have already squandered a historic opportunity this year with a huge Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Does anyone think we won't hear about the elections coming up in 2010 and be asked for patience and more time?
We cannot allow them to parse out our full citizenship as it becomes convenient on their political time table. How do you explain to the victims of hate crimes that we have to wait for our freedom? Or to the dismissed soldier that now is not the right political moments? Or to the couple of seventeen years in Rhode Island who were denied equality in death that their tragedy is a political football? Or the children who can't have good homes because we are forbidden to adopt them because those who hate want them to suffer for being a thread in the fabric of our freedom?
None of us can justify this continuing as it is now. We must change the dynamics dramatically or we are doomed to a long, drawn-out road to equal rights and most likely, I will never see freedom in my lifetime. That is not acceptable to me and I hope it is not acceptable to you.
Let us take charge of our own struggle and stop letting our oppressors decide where we do battle. Now is the time for principled leaders in the LGBT community with great values who are committed to non-violence to step to the fore. Those leaders must be able to articulate to America the great gifts we bring to this nation if it can just lay down its fear and anger. We can only make America a better country.